Dawson Granade loves Fort Worth. His shirt from a local barbecue joint reads “Life’s too short to live in Dallas.” Twice a day, six days a week, Dawson piles visitors from Chicago, Poughkeepsie, and Tokyo into his Suburban and tools around town, spooling out Fort Worth’s history as he negotiates traffic and indicates sites of historical note. It is, he said, “the best goll-darn tour in Texas.”

Parked by the Tarrant County courthouse one December morning, Dawson gestured at the location of the original fort, now occupied by the county jail and a sad park that’s cordoned off with chain link. Beyond it, the Trinity River snaked gentle and lovely past downtown.

“They came, those early pioneers, and looked over the bluff and said, ‘This is it,’ ” Dawson proclaimed. “ ‘This is where I want to start my life.’ ”

A cop car slowed and glided past the idling Suburban. Emblazoned on the patrol car’s door was “Where the West Begins,” Fort Worth’s enduring motto, which I’ve known since childhood. I thought about that for a moment. Other cities have “To Protect and To Serve” on their police cars. It’s a reassuring statement; very solid, very safe. Fort Worth’s slogan is almost magically racier. Where the West begins. Anything could happen in a place like that.

The city’s Western heritage is legit. After an 1843 treaty declared that Indians could do as they pleased west of the Trinity River, a military party was sent to establish a new fort near the confluence of the West and Clear forks to make sure they stayed on the right side. Simon Ferrar, a member of that party, wrote of the day they arrived in 1849.

“We passed . . . through a wild and beautiful country,” he said, “inhabited only by Indians, wild or mustang horses, innumerable quantities of deer, wolves, and wild turkeys.”

Not much sign of wild turkeys these days in downtown Fort Worth, nor of the post-Confederacy cowboys who pushed their herds along the Eastern and Chisholm trails, stopping in Fort Worth to knock the trail dust off and stock supplies for the long drive to Kansas. Thoughtful entrepreneurs opened bathhouses, restaurants, mercantile stores, barbershops, bars, and brothels, with the liveliest action centered in an eighteen-block part of town beguilingly called Hell’s Half Acre. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid routinely holed up there, where the city’s convention center sits now.

“The ladies of the night were called ‘soiled doves,’ ” Dawson explained. “It was gambling halls, saloons, and bordellos. This place was popping—the Paris of the Plains.”

Indeed, on the prairie beyond Fort Worth, no other city lay for miles and miles. Along with the gunslingers, cowboys, and rascally ne’er-do-wells, Fort Worth’s burbling civic potential drew steadier, ambitious, law-abiding types who established businesses, schools, and social clubs. The railroad came. Fort Worth shipped up to 200,000 buffalo hides a year until the bison gave out. Meat-packing plants arrived and the stockyards flourished. Aviation, oil, and the military came later. But even as the years passed, the cattle trails were paved, and the hideouts were razed, Fort Worth, more so than any of the state’s big cities, held fiercely to its Western identity.

That identity repeats everywhere in town, to differing effects. Back in the 1870’s, a Dallas lawyer put a dig in the newspaper claiming Fort Worth was so lackluster that a panther slept in the street. Fort Worth’s response was uniquely contrarian. Businesses incorporated “panther” into their names, and fire halls and bars kept panthers as mascots. These days, statues of panthers lounge downtown, and panthers adorn the city’s police force badges. Fort Worth’s most famous bandits are also memorialized: the main entertainment district downtown is Sundance Square, adjacent to which is the Cassidy, a retail and residential development currently in progress. The construction curtain surrounding the site is a comic-book-style depiction of Butch and Sundance suddenly sprung into the twenty-first century, encountering horseless carriages and frappuccinos for the first time.

And people get into it. Standing near Cowtown Coliseum, which hosts rodeos every Friday and Saturday night, Dawson’s patter on Bill Pickett, an African American Hall of Fame bulldogger, was interrupted by the sight of tourists scurrying past, more than two dozen of them, toting cameras and toddlers and shopping bags and gamely trying to reach one of the daily Longhorn drives down Exchange Street. Horseback drovers accompanied the Longhorns as they placidly ambled down the street.

