In Travel

Lassoin’ & Longhorn Feeding: Life On An Authentic Texas Ranch Resort

No more than a banjo lick after moseying into the stately western-style lobby at Wildcatter Ranch – the rural Texas resort ranch 90 minutes drive from Dallas-Fort Worth – it becomes apparent that I’ve schlepped halfway across the world to the middle of Texas only to receive an authentic ranching lesson from an Englishman.

“I feel like I was born in the wrong place,” says our guide Mike in thick Liverpudlian, as we follow him on horseback on a trail under a bold Texas sun.

Over ancient Comanche land, through brambles, cacti, mesquite and juniper, Mike and his horse Stinger lead us over fresh hog and coyote tracks to the cliff of the shimmering Brazos River. It’s a scene right out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.

And while Mike might sound more John Lennon than John Wayne – shifting here from the UK seven years ago for the of love a woman and the love of the range – his beard, hat, boots and knack for authentic local custom quickly convinces us he’s the real wranglin’ deal – not unlike this amazing ranch itself.

As Mike and more or less everyone ’round these parts will tell you, Wildcatter Ranch is a rare and epic experience. Located a few clicks from the city of Graham in North Texas Hill Country, the ranch occupies a sprawling 1500 acres, home to 16 cabin suites, a 16-room hotel, a sizeable main house, a 25,000-square-foot restaurant, pool, Jacuzzi, therapeutic spa, and miles of trails like the one we’re hoofing on.

“Back in the day, if you were an oil man ’round here that was a bit of a gambler, or a risky old dude, they’d call you a ‘wildcatter’,” Mike tells us, revealing the spirit of risk and adventure in which the ranch derives its identity.

The big seller about this place is that, unlike other ‘dude’ ranches nearby, this one’s an actual, working ranch, offering city slickers like us a real authentic Texan experience. Folks who are drawn to the ardour of the Old West, its visions of frontier sunsets and cowboy cattle drives, can uncover the real thing out here: home-on-the-range Texas action, without sacrificing any of the comfort.

Naturally, the activities are a big part of the lure. Post horse-ride, Mike runs us through the ins and outs of how to rope a metal bull and hurl a tomahawk. We’re palmed off to Walt afterward, a retired 40-year career sniper and former SWAT team leader, who words us up on how to load and fire a .22 rifle and annihilate a clay pigeon or two.

“That smell,” says Walt, of the gunpowder blowback. “That’s the smell of victory.”

Post-activities, we check into our cosy suites in the main house, deftly appointed in a modern meets frontier aesthetic. Tristan Boler Hampton, Wildcatter’s Group Sales and Marketing Manager, hosts us for dinner afterward at the WR Steakhouse: good southern hospitality with rounds of crisp Texas beer and a chef’s selection of local specialties, including chicken fried steak, succulent pork ribs, fried skewered okra, and bacon-wrapped cream cheese jalapenos.

“We attract a lot of groups, a lot of functions and various events,” says Tristan of the ranch’s appeal – “a lot of folks are also attracted to the property for its history, and its role in film and TV.”

Based on the Larry McMurtry novel, the popular TV mini-series Lonesome Dove was filmed ’round these parts; so too, Hollywood’s 1965 The Sons of Katie Elder, featuring Dean Martin and John Wayne, ambling and fisticuffin’ on the same turf.

Wildcatter Ranch

After a few whiskeys in the Steakhouse bar, we retire for nightcaps by the lobby fireplace, where it becomes imperative that we conduct group poses on the showpiece stairs in unabashed ‘Dynasty meets Downton Abbey’ style. I admire the lobby’s generous mezzanine banisters from this vantage, which my outlaw imagination ponders leaping from in order to swing on the central chandelier as I break out into song. But then, this ain’t that kinda place.

Dappled light coats the mesquite at sunrise the next morning. Freezing out, I muster the gall for a dip in the crisp waters of the ranch’s pool, cured very shortly after with steamy respite in the rock-stacked Jacuzzi.

Buffet breakfast at the Steakhouse proves an ample reward: biscuits and gravy, fresh eggs and bacon, and requisite slatherings of ranch sauce.

Wildcatter Ranch

Our final activity for the trip is a feisty one: feeding sticks of breakfast meal to a cabal of local longhorns, the unique breed of cattle whose elongated barbs remain one of the state’s most enduring emblems. A wooden slat fence is all that separates us from the hungry beasts (and, for a couple of us game to follow our spur-booted guides in giving them ‘the longhorn kiss’, little more than a wet lip and a few centimetres of stick-shaped feed).

We could have spent another week here, settling into ranch pace under starry Texan skies, rocking on recliners by the porch overlooking endless valley sunsets. But past the ranch’s STOP sign, etched instead with the idiosyncratic Texan ‘WHOA’, we brush up on our “y’alls” and holler and hoot all the way back to the big smoke: nourished, relaxed, every bit tougher for the experience.

My inner frontiersmen, well and truly satiated – if not a little pampered too.

(All images: Wildcatter Ranch / supplied)

Published 13 December, 2019