The City Slicker and the Lonesome Dove

A man about town swaps Mayfair for McMurtry country
Published: 29 May 2023

Jake and I had done a bro-trip once before, driving from Lusaka, where he lives, down to the Luangwa Valley; but this was going to be very different. Instead of travelling cross-country, Mad Max-style, with driving beer and guns, we were going to be following the Lonesome Dove trail, from widescreen Texas all the way up the plains of Montana.

Jake has been obsessed with Larry McMurtry's Western novel – in which several Texas rangers drive a cattle herd north in the twilight years of the Old West – since it was first published in 1985, and for some years it has been his intention to drive the trail. As Jake is a former ranger and a bit of a cowboy himself, he originally wanted to do it all on horseback. When I told him I could spare five days and five days only, we opted for the next best thing. Which was a massive Ford Bronco Everglades, an SUV so large I suspect at some point it will be awarded its own zip code.

We picked it up in Austin, where we started the trip, poring over the route in the city's new Soho House. I felt so at home there I almost ordered a white-wine spritzer, but in the end opted for a margarita that was almost as big as the Bronco. Suitably fortified, we retired for the night, preparing ourselves for the next day's 10-hour, 600-mile drive to Dodge City.

Out soundtrack was obviously all-important, and we opted for traditional cassette-era rock, where you're never far away from a Bob Seger ballad or a Doobie Brothers singalong. Were Jack and I a cliché? Only completely.

By now we had bought cowboy hats – of course we had!

Kansas was far more rugged than Texas, a largely empty place that keeps its scenic charms so well hidden you might never find them. We certainly didn't. Our Best Western was misnamed. Hungry from having been in our designer tank all day, we wandered around half a dozen malls before finding an awful-looking Mexican restaurant with strip lighting, plastic chairs and worryingly cheap burritos. It was, of course, wonderful. Cheap Mexican food is always better than expensive Mexican food.

The following morning, following age-old advice, we got the hell out of Dodge.

And headed for Nebraska, which appeared to be Kansas squared. Sure, there was a lot of it, maybe slightly more than necessary. I felt as though I'd had enough of the place after an hour or so, so goodness knows what McMurtry's cowboys must have felt like as they ambled through.

By now we had bought cowboy hats – of course we had! Jake's was traditional, while mine looked like the kind Nick Cave might wear. Black. Svelte. Gentrified. Now we were getting to the heart of the matter, driving into Wyoming, the penultimate stop on our trip, and one of the most beautiful places on earth. This is real cowboy country, where the Rockies cast a shadow, both real and metaphorical, making you feel you could easily be steering a herd of unruly cattle across the Great Plains. Instead of Great Plains I had an irascible co-pilot with even lower blood-sugar levels issues than mine. We stopped for burritos almost as often as we stopped for gas.

Wyoming is Americana maximus, where every vista is lunar, and every backyard is full of discarded cars. I reckon Bruce Springsteen came here on vacation when he was 16 or so and inhaled enough cowboy/highway/blue-jean imagery to keep him going for an entire career. Honestly, after we'd been driving for three or four hours, I felt as though I could write a Springsteen song myself. Either that or a McMurtry novel.

Crossing into Montana makes you feel life's great achievements ought to be immediately downgraded

If Wyoming was our favourite state, Montana came a close second. Sure, every town looked like a larger version of Port Talbot, and yes, all its rivers had long since run dry, and yes, the mountains appeared to have been replaced by forests of grain silos, but there was no denying its beauty. Crossing the state line into Montana makes you feel as though life's great achievements ought to be immediately downgraded. It is so gargantuan, so preposterously epic that even our Bronco felt small.

On arrival at our Airbnb, Jake read me an email from the own: "I hope you boys have a great time in town. Just remember not to leave any trash outside. We have a rather cantankerous bear."

Being a cowboy, and the kind of chap who never goes anywhere without his Leatherman, Jake found this terribly amusing, whereas I immediately reverted to my default Reservoir Poodle disposition and started sulking. We never saw the bear, but this was only because we were distracted by the contents of our local liquor store. Having had dinner in the local tavern (yup, burritos again, and they were terrific), we decided we needed a couple of Northern Hospitality beers to take the edge off the night. As we walked in, wearing our cowboy hats, singing "Long Train Running" and swaying rather too enthusiastically for men who had only drunk two medium-sized margaritas, we saw a store-within-a-store full of firearms. And just as Jake was about to start fondling one of the assault rifles, the assistant stopped us in our tracks.

"Sorry boys, you can buy your beers and your whiskey but the gun shop's closed for the night. If you wanna buy a gun you'll have to come back at eight in the morning."

As I was flying out of Billings early the next day, I missed the concluding episode of our trip. But Jake's gone worryingly quiet and there have been no sightings of the bear since October.

Dylan Jones' latest book, Faster Than a Cannonball, is out now. This piece appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Esquire, out now

Originally published on Esquire UK

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