Lone Star Shines: How to be a Texas cowpoke

By Andrea Gross, Photos by Irv Green

It used to take Texas trail drovers three months or more to ride the Chisholm Trail – a dirt path over which cowboys moved Southern cattle to Northern markets. Now, 150 years later, the old dirt path has morphed into I-35, one of the busiest interstates in the country.

My husband says he can drive those 260 miles between San Antonio and Fort Worth in four and a half hours. Well, that’s just fine, but I don’t want to speed past the sights in four and a half hours. I want to pull on some boots, swing a lasso and for a few days turn my city slicker self into a trail-riding cowpoke.

The great cattle drives lasted less than 20 years, from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s. But with the aid of films such as 1948’s Red River, starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, and a plethora of 10-cent novels, those years molded America’s image of itself.

During the folk revival of the ’60s, cowboys continued to be romanticized as well as commercialized. Folk artists like Johnny Cash popularized songs like “Streets of Laredo” and “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.”

The reality – which included gunfights and beer brawls – never quite matched the image, but no matter. Like almost every child in America, I wanted to grow up to be a cowboy or cowgirl – strong, courageous, vigorous and independent. To be a cowpoke was to be an American, and that was a pretty good thing to be.

Today, folks can experience the old dirt road by making stops along the new concrete highway. Here’s how:

Drink at the Menger

Now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Menger Hotel opened in 1859 and soon became a favorite of San Antonio ranchers. While rough-and-tumble cowboys hustled cattle up the trails, the men who stood to profit from their labor downed drinks at Menger’s bar. A free brochure gives us directions for a self-guided tour. Mengerhotel.com

Learn the ropes from vaqueros

Vaqueros, the Mexican ranch hands who tended cattle in early Texas, are often called America’s first cowboys. They entertained themselves and the ranch owners with impromptu competitions that showcased their horsemanship. Over the years, these competitions became full-scale charreadas (Mexican rodeos). We see one in San Antonio, but there are similar events in most major Texas cities.

Chase the flies

Cowboy hats are multi-use items. On the trail they were far more than sun-shields; they also served as everything from water holders and fire-fanners to horsewhips and fly-chasers. Texas Hatters is one of fewer than 40 hat-making establishments in the United States where hats are sized, shaped and steamed on the premises. Through the years, the shop owners have covered the pates of film stars, musicians and politicians as well as five U.S. presidents, one king and a few princes. Texashatters.com

Ride the range

What fun to ride the open range at a working cattle ranch, leading the horse over pastures originally settled by Stephen Austin’s men. Nearby is a grove where ranchers gathered cattle before leading them off to join the Chisholm Trail. Texas Ranch Life, near Austin, has abundant wildlife as well as one of the country’s largest herd of longhorn. What’s more, buffalo hang out around the lake, whitetail deer dash across the trail and bald eagles roost in the trees. Texasranchlife.com

Listen to ’em sing

Billy Bob’s Texas is a place where the action doesn’t stop. Professional rodeo cowboys ride fearsome bucking bulls on weekends, but “The World’s Largest Honky Tonk” jumps all week with other types of entertainment, from video games to line dancing and country music concerts. The list of folks who’ve performed there is impressive and includes Willie Nelson, LeeAnn Rimes and Garth Brooks. Billybobstexas.com

Stare down a longhorn

In Western movies, Longhorns look ominous as they move up the trail, their horns sharp as spears, spreading six to eight feet point-to-point. To see the famed cattle up close, we watch a re-enactment of an old Chisholm Trail herd drive. Twice daily, costumed wranglers prod a dozen or more longhorn down the streets in the Fort Worth Historic District. Fortworth.com

Watch ’em wrestle bulls

Nothing beats sitting in an arena filled with brave cowboys and bucking bulls. We do just that on the last night of our trip when we go to the Stockyards Championship Rodeo in Fort Worth, which is the world’s first indoor rodeo and the only one that takes place every weekend throughout the year.

As we left the Cowtown Coliseum, we thought how lucky we were. Immersing ourselves in the history of cattle drovers for four and a half days was a lot more fun than driving the Interstate for four and a half hours. Stockyardsrodeo.com

So now, “Yippie yi yo kayah,” as Bing Crosby sang in the 1930s, “I’m an Old Cowhand.”

For more travel adventures, see traveltizers.com.

Thousands of longhorn were driven over the Chisholm trail.