Touring the American Southwest in a cowboy’s boots
M Diamond Ranch is a 100-year-old family-owned cattle ranch where real cowboys work and live. (Suemedha Sood)
America’s Wild West – an era of 19th-century pioneers, cattle drives that traversed rugged terrain and heroes who fell on either side of the law – was dominated long ago. Like wranglers taming feral horses, Americans eventually conquered the mysterious frontier, industrializing its scenery, ousting its native peoples and reigning in its lawlessness.
But look closely enough and you will find pockets of traditional American Western culture that stay true to their heritage; places where real life cowboys still ride across untamed landscapes.
Following the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), the growth of the nation’s cattle industry gave rise to the prominence of the American cowboy in Texas. Ranchers began herding their cattle to railroads in the East to meet the increasing demand for beef.
In Fort Worth, a city serious about its western heritage where Texas Longhorn cattle are still herded through town twice a day for tourists to see, the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of past and present influential cowboys. Its Chisholm Trail Exhibit leads visitors along the 19th-century trail (named after the Cherokee-Scottish trader, trail guide and interpreter Jesse Chisholm) upon which ranchers drove cattle from Texas to Kansas. A great exhibit for children is the Adventures of the Cowboy Trail. Although being indoors in a museum does take some of the “adventure” out of it, the exhibit features interactive stations where kids can re-enact such activities as packing for a trail, preparing the cook’s wagon, branding cows, and digging for Native American arrowheads.
On 28 July, Fort Worth’s Stockyards historic district celebrates the National Day of the American Cowboy, featuring events such as the Hay Stacking World Championships and Cowboy Idol, a country-western version of the TV singing competition American Idol.
From Fort Worth, head five hours south to Bandera, the self-declared “cowboy capital of the world”. The Bandera area is home to a number of public ranches. All summer long, on BR Lightning Ranch in Hill County, a few miles from downtown Bandera, the Summer Buckle Series Rodeo hosts weekly events such as bull riding, calf roping and steer riding. The ranch also prides itself on being the only place where you can find a high-diving aqua mule act in which the animals dive off a 24ft-high platform into six feet of water. Unsurprisingly, this show has sparked controversy and garnered a great deal of criticism from animal activists. A more animal-friendly experience can be found nearby at Hill County Alpacas, a ranch with award-winning (and adorable) huacaya alpacas, bred for their soft fur.
Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum (formerly the National Cowboy Hall of Fame houses some of the country’s most renowned Western art. Currently, the Prix de West Invitational, an exhibit featuring over 300 works of authentic Western art, is bringing together talented contemporary painters and sculptors from around the US. Also on display is a collection of the drawings and writings of Will James, an artist who worked to promote positive public perceptions of the working American cowboy during the early 1900s.
Continue the hunt for authentic Western artwork at a fantastic outdoor fair that draws cowboys and collectors from all over the country. The Cowboy Trade Day, two hours northeast of Oklahoma City in Catoosa, takes place every September and is a treat for anyone on a quest for treasures from the true Old West. Craftsmen and antiques wranglers come to sell, trade and buy such prizes as historic spurs and belt buckles, Native American jewellery, old guns (modern firearms are not allowed), pioneer memorabilia, and handcrafted modern and antique saddles, hats and boots.
Colorado recently approved funding for the establishment of a Professional Bull Riders University in the city of Pueblo, two hours south of Denver. The school will be a training facility for rodeo sports and, the town hopes, a tourist attraction for spectators of those sports.
The measure is a strong indication that the cowboy lifestyle is thriving in certain pockets of Colorado. Even the metropolis of Denver still hosts the annual National Western Stock Show, a livestock event that displays 20 different breeds of cows in addition to bison, alpaca, llamas, yaks and more.