Living the Cowboy Way in Kansas
The real West
Even over the longhorns' bellowing and the saddles' rhythmic creaking, it's the spurs that keep jingling in my ear. There's not a moment in the cattle drive when I lose track of trail bosses Joe and Nancy Moore, thanks to their spurs that are always there, gently ringing like the very voice of the Old West. I hear the metal singing as Nancy lugs a Dutch oven laden with cobbler to the fire and as Joe leads his weary horse to the water tank. The spurs' notes drift away only as the Moores pull off their boots and crawl into canvas bedrolls tucked into the long cottonwood shadow cast by a bright Kansas moon.
As I walk softly over to my own bedroll laid between an SUV and a cabin, I feel downright tone deaf, with my steps producing no more than the dull thud of boots on dust. But this is the real West, and it will take a long ride tomorrow before I can even think about earning my spurs.
Dodge City: Horseplay that sells
On my quest to try the Cowboy Way, Kansas offers an obvious starting point. In the 1870s, cowpokes pushed millions of Texas longhorns to railheads at Abilene, Ellsworth and Dodge City -- Queen of the Cow Towns. "Home on the Range" is Kansas' state song, and Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and Doc Holliday all became famous here.
First stop on my dusty ride: Dodge City, the most famous cowboy ground in Kansas, perhaps all of America. At the Old Boot Hill Museum, I park among the tourists' minivans and RVs and wander a re-created stretch of Old West buildings (left). Gunfire crackles at scheduled times as faux gunhands throw down in front of the Long Branch while saloon girls dance inside.
There's no escaping that the place is a monument to spectacularly bad behavior revolving around liquor, gambling and gunplay -- a legacy that towns like Dodge City once discarded like photos from college parties.
"When the cattle trails ended, the towns didn't want their children and grandchildren to know they had a role in that sort of thing," says Jim Gray, an Ellsworth cowboy historian. They put up streetlamps, built schools and tried to plow under the wild oats. Wichita's Old Cowtown Museum focuses on this more civilized era, with reenactors filling shops and polite, old-fashioned baseball games. But just when the cow towns' old-timers died off, Hollywood came along, unleashing a stream of "Gunsmoke"-loving tourists who still pour into Dodge City, looking for the horseplay that always sells.
But there's another cowboy I hope to meet -- the white-hat, Roy Rogers version. I find him 200 miles east, at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper near Wichita, where the evening starts with the crowd shouting "How-DEEE!" Minnie Pearl-style before reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, praying and tucking into brisket.
The Prairie Rose Rangers fill the building with yodeling, corny jokes and serious instrumental riffs on staples like "Ghost Riders in the Sky" (JoLynn the fiddler moonlights with a local symphony.) These clean-living cowpokes may have pistols on their hips and lassos on their saddles, but guitars are all they draw. Their harmonies keep my toes tapping as I ride on, searching for cowhands still making a living in the saddle.
Prairie burns and the country life
The pasture below is black as the night above, but through a smoky pall, I see horizons gone red. Flaming lines drape the Flint Hills like hell's own party lights. The Flying W Ranch, 65 miles northeast of Wichita, is burning prairie tonight in an ancient practice that rejuvenates the grass and heads off unmanageable summer fires. I'm equally daunted and invigorated, standing in the smoldering heart of an ever-widening circle of fire.
But even as dying flames light her face, 7-year-old Josie Hoy turns to me and says, "I just got a new toy raccoon. See?" In the ranching world she was born into, hundreds of burning acres aren't even worth a conversation. It makes me wonder how Josie views vacation voyeurs like me who pay good money to help her parents, Josh and Gwen, burn prairie, collect fresh eggs, chase calves or just sit on the porch while a prairie wind helps turn the pages of their books.
"They appreciate what we take for granted every day. When people bring their gloves and can't wait to fix a fence, I still can't believe it," says Nancy Moore, a friend of the Hoys. These families and many others across the West have saved their ranches by realizing that city folk hungry for agritourism will pay to sample a rancher's lifestyle just as readily as they buy grain and beef.
Modern cowboy entrepreneur
Josh Hoy, a fifth-generation rancher and the Flying W chef (left), embodies the modern entrepreneur mixing cowboy and comfort. He descends from the chuck wagon's inventor and can handle a horse, but he also serves guests meals he learned at the Culinary Institute of America, including a French Picnic featuring herb-roasted game hens.
