Louise Goldsbury takes to the roads of Texas in search of men in stetsons and musicians on form.
Luckily, my friend's name isn't Thelma and we're nowhere near a cliff, because our first attempt at driving in America isn't going well. For a two-week trip, we have unwittingly chosen one of the worst states for traffic and complicated highways: Texas.
Even with a GPS, Michelle and I are so confused we consider placing a sign in the car's rear window: "Sorry, we're Australian."
It's with a sigh of relief when we turn off the highway towards Fort Worth, 40 minutes' drive west of Dallas, leaving the motoring madness behind.
We're looking for cowboys: we're a couple of city chicks who have seen westerns, watched Dallas and have heard Fort Worth is the place to go for hot men on horseback.
First impressions are promising as we turn into a cobblestone street lined with saloons and stables and see two good-looking guys outside the H3 Ranch steakhouse. But the sense of authenticity is quashed by a nearby sign for valet parking: these boys work at The Stockyards Hotel.
Like a couple of cowgirls tying our horses to the posts, we park our car out front and hand over the keys.
The hotel lobby has old-west artwork and antiques and the man on reception is wearing a Stetson. To the left of us is a bar with saddle-topped stools and deers' heads mounted on the walls. The main dining room is lit by a chandelier made with antlers. Somehow the decor works without looking kitsch.
This century-old hotel has seen gun-slinging, rowdy poker games, country music legends, cattle barons and outlaws. The robbers Bonnie and Clyde found refuge here in 1933 and you can stay in the suite they occupied. The room has photographs, newspaper clippings, Bonnie's revolver and a poem she wrote for Clyde.
After checking in, we head across the street, where a cattle drive is taking place. Longhorns are guided down Exchange Avenue twice daily as a tribute to Fort Worth's heritage as a stop on the Chisholm Trail, used in the late 1800s to drive 10 million cattle between Texas and Kansas. You can ride parts of the trail so we sign up for a horse ride at the nearby stockyards. Our guide, A.J. Bingo, says he's a real cowboy who owns a ranch called Empty Pockets, "so people don't know I've got money".
AJ gives us a few tips on how to tell if a man in a cowboy hat is the real deal. "Ask them what to do with a green horse, and what a belly girth is for," he advises.
The nightlife in Fort Worth's stockyards district includes a Saturday rodeo that draws in the crowds. Dressed in jeans, boots and shirts, we head to the Cowtown Coliseum to watch bull riding, steer wrestling and barrel racing. Then it's off to the after party at Billy Bob's, the world's largest honky-tonk, where a country band plays, couples slow-dance and single males keep their distance from single females.
Unsure how best to navigate this territory, we decide to come back later, when people have had more to drink. Our search for friendlier cowboys has us visit the White Elephant Saloon, Filthy McNasty's, Cadillac and PR's - but everyone seems to have a girlfriend and an office job.
About to give up, we hear rock music coming from a side street. It's Willie's Icehouse, where a skull with devil's horns hangs above the door, Harleys are parked out front and inside are leather-clad men. We order drinks at the bar among this motley crew, make new aquaintances and watch barmaids dancing on the bar. Some bikers may well be a version of modern-day cowboys, we decide, as a courteous gentleman later escorts us back to our hotel.
Our next stop is Dallas, where the state fair is considered the biggest event of its kind in the US, drawing in about 3 million people across its 24 days. At first glance, it looks like Sydney's Easter Show with rides, livestock and fast food but, being Texas, it's much bigger and wilder.
The Ferris wheel here is the biggest in North America and the queue to ride is almost record-breaking, too. Many Americans come for the college football game held between the local university team and Oklahoma. The fans' passion has to be seen to be believed.
There's also a vast number of exhibitions, art and craft contests and cook-offs, museums, an aquarium, a butterfly house and garden show. However, it's the fair's deep-fried food that is the killer attraction (almost literally); an annual competition is held to find the tastiest and most creative dish and each concoction is available for sale and, if you dare, consumption.
Think deep-fried cheesecake, deep-fried butter, deep-fried banana split and deep-fried salad. This year, deep-fried beer encased in ravioli squares, dunked in hot oil and then smothered in cheese sauce won an honour for most creative and, after sampling