One city slicker roughs it in West Texas and lives to tell about it. Plus: Dude ranches where you, too, can live like a cowboy.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SEAN McCORMICK

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South. At 85 miles per hour, south. El Paso in the rearview mirror. Interstate 10 turns to Texas Highway 90 and then Texas 67. The Chihuahuan Desert on both sides, an endless ribbon of highway fluttering ahead.

Farther south. Marfa in the rearview mirror now. Texas 67 gives way to Ranch Road 169. Suddenly, the pavement ends, but the road goes on — for 32 miles it goes on, deeper into the white sands. It’s barely a road now, more of an undulating path strewn with potentially tire-slicing rocks. The drive slows to a crawl — a two-hour, 32-mile crawl.

This is the road to the middle of nowhere. And I’m wondering if I should be on it, literally and figuratively.

Somewhere at the end of this road, Old Alazan Ranch awaits. There, cattle and mountain lions and mountain goats and horses and who knows what else roam free. This is the kind of land best populated by cowboys and people of that ilk. A cowboy I am not. I am a concrete-loving, cab-hailing city dweller. I know almost nothing about being out in nothingness, including what one should wear in the middle of nowhere. Whatever that is, I’m almost certain my current attire isn’t it: vintage sports coat, French-cuff shirt and Italian cuff links purchased in Bologna. Not even Sergio Leone, the Italian Western director, put cuff links on his cowboys — good, bad or ugly.

Also adding to my dismay: There is a longhorn steer in the middle of the road, blocking my path. It is brown and white, and its horns extend the entire width of a full-size SUV. Eventually, I make my way around it, and the drive south continues. At some point, I realize I’ve made a wrong turn, correct my course and finally see the lights from Old Alazan Ranch flickering in the distance as the setting sun darkens the desert scrub. But plenty more wrong turns lie ahead. Not literally this time. Just figuratively.

I’m squinting at first light. A jackrabbit is bounding near the ranch’s main house, but I can barely fix my gaze as rays of sunshine come over the hills that separate this land from the Rio Grande and the Mexican border.

I was afraid of this. Well, I was afraid of a lot of things involved with coming to this remote outpost that’s somewhere near the Big Bend Ranch State Park but nowhere near civilization as I have come to know it. But I was afraid of the squinting especially. Just days before flying from my hometown of Washington, D.C., to El Paso, Texas, I lost my sunglasses — dropped them in the backseat of a cab riding somewhere between swanky cocktail lounges where bartenders know me by name and drink. How does one cope in the desert sunlight without shades? My wife admonished, “You’ll be fine. You think John Wayne wore sunglasses?”

Well, no, of course not. But he had big hats. Me, I have a hoodie and a pageboy cap. And, besides, I’ve come here not to act like John Wayne. I just want to accomplish two things. The first is to ride a horse. The second is to experience isolation, Texas-style.

The isolation I immediately get. From the ranch’s front porch, not one other structure is in sight. Planes rarely pass overhead. Cell phones, much to my frustration, don’t work. “Our nearest neighbor is 20 miles away,” says Waynelle Strachan, who, along with her husband, J.H. (who more often goes by Red), has owned the 60,000-acre cattle ranch since 1980. “That’s why we bought this place. We love being all alone out here.”