Around Kansas, you can grab a seat and watch real-life cowboys in action at big-time summer rodeos in Dodge City, Abilene and Phillipsburg. Cowboy festivals with chuck wagon cookouts, cowboy poetry and historical lectures crowd the summer calendar. Each puts you closer to the true cowboy than the reconstructed boardwalks of Dodge City or Wichita, but going all the way means only one thing: Getting in the saddle.
Gary Martin comes from southern Indiana, but today he looks straight out of south Texas. A gray duster drapes past his boots as we ride through an immense pasture outside Dodge City, and his droopy white moustache peeks from the shade of a wide gray hat. My saddle creaks as I turn to ask how a 67-year-old guy from the forests of Brown County winds up trailing longhorns on the Moore Ranch's spring drive. He says, "You've heard of bucket lists, right? I put this on my list. When I told people, 'I'm making a bucket list,' they said, 'Are you sick?' I said, 'No, I'm old!'"
That's a pretty good stab at cowboy wisdom from a guy in his second day on the range. But the Western spirit settles in quickly here. Joe and Nancy Moore and their son, Laramie, don't leave much choice. Signing up for their drives means long hours in the saddle, dusty clothes and meals that taste three times better because they're served from a Dutch oven still campfire-hot.
For three days, guests ride the current of longhorns flowing toward summer pasture. The cattle stream along gravel roads and through grass tall enough to hide cow dogs nipping at their heels. Sometimes I drift my horse in among the sweeping horns; sometimes we slide out to the edges. But motion is our constant, just as it was for the old cowhands who did this for weeks.
The cowboy rhythm
In a day, the sounds grow familiar. Meadowlark music riding a prairie breeze. Massive horns clacking together like baseball bats when the cattle bunch up in ravines. Horses sleepily snorting in the corral as they doze on three legs.
Out here, the stiff morning coffee is more than a pick-me-up. It's a steaming antidote to chills lingering before sunrise. Joe slips on leather gloves to pick up the blue enamel pot and pour me a cup.
He stares at an expanse of grass bending before the breeze rising with the morning and says, "That wind's gonna' help us today. It's blowing the right direction to keep the cattle moving." I squint through the steam rising to my hat brim and say, "Yep," just like a cowboy who has the faintest idea what the boss is talking about.
This story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2011. Click to the next page for a Trip Guide.
For more information on Dodge City, contact the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800/653-9378 or visitdodgecity.org.
For more information on Wichita, contact the Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800/288-9424 or gowichita.com.
For more information on the Flint Hills, contact the Flint Hills Tourism Coalition at 620/273-6763 or kansasflinthills.travel.
WHAT TO DO
Boot Hill Museum and Front Street, Dodge City. Stop here for a drink in the Long Branch Saloon, gunfights by the boardwalk, a walk through the Boot Hill cemetery, nightly variety shows, and exhibits on cowboys, gunslingers and lawmen (pictured at left; 620/227-8188; boothill.org).
Moore Ranch, Bucklin. Joe and Nancy Moore offer a three-day April cattle drive ($750/per person, including meals and gear) a two-day July drive ($500/person) and six-day drives in September and October ($1,500/person). You also can set up custom visits to help with branding and ranch work (620/826-3649; moorelonghornranch.com).
Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper, Benton. This long-running attraction near Wichita features an all-you-can-eat barbecue meal and a family-friendly show by the Prairie Rose Rangers. Arrive early for cowboy movies and wagon rides. Show and meal for $30; $10 for kids 6-12 (316/778-2121; prairierosechuckwagon.com).
Old Cowtown Museum, Wichita. Located in downtown's museum complex (on the Old Chisholm Trail), Old Cowtown re-creates an 1880s town. For the most interesting visit, plan to come during special activities such as old-time baseball games, shoot-outs and chuck wagon dinners (316/219-1871; oldcowtown.org).
Flying W Ranch, Cedar Point. On this 7,000-acre ranch, you can herd cattle and do farm chores or simply relax and hike in the Flint Hills. Guests can stay in the spacious lodge or smaller cabins, each with full private baths. Prairie burns in March and April are an annual high point. Rates from $45 (620/274-4357; flinthillsflyingw.com).
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel at Oldtown, Wichita. A convenient base for exploring the city's Museums on the River (including Old Cowtown) and the Oldtown entertainment district, this hotel features modern rooms with old brick walls. An open atrium offers a great gathering spot -- and can, like all of Oldtown, get noisy on weekends. Rates from $119 (316/267-4800; hotelatoldtown.com).