Ranching holidays: 'Saddle up, move on out'

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The Independent Travel

I knew I would regret it in the morning, but I just couldn't tear myself away. Here I was in a tiny restaurant in the middle of the American Midwest, getting drunker and drunker as I listened to the owner, a part native American Indian called Buck, recite the counties of Great Britain in alphabetical order. This party piece - apparently learned as part of Buck's recovery from alcoholism - was usually guaranteed to clear a room within seconds, so he was entranced to have a captive English audience for once, his delight ensuring that all my drinks were on the house. I should have left when I could, but the second string to Buck's bow was an inexhaustible supply of filthy limericks, to which I felt obliged to add a few of my own.

I knew I would regret it in the morning, but I just couldn't tear myself away. Here I was in a tiny restaurant in the middle of the American Midwest, getting drunker and drunker as I listened to the owner, a part native American Indian called Buck, recite the counties of Great Britain in alphabetical order. This party piece - apparently learned as part of Buck's recovery from alcoholism - was usually guaranteed to clear a room within seconds, so he was entranced to have a captive English audience for once, his delight ensuring that all my drinks were on the house. I should have left when I could, but the second string to Buck's bow was an inexhaustible supply of filthy limericks, to which I felt obliged to add a few of my own.

I was in the town of Eminence, Missouri, in the heart of the Ozarks, a vast wilderness of mountains, rivers and forests of spectacular beauty, and I was here to be a cowboy for a week. The drive from Kansas City had taken an age but was far from unenjoyable. The roads were a pleasure to drive on, being almost completely deserted and surrounded by bewitching scenery. Passing through towns earlier in the day, my journey had been enlivened by the sight of vast advertising hoardings extolling Him Up There: "Don't make me come down there. God" said one. "That 'Love thy neighbour bit', I meant it. God" said another, while my favourite asked, "Why do you call me Lord, and don't do what I say? God". This was the Bible belt and no mistake. Dusk was falling as I neared journey's end, and I found that I had to be alert to avoid the possums, armadillos, skunks and bobcats that sauntered casually on to the road.

Eminence is home to Jim Smith's Cross Country Trail Rides, known all over America as "the grand-pappy of all trail rides", a place of pilgrimage for thousands of horse lovers and wannabe cowboys. "Buck should be ashamed of hisself," muttered Wanda as she fixed my breakfast in the Old Blue House Bed and Breakfast the following morning, to which I could only nod agreement as I failed to do justice to an enormous plate of eggs, sausages and honey-cured bacon.

At the ranch, I found Jim Smith in the company of Doc Jones, the vet, preparing to castrate a wild mustang caught in the forest. Jim was every inch the cowboy, dressed in jeans, chaps, boots, spurs, leather waistcoat and stetson. He looked me up and down and exploded into laughter: "Hell, boy! I reckon that you just might have run into my brother-in-law last night, 'cos I recognise that you've got a Buck-sized hangover!" I grinned weakly, and declined his offer to assist him and Doc with the castration.

The idea behind the Cross Country Trail Rides is a simple one: anyone with a horse or two who wants to spend a week or more riding the 350 miles of trails that thread through the stunning Ozark forests can book into the 80-acre site for $180 (£128) per person per week. In return, you get a stall for your horses and a place to park your trailer, along with free electricity, showers and firewood. The fee also covers three meals a day, entertainment each evening and a weekly rodeo and country and western concert. As Jim Smith said: "All you need to make a cowboy happy is to feed him and entertain him." It is Jim's proud boast that riders from every state in the Union have visited the ranch, along with visitors from Canada, South America and Europe, and when the ranch is full it is home to almost 4,000 people and 10,000 horses and mules.

I had no horse of my own, so Jim called his chum Jim Devine to ask whether I could hire one from him for the week. "No, Jim," I heard him say, "I think that on this occasion a docile one would be more appropriate than a non-docile one." Thank God for that. In fact, Bobby turned out to be the most gentle of creatures, and I like to think that we hit it off.

Riding Western-style is completely different from the way that we ride in Europe; saddles are far larger and deeper than ours, and stirrup leathers are worn long, so that one's legs are almost straight, and the reins are held in one hand rather than two. It felt most odd to ride like this at first, but after I had walked Bobby round a bit and had discovered how comfortable the saddle was and how beautifully he responded to the slightest touch on the reins, my initial nerves subsided. I was conscious, though, that sitting so deep in the saddle would make jumping difficult. Jim just laughed when I mentioned this: "Hell, we don't need to jump nothing, 'cos in a country this big there ain't nothing that can't be rid around."

I joined about 40 others on one of the seven organised rides that leave the ranch each day under the supervision of a trail boss and his deputy. I felt like Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott as I was ordered to "saddle up and move on out". I was acutely aware, though, that my jodhpur boots and baseball cap would have to be replaced at the earliest opportunity by more authentic gear from the ranch's Western clothing store.

We forded Jack's Fork River before heading into the hills, raising a great dust cloud behind us as we climbed, the slowcoaches among us being hollered at by the deputy. It was just how it looks in the movies. Bert, the trail boss, said that nobody knew for sure how far the trails stretched, and as we paused for a "comfort stop" on the top of a hill, he told me that I could ride for as far as the eye could see and still not reach the end of the old logging roads that make up most of the trails.

Jennifer and Cindy, immaculate in denim jeans and tasselled leather waistcoats, had twigged from my accent that I might not be an American. "So where y'all from? The UK? Well, that's one helluva drive, ha, ha!" They had come together from Tucson, Arizona, with two horses each and this was their fifth year running on the trail. They giggled as they explained that although they rode most days at home, they came to the ranch to "get away from our husbands and kids, to laugh, ride, dance and drink beer". Ritchie, on the other hand, riding a doleful-looking mule, came because it was a world away from the multi-national business that he ran in Portland, Oregon.

Most people I spoke to rode a lot at home, but were prepared to drive extraordinary distances to join this celebration of cowboy life and to gossip and hang out with their like-minded fellows. Jim awards special belt buckles to those who return year after year, and these are displayed with great pride.

There was no obligation to join one of the organised rides, and once or twice I rode out on my own, or with Carl and Lisa, regular visitors from Kansas. In the evenings, I either ate in the enormous eating hall, stuffing my face with ribs and deep-fried chicken, or hung out with Gerry and his mates from Texas, drinking beer at their camp fire and making them double up with laughter at my accent. There was music and line dancing each night, but for me the highlight of the week was the rodeo, held in a vast arena at the ranch, where laconic, square-jawed Marlboro Man lookalikes lassoed runaway steers and raced chuck wagons before being hurled about by bucking broncos and fearsome-looking bulls. "I'd rather get my dick caught in a zipper," muttered Gerry, as yet another cowboy was thrown to the dust. "Bull-riding may cause injury, paralysis or death, even when using protective equipment," said the sticker on a pair of thigh pads. "The manufacturer assumes no liability," it added, genially.

I felt miserable saying goodbye at the week's end. I had been seduced by the beauty and stillness of the Ozarks, by the openness and friendliness of my fellow cowboys, and by the sweet nature of Bobby, my borrowed horse, and although I confirmed my complete inability to line dance - much to the hilarity of everyone - I found that I might, just might, be close to perfecting John Wayne's rolling, bow-legged gait, longed for since those far-off days in the Pony Club.

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