SO YOU WANT TO BE A COWPOKE BUT YOU’RE NOT READY TO QUIT your day job? A ranch vacation might be just what you need to quell those longings to saddle up and eat trail dust—in other words, to get in touch with your inner buckaroo.
Stock ranches in the Western United States began wrangling greenhorns for fun and profit around the 1880’s. Theodore Roosevelt was first introduced to the West at these ranches, where dudes—a term that originally meant someone from somewhere else—were promised, as one vintage brochure put it, “a healthy environment and the chance to participate in the vigorous life of shepherds.” Dude ranches didn’t straggle into Texas until around 1920, when Bandera’s now-defunct Buck Ranch began welcoming paying guests for $10 a week. Ebenezer Buck and his wife, Katie, whipped up picnics and ran the place. Uncle Frank Buck led trail rides and, at night, would teach guests the cotton-eyed Joe and the schottische. “You can run more dudes to the acre in these hills than you can cattle,” one of the Bucks’ neighbors reportedly quipped. By 1947 at least 25 dude ranches dotted the state, many of them clustered around Bandera—a situation that hasn’t changed to this day. These tourist enterprises were prosperous enough to briefly support The Dude Wrangler, a quarterly newsletter devoted to work and play in this great resort area, as well as a Saturday-morning radio show that featured the goings-on at area ranches.
Over the past seventy years the dude ranch concept has evolved into more types of guest ranches than there are wrinkles on a Brahman bull. We’ve got resort ranches, working ranches, day ranches, hunting ranches, executive-retreat ranches, and ranches with nary a horse, a steer, or even a goat to their name. (Those hooves can be hell on the putting greens and sand traps.) Initially, I was looking for cattle-driving dude ranches, like the one in the movie City Slickers. I soon discovered, however, that despite Texas’ Chisholm Trail legacy, true roundups in this state—at least those that are open to weekend cowpokes on a regular schedule—are extremely rare. (The Y.O. Ranch in the Hill Country and the Bar H in the Panhandle town of Clarendon offer annual and twice-yearly roundups, respectively.) So I settled for places that met my minimum defining criteria for a ranch vacation: overnight accommodations, horseback riding, and no matter how contrived, at least a glimmer of the spirit of the West. I’d be horsewhipped if I didn’t warn you that the grub at some of these places is just that, and you might be bunking in a room that would give Martha Stewart seizures. But if you’re dying to holler “Head ’em up and move ’em out”—if you want to see the herd, be the herd, or leave the herd behind—you’ll find a guest ranch below where you can hang your hat.
Puttin’ on the Dogie
IF GUEST RANCHES WERE CARS, THE CIBOLO CREEK RANCH , a bona fide oasis on 25,000 acres in Big Bend’s Chinati and Cienega mountains, would be a fully loaded Range Rover—towing a Ferrari. As I approached the adobe grandeur of the largest of the ranch’s three nineteenth-century forts, El Cibolo, I was struck with my first case of architecturally inspired goose bumps. Was it the thick earthen walls, the shady portales (porches), the surprising jolt of green from the spring-fed landscape, the gravel paths leading through courtyards and over stone-lined irrigation canals, or the handcrafted wooden doors and rough cottonwood beams? In the midst of my rapture Arthur Ahier, who co-manages Cibolo with his wife, Lisa, greeted me warmly and led me to the screened-in dining room overlooking the pond, where I was seated with four guests, all from Dallas. (One couple were on their third visit in twelve months.) I scarfed down the freshest, tastiest lunch I’ve had west of the Pecos, thanks to Lisa Ahier, who is the ranch’s chef: cayenne-tequila-dill shrimp and Maytag blue cheese on a bed of butter-leaf lettuce, with homemade honey-oat rolls and, for dessert, pineapple-mango sorbet.
The owner of Cibolo Creek, John Poindexter, was holding court at the only other occupied table. (My attempts to eavesdrop on his party’s political debate were thwarted by a discussion at my table about what calendar program each of the men ran on his computer.) After lunch Arthur took me on a quick tour of the main fort before rushing off to drive the Dallasites on a four-wheel trek through the ranch, to be followed by an afternoon of skeet shooting. We breezed through a dream kitchen where Lisa works her magic, an immaculate tack room, a media room whose walls were plastered with framed magazine articles about the ranch, a private dining hall where a beam of sunlight theatrically lit the fireplace, and a group of rooms that had been converted into mini-museums housing artifacts excavated on the ranch and old photos and documents that had belonged to the ranch’s original owner, Milton Faver, who built a cattle and trading empire here in the mid-1800’s. I tried to picture old Faver at Cibolo today, paddleboating on the pond, hiking and birdwatching, or soaking in the whirlpool spa before retiring to a room furnished with Spanish and Mexican antiques, Southwestern rugs and blankets, and collections of Texana literature.
Later, as I explored on my own, I finally managed to overhear a conversation (really, I wasn’t even trying). “Oh, I don’t have time anymore, I’m so involved in the stock market,” said one of the women who’d been lunching at the other table. After several seconds of indecipherable mumbling punctuated by the words “Dell” and “Yahoo,” I heard, loud and clear, “So I put some of that profit into AOL and—boom—I made three million dollars.” Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Wall Street whiz to stay at Cibolo, a retreat that has no equal—frankly, not even any close competition—in the state. In fact, I found the rates so reasonable that I’ve vowed to return