Two Modern New Mexico Ranchers Fight Rising Fuel Costs the Old-Fashioned Way."
Story and photography by Tim Keller
High in northeastern New Mexico, along the Colorado border just east of the Rockies, Johnson Mesa rises almost 2000 feet above the high plains to an elevation more than a mile and a half above sea level. The Dry Cimarron Scenic Byway, from its beginning in downtown Raton, passes Sugarite State Park to climb the steeply paved Highway 72 and cross the twelve-mile length of Johnson Mesa before dropping back down, past the Folsom Man site, one of the earliest signs of humankind in North America, to reach the quaint historic town of Folsom, all within a 38 mile drive. On sunny days below the mesa, it’s not uncommon to see heavy clouds unleashing rain or snow up on top. New Mexico ranchers have long prized mesa tops for grazing: elevation and moisture result in good grass for growing calves. As the cattle grazed last summer, they could not know that gas prices rose by a dollar a gallon, adding a bitter surcharge to the cost of trucking them back down to Highway 87 in the fall.
Several operations absorbed the loss, contracting teams of eighteen-wheelers to carry truckloads of cows off the mesa before winter hit. Harvey Shannon of Des Moines and Ryan Brown of Folsom figured they could save $5000 by moving their 550 cows in an old-fashioned cattle drive, 36 miles from Johnson Mesa down to Des Moines, New Mexico, using two-lane Highways 72 and 325, the old Goodnight-Loving Trail that brought cattle from Texas to Colorado after the Civil War.
In late September, Harvey and six seasoned cowboys spent a Saturday gathering and moving his cattle from deep in Bear Canyon, which drops from the mesa’s west edge steeply down to the Colorado border below. Once they reached the top, the cowboys drove the cattle east on Highway 72, with its breathtaking views, to a rendezvous with Ryan’s group of riders and cattle in the pasture beside the cemetery across from the Johnson Mesa Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1897 and still in use for a few services each summer. The church leaves it only door unlocked year-round in case a traveler gets stranded by a fast-moving storm. The cowboys gathered in the church parking lot where they’d parked their pickups and horse trailers. With good pasture and water, the cattle rested up for their big day Sunday when they would walk all the way to Folsom.
I shoot the moon as it darts in and out of clouds because there are no cowboys to photograph. When their headlights appear, I’m in the church shooting the dawn through pews and arched windows. Harvey and Ryan have assembled a dozen riders -- friends and neighbors, old hands and green kids, some working for wages, some for trade, some for fun. I’m on the asphalt as they push the herd through a gate and onto Highway 72, heading straight into the emerging sunrise. The cattle are skittish and unruly for the first couple miles, spread from fence to fence, walking in deep bar ditches or right along the pavement’s yellow center line. The horsemen, wearing heavy jackets, are too busy to pay attention to the cold.
As the morning warms, traveling motorists reach the herd, and the herd slowly parts. Very slowly. Ryan rides over to direct a driver to follow him through. Cars, pickups, RVs, a motorcycle, even two women bicyclists: one by one, each is absorbed by the herd, emerging at the other end. I note license plates from Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas. A couple from Los Alamos. Area locals out for a Sunday drive. I glimpse a pickup’s chrome bumper as it’s swallowed by the herd: a red bumper sticker reads “Eat Beef.”
Following the cattle path along the roadway is a soft warm residue, brown and green: drivers speeding along find this material plastered on their vehicles. But no one complains: on each end of the herd, smiles are abundant and many step out of their cars to take pictures. No one in a hurry drives Johnson Mesa.
Because I would be shooting pictures in and around the herd, I asked Ryan for some ground rules, and tips on cattle behavior, before we started. By mid-morning I feel comfortable enough to take a chance. I drive my truck slowly through the herd and ahead another mile. As the leading cows approach, I lie on the double yellow center line, my camera resting on the pavement, my chin on the ground so I can sight a wide-angle shot of the approaching herd. I peer over the camera several times to be sure the cattle aren’t going to run me over. I needn’t have worried. Afraid of this odd thing in the roadway, the entire herd draws to a stop. I get my shot as the first baffled cowboys work through the herd to see what the holdup is. When they spot the problem, seeing me lying in front of the herd, their first reaction is laughter. (I won’t tell you what their second reaction is.)
