Open Road

City Texan, Meet Country Texan

When the urge to play cowboy strikes, it’s time to visit the Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen March 30, 2015 Published in the April 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

I never much liked camp. As fond as I was of swimming and horseback riding, those pleasures were no match for the horror of latrines, particularly latrines full of daddy longlegs. And so, when it occurred to me—while rummaging through the board games in the activities room at the Mayan Dude Ranch—that I was back at camp again, my heart should have sunk. There, all around me, were the unmistakable signs of campdom: horses, cabins, the packed daily schedule, furniture made from thick slabs of solid pine as if designed to cause bruised knees. But my heart didn’t sink, and here’s the reason: camp is way better as an adult. The itinerary is optional, and, more importantly, there’s a saloon.

When I told my grandmother that my boyfriend and I were spending the weekend at a dude ranch in Bandera, in the heart of the Hill Country, she told me that she and her friends had been to a dude ranch in Bandera too, after graduating from high school in the late ’40s. She couldn’t remember the name, but it’s entirely possible that it was the Mayan, where we found ourselves this spring. Built in 1931, the ranch has been operated by the Hunt family since 1953—prominently displayed in the main lodge is a family tree whose branches include most of the ranch hands and other employees on the property.

At Mayan, mornings start at 7:15. The (optional) wake-up call is delivered in person to each of the two-dozen or so cabins, along with coffee and juice. Despite the much-needed caffeine, at 8:30 we were still rushing to the corral, where the hayride and horses depart for a breakfast served outside in a clearing on the edge of the property. Cowboys are apparently sticklers for punctuality, and we arrived to a ghost town. Armed with a map, we set out to find them on foot. As we turned from the wooded trail into a clearing still shrouded in morning fog, we stumbled on dozens of grazing deer. For a moment we were caught together in the stillness, but before I could raise my camera, they had already begun to scatter towards the safety of the trees. This, I thought. This is why I’m here.

The animals—wild and not-so-wild—were my favorite thing about the weekend. Deer, in particular, aren’t hard to find. Every hike through the rocky trails—every trip outside my cabin, it seemed—meant catching a glimpse of them. I know that the locals consider them nuisances, but I’ve spent too much time in the city not to feel a sense of wonder when such a big animal crosses my path.

A feathered friend outside the lodge

Image: Sarah Rufca

The Mayan is also home to a small flock of peafowl, including a trio of rather showy males. By the end of my first day, I’d also met a comically enormous longhorn named Vegas, one of a pair that came by for an afternoon photo-op. Soon after, a characteristic honk near my cabin led me to an unmarked enclosure containing a quartet of docile and affectionate donkeys and three small goats, two of which were standing on a small table, each playfully trying to knock the other off. The donkeys had been found on the property not too long ago, according to the ranch hand who was feeding them. Abandoned and malnourished, they slowly learned to trust their new caretakers, and now they nuzzle visitors like housecats.

Of course, the horses are why most people come to the Mayan. For my first trail ride, I saddled up on a filly named Angel, who had a deep reddish-chestnut mane that my colorist really needs to be made aware of. Ryan, the Chris Pratt look-alike in charge of the ride, lined up the riders before heading out on the trail, explaining that “some of these horses are best friends and some of them can’t stand each other.”

Lined up for the trail ride

Image: Sarah Rufca

Ooh, I thought. Horse drama. It turns out I am all about equine gossip, in my opinion the best evidence yet of horses’ innate intelligence. My boyfriend, a puckish social media firebrand, was matched with Harley, the troublemaking steed of the group. Harley is known for his proclivity for biting the other animals’ haunches, causing plenty of side-eye from the beasts unlucky enough to be stuck in front of him. According to Ryan, the horse directly in front of me was one of the sweetest of the bunch, but also a new kid on the block, and therefore constantly being picked on by the others, one of whom appeared to purposely stop and take a dump right in her face. Angel, a bit of a diva, always insisted on being at the back of the pack, preferring to amble slightly off the beaten path at her own pace. We were a good fit.

Once on the trail, we threaded through hills, passing cacti and other western vegetation, although a lot of the green had been reduced to sticks and brambles on every branch below shoulder height, a consequence of seven years of drought. The topography was still pretty—nothing compares to vistas of rolling hills—but the kind of pretty that requires a forgiving eye.

For those who are not into horseback riding, the schedule still holds plenty of opportunities to enjoy the rustic environs. In addition to an inviting pool, there are real, honest-to-goodness dinosaur tracks on one of the dirt roads—discovered by National Geographic, according to one employee—and another area where kids and archeology buffs can dig for arrowheads. We skipped the roping demonstration but joined in the sharpshooting competition just steps away from the lodge. The challenge: hit a coffee can from a dozen paces with a BB gun. Although my shooting experience thus far had been limited to Nintendo’s Duck Hunt, each of the three times I fired, the pellet hit the can with a satisfying clang. This qualified me for the finals—same goal, but set slightly further back—with the same results. Look out, Annie Oakley! With six straight shots on target, I became the Mayan Ranch sharpshooting champion for the day, and I have the T-shirt to prove it.

The Mayan Ranch lodge, established 1931

Image: Sarah Rufca

For my grandmother, the highlight of the dude ranch trip was a formal dance held on the final night, but with a broken arm, she says she couldn’t do much dancing. Perhaps bad luck runs in the family: on my final day at the ranch, I twisted my knee getting off a horse—nothing serious, just a bruise that meant walking gingerly for a couple days. Fittingly, the injury happened just hours before a Mayan staffer led the guests in a serious line-dance lesson. Having already proved that Texan superiority at firearms was innate, I was determined to do the same for line-dancing. Despite my best efforts, however, there was just no way to do the electric slide on a bum knee.

Dinner, on the other hand, was a welcome diversion. On Sunday night, the small-ish group of guests was treated to almost comically large steaks served alongside baked potatoes and a satisfying shrimp-and-avocado salad, a meal capped off with apple cobbler and vanilla ice cream. The steak was a high point, but all the meals were serviceable, designed to appeal to a crowd. There was Mexican night, with enchiladas, tamales, and build-your-own fajitas and tacos. Lunch one day was a rough approximation of Thanksgiving, which felt fitting given the scene—multiple families gathering together. The best eats at Mayan were found at the cowboy breakfast, once we finally made it, that is. It was a hefty spread: scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, grits, and, of course, beans—you can't call it a cowboy breakfast without them. The only thing more apropos was the ranch hand with a guitar doing his best Woody Guthrie as we chowed down.

Back in my stone-walled cabin, simple as it was, flat-screen TVs, a window A/C unit, and hot water made it hard to pretend that a weekend at the dude ranch was just like roughing it on the range. As an urban Texan, I was tempted to roll my eyes at the horseshoes and red bandana patterns integrated into the decor, maybe because its deliberate rustic charm directly challenges the layers of denial that Texans like me live with, weakly insisting that our modern, cosmopolitan state isn’t really like that. If the goal was to feel like a cowboy in the Old West, I’ll admit, I fell short. Instead, I feel part of a newer yet equally authentic tradition: that of the generations of Texans who come here to relax, escape, and play cowboy, if only for a little while.

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