When my brothers and I were growing up in Fort Worth, our parents took us to the city’s world-renowned museums and beloved annual stock show but somehow never to the district that put the “cow” in Cowtown: the legendary Stockyards. The touristy, 98-acre hub of historic landmarks and cattle pens is roughly bookended by Billy Bob’s Texas, (2520 Rodeo Plaza, 817-624-7117) the world’s largest honky-tonk, to the north and Joe T. Garcia’s, (2201 N. Commerce, 817-626-4356) perhaps the world’s largest Tex-Mex restaurant, to the south. Although I’ve been to both of these institutions plenty of times, I’ve neglected the stretch in between.
The only remedy is a weekend spent playing tourist in my hometown. My mother, feeling a pang of parental guilt, has gamely agreed to join me. In the lobby of the 1907 Stockyards Hotel, (109 E. Exchange Avenue, 817-625-6427) we play our roles well, snapping pictures of Pawnee Bill’s saddle and admiring the portrait of Will Rogers. Our second-floor room, one of 52, is equally evocative of the frontier past, with cowhide on the headboard and wooden shutters opening onto a view of the “Fort Worth Stock Yards” sign that spans Exchange Avenue.
We can also see Love Shack, (110 E. Exchange Avenue, 817-740-8812) celebrity chef Tim Love’s multilevel, open-air burger joint. We dinner there, ordering hearty chicken-topped nachos and a Dirty Love Burger, a tenderloin-and-brisket patty dressed with bacon and a fried quail egg. From our picnic table, we have a bird’s-eye view of all the true tourists below, wrangling small herds of children. The din of a heavy-duty truck pulling a block-long trailer full of bulls momentarily eclipses our conversation. Then comes another, hauling horses. And then another. They’re all heading down to the Cowtown Coliseum, as we do shortly, for the Stockyards Championship Rodeo (121 E. Exchange Avenue, 817-625-1025). My brother and stepdad join us for the family-friendly event, which opens with the National Anthem and a prayer and was the first indoor rodeo when it started in 1918. We’re mesmerized by barrel racers and bull riders, and when the rodeo clown jumps into the stands to publicly shame my brother for fiddling with his phone, I’m as delighted as the kids running after sheep during the mutton scramble.
I can’t resist starting the day with chicharrones con huevos and an eggy concha bun decorated with pink sugar, so my mom and I walk a few blocks south to Esperanza’s Bakery and Café (2122 N. Main, 817-626-5770). We have a little time before the Longhorns amble down Exchange Avenue—this urban cattle drive happens at eleven-thirty and four daily—so we duck into Adobe Western Art Gallery (2322 N. Main, 817-624-4242) and marvel at the range of Texas landscapes and cowboy sculptures. Realizing it’s eleven-thirty, we speed walk back to the hotel, but we miss the Longhorns.
Instead we peruse Fincher’s White Front Western Wear (115 E. Exchange Avenue, 817-624-7302), which has been selling dungarees and hand-creased hats since 1902. After pricing the custom kicks of our dreams at M. L. Leddy’s Boots & Saddlery (2455 N. Main, 888-565-2668), we find some suitable Justins for less than $200 at the nearby Luskey’s/Ryon’s (2601 N. Main, 817-625-2391), We spend half that much on lunch at Lonesome Dove Western Bistro (2406 N. Main, 817-740-8810), another Tim Love enterprise. I sidestep the kangaroo carpaccio nachos for the elk sausage sliders. Afterward, we splurge on ancho-chile chocolate cake and roasted banana pudding. Our diets are on vacation too.
It’s approaching four o’clock, so we walk toward Stockyards Station, (130 E. Exchange Avenue, 817-625-9715), a mini strip mall near the corral where the Fort Worth Herd lazes about. Youngsters beg to ride the mechanical bull, explore the wooden cattle-pen maze, and have their picture taken on top of a real live (and real docile) Longhorn. My mother and I wander through both the Stockyards Museum, (131 E. Exchange Avenue, 817-625-5082), in the 1902 Livestock Exchange Building, and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame, (128 E. Exchange Avenue, 817-626-7131), which occupies an 1898 horse and mule barn and has the world’s largest display of wagons, which I’m still sizing up when I realize it’s a quarter after four. We’ve missed the cattle drive again.
We don’t, however, miss the opportunity for a quick nap before meeting my other brother and his girlfriend to fill up on comfort food at Los Vaqueros (2629 N. Main, 817-624-1511) before heading to Billy Bob’s. Tonight’s headliner, Dwight Yoakam, doesn’t go on till ten-thirty, leaving us a couple of hours to line dance under the famous sequined saddle, which spins and twinkles like a disco ball and takes me back to my high school days.
Today’s mission: Don’t miss the cattle drive! We find all nineteen of the active-duty Longhorns in their corral behind the Livestock Exchange Building. Two cowboys on horseback nudge each one of them to their feet and, eventually, into a line. That’s our cue to find a spot on the sidewalk, where dozens of folks have suddenly materialized. Standing next to us is a Japanese family of five. The littlest daughter has her iPad at the ready. As the Longhorns saunter by, as big as some of the parked cars they pass, she gapes at them in astonishment and then looks back at her parents, momentarily forgetting about training the iPad’s lens on the “action.” I gape too, the imposing horns nearly close enough to touch, and then smile back at my mother.