- Plenty of genuine cowboy experiences are available to travelers
- Bandera, Texas, is the self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World
- Repairing trucks is part of today's cowboy experience
- Real cattle drives are part of the deal at Wyoming's Doublerafter Cattle Drives
To many, the spur-booted buckaroo in the ten-gallon hat may represent a time gone by. But the American cowboy is still alive and well -- and it's not too late to join his (or her) rangeland ranks.
Across the West -- and even in New England -- real ranches, rodeos and cattle drives aren't just preserving the frontier spirit, they're actively practicing it.
Many are open to the adventuresome traveler.
Ranches, cattle drives, bull riding -- the life of the late-1800s Western superhero is available to all travelers (with good health insurance).
Cowboy Level: Urban
The self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World is stocked with guest ranches and real ranches, welcoming dudes (according to Merriam-Webster, "a city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range") as well as legitimate ranch hands.
It's practically impossible to pass through town without seeing a rodeo. Horses tied to hitching posts aren't uncommon.
There are more than a dozen guest ranches to choose from, but among the most historic is Dixie Dude Ranch, which has lured wannabe wranglers since 1937. An overnight trail ride includes chuck wagon meals and storytelling by the campfire.
The cowboy authenticity ends where the massage therapy and pool begin.
Possibly the best experience in Bandera is at Arkey Blue's Silver Dollar Saloon -- one of Texas' greatest dance halls. There are always a few cowboys drinking Pearl beer and listening to live music, often played by Arkey himself.
Hit town for the National Day of the Cowboy on July 27 and you'll be in for a treat. As you might expect, the town puts on a hell of a hootenanny.
833 Dixie Dude Ranch Road, Bandera, Texas; 830-796-7771; www.dixieduderanch.com; www.banderacowboycapital.com
Cowboy Level: Hired Hand
Chico Basin Ranch (Colorado)
If you want to be less of a dude and more of a dust-kicking cowpoke, consider the 87,000-acre Chico Basin Ranch.
Located 35 miles outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado, Chico Basin is a true working ranch where guests perform every task that experienced cowboys must do in order to keep the ranch functioning. That includes repairing trucks, equipment and fences; constructing gear in the leather shop; and branding and moving cattle.
Most of the work is done on horseback.
Chico doesn't offer many comforts, so guests get the true working cowboy experience.
But if visitors need a relaxing activity after a hard day's work, they're welcome to go fishing on one of the ranch's five lakes.
22500 Peyton Highway S., Colorado Springs, Colorado; 719-683-7960; www.chicobasinranch.com
Zapata Ranch (Colorado)
Like Chico Basin, Zapata Ranch in Mosca, Colorado, is owned by The Nature Conservancy, but it's run by the state ranch management company Ranchlands, so there's a strong emphasis on sustaining one of the most ecologically diverse regions in America.
The ranch itself stretches through forests, wetlands, sand dunes and verdant pastures.
All visitors get a hands-on cowboy experience, not only moving cows, but also herding about 2,000 buffalo from pasture to pasture to help sustain the land.
Guests also fix barbed wire fencing, tend to giant center-pivot irrigation sprinklers, and learn how modern practices are being fused with classic cowboy traditions to help preserve one of America's greatest assets.
5305 State Highway 150, Mosca, Colorado; open March-October; 719-378-2356; www.zranch.org
McGinnis Meadows Cattle & Guest Ranch (Montana)
Since the 1980s, more and more cowboys have been adopting Natural Horsemanship practices, made famous by the film "The Horse Whisperer."
At McGinnis Meadows in Libby, Montana, horse lovers learn the practices championed by Buck Brannaman. The method works with the natural instincts of the animal, building trust and mutual respect.
After learning how to "whisper," you and your horse will track, pen and drive cattle.
6220 McGinnis Meadows Road, Libby, Montana; 406-293-5000; www.mmgranch.net
Cowboy Level: True Grit
Doublerafter Cattle Drives (Wyoming)
Legit nomads can ditch the working ranch routine for a real deal cattle drive.
For six days, you can ride through the mountainous rangeland of Wyoming, moving cattle to greener pastures through terrain too rough and restrictive for anything with wheels.
Each night you'll set up 1800s-style canvas wall tents, eat grub cooked in a Dutch oven and entertain each other by the campfire.
The professionals warn guests to expect the unexpected -- from brush fires to stampedes to impromptu rodeos.
After nearly a week in the saddle you'll be ready for a steady seat. And you can enjoy one at the famous cowboy saloon, The Mint Bar, in Sheridan, Wyoming, where most groups spend their last night.
P.O. Box 490, Ranchester, Wyoming 82839; open June-September; 307-655-9539; www.doublerafter.com
Let R Buck (Connecticut)
Working the rangeland can be as gratifying as it is grueling, but for some bronc busters, nothing compares to the adrenaline rush of riding a 2,000-pound beast for eight never-ending seconds of glory.
At Let R Buck bull riding school in North Canaan, Connecticut, you can learn about the mighty bull, its body language and how to stay on it for about the same amount of time it takes to read this sentence.
After six days of classes, you're ready to ride at a professional rodeo.
210 S. Canaan Road, North Canaan, Connecticut; 860-824-7700; www.cnobull2tuff.com