Texas City Guide/Wild West Ranch Stay
Head to Texas, try your hand living the Wild West ranch-stay dream, and you'll find a more tolerant, intriguing and romantic central America than you ever knew existed.
Murderous hate crime aside, Brokeback Mountain has a lot to answer for.
From jaw-droppingly beautiful, sweeping shots of America's Frontier landscape, to the tender ruggedness of a rural romance with a cowboy with arms the size of the Appalachians, it wasn't only Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger knockin' stetsons that aroused interest.
There was something undeniably alluring about the idea of living a life with nothing but your horse, spurs and stetson-tipping charm to guide you - it made audiences fall in love with the romanticism of the Wild West all over again.
Plus, you know, leather chaps are always a bonus.
I traveled deep into the heart of America to a Texan ranch stay, to discover that not only is the Wild West still alive and well, but that the Brokeback dream is achievable - and mercifully free of the bigotry or homophobic stigma you might expect.
Now, I'll admit that I have had prior experience riding horses. When I was 7-years-old, I used to love trotting around on a sturdy filly called Merry. That is, until he threw me head first into a wooden fence post.
So while I wasn't quite a neigh-sayer, I was very much a horse-riding newbie. After mounting the - I was assured - ironically named 'Rocket', we trotted off in a gentle horsey convey, out into the prairie and up into the rocky green mountains.
Buzzards flew overhead, butterflies fluttered past, and talk of rattlesnakes and mountain lions thankfully remained just that. With nary a cloud in the sky, and nothing but the gentle herding of nearby buffalo to disturb the peace, it was insta-relaxing bliss.
But it wasn't only the serenity of our natural surroundings that appealed. If clothes maketh the man, then our expedition leader was about as authentic a cowboy as they come. With stetson cocked, spurs saddled and checked, snugly fitting cowboy shirt, you genuinely felt like he could lead you over any part of the ranch's 1,500 acre North Texas Hill Country and you'd come back safe and sound.
If your Horse Whispering skills are up to scratch (and, from the sheer array of branches Rocket trotted my face into, I'm guessing mine aren't), then you've the option of heading out on trails cantering across the frontier, and trying your (I'd argue, suicidal) hand at horse shoe shining too.
For the equine-averse, there are still a number of ways to get your Yosemite Sam on - whether feeding the tank-sized, slobber-tastic Longhorn cattle, canoeing down still-water rivers, listening to local legends of the first pioneers by firelight, or just rocking back on forth on your very own porch-side rocking chair overlooking the frontier's rolling green hills, everything at the ranch is tailored to burn your modern, everyday life worries away - and replace them with something far more wild and wondrous.
LIVE THE SECOND AMENDMENT DREAM
Despite a life-long addiction to video games, and in particular ones that allow you to kick/decapitate/blow things up, I'm far from a gun advocate.
But in the spirit of travel journalism, and the necessity of immersing myself in true Texan culture, I ventured on down to the ranch's shooting range to try my hand at every American's favourite amendment.
After blasting almost every one of the clay pigeons out of the sky with a 12-gauge shotgun on my first attempt however, it turns out that not only am I dab hand with a firearm, but my chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse just took a severe upswing.
While cowboy culture and gunslinging goes hand in gun-cocked hand, it's fascinating to hear how intrinsic it is to many of the locals' lives today. While I had to scoop my jaw off the ground when our instructor told us that he was given his first gun at 9-years-old, the anecdote that his grandmother hunted and then single-handedly skinned and cooked a deer at the age of 83-year-old starts to grant things a little perspective.
In the fairness of seeing how the other half lived back in the pioneer days, I was then given the opportunity to give archery a quilled shot. Another valuable life lesson learned - should I ever find myself trapped in a Hunger Game, I'm fairly sure I could take Katniss down with my eyes closed.
GAY DALLAS (AND I'M NOT TALKING ABOUT THE TV SHOW)
Think of America's mid-west and you'd be forgiven for thinking of a right-wing, gun-waving, Brokeback Mountain DVD-burning, isolated Bible belt not entirely welcoming of the LGBT community.
And while Texas still undoubtedly has its problems (it's three times the size of the UK, after all), a trip to one of its biggest cities Dallas reveals a warmth and hospitality you probably never expected.
After hitting up the requisite tourist spots (Wild West shops, the JFK museum, visiting the actual place where he was assassinated), it's mandatory to explore the city's Oak Lawn district.
Affectionally known as the 'gaybourhood' by locals, it offers gay-friendly restaurants and cafes during the day, before exploding in technicolour vibrancy at night with bars and clubs tailoring to every taste.
And if you're looking for that truly unique cultural experience, you have to head to the remarkably friendly, welcoming The Round-Up Saloon - a gay cowboy bar replete with stetson-wearing, spurs-booted cowboys line and ballroom dancing their way around the dance floor.
Not only is it the closest thing you'll get to living the Brokeback dream, but it's an Oak Lawn institution, with countless legendary bar tales aplenty. Just recently, Lady Gaga popped up for a surprise performance to thank the crowd for their support in her AMD (Anno Meat Dress) days.
RIDE 'EM COWBOY
If you've ever been drunkenly stupid or soberly crazy enough to try a mechanical rodeo, then you'll appreciate the lunacy inherent in the rodeo.
The tradition is still alive and well in Texas, and a trip to Fort Worth (a mere 30 minute drive from Dallas) gives you as close to an authentic experience as you can get.
Back in the mid 19th century, Fort Worth became the centre of the region's numerous cattle drives, and later, the ranching industry. As such, it stands as a relatively crystallised ode to the days when men were men, straw was chewed, and cattle ruled the roads.
It also holds one of the oldest, still-running rodeos in the world. So after a mandatory day soaking up the cowboy vibe (i.e., buy a stetson, ride a mechanical bucking bronco, watch the daily cattle drive through the streets, and eat a chicken-friend steak - and yes, that's a real thing), and marvelling at the time-warped locals, you can't leave without experiencing the ancient art of men proving their masculinity by clinging onto and/or lassoing some burly beasts.
While it's far more tourist-y than you may imagine (with the lights, music and keeeeerazy voiceover guy, it's got more than a whiff of a Gladiator episode), the danger and skill is still very real, and while the animals are as looked after and cared for as they can be, the threat of seeing a rider carried out on a stretcher is electrifyingly tangible.
But then that's the charm of Texas as a whole. The old days are gone for sure, but it's the way in which it's adapted that means it's more than worth your time. The traditions and spirit of the Wild West are still alive and well, but nowadays it's tallied with an inclusive warmth that's more inclined to welcome strangers rather than shooting them on sight.
GT Travelled with.... Delta Airlines (return flights from London to Dallas from £575). GT Stayed with.... GT stayed at the Wild Catter Ranch, with the trip organised via Ranch Rider (visit them at their website , or call them on 01509 618811)