Think Texas and you probably conjure up images of cowboys and oil wells. Even ‘Dallas’ has returned to our screens, with a new generation of Ewings to ruffle JR’s Stetson hat, but we had just a week to explore this vast Lone Star State where they say, “everything is bigger’.
First evidence of this soon became apparent when we settled down for our first meal at the legendary Big Texan Steak House Ranch in Amarillo, where eating has become a spectator sport. Famed for its 72oz steak challenge, we witnessed a sturdy eating machine by the name of Hugo secure himself a place on the restaurant’s prestigious roll of honour board by devouring a slab of meat in just under the allotted hour. Fortunately for Hugo and his fellow diners, the adjoining gift shop stocks plenty of 56in waist jeans in king-size, premium, big and tall and big daddy sizes.
After sampling a more restrained meal, we decided to stretch our legs at the nearby Palo Duro Canyon, America’s second largest after the mighty Grand Canyon and a popular location for activities including hiking, horse riding and camping. Local wildlife includes mule deer, roadrunners and bobcats although our strangest encounter was meeting a local woman exercising her pet cat Casper on an elasticated lead.
The American Quarter Horse isn’t the biggest breed around but it sure is the fastest and most versatile. At the National Quarter Horse Museum in Amarillo we discovered the role these compact horses played in the development of Texas from the early pioneers right up to contemporary ranchers who still use them for handling livestock on the range. There are plenty of interactive exhibitions to keep the children amused and I came away with a greater understanding of the sense of freedom these remarkable animals have imparted to generations of cowboys and girls.
Kenneth Wyatt Gallery
Keeping on the cowboy theme, we made our way to the town of Tulia to seek out the home and studio of Kenneth Wyatt. Kenneth is one of America’s most prolific western themed artists with over 9,000 paintings to his name and still counting. If you think John Wayne from the classic John Ford film The Searchers, you get some idea of Kenneth and his work.
Well into his eighties, he draws inspiration from his extraordinary life as a Methodist minister (at the age of 15) farmer, rancher, roofer, and professional magician. Modest in his achievements, “ I just push the paint around until it looks like what I see inside” Ken has a host of fans who admire his romanticised view of cowboy culture and can count various American Presidents and our own HM The Queen as collectors of his work.
The birthplace of recording artist and Rock n’ Roll legend, Buddy Holly was next on our itinerary as we headed along Interstate-27 to the university town of Lubbock. On the appropriately named ‘Crickets Avenue’ in the historic depot district of town, we came across a giant sculptured pair of Buddy’s trademark glasses that mark the entrance to the Buddy Holly Centre. Inside, we gazed upon an array of star memorabilia from Buddy’s short life, including clothing, letters and guitars. Some music critics claim he was the century’s most important musician and legendary Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney freely admits that the Fab Four’s first forty songs were Buddy Holly influenced.
We raised a glass in Buddy’s honour at the nearby Triple J Chophouse and Brew Co, Lubbock’s only micro brewery before holding onto our sunhats as we made our way to The American Wind Power Centre where over 150 water-pumping windmills have been lovingly restored. Once a common sight on any Texas ranch, these iconic structures were used to pump water from aquifers in areas where electricity couldn’t reach - Green energy before green became fashionable. These days, solar pumps have replaced most of the old windmills although plenty of ranchers still swear by their old machines, whose design has changed little in a century.
Ranching history was also brought to life at the National Ranching Heritage Centre, where buildings dating from the C17th have been saved from destruction, carefully dismantled and rebuilt on a 16-acre site that reminded me of the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex. The story of the pioneering black rancher, Daniel Webster Wallace, or “80 John” as he became known, was of particular interest. Born into slavery, Wallace ran away from home, learnt to read and write and was befriended by cattle baron Clay Mann who helped Wallace fulfil his dream when African American ranchers were rare. Wallace was buried on his beloved ranch in 1939 but his modest cross-shaped house is one of the star exhibits at the Ranching Heritage Centre.
We left the rolling grassy plains of the panhandle region and headed south towards the Mexican border in search of Big Bend Country. Our thoughts turned to spaghetti-westerns as the landscape changed to a dessert-like terrain complete with rolling tumbleweeds, cacti, scrub bush and hot, sandy plains that stretched for miles. We sang along to our favourite cowboy songs on the radio – Rawhide and Ghost Riders in the Sky being particular favourites and we felt a million dollars.
It was time to act out our cowboy fantasies as high noon approached and we wanted to ride and shoot like one.
We saddled up at Lajitas Stables where our wrangler guides Janelle and Linda paired our various shapes and abilities to some unfortunate Quarter Horse. Smokey was my mount, a tall sturdy beast that preferred caution to speed. For three wonderful hours we trekked across the slopes of the Contrabando Mesa and entered a world of breathtaking vistas and silence.
Lajitas also boasts its very own pink shirted cowboy by the name of Brett who put our posse through its paces on the cowboy action shoot. Gunslingers had better beware. Under Brett’s expert tuition, I managed to turn myself into the cowboy marksman I had only dreamed about as a kid with my toy cap gun.
For further information on Texas please visit http://www.traveltex.com
Fly to Dallas Fort Worth with American Airlines http://www.americanairlines.co.uk .
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