The rope slowly loops through the air then drops to the dirt, drawing a puff of dust. “Getting closer,” says JC, as I pull the lasso back towards me. Ever since I was a little girl living on a farm in Queensland I’ve wanted to be a cowgirl, but today I’m not showing much flair for the basics. Manoeuvring the stiff rope back into a huge loop, I think again about JC’s advice: pretend you’re wiping sweat from your brow with the back of your hand, then push it out in an arc, palm on the vertical. Slowly, I give it a spin and, after three slow loops, release. Miraculously the lariat sails through the air and drops on to one long horn about three metres away. I pull it tight and cheer. Well, it’s better than getting it over no horns at all.
Of course, the horns aren’t attached to a bull but a bale of hay in the Cow Camp arena, part of Fort Worth’s Stockyards district. Back in the late 1800s and into the 1900s this was one of the busiest and richest livestock markets in the world, but with changes to the industry it went into decline. Thankfully, a historical society was formed to ensure the heritage of the area was maintained. Part of that is The Herd, a small family of Texas longhorn steers who are driven along the streets twice a day, from paddock to the camp, much as they would have been when this was the last stop for supplies for cowboys bringing cattle along the Chisholm trail. JC is one of the seven drovers who looks after them.
Today, the steers are watching patiently as I come to grips with not only throwing the lasso but also some of the other traditions of the cattle drive: cracking a whip, saddling a stead, branding a cow (again, not a real one) and telling a campfire tale. There’s also a school group marvelling at the cows, horses and the men and women who work with them – even in Texas, it seems, city kids aren’t sure where a steak comes from.
Until quite recently, Fort Worth wasn’t really on Australian travellers’ radars but with direct flights now offered to Dallas Fort Worth airport it offers a great diversion for a couple of days while you get over your jetlag. Divided into three distinct areas – the Stockyards, the Culture District with a number of outstanding galleries and museums, and a busy, contemporary Downtown – the city offers a bit of everything.
The Stockyards, where I’ve based myself, is centred on two streets lined with historic buildings, saloons, restaurants and shops. At ML Leddy’s I try on about 15 pairs of boots before I realise I’m never going to get a pair that offers both fit and the perfect look, so Joe offers to measure me for a handmade pair. “When will you be back in town,” he asks. “About 16 days,” I tell him. He laughs: “What about next year?” It takes about 12 months for the craftsmen at Leddy’s to create each pair of boots, such is the work involved and the number they make.
Even with a pair of boots, part two of my adventure is about to begin: a ride along the Trinity River Trail with Stockyards Stables. I’m handed the reins of a cute chestnut who is soon strutting along the gravel path. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and, when it comes time to turn around, I can see one of the bridges crossing the river close to the Downtown region. What I explore during my hour on horseback is just a fraction of the Trinity River Trail system that stretches for nearly 80 kilometres. It’s incredibly popular with bike riders, who can pedal right across Fort Worth. There’s even a bike-share program with 300 cycles parked across 30 different stations if the urge takes you.
Wandering around the town later, I watch as the herd passes through on their way to pasture, see tourists pay five bucks to have their photos taken on the back of a huge bull, and marvel at a statue of Bill Pickett who invented bulldogging, a seemingly insane method of catching and throwing a steer after leaping on it from the back of a horse. Pickett’s ancestry was African-American, European-American and Cherokee. For someone who grew up watching John Wayne Westerns, it’s a revelation to discover being a cowboy in the true Wild West wasn’t the sole preserve of white men.
When the sun goes down in Fort Worth, the cowboys come out to play. Each Friday and Saturday night, the huge indoor Cowtown Coliseum plays host to a rodeo. The crowd cheers as a rider manages to stay aboard a writhing, leaping bull for a full eight seconds. Split second decisions are made during tie-down roping. Even the kids get in on the action during a break, chasing a sheep around the ring during the mutton scramble.
Afterwards, I stroll over to Billy Bob’s Texas. The plan was to get here the night I arrived, but my flight got in late and I missed the Thursday line dancing class. I’m dragging my feet, a little disappointed that I’d not got the chance to heel-and-toe, but my mood soon changes dramatically. Nothing can prepare you for Billy Bob’s, the world’s largest honky tonk, with its 20 bars, pool tables, massive band room and places to eat. I can’t get in to watch the live bull-riding (yes, inside, in a nightclub) so instead check out the Wall of Fame with its handprints from musical legends including George Thorogood, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, and watch as a heaving dance floor Texas two-steps to the house band. Then I cram myself into the band room where 2,000 braying fans sing along to The Band Perry, a group of siblings from Tennessee playing crossover country rock. Even if you’re no country music fan, it’d hard not to become caught up in the atmosphere.
The next morning my ears are still ringing, but there’s one thing left to do. My performance at Cow Camp means I’ll never make a real cowgirl, but I’m still fascinated by the lifestyle. The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, located in the Culture District, celebrates the women who shaped the West – and still do. From early ranchers to rodeo queens who battled both the land and prejudice, the stories of these women are inspiring. So much so that I vow to fly back to pick up those boots from Leddy’s and christen them Fort Worth style.