The Goodnight-Loving Trail begins in north central Texas. Young County actually, and stretches southwest to Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River. It then goes north into New Mexico and through Fort Sumner, through Colorado, and ends in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The trek is over 2,000 miles of hostile and hard country. Done at all it’s impressive, but done on horseback or wagon, with cattle it’s staggering. It’s named for the cowboys that forged it, Charlie Goodnight and Oliver Loving.
The two men met after the civil war. Loving had opened up the first cattle trail west to Fort Sumner in 1866 and a year later teamed with Goodnight to head up into Wyoming. That first drive used 18 cowboys to push 2,000 head of cattle across the plains. Loving would be killed less then a year later on the trail by Comanches, but by that point the trail had been set, and would be used for many years.
Goodnight was born in Illinois in 1836, but was raised in Texas, eventually becoming a Texas Ranger and fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war he returned and took part in a state wide round-up of cattle that had roamed free during those years. With his cattle back he teamed up with Kentucky born Oliver Loving as they sought to sell their herd outside of the war-torn south. The Goodnight-Loving trail was soon formed.
Charlie Goodnight is also famous for his trail inventions. As Utah Phillips used to say as intro to his song The Goodnight-Loving Trail, “Charles, Chuck, Chuck-Wagon.” Charlie did indeed invent the mobile trail kitchen. Phillips goes on to talk about the old cooks that would drive the wagons behind the herd. Beaten up and broke down old cowboys too gnarled to do the cowboy’s work, and to rough to do anything else. The younger cowhands called these men “old woman” as you hear in the song and to again quote Phillips “…it was a rude letdown to someone who’d lived a vigorous life. This is not a cowboy song, but a song about your work running out on you, about being too old to do the work you were intended to do.”
The poignancy of the song gnaws at me, seems to be bigger than just a dying ember of cowboy insight. Many of Phillips’ songs are bigger of course, and not just hobo tales and lost railways. For all of their accomplishments it’s not the song of Charlie Goodnight or Oliver Loving, it doesn’t trumpet their deeds and build their myth. Instead it’s the cry of the men and women caught up in the great, unstoppable movement of time.
There’s a moment near the end of the song where the cowboy riding herd looks back at the old cook and sees his fate lost in a song. That moment, when he recognizes himself in the years to come, can catch in the throat.
Goodnight-Loving Trail, Buck Ramsey