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A Real Cowboy Experience

Adventures on horseback in West Texas
Written by Clayton Maxwell. Photographs by E. Dan Klepper.

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What I love most about this ranch,” says horseback guide Missy Cantrell as a wasp lands on the wide brim of her cowboy hat, “is the stewardship of the land.

Texas Horseback Adventures offers rides on the private Kokernot 06 Ranch, which sprawls across Jeff Davis and Brewster counties. Prices start at $220 per person for an all-day ride with lunch to $2,000 for a five-day/four-night adventure. Longer trips can be arranged, too.

The owners are maintaining the integrity of a working cattle ranch when fewer and fewer ranches are raising cattle.” As I look west over the rolling blue and green mountain ridges toward Fort Davis—an awe-inducing view comparable to that from Big Bend’s South Rim—I understand why stewarding this corner of paradise would be near to Cantrell’s heart.

Cantrell, her friend Margaret O’Donnell, and I are having a picnic lunch at 6,500 feet, on the rocky red tip of a mountain named Barbara’s Point on the private Kokernot 06 Ranch. The white dome of the McDonald Observatory sits at eye level in the distance, and Mount Livermore, one of the highest peaks in Texas, looms big and blue on the horizon. We trotted about eight miles from base camp on three able horses to get here—a breathtaking if perhaps bottom-bruising experience for inexperienced riders like me—and the gourmet picnic lunch Cantrell has toted along in her saddle bags is a delicious complement to the wild world around us.

Spend just a few hours with Cantrell out on this land, and you can tell it has seeped deep down in her bones. The names of plants and places—Wild Rose Canyon, Blue Mountain, firecracker bush, devil’s claw—roll off her tongue like a West Texas poem. She is attuned to see things that would evade the unaccustomed eye: a raven’s attack of a songbird, the mandibles of a beetle, fallen antlers that she and O’Donnell call “sheds.” When we pause for a view over a canyon, she spots a herd of aoudads, which are goat-like ungulates from North Africa. “They aren’t winding us,” she says, continuing the cowboy lingo, “so they don’t know we are here.” Even though she grew up in the Piney Woods of East Texas, Cantrell, who has been living and riding in the region since the mid-’90s, is a West Texas girl to her core.

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As the founder of Texas Horseback Adventures, she is also the sole guide on this magnificent family-owned cattle ranch, a place so rich in natural beauty that it’s hard to not grab my camera from the saddle bag at every new turn. But wielding a camera while riding on rocky ledges through canyons is no simple matter for an amateur rider like me. Riding with Cantrell is not a mellow trail ride of the dude-ranch variety; Texas Horseback Adventures seeks to convey the real cowboy experience. While Cantrell is a charismatic and capable guide who can accommodate riders of most skill levels, from serious equestrians to occasional vacation riders like myself, her outfit is not for the faint of heart. And though you will not be running cattle like a real cowboy does, you will ride hard and perhaps walk a bit bowlegged after the first day. You will also likely feel so wonderfully fatigued at day’s end that it will be hard to keep your eyes open too long after dark, no matter how pretty the West Texas stars are.

Of course, real cowboys seldom have chefs as talented as Cantrell preparing them gourmet meals. Cantrell is a consummate cowgirl, but she is also a thoughtful hostess—she considers every detail to make sure you are getting the most out of this adventure. In the morning, as soon as I emerge stiffly from my canvas teepee, which feels slightly luxurious thanks to a cow skin rug and a reading lamp, Cantrell hands me a strong cup of cowboy coffee. And as soon as we return from our ride and we’ve finished untacking the horses, she has an ice-cold beer or favorite beverage at the ready—and every cowboy knows that there’s nothing better after a long ride than that first sip of something cold and refreshing.

Cantrell operates her gourmet kitchen from an antique field officer’s desk that she calls her “chuck box.” It holds spices, cloth napkins, a corkscrew, and everything else needed for a perfect campfire meal. For dinner, we sit at a linen-covered picnic table and savor every bite of our rib-eyes and perfectly baked sweet potatoes seasoned with sea salt, watching a lightning storm flashing across the darkening sky.

Throughout our meals and rides, Cantrell and O’Donnell speak of ranch life—of penning cattle, cutting horses, and the fall and spring “works” (the cowboy word for the cattle roundups). They talk about how hard it is to make a living as a working cowboy and how, since some of the ranches have shrinking remudas (the Spanish word for herds of working horses), many of the cowboys bring their own string of horses, as well as a few colts they are working with. I get the sense that they are speaking the language of a real, romanticized cowboy life, one that might be quickly fading. “Being out here is a grounding experience for most people,” says Cantrell. “They always tell me they wish they had one more day. But they leave with a sense of empowerment in having expanded their outdoors experience.”

On the first morning of our two-day ride, we crested a peak called Madrone Hill, and the sudden 360-degree view of the West Texas landscape was so staggering it brought on tears. To see the vastness of our state in such an untamed setting can make you want to throw your hands up in the air in a kind of joyful salute. Riding with Cantrell and a small party of other riders gave me the chance to experience this land from a place of quiet reverence—moving through prairies and canyons, juniper bush and agave, ascending to views that left me with an enduring sense of awe. Happily, Cantrell has made it her life’s work to take us there.

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