TRAVEL Cowboy Training Camp

The horses queued up out of habit; it was obvious they knew which of their brethren they didn’t wish to be near. Once the wrangler at the head of the trail urged his steed to begin, our line snaked its way lazily through the brushy, rough Hill Country terrain in the morning’s first light.

Our group was populated mostly by a visiting party of Germans eager to spend a little time doing the cowboy thing so they could go home and tell their friends about their Wild West vacation. While our mounts were sturdy and dependable- there wasn’t the slightest chance one would break free and go racing over the countryside-the German riders still giggled loudly with uneasy anticipation.

After nearly an hour’s rhythmic trek in the saddle, our trail ended at a campfire clearing beneath a thick canopy of ancient oaks. The hungry trail-riders wasted no time attacking a hearty breakfast prepared by ranch wranglers, while a weather-beaten cowboy with gold dental work spelling T-E-X-A-S picked out a few tunes on his old guitar, warbling all the while.

The scene was a routine morning at the Mayan Dude Ranch, one of six guest ranches less than an hour’s drive northwest of San Antonio in the tiny town of Bandera. Small (pop. 1.250) but boastful. Bandera claims to be the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” True or not, it’s the place where city boys and girls thrill to the jingle of spurs, wear their saddle sores like badges and go home knowing the Achy Breaky.

The ranches cling to the banks of the serene Medina River and are shaded by scattered stands of cypress, elm and oak on rugged, rolling hills. Here people survive without TVs or phones; life in this part of the state seems to stand still, or at least proceed at its own pace, much like the horses at the Mayan.

The notion of saddling up and riding into the sunset is what attracts most people to dude ranches. Even greenhorns. But insurance restrictions prohibit guests from being too daring in the saddle. The docile equine at most ranches are used to organized trail rides and would rather starve than break into a gallop.

The Mayan is my personal favorite of all the Bandera ranches-it’s also one of the busiest, with an average of 100-130 guests any day of the week.

The Hicks gang, the large family who has owned the operation for four decades, spends a lot of time making sure no one will be bored. Days begin with cowboy breakfasts out on the trail and usually continue in the saddle or, not surprisingly, in the Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Those of us interested in a little solitude were urged to go traipsing in the woodsy hillsides. My post-lunch meditations here were among the most relaxing moments I’ve experienced; on my next visit I’m determined to finish the cowboy poetry I started, While I was there it seemed like an appropriate creative exercise.

Nights are never dull at the Mayan. After you spend your day acting like a real cowboy, you can end it with a few more civilized activities. On Sunday nights there’s an old-fashioned ice cream social, which actually is a big party with cocktails and barbecue and live Country and Western music, On another evening there’s a pretty nifty ghost-town trip with a steak fry and Western dance lessons.

Dudes come to the Mayan from all over the country, sleeping in rock cottages or lodge rooms. Business is good: Thanksgiving weekend was already booked by early summer and next summer is filling up.

Nearby, Dixie Dude Ranch is an 800-acre spread offering horseback trail riding along with bonfires and hayrides. Celebrating its 55th anniversary this year, Dixie has expanded its downhome hospitality to include entertainment by local crooner Dusty Britches, as well as snake-handling, trick-roping demonstrations and dance lessons.

Sometime during their stay. Dixie guests usually make their way to town on Tuesday and Saturday nights for the rodeo, where they can see famous cowboys like Larry Mahan peform. Bandera seems to be the place a lot of aging cowboys come to retire.

The Twin Elm Guest Ranch and the Silver Spur are two other area guest ranches that offer a loose schedule of horseback riding, evening hayrides, campfire suppers, volleyball and hiking. The Flying L Guest Ranch and the LH7 Ranch Resort cater to the crowd that wants golf, tennis, horseshoes and fishing.

Dudes who want to kick up their heels at night make a beeline for one of the state’s more colorful honky-tonks. Arky Blue’s Silver Dollar Bar. a Bandera legend, has a well-worn dance floor and a fireplace that’s served as backdrop for more than a few weddings.

Daytime wanderings take ranch guests to Bandera’s Frontier Times Museum, an enormous, funky collection of relics and antiques best suited to fans of eclectic tastes. Ancient Chinese temple bells are found amid buggy whips. Judge Roy Bean saloon bottles, a shrunken human head from South America and posters from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Back at the ranch, wranglers saddle up for an evening ride. Hill Country sunsets are a special interlude in any form, but seen from atop a strolling steed, they’re mental snapshots that last a lifetime.

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