Ride on yonder to the ‘cowboy capital of Texas’

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Why don't we do it on the road?

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a weekly series exploring day-and-weekend trip destinations across Texas.

When you turn off Highway 1604 onto Texas State Highway 16 toward Bandera, don’t even try to resist the urge to put on some Texas country western music. Bon Iver matched the rain’s pitter-patter as I zipped past general San Antonio, but as soon as I turned off that four-lane highway, anything other than a country twang seemed damn inappropriate. Johnny Cash’s voice soon serenaded me about Texas thunderstorms — “’Cause they’ve got to ride forever on that range up in the sky ... Yippee yi yay. Yippee yi oh. Ghost riders in the sky.”

Much of cowboy, and Banderan, history is written in historic publications like the Frontier Times or the even-older Hunter’s Frontier Magazine. The town’s Frontier Times Museum preserves many a brittle cowboy magazine, but a few copies remain hidden in the desk of Twin Elm Guest Ranch manager Cap’n Kury Hearnsberger.

“[The magazines] are stories from real cowboys, and that’s why I keep ‘em in Ziploc,” Cap’n Kury said, pulling the Texas tales out of the drawer. “See these real life historic stories: ‘Death of a Texas Ranger,’ ‘Hige Nail: An Early Trail Driver.’”

Bandera didn’t boom for anything less than cattle driven along the Western Trail. Close to Bandera Pass, the town became a stopping point for trail drivers, cattle owners and cowboys. The cattle industry changed and the cowboys settled down, creating dude ranches and an Old West culture that are still preserved today.

When you walk down Main Street, the uniform western motif is a step beyond following trends. A city ordinance requires all businesses on the street to incorporate the town’s history. Tex-Mex, Mexican, barbecue and Texas-chic eateries provide nourishment for the tourists in designer boots to those pouring into town from the surrounding ranches.

The South Congress-esque 1920s bulb sign attracted me to Old Spanish Trail Restaurant. I sat down and suddenly jumped — a life-size John Wayne cutout towered over me. He was not the only iconic cowboy paraphernalia in the diner. The walls are so plastered with pictures, posters and drawings I could’ve sworn this is where Wayne’s ghost resides.

Outside the shrine-like atmosphere, the restaurant serves everything from the Texas staple country fried steak to Mexican breakfast. I ordered my new favorite enchiladas — three eggs in two tortillas covered in onions and tomato sauce.

I had nearly finished eating when my eyes caught a shotgun-toting woman walking through the door.

“Gun fight in 10 minutes!” she hollered, startling diners — the 40-something-year-old woman in the camouflage “Willie for President” T-shirt even gave a startled gasp.

I couldn’t have been anywhere other than the cowboy capital.

When you drive into town, the Bandera County Courthouse reminds you that the eyes of Texas are indeed upon you — and so are the preacher’s.

A trailer covered with bumper stickers of local landmarks asking the question, “Do you follow Jesus this close?” was parked in front of the courthouse — the miniature horse named Star and the quarter horse named Lasso munched contentedly on hay as Ford F-150, -250 and -850 trucks barreled down the road beside them.

Jacqui Jackson runs Hills of Heaven Christian Outreach. She uses her horse sense to put some Jesus sense into local kids.

“Star here put on an extra-shaggy coat this winter — I knew [the winter] would be wet,” Jackson said about using horses for Bible lessons. “[Star] is a lesson for the kids that God takes care of the horses and us.”

Bandera is definitely in the Bible Belt.

Outside the daily goings-on, the town hosts themed events several times each month. This weekend was the Spring Fling and the Texas Open Chuck Wagon Races, but the spring showers flooded pastures and washed away campsites. The races and Twin Elm Guest Ranch Rodeo are rescheduled for May 7 to 9.

Chuck wagon races are a familiar sport in the Midwest and nearly famous in Arkansas, where the sport originated. Twin Elm Guest Ranch hosted the first Texas Open in 2003 but stopped with Cap’n Kury’s absence. Now, he’s determined to bring the races back.

“[Chuck wagon races] just belong here in Texas, especially in the cowboy capital of the world,” Cap’n Kury said. “When I came back, everyone was asking, ‘Hey, how ‘bout those chuck wagon races?’”

Teams from as far as Montana with names like “Shut up, Stupid” from Stewart, Okla., have signed up for the re-established Texas Open.

The sport is nicknamed the “cowboy NASCAR.” Wagons race around a barrel in an open pasture, and an outrider must mount the horse from the ground just as the wagon takes off. Whoever’s rider crosses the finish line first, closely followed by the wagon, wins.

“It’s an excuse for horse people to get together with other horse people,” Cap’n Kury said. “We just want to play cowboy!”