THE STEEP DESCENT OFF JOHNSON MESA falls 1500 feet in two miles. This thickly wooded country is popular with hunters seeking turkey, deer, elk, bear, or mountain lion; the local economy is bolstered by guide services for out-of-state sportsmen. There is no bar ditch: trees come right to the steep pavement, resulting in the most raucous stretch of the cattle drive, younger cowboys scurrying through the woods on foot chasing wayward cows. The traffic is backed up in a line, amused families standing outside their cars to watch the excitement and take pictures to show back home.
The road levels out near the Folsom Man site. Just ahead, at the mouth of Trinchera Canyon, we reach the route of the old Goodnight-Loving Trail. Following the Pecos River north to the Santa Fe Trail, Charles Goodnight and his partner Oliver Loving created a successful commercial enterprise running cattle herds from Texas north to Denver along what is now I-25. In the fall of 1867, Goodnight blazed a successful shortcut fifty miles to the east, turning north at Fort Sumner, passing Capulin Volcano and entering Colorado through the relatively low Trinchera Pass.
Awaiting us at the pass with hot homemade green chile beef burritos and cold drinks, Ryan’s wife Pennie and daughter Joni greet the passing riders. Some dismount to take a quick snack break while others grab and run. The cattle keep moving down the hill. Ryan will miss the next day of the cattle drive when Pennie gives birth to their new daughter Hayley Rose.
The drive stops in late afternoon when the herd reaches the Dry Cimarron River. The cows are happy to linger at the river while many of the cowboys sprawl on the grass alongside picturesque Highway 325, eating more burritos, stretching and resting muscles that feel the long hours spent on horseback. Sprinkled among the casual conversations is some serious discussion. “The cattle are starting to give out on us,” explains Harvey. He and Ryan decide to leave the cows overnight in a box canyon on Sunny Hill’s Rainbow Ranch four miles west of Folsom. Monday morning at dawn, five horsemen ride back in. They never ride out.
“I KNEW THEY WOULDN’T STAY THERE, but we didn’t have anyplace else to put them,” explains Harvey. 550 cows and he says he knows exactly which ones led the herd, like mountain goats, up a steep rough trail to another mesa top, back in the wrong direction. Joined by a sixth rider, the cowboys spend the morning gathering cows. Getting them back down the canyon is impossible so plans are changed. They push the herd to a large dammed stock pond and leave them to graze. Harvey spends Monday evening working the phones; when he rejoins the herd early Tuesday morning, he’s joined by a half dozen top hands, experienced older cowboys to help move the herd cross-country on this long, unplanned fourth day.
Crossing several ranches, they encounter eleven fence lines, finding ten gates, cutting one fence and repairing it behind them. Aside from the fences, this is what cattle drives should be: a long day crossing open country, signs of human settlement rare. As they pass beside Capulin Volcano they sight Des Moines at the foot of Sierra Grande mountain, another volcano even larger and taller than Capulin. Des Moines, despite its small size – population 149 – is the heart of an extended community of tiny towns and outlying ranches. Here is the area’s school, a bank, post office, restaurant, art gallery, and the phone company which, like the school and volunteer fire department and EMS, covers a service area roughly 50 miles square, or 2500 square miles.
When the cattle herd finally reaches Highway 87 at 4 o’clock, Harvey’s wife Phyllis is waiting with pizzas brought all the way from Raton, 38 miles west. As the cowboys dismount to take a welcome break, gawking motorists speed by, rubbernecking to take in the sight of a large cattle drive on a pizza break.
Now it’s just a mile east along the fence line to a culvert and narrow underpass beneath the highway. Ryan has arrived from Raton’s maternity ward to help coax the cattle through. Like pushing thread through a needle, the challenge is getting started: it takes every cowboy to drive the leaders into the tunnel, but once they’re through the rest follow. The drive is over: here on home pasture the calves will be weaned as they recover lost weight.
Harvey and Ryan, in cutting shipping costs, increased their earnings by several thousand dollars. Harvey breaks into a big grin. “Yeah, we’re already planning a reverse cattle drive for the spring. Next year’s herd, we’re gonna drive ‘em back up there.” And then back down.
To retrace the cattle drive route, consult New Mexico Tourism Department’s excellent website newmexico.org; use the NM Scenic Byways link to find Dry Cimarron Scenic Byway.
©2009 Tim Keller