Growing up in the 1970s, my impressions of America were limited. Thanks to nature documentaries, I knew there were great lakes and eagles. Thanks to Disney, I knew there was Mickey Mouse. And thanks to Westerns and TV’s Bonanza, I knew there were cowboys.
Over the years, I’ve seen the scenery. I’ve shaken Mickey Mouse firmly by the glove. But have I ever fully indulged the cowboy fantasies? Debatable. I’ve ridden a horse, worn a Stetson and fired a Colt 45. But I’ve never done them all at the same time.
With that in mind, I hit Texas. And if you’re in Texas with an inkling for some cowboy-style living, there’s only one place to go. Say it with me, people: Bandera. What do you mean you’ve never heard of it? It’s the ‘Cowboy Capital of the World’. No, really. Small town Bandera picked up that title back in the 1800s, when it was a staging post for the last of the great cattle drives.
These days, the sound of thundering hooves is absent – but Bandera still packs a lot of charm and history into just a few square miles. A little exploration throws up some utter gems, from Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar – since 1901, the oldest continuously operating honky-tonk in the state – to the eccentric Frontier Times Museum which includes the sort of items (a two-faced goat, a 2,000-year-old corn cob) that would have had the young Bill Bryson drooling.
There’s also barbecue, of course. In the centre of town lies Busbee’s Bar-B-Que, which comes heavy on both smoke and the kind of pro-gun signs that get tourists – and visiting UK journalists – Instagramming like madmen, while up the road is Sid’s Main Street BBQ. Sid’s is located in a former gas station. Oil into BBQ? It’s Texan alchemy…
The main reason for this particular trip to Bandera, though, was not smoked meats so much as to explore the Mayan Dude Ranch. The Hicks family have run the place for more than half a century and, given that there are now several generations and 53 of them (and counting), they will probably keep running it for several decades to come.
The Hicks promise their “own special brand of horsepitality” and, while the place is a little rough around the edges – it’s Lone Star, not five star – the beds are comfortable, the welcome is warm and there’s a healthy dose of eccentricity in terms of activities: from archery to line dancing, via a demonstration of lassoing and horseback acrobatics from rope-trick world champion Kevin Fitzpatrick.
There’s also some hearty food on offer. In the evening, mighty portions of grilled steak and baked potatoes and vast bowls of salads are served in the great outdoors while a man in a Stetson strums cowboy classics on his guitar. In the morning, a motorised hayride drops you in a clearing on the ranch where the full cowboy breakfast is on offer. The irony of this is that horse riding comes with a strict weight restriction – 250lbs – and, however light you are, a maximum time limit. Is that really how the West was won? By thin cowboys, 50 minutes at a time?
To be fair, those of us breaching the weight limit are still offered the chance to ride; they just have to break out the bigger horses. Having had experience of such animals before – they tend to be huge, jet-black, have slight personality disorders and really testosterone-y names like Thunder – I decide against it. While it means my cowboy dreams are slightly frustrated, it also means I still have fully functioning limbs to explore more of this remarkable state.
A short drive to San Antonio – by Texan standards, 47 miles is just a trip to the supermarket – brings you to a city that manages to juggle its heritage and the 21st century with aplomb. At its heart is The Alamo, the surprisingly tiny mission, now a museum, that was the site of the 1836 battle during the Texas Revolution.
If you’d rather take your history with a potent margarita, head to the remarkable Mi Tierra. Founded by Pete and Cruz Cortez in 1941 as a tiny café for workers and farmers, it’s still family run but has evolved into a vast restaurant and bakery with a glorious full wall mural of Cortez history and celebrated Mexican figures. It’s also decorated with Christmas lights and is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Naturally.
For more conventional, up-to-date eateries, San Antonio’s renovation of the Pearl Brewery is a lesson to town planners everywhere, with this sprawl of industrial buildings having been converted into desirable housing and excellent restaurants. The best of these is The Granary, where the Rattray brothers – head chef Tim and master brewer Alex – offer creative ‘cue and brew’: clever cooking and homemade beers. Charmingly, on hearing a British accent they ask whether I’ve got any Lion Bars or pickled onion Monster Munch, as they spent their very early years in the UK and those are the things they miss most.
They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and that certainly applies to the sheer variety of experiences within the state. From San Antonio it’s a short hop to Austin, easily the coolest city in the country and about as far removed from the yeehaw heritage of Bandera and San Antonio as is possible.
Austin’s slogan is “Keep Austin Weird”, with strong grassroots support for local businesses and a thriving, apparently boundless music scene. It’s surely the only city in the world where, in the space of a few hundred yards, you can:
Get a cheesesteak sandwich from a truck called Way South Philly where all the staff are ordained ministers (so you can get two sandwiches and a renewal of wedding vows for less than $50);
Buy a selection of hot sauces from a dedicated shop called Tears of Joy; and
Pop into a bar for a craft beer and to listen to some excellent musicians, and all at 3pm on a Sunday.
OK, so maybe I didn’t ride the horse and wear the hat and fire the gun all at once – but no matter, because the cowboy state itself never disappoints.
Neil Davey was a guest of the Texas tourist board (traveltex.com).
British Airways flies direct from London to Austin with its new Dreamliner aircraft from £518 per person (inc taxes). All routes can be booked at aa.com.
All-inclusive rates at the Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera (mayanranch.com) cost from $160 per person, per day. Rooms at the Drury Plaza Hotel (druryhotels.com) in San Antonio are priced from $109-$214 Rooms at the Marriott Courtyard and Residence Inn (marriott.co.uk) in Austin start at $209.