A case of stetson envy

Guy Wilkinson digs deep and discovers the beating heart of Dallas, under the big hair and bigger hats.

'Keep Honking, I'm Reloading," reads the bumper sticker of the car in front. The words surround a picture of a .44 Magnum favoured by Clint Eastwood's character, Dirty Harry.

There's no mistaking I'm in Dallas: the land of big hair, big guns and bigger egos.

As a kid I'd watched the television soap of the same name. I can still remember the opening theme tune, the gleaming skyscrapers, JR with his stetson and silly grin.

It's a cliche that has stuck. Dallas, after all, is a city built on oil money. Its halcyon days began about 1930 when black gold was struck some 100 miles east of the city.

Today it's essentially split into two: Dallas and Fort Worth. While downtown Dallas retains its role as the business epicentre, Fort Worth has more of a frontier feel.

Despite its prosperity, Dallas has a shadier claim to fame. The city's nadir came on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Elm Street on Dealey Plaza. A white X now marks the spot where the fatal bullets struck. I spend a few seconds standing on it during a brief lull in traffic.

Housed in the same building where Lee Harvey Oswald is believed to have fired his rifle, the nearby Sixth Floor Museum provides a comprehensive account of the president's life, from his rise to power to his assassination and the aftermath. Nearly 400 photographs, 45 minutes of documentary films and an intriguing personal audio guide help tell the story. It's presented in such a way that you don't need to be a history buff to appreciate it.

Of course there are many more obvious attractions in Dallas. For example, the guidebooks will point you in the direction of West Village, Highland Park Village or Mockingbird Station. Filled with boutique stores, modern retail parks and buzzing cafes, they're a shopaholic's dream.

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For culture vultures, the Arts District, a 17-block area packed with galleries and museums, is a must. Spanning 27 hectares, it's home to the Dallas Centre for the Performing Arts and the Dallas Museum of Art. The latter contains 23,000 works from across the globe.

Although these attractions have their merit, I'm keen to discover if there's another side to Dallas, something lurking beneath the gleaming facade. With this in mind I head to a place called Bar of Soap. Located in Exposition Park, not far from the once-thriving neighbourhood of Deep Ellum, I'd heard it's a launderette doubling as a live music venue.

But when I arrive, I'm disappointed. Taped to the door is a note reading: "Certificate of Death: this document hereby certifies that Bar of Soap has officially been declared dead."

Peering through the window, I spy a row of old washing machines standing on a black-and-white tiled floor. There's a bar stacked with upturned stools and a vintage jukebox in the corner.

Looking around, it's clear I'm late to the party. Rising rents and council bureaucracy have taken their toll. Many of the bars and live music venues here have been boarded up. Not to be discouraged, I head to Deep Ellum. The neighbourhood was an industrial warehouse district in the 1960s and '70s. Cheap loft space lured many artists to the area and by the 1990s it became the liveliest live entertainment district in town. But tonight the streets are dark and quiet. I'm about to call it quits when I hear music from an alleyway. Outside a bar named Reno's Chop Shop there's a row of Harleys-Davidsons.

I enter with some trepidation but the atmosphere is friendly. I strike up a conversation with a couple of bikers at the bar and despite the initial disappointment, the night ends on a high.

For another perspective I head to Fort Worth where the historic Stockyards District couldn't be more different to Dallas centre, though only 45-minutes away by car. Motorbikes rumble up and down the street between saloon bars. Inside there are longhorns mounted on walls beside stuffed animal heads.

I head to the Cultural District where five museums are in close proximity. A highlight is the National Cowgirl Museum, a slick, modern exhibit dedicated to women of the saddle. With clever interactive displays and even a mechanical bronco to ride, it's a great way to spend an afternoon.

Finally, I decide no trip to Texas would be complete without a visit to the rodeo. Happily, the Stockyards Championships are regarded as among the best in the state.

Inside there's a strong smell of cattle. Tiered plastic seating faces a dusty pit in the centre of the arena. Everyone is wearing a stetson.

At the far end, the bulls are locked in gated pens. When the buzzer sounds, all hell breaks loose. The gates fling open and the bulls charge, their riders clinging on for dear life. I watch in amazement as men are flung to the dirt, often narrowly avoiding a fatal trampling. Occasionally a clown emerges, flapping his arms to distract the bulls. He's rescued in the nick of time by men on horseback, who guide the bull back to enclosure as the clown dives for cover.

Children chasing calves, men wrestling cows to the ground and even a form of horseback slalom known as barrel racing the rodeo is a unique mix of skill and exhibitionism.

Lasting only two hours, the rodeo is a great night out and I leave with a strange case of stetson envy.

Dallas is an eclectic mix. My preconceptions were not entirely wrong but there's far more to the city than many would expect. As the biker in Reno's Chop Shop told me: "Dallas is a great city. There's a lot of cool stuff going on sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper to find it."

TRIP NOTES

- GETTING THERE Qantas flies from Sydney to Dallas return from $1617. Phone Flight Centre on 133 133 or see flightcentre.com.au. V Australia flies daily from Sydney to Los Angeles, with return economy fares from $1402. Phone 138 287 or see vaustralia.com.au.

- STAYING THERE W Dallas Victory Hotel offers minimalist sophistication in the heart of town. Rooms from about $223. See starwood.com. For high-end lodgings, try Mansion on Turtle Creek. Rooms from about $310. See rosewoodhotels.com.

- MORE INFORMATION For listings on arts, culture, sports and accommodation, see visitdallas.com.

- FORT WORTH RODEO Every Friday and Saturday 8-10pm. Adults $10; children aged six-16 $5. Tickets can be bought at the venue. See fwssr.com.

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