“Get in here,” my friend Leigh hollers to me. “The dresser’s wearing boots!” I haul my luggage into our rustic cabin at the Dixie Dude Ranch (833 Dixie Dude Ranch Rd., 830-796-7771), in Bandera, and immediately feel like a kid who’s lucked into the coolest room at camp: our beds are wrapped in woolen Navajo blankets, a mirror is framed by a giant horseshoe hanging from two deer hooves on the wall, and the dresser’s feet are carved to look like Luccheses. Out the windows I can see horses grazing in a pasture. Over the next few days, I intend to saddle up one of those horses, eat chicken-fried delicacies, go two-stepping, drink longnecks with the locals, and find out whether this Hill Country town fifty miles northwest of San Antonio lives up to its self-appointed billing as the Cowboy Capital of the World.
As a native of Fort Worth (a.k.a. Cowtown), I’m naturally skeptical of such a claim, but I’m willing to keep an open mind—though not on an empty stomach. So it’s “into town” we go for dinner. Fifteen minutes and two left turns later, we’re cruising down the main drag, passing several historic stone buildings and one plucky rooster that’s crossing the street before arriving at the Old Spanish Trail Restaurant (307 Main, 830-796-3836). The OST, which has saddle stools at its long counter and a room devoted to John Wayne, has been serving home-style and Tex-Mex fare since 1921. While we polish off our fajitas, I can’t help but feel the Duke’s presence as dozens of his portraits gaze down on us from the wall. So far, so cowboy.
At eight in the morning, a half hour after being woken by the “come and get it” bell, I’m up and at ’em and dressed in my best attempt at Western wear, though my tan vintage Zodiac boots are more Nancy Sinatra than Dale Evans. In the Dixie’s main ranch house, we pass platters of scrambled eggs and biscuits and make friends with a woman from Arkansas and her eight-year-old great-granddaughter, a retired couple from England, a family of four from Vancouver, and a group of twentysomething Londoners on holiday. As Texans, Leigh and I are outnumbered.
Just about then, in strides the Dixie’s trail boss, Clay Conoly, a fourth-generation Texan who’s been running the 725-acre ranch with his wife, Diane, since 1988. Clay’s great-grandfather William Wallace Whitley opened this stock ranch to city slickers in 1937, and the twenty-room property has been a family-run operation ever since. After breakfast, Clay and Diane’s oldest son, Alec, helps hoist me onto my steed, Fred, for our hour-long ride over narrow, rocky paths. We get to a clearing, and the horses take off at a tailbone-jostling trot. My feet go flying out of their stirrups. When Alec sees my legs flapping like the wings of an agitated duck, he brings the whole conga line to a halt. The Brits, who I notice are all wearing real cowboy boots, look annoyed. I’m being out-Texaned by a bunch of Europeans!
Later that afternoon, the sting to my ego is easily soothed with a cold longneck at the subterranean Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar saloon (308 Main, 830-796-8826), where the dance floor is covered in sawdust and a dollar buys us seven songs on the jukebox. As Lefty Frizzell holds that last note of “If You’ve Got the Money,” we dash off to what we’ve heard is the social event of the week: Grill Your Own Steak Night, held outside the nearby 11th Street Cowboy Bar (307 Eleventh, 830-796-8690) every Wednesday. We arrive to find around four hundred carnivores throwing slabs of meat onto four round grills, each one the diameter of a kiddie pool. As we season our ribeyes, we meet Hoot Gibson, a local demi-celebrity best known for riding horseback from Bandera to the Calgary Stampede (a mere 2,500 miles). He looks exactly like what most foreigners probably imagine a real Texan looks like, with his bushy mustache, black felt cowboy hat, and red silk bandanna. He fills his cheek with Copenhagen and recites for us one of his original cowboy poems before the director of the local convention and visitors bureau pulls him away to entertain a group of Canadian snowbirds.
After our family-style breakfast, Leigh and I forgo another trail ride and head off to do some spending. Just off Main Street, we find sister stores Gunslinger Dry Goods and Graceful (1102 Cypress, 830-796-7802); I fall for a palm-leaf sombrero at the former and a tan suede purse dripping with fringe at the latter. Down the street, I spy the narrow, flag-flanked storefront of Bucking Pony Leather (115 Texas Hwy. 168, 830-460-0177). While I practically drool over the intricately tooled custom bowie knife sheaths, canteens, and gun holsters made by Clayton and Nancy Powell, the couple is kind enough to give us a lunch recommendation. At Brick’s River Cafe (205 Main, 830-460-3200) we ladle cream gravy onto chicken-fried pork tenderloin, sip sweet tea from mason jars, and gaze out at the Medina River flowing by. Afterward, as we head out of town, a slow-moving pickup eases over to the shoulder to let us pass. It’s Hoot. He doesn’t recognize us, but he tips his hat as we drive by, just as any good cowboy would.