True story: They were never called cowboys. Yes, we’ve been lied to, victims of an historic mis-marketing. Anybody up for a game of Drovers and Indians?
I got my crash-course in talkin’ proper in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards, a place so imbued with the legends of the Old West — and the setting for a few — that I could not help but get a twang in my distressingly Yankee voice.
The Man, The Myth
So here is the back-in-the-day breakdown: A cowboy was a farmer or bandit lucky enough to have a horse. On the other hand, a drover was (and is) a rare example of fact and fiction being the same thing, picking up the name for being one of those hardscrabble types that drove steers up and down cattle trails that criss-crossed the Great Plains.
Several of those trails, the Chisholm, Lonesome Dove, and Shawnee, all converged on Fort Worth, making what was once a post-Civil War whistle-stop into the biggest meat market — a real one! — in the American Southwest. Railway cattle-cars and interstate convoys stole a lot of the city’s thunder, but “Cowtown” still revels in the romance of the cattle drives of old, with a little O. Henry lyricism thrown in for color.
Git Along, Li’l Dogies
What kid doesn’t want to be a cowboy/drover? Anybody looking to get their Old West on could hardly have a better starting line, Dallas be damned. The whole image of the man on his horse herding cattle in the vastness of the prairie against a coral-colored sunset is about as American as it gets. The Stockyards and its numerous museums celebrate every aspect of the legend as well the Native American heritage that preceded it. I came across characters I did not expect to find, such as Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick, arguably the most famous African-American ever to saddle up.
Three miles from Fort Worth’s classy, artsy city center, what was once a practically lawless 98-acre megaplex of cattle pens, last-chance saloons and brothels has since traded what was a vividly purple past for a squeaky-clean National Historic District designation that is nothing if not child-friendly. For example, the once-legendary bordello is the presently-legendary M.L. Leddy’s, possibly the best place in the country for handmade boots, belts, saddles, stirrups, hats, gingham, and anything else a good cowboy, cowgirl, or drover needs to get the job done. It is the one place you can go for a pair of chaps and not get that look.
But the whitewashing goes only so far. Fort Worth embraces its history with good Texan gusto — the good, the bad, and especially the ugly. I set up shop at the Stockyards Hotel, whose five-star sheen has the added polish of being a former hideaway for Bonnie and Clyde. Across the way is the White Elephant, a perfectly respectable eatery today that in the 1800s was as deep as a dive-bar could get, right down to the gunfights on the porch.
Both ride along East Exchange Avenue, the cobblestoned main drag that is the place to be for cowpokes-in-the-making. Fort Worth’s answer to London’s Changing of the Guard, The Herd is a gen-yoo-ine drive of Texas longhorn steers that rumbles through the Stockyards twice daily. Afterwards, you can hit up the drovers for trivia on the very-much-alive tradition of cattle raising and all the tricks of the trade used to keep several hundred head in line.
And if you want to see said-tricks, next to the hotel is the cavernous Cowtown Coliseum, whose former life as the indoor livestock show-facility made it perfect for rodeos, Wild West shows, hog/calf/sheep tying, and bull-riding matches that are over so fast (no offense) I wondered how “riding” ever appeared in the term. Riders learn the game early; there is a whole children’s division of show-riding — on sheep. Baby steps.
Down On The Range
But as true as the Stockyards are to the Old West and as much as I wandered through the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and learned every variation of the two-step at Billy Bob’s Texas (the world’s largest honky-tonk!), Fort Worth is not forever gazing back into an idealized past. The city is still intimately tied to the cattle biz — it just moved out of town.
Head into the sunset and perched on a ridge about 90 miles outside of Fort Worth is the Wildcatter Ranch … and for all you “Brokeback Mountain" fans, this is paradise on Earth. In every respect a working ranch, the 1,500-acre Wildcatter ups the ante by having exquisitely appointed guest cabins attached.
And still, this is not the place for a mani-pedi; it almost qualifies as particularly hands-on “glamping,” and I dove deep as I dared into the life. Windows into the West such as horseback riding along the Brazos River and feeding the longhorns are seamlessly sewn into more conventional getaway activities like massages and lounging by the infinity pool. I even tried my hand at skeet shooting, but mostly, and probably thankfully, restricted my notoriously bad aim to chatting with the instructor and his trusty pooch Macho. Did you know that cattle-rustling is still a thing?
With a full moon overhead, I enjoyed another Old West tradition: food. Ranch fare never scored highly in the annals of world cuisine; little wonder it was the first thing revamped in the culinary revival sweeping Fort Worth, the Wildcatter included. A few things remain Texan: the serving sizes, the hot sauces — yow! — and the drinks that come in glasses the size of small fish bowls. But the vehemently down-home style of vittles is a point of pride, and no matter the upgrades, the menu clings to its carnivorous roots. Pork, beef, or chicken, it’s barbecued, it’s smoked, and it’s piled high.
The next day, and after a well-earned food coma, I took in the full vista of the sun rising over the chaparral. The crystalline quiet was so absolute I heard a single cow moo a mile off, the air so clean I could smell the sage and mesquite. I let the timeless landscape of the West bowl over me. I will never be a ranch hand, but in that moment, I could sure see the allure.
And once the moment was over, I went back inside and enjoyed every amenity under the stars. The Wildcatter is as close as I could get to the grand mythology of cowboys (drovers — whatever) and still be a proudly pampered pencil-pusher.
We all have our limits.