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Monday, June 13, 2011

Bandera, The Cowboy Capital of the World

In January of this year, my husband and I decided we needed a break. Three days was all he could spare from work, so we didn’t stray far. We spent a three-day weekend in the small town of Bandera, Texas.

Me at the Running R
(Sorry, photo is blurry.)
Bandera, population 957, bills itself as “The Cowboy Capital of the World.” They might more accurately call it the “Dude Ranch Capital of the World.” The area surrounding Bandera must have dozens of dude ranches, mostly catering to out-of-state or even out-of-country tourists who want to experience what it’s like to be a cowboy. Many of the cattle ranches in the area have turned to tourists in order to survive. The old-timers die off and their kids don’t want to run a cattle ranch. It’s much more lucrative to sell the ranch or turn it into a dude ranch for tourists.

We weren’t really interested in the typical dude ranch activities, like campfires, cowboy breakfasts, staged gunfights, and all the hokey cowboy stuff. That’s fine for kids or people from out of state, but I just wanted to do some horseback riding. The Running R Ranch, according to its website, is dedicated to horseback riding, not to the usual dude ranch activities. So we booked a cabin and on the appointed day drove out there.  

The drive from Bulverde to Bandera tells the story of the area. Huge ranches have been sold and developed into subdivisions with grand arched entries. Their residents usually commute to San Antonio to work. Eventually the subdivisions thin out into stretches of hill country with occasional working ranches. Real working ranches don’t have fancy stone archways or gates made of scrolled grillwork. They are usually marked by a plain wood-and-wire livestock gate and a mailbox.

After an hour-and-a-half of driving, we arrived in Bandera. The town itself is quite charming, if you like the Old West sort of thing. Much of it hasn’t changed since the 1890’s. We rolled past wooden sidewalks with hitching posts, the stone bank building turned boutique, the old general store, and saloons and dance halls. Then we turned off onto a winding road that eventually led to the Running R Ranch. Another mile up a dirt road and we arrived at a cluster of unassuming buildings.

After checking in at the tiny office, we drove to our cabin.  A couple of cats were hanging around on the wooden porch.  As soon as we opened the door, they darted inside and made themselves at home.  The cabin consisted of one simple room with a kitchenette, a small table with two chairs, two double beds, and a bathroom. Everything was made of wood: walls, floor, ceiling, and furniture. Between the beds was a furnace-type heater, which we were very grateful for during our stay. The fact it had no phone or TV was a plus in my mind.

We arrived just in time for lunch. It was served in a huge dining hall with long wooden tables and a blazing fire at the far end. The food was served buffet style, all you can eat, and it was yummy. The cook was actually a culinary school-trained chef, and the vegetables came from the ranch garden. We met a young couple from Switzerland who had spent the last month touring Texas in a rented car. Later in the weekend a group of young women from France showed up. In fact, except for a few staff members, we were the only native Texans around. Even the owners were from New Jersey.

 After lunch we put on our boots, jackets, and hats and slogged through the mud to the barn. The only other riders that afternoon were a mother from Minnesota and her bespectacled 13-year-old son. Neither had been on a horse before. David was the horse wrangler, and he certainly looked the part. He wore a long waterproof coat called a duster, plus the usual cowboy gear: boots, hat, and chaps.

David assigned horses according to our riding experience. I got an ill-tempered gelding named Copenhagen, who had a tendency to bit the horse walking in front of him on the trail. David advised me to keep him at least six feet behind the horse he was following.  The mom and son from Minnesota were a little afraid of the horses. After helping them mount, David gave a ten-minute riding lesson. He told them how to hold the reins, how to sit, how to steer, and how to stop the horses should they make a run for it (they didn’t).  

When he talked, and he talked a lot, David sounded like Tommy Lee Jones. During our ride we learned that he had spent all his life working on cattle ranches in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. He considered it to be a step down to be leading tourists around on a dude ranch. But the ranches he used to work have all been sold and converted to something else. He had never owned a house or stayed anywhere longer than a few years. He'd never been married. During the ride he confided that he was "sweet on" Diane, the ranch owner from New Jersey.  

The weather was cold, wet, and miserable, and the rain never stopped. But the scenery was green and lovely. We rode into an adjoining State natural area with miles and miles of untouched hill country, along rocky trails winding among the cedars and oaks. We passed by crumbling rock outbuildings, leftovers from an old ranch dating back to the 1800’s. The owner had donated the land to the state rather than see it cut up into smaller parcels. The original rancher’s homestead, a stately two-story rock house, was now the residence of the park ranger.  Before the 3-hour ride was over, my rain resistant jacket had given up all resistance, and I was soaked.

It was snug in our cabin with the wind and rain blowing against the windows. On Saturday night we drove into town and hit a couple of bars and dance halls. It was mostly local ranchers and their wives who hit the dance floor. You could tell they had been dancing together for years. After a couple of beers, we headed back to the ranch. Bandera’s overzealous lawmen are famous for stopping out-of-towners and issuing citations for DUI’s. The unofficial Bandera slogan is “Come on vacation, leave on probation.” Most ranches encourage visitors to use the local taxi service. Its only job is to ferry visitors to and from town at night.

But we didn’t get pulled over, and it was a wonderful weekend. Maybe the weather gave us a taste of what it’s really like to be a cowboy: riding for hours through rain and cold, then spending Saturday night whooping it up in town. We weren’t exactly whoopers, but you get the idea.

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