Two gals corralled in cowboy city: Ingrid Abramovitch and Lucinda Choden went to Bandera, Texas, and learnt to line-dance, lasso, and take their Scotch with Sprite

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The Independent Travel
IT WAS jam-session night at Arkey Blue's Silver Dollar, one of the last true honky-tonks in Texas, and the place was filled with smoke and wranglers in tight blue jeans. Doc, whose business card named him as Frank Nuanes and advertised 'electronic detection of lost valuables', held court for us: two women on a Thelma and Louise type road trip.

'There was a nurse from Houston came out here all by herself and showed up at Arkey's. I introduced her to a wrangler and she said - there was a full moon that night - 'I've never ridden a horse in the moonlight.' My friend said, 'I have a horse.' So she looked at me, and I said, 'He's a good man.' '

Doc poured Scotch from a silver flask into his plastic glass and topped it with Sprite.

'I got a postcard from her about a month later, and it said, 'Doc: if anyone had told me that I'd ever find myself riding bareback, buck naked, in the moonlight, with a buck-naked cowboy, I never would have believed it.' '

In Bandera, a dusty town in central Texas that proclaims itself the Cowboy Capital of the World, romance always seems to be in the air. If the story of the Houston nurse is apocryphal, it is nevertheless not hard to believe that more than one female has wandered into the Silver Dollar alone, and left on the arm of Mr Right; or at least, as Garth Brooks would say, Mr Right Now.

Bandera, a hill-country outpost 80km north-west of San Antonio, is known for dude ranches and for having produced a disproportionate number of championship cowboys for a town of 877 people. The main street looks little different from the way it did when Bandera was a centre for Texas Ranger patrols in the last century. It has wooden store fronts, a saddle repairer, and a forge where they still hammer horseshoes.

For history fans there are plenty of sights. The 1881 jail, where prisoners' initials are scratched into the stone walls, now houses water management offices. The First National Bank, where three bandits once tried to blow up the safe with nitroglycerine, is Harvey's Old Bank Steak House. (The salad bar is in the vault.)

St Stanislaus Catholic Church was established in 1876 by Polish colonists. Bandera county courthouse is a Texas historic landmark. And the Frontier Times Museum exhibits everything from Russian sleigh bells to Old West artefacts.

That was what we were told, anyway. We were corralled by Doc five minutes after we set foot in Bandera and spent much of the rest of our visit happily drinking Shiner Bock beer in the subterranean, sawdust-strewn environs of the Silver Dollar.

Not that Arkey Blue's joint is without its own individual historic charm. Singer-songwriter Arkey came to Bandera 26 years ago and bought the Silver Dollar, one of the oldest continuously running honky-tonks in Texas. Since then he has made it into a mini- shrine to Country music, decorating the place with a Dolly Parton pinball machine, a life-size cardboard cut-out of Elvis, and a poster for Hank Williams's last concert.

Arkey, best known for the song 'Daddy's Sick Again', which was prominently featured in the background music of the horror movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre, performs at the Silver Dollar every Saturday night, and Country music luminaries such as 'Willie' (Nelson) and 'Hank Jr' (Williams) have paid visits. Arkey has documentary evidence: photos of a wild boar hunt with Hank Williams Jr in 1982.

Thursday night is jamming night, and on this particular Thursday the impromptu trio of Robert Argo, Hoot Gibson (no relation to the actor) and Scott Gibson (no relation to Hoot) had showed up.

They made attempts at Hank Williams standards such as 'Hey Good Lookin' ' and 'Your Cheating Heart' and also performed heartfelt versions of such recent classics as 'I Like My Women A Little On The Trashy Side' ('Hey, you're talkin' about my mother,' Doc interjected from his ringside seat).

The renditions were in the spirit, if not the tuning, of the originals. And the musicians had their own following: 'I love Hoot until the day I die' (sic) was scrawled on the towel dispenser in the Ladies.

Hoot, a Robert Redford lookalike, shrugged it off. 'Aw, someone told me that,' he said modestly. Then he leant forward to flash a smile: 'Now, I want to dance with both of you when we take a break.'

Some of the revellers two-stepped enthusiastically to Scott's Spanish-language version of the Sixties Country & Western hit 'Cotton Fields', whirling past the antlers and velvet paintings on the walls. Others gathered at the bar, where some wranglers were giving their boots a break and their tongues a workout. A few drifted outside to take part in the rest of Bandera's Thursday nightlife.

Among such activities were line-dancing lessons and a live band at a dance hall called the Cabaret. There, hill-country natives generously offered to share their 'setups' - you bring the liquor, the bar sells you the mixer and ice. Meanwhile, outside the forge, another jamming session threatened to break out.

After a hard night of line-dancing and Texas tales, we retired to the Lightning Ranch in nearby Pipe Creek. There, the staff cowboys showed off their lassoing and coaxed us into joining them on a trail ride. Next morning we set off on horseback.

What we were wearing, we are not saying.


Getting there: The nearest airport to Bandera is San Antonio. There are no direct flights from the UK, but Bon Voyage (0703 330332) has a fare of pounds 309 (plus pounds 21 in US taxes) on American Airlines from Gatwick via Dallas.

Nearby attractions: San Antonio contains the state shrine of Texas, the Alamo, where Davy Crockett and co died trying to repel the Mexican army in 1836. You can also see the Mexican version of rodeo, charreadas, and visit the city's Institute of Texan Cultures.

Further information: A comprehensive guide to all the state parks of Texas can be obtained from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 4200 Smith School Road, Austin, Texas 78744 (0101 512 389 4800). For more details on Bandera, contact the Bandera Visitors Bureau, Box 171, Bandera, Texas 78003 (0101 210 796 3045).

(Photographs omitted)