Fort Worth was starting to seem a little ridiculous. The Stockyards has lost the stale-beer and drifter seediness I remembered as a kid, replaced by tarted-up Old West-y tourist places selling potpourri and fudge, bling-ridden jewelry and belts with spangled crosses. In front of the elegant Stock Exchange building, a guy in a cowboy hat sat with a spotted Longhorn wearing a halter and a Western saddle. Both of them looked drowsy. For a few bucks you could climb onto the steer’s back and have your picture made. What is this place?

The more I puzzled over Fort Worth, the more I felt cynical and ungenerous. I mean, really. A Longhorn with a saddle? Rushing down the street to see a bunch of tame cattle wander a couple of blocks? That’s not the West. It was so gimmicky and cartoonish—all hat and no cattle.

Nudging me out of my snark was Quentin McGown, an associate probate judge whose family has been in Fort Worth for four generations. Quentin’s the guy who managed the sesquicentennial wagon train that rolled across three thousand miles of Texas in 1986. He’s seen practically the whole state at 3 miles an hour, a perspective that gives a person a long, long time to ponder Texas.

“Fort Worth has a tendency—not uncommon on the frontier—for civic boosterism to get loud and silly to keep people interested,” Quentin said. “We’re still like that, but we didn’t make up our history. We were given the facts, and like any good storyteller, we embellish them a little. I’m not sure people would know the difference between what we’ve got and what’s genuine. In a world that’s changing, you can look back on older traditions of an agricultural community where you pull together to survive. That makes Fort Worth tick.”

In some respects, Fort Worth has traded the West’s dangerous encounters for more easily managed experiences. Over at the Will Rogers Coliseum, the National Cutting Horse Association’s World Championship Futurity was deep into its annual three-week run. More than 1,600 horse-and-rider teams were competing in 2012, the contest’s fifty-first year. The Futurity is big money too, generating more than 12,000 visitors and $22 million for the city’s economy.

“This is probably the biggest event in Fort Worth outside TCU football,” said Julie Bryant, of the NCHA.

Down in the arena, it took a moment for a brockle-face steer to realize that the rest of the herd had peeled away and left him alone. He spun around to rejoin the herd but found his way blocked by a girl on a dark sorrel stallion. The calf’s ears waggled uncertainly. The horse hunkered low and locked gazes with the steer. The steer abruptly dashed to the right. With quicksilver grace and speed, the horse leaped sidewise to stop the steer’s return to the herd. The horse mirrored the calf’s every escape attempt, meeting and matching every bolt, turn, skitter, and sprint, his shoulders nearly skimming the dirt floor as he changed direction.

It is a mesmerizing dance, but again, there’s the issue of authenticity. Many of these expensive animals are unlikely to ever cut a cow in a pasture. The job of their hardy forebears has been diluted and distilled to a two-and-a-half-minute interval in an air-conditioned arena.

The lack of a “real” West is an old lament. In 1894 Frederic Remington cautioned his writer friend Owen Wister on characterizing cowboys. “Don’t mistake the nice young men who amble around wire fences for the wild riders of the Plains,” he wrote.

Sitting at Will Rogers, it occurred to me that maybe wildness and authenticity don’t matter so much. All around were jingling spurs and lowing cattle. Horses tied at the rail touched noses and dozed. They are real and they are here. Maybe the wisps of the West that survive—a connection to animals and to the land, a love for a little adventure—are the very best parts of that mythology, important to our collective dreams regardless of the hokum or homogeneity that tags along. It’s what we can do with what we’ve got.

Ed Dufurrena slid into a nearby seat and watched the go-rounds. His horse qualified earlier in the week for the Open World Championship (it later won a title in the stallion division). The West is still relevant, he said.

“Every person in the world—what is most important is that we want to be cared about,” Dufurrena mused. “We aspire to a work ethic, integrity, courage, the desire to excel. That’s a cowboy. I don’t think we should lose that. A culture needs to identify with its history, because it plays a role in us and where we’re going together. And if it’s the West that inspires us, so be it.”

In the arena, cattle schooled around a horse and rider who’d waded into the herd.

“Here,” said Dufurrena. “Let’s watch.”