The Phantom Stampede
A Short Story by “Jake Jones”
© Copyright 2015 – All Rights Reserved
Typical Southern Arizona desert with Mesquite Trees
This is the story about how the Phantom Stampede became a legend in Arizona folklore. The incident that started the legend happened a long time ago. But even in the last year or two, there have been several reports of the Phantom Stampede.
The people who have witnessed the effects of the Phantom Stampede for themselves didn’t understand what was going on when it happened, and could not comprehend the possible consequences of witnessing such an event. Not until they were told by others, and heard the folklore about the Phantom Stampede, would they understand.
It seems that back in 1990 or 1991, a group of…. lets call them “nature lovers,” were out on a camping trip. They had driven their station wagons, pick-up trucks, vans, etc. to a meeting point, and from there they hiked quite a few miles to a mesquite forest where cactus, Mesquite Trees, Rattlesnakes and Coyote’s are numerous. Those animals, and also Tarantulas seemingly as large as dinner plates, and other various forms of wildlife were the only native life there, or so they thought. The desert country south of Tucson, AZ is quite beautiful and quite dramatic with its mountains and valleys, dry washes and rock outcroppings.
The exact location of their camp is not really known because the information has been passed down by word of mouth. Now, these folks had been hiking all day to get to the area they wanted to get to, and they had taken lots of photographs while trekking across the desert.
In their group were a couple of rock hounds, several would-be musicians, a dentist and a bus driver and others. They had all decided that they would meet back at the campsite that they had set up earlier that day so they could make a camp supper. They all agreed on a 5:00 P.M. return to the camp. Five O’clock came, and they are reported to have been punctual individuals because they all showed up within a few minutes of the time agreed upon.
So, one of them started to get the fire going and a couple of others started to prepare the food. They had just finished their dinner and it was already 8:00 P.M. and beginning to look like evening was settling in upon them as the sun was setting low in the western sky. One of them had brought a Guitar and another a Mandolin. A couple of them would sing along with some old western cowboy songs. Several of them had been on the same trip before and didn’t really have any other talents except to do what they liked to do and that was hike, hunt for semi-precious stones or just enjoy the outdoors and the beautiful scenery.
Along about 9:00 P.M., just after dark, the campfire was the only thing lighting the camp area, one of the group put his finger up to his lips and said “shhhhhhh……listen, I think I hear thunder” The rumbling got closer and closer, to the point where it sounded like a freight train passing. The ground began to shake and vibrate as if from a small earthquake.
They also noticed that dust from a collection of dry weeds and bushes was beginning to be shaken loose and create a misty look in the campfire light. This happened because of the dust and debris that had been clinging to the branches of the Mesquite trees for several weeks since it hadn’t rained in that length of time. This eventually seemed to form a kind of cloud over their heads, apparently an effect caused by the campfire glow.
A Mesquite Tree with the Moon shining through.
A very common desert tree in Southern, AZ
Their eyes turned skyward, but then, their ears directed their attention to the sound of the rolling thunder once again. After a few minutes, it subsided, and kind of went off in the distance again, almost like a freight train leaving the area the sound became less and less audible.
For a long while they talked about it. Some thought it could have been an explosion in a mine, someone cold have set off a detonation for getting out gold or silver ore. Another said it was simply a jet plane that they couldn’t see because it moved so fast. Another one said they believed that it was really thunder.
Nevertheless, they were all curious about the incident because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. No one could explain the thunder theory in a cloudless sky. They didn’t know of any mines in the area, so it was a curious experience for them as well as it might have been for you if you would have been there.
As 10:30 P.M. rolled around, the campfire was dying down and the group decided that they were going to hit the sack for the night. So, they all un-did their bedrolls and crawled in for a long night’s sleep, even though sleeping on the desert floor is not always comfortable, they looked forward to the rest.
The were all lying there in their sleeping bags looking up at the sky pondering the fact that they heard what they thought was thunder or something else, and yet there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Even the Big Dipper was plainly visible. However, they slept restfully that night.
They rose the next morning to have a quick breakfast of modern day foods, not what cowboys might have eaten, i.e. beans for breakfast, beans for lunch and beans for supper. These folks had Granola Bars because it was quick and easy, and didn’t take a lot of effort or much time that would have cut into their plans for the day.
