SOMETHING’S up. “Whoa back there,” hollers Byron, our guide, waving an arm in warning. “We got us a rattler. Throw me dat ‘der pistol won’t ya, Taylor.”
We draw to a halt. Taylor pulls out a Colt .22. “Where’s he gone . . . ‘der he is!” A dulled firecracker sound plays out across the plains — followed by another.
Byron holds up the dead snake, and hands me the rattle pod pulled from the tail. “Here’s a souvenir from the real Texas, buddy!” There are plenty of places in the States to experience “Frontiersville” USA. Former car park attendants at Florida theme parks dress up in chaps to deliver the Wild West, tourist-style — no cow dung thrown in.
Towns across California play up the lawless Gold Rush days — clapboard houses reconstructed and aged for authenticity. “Dude ranches” throughout the Midwest offer a processed taste of cattle life.
Having visited the States many times before, I wanted to get away from all that: to experience old-style ranch America that’s not-for-the-tourists-at-all. But how? The Pulitzer prize-winning author Annie Proulx provided the inspiration.
Her novel That Old Ace in the Hole decribes life in the Texas Panhandle, part of the far north of the state shaped as though you could grab hold of it. Its theme is how modern ways of living are beginning to threaten ranchers’ existence. Despite this, she makes clear, the region remains at the heart of true cowboy-land, almost forgotten by the rest of microwave-meal USA.
And it’s full of characters, as Proulx, who spent months researching the book, finds. “This was the original cowboy country and it still is the most cow of anywhere,” says one, early in the novel. “So people here are pretty rugged. This country was made for cows, once they got rid ‘a the buffaloes. To live here it sure helps if you are half-cow and half- mesquite and all crazy.”
I soon found them too, although a holiday in the Panhandle is by no means a traditional package trip. Tourists can be as much of a novelty to locals as locals are to tourists — which gets people talking.
We’re on Mill Iron Ranch, 30,000 acres near Wellington. It’s run by Don Allred, a man who wears a Stetson to keep the sun off his face and spurs to speed up his “hoss”, not to look the part for visitors. He has begun taking horseback tours as a way of “maybe makin’ a few bucks”.
He tells me about ranch life: “I’m big on tradition. We rope ‘n’ drag instead a runnin’ cattle through chutes. I wanna pass the old ways on to my children, ‘ya see.”
After the ride, we stop at the Wellington livestock auction. A semi-circle of stands overlooks a pit surrounded by a metal fence on which guys rest their boots, watching animals being herded in.
A sign says: “Not responsible for accidents, man or beast”. There are enough characters about to fill two or three Proulx chapters.
The auctioneer, wearing a baseball cap, a large polystyrene cup of coffee by his side, begins a sale. It’s almost incomprehensible and its tone sounds strangely (very strangely for these parts) like a mosque chant: “Dollar! Giggerdy, giggerdy, giggerdy, Jack 25! Jack 25! Give me higher. Giverme, giverme, giverme. Two times!” I stay at a succession of small towns, the accommodation set up by the Panhandle Tourism Marketing Council, which is keen to put people in touch with individual B&B owners (who treat you like long-lost friends).
After flying to Amarillo, in the southern tip of the Panhandle, Spearman (population 3,071) is my first stop, where the Bishop Cottage, a picturesque clapboard house surrounded by geraniums, is run by Gina Gillispie.
She shows me around town: it doesn’t take long, in her red pick-up. The tiny main street, low level red brick buildings with a mixture of 1920s and 1960s styles and an inviting artist-owned restaurant, looks untouched by modern America.
“It hasn’t been,” says Gina. “I’ve lived here 40 years and nothing has changed — not much, except some things ‘a shut down.”
As we drive by fantastically open landscape, she tells me about the “good ‘ole” days of oil and gas discovery in the 1960s and 1970s, peaking in the 1980s, followed by harder times. “A lotta ranchers went from makin’ $500,000 a year and driving a Rolls-Royce to makin’ $40,000 and driving a Chevy.”
Bumper stickers and church placards we pass bear witness to the region’s diehard conservatism: “Prayer is a hotline to Heaven”; “National gun week: let’s get loaded”; “Don’t mess with Texas”; “Exercise daily: walk with God”. This is Dubya Bush territory, for sure.
But there isn’t an aggressive, Deliverance-style Deep South attitude. “Folks” are friendly, no more so than in Lipscomb (pop: 38) where I stay a night in another clapboard house, with a tin bath and kerosene lamps — £25 a night and incredibly peaceful.
Proulx spent a lot of time in Lipscomb, which has an enormous courthouse, a saloon, a saddlemaker’s shop — and not a whole lot else.
Doug Ricketts, a local cabinet-maker, became friends with Proulx. “Let me tell you, she could observe more in one day than most folks could in a month,” he says. “She’s quite something.”
He takes me to the Donut Shop in Higgins, a couple of miles away, another Proulx haunt. It’s a ramshackle joint with a rusting tin ceiling, darkened side booths and jokey signs such as: “God tell Mamma: Real cowboys don’t take baths”.
Gene Purcell, who retired as a cowboy “years back”, serves up beef brisket, pea salad, beans and cabbage. “I’m a helluva good cook, ain’t I,” he says, as I tuck in.
Like almost all the people I meet in the Panhandle, Gene soon opens up about the rancher way of life. I ask if he’s ever had a British tourist before.
He laughs. “One guy, he came up off the I-40. He was from the North of England,” he says. “He ate two whole bowls ‘a beans. We’d never saw anyone do that before!” As Proulx points out, isolation means that stories last longer in the Panhandle — they are the much enjoyed local currency. For those who want to hear a few (because people will tell you them), to find out something about what remains of “Wild West USA” (without a Hollywood tint) and to revel in one of the least known, least populated and most beautiful landscapes in the States . . . it is, as snake-shooter Byron would say, a helluva good place to start.
Need to know
Getting there: Tom Chesshyre travelled with United Airlines (0845 8444777, www.unitedairlines.co.uk), which has flights to Amarillo from £415. Travelbag (0870 8901459, www.travelbag.co.uk) has flights to Amarillo from £328.
Getting around: Alamo (0870 5994000, www.alamo.co.uk) has a week’s fully inclusive car hire from about £175.
Where to stay: In Spearman, the Bishop Cottage is £50 a night; Charlie’s Place in Lipscomb is £25. Outside the town of Canadian, which has a good B&B choice, is the wonderfully isolated Arrington Ranch, with great rooms for £32. Call the Texas Prairie Rivers Association (001 806 323 5397, www.texasprairierivers.com). In Amarillo, the Ambassador (806 358 6161, www.ambassadoramarillo.com) has doubles from £50.
Ranch rides: Mill Iron Ranch (806 447 2727), rides £40pp for half a day.
Texas information: UK tourist office (020-7978 5233, www.TravelTex.com).
Reading: That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx (Fourth Estate, £6.99).