So, they packed up all of their goods and put their backpacks on and made sure they had their supplies and headed off toward the place the were going to make their next campsite. They had planned out so many miles in between each stop. They had planned to camp about a week in total, so this was just the beginning of their excursion.
Well, they didn’t get too far from camp when they came across an amazing sight. They all stopped in their tracks and looked at the site with wide eyes. Just a mile or so from their last camp site, at the crest of a hill, they were able to look down into the next gully, or ravine as some might call it.
For hundreds of yards in width and as far as they eye could see from the hilltop where they stood, every piece of brush, every cactus, all of the Chaparral, every wildflower and small Mesquite Trees had been laid waste and completely flattened. At that time, they didn’t know by what or by whom, but upon closer observation as they walked down into the gully, they were able to see tens of thousands of hoof prints. And, it was obvious that all of them were made by cattle, not horses or any other hoofed animal. All sizes of hoof prints were visible in the desert soil, and they still didn’t know what they found, or what it meant. They were not able to put two and two together.
But now, I’ll tell you the story of how the Phantom Stampede became a part of Arizona history, because after they returned, they told some friends about what they saw and heard that night.
The legend has it that back about 1862, some Mexican Vaqueros were driving a herd of cattle from Mexico and planned to drive them from Mexico into the southern U.S. to sell them for slaughter. They were driving the cattle at night because there was a full moon and it was a whole lot cooler in the nighttime hours than it was during the daylight. The cattle were allowed to graze during the day, and because of this, the Vaqueros were happy with the speed at which the cattle traveled at night, even though it was slower than the cattle would have normally moved during the daytime.
All of this took place when the Mexican Gray Wolf was still in large numbers in the area. One thing that will spook a cow quicker than anything else was the cry of the Mexican Gray Wolf. The cry of the Mexican Gray Wolf when you’re out there under the stars in the darkness with no campfire and not a whole lot around you can be pretty intimidating. And, it must be doubly frightening to a cow!
Well, it just so happened that a couple of Gray Wolves started to howl that night because they were in close proximity to the herd. We must realize that the Gray Wolf is a creature of opportunity that will seize any chance to secure food for its survival. The howling of the wolves spooked a couple of cows at the head of the herd. They started to run, and started to get out of line so to speak. This panicked the rest of the herd and all at once, the Mexican Vaqueros had a stampeding herd of several thousand head of cattle on their hands. Now there is just no way a dozen Vaqueros were going to be able to stop (with any amount of success) a herd of thousands of cattle.
What happened next was that the cattle had begun to stampede towards an area that had cliffs several hundred feet high. Even in the darkness that night with just the light of the full moon, the Vaqueros could see that the cows were heading for the cliffs. The Vaqueros did their best to steer the cattle away from the cliff area, but to no avail. What happened next was awful to witness, even for the Vaqueros.
The legend says that as many as 1,500 cattle out of this herd of several thousand cattle wound up running headlong off the cliff falling several hundred feet to their death. This was the very beginning of the legend of the Phantom Stampede.
Almost every year, someone reports the same type of incident that these folks from the city had experienced just last year.
So, if you’re camping out in the southern high desert of Arizona and you hear what most would term “rolling thunder”; and you look up and the stars are shining brightly, with not a cloud in the sky, don’t run, because you can’t outrun them. Don’t try to hide, because it doesn’t matter. And…..if you’re lucky enough to avoid the stampede, thank your lucky stars, because you remember what happened to all of that brush, cactus and those Mesquite Trees just a few years ago because of the Phantom Stampede.
The Mexican Gray Wolf still exists in very limited numbers in parts of Mexico and the southwest U.S. It is now an endangered species.
Count your lucky stars if you should hear the rumble and the roar of the Phantom Stampede. If you make it out alive, tell your friends and relatives because you will have experienced something that only a few people have ever heard about.
No one has ever seen the Phantom Stampede, they have just “heard” the stampede.
This is the story about how the Phantom Stampede became a legend in Arizona folklore. The incident that started the legend happened a long time ago. But even in the last year or two, there have been several reports of the Phantom Stampede. The people who have witnessed the effects of the Phantom Stampede for themselves didn’t understand what was going on when it happened, and could not comprehend the possible consequences of witnessing such an event. Not until they were told by others, and heard the folklore about the Phantom Stampede, would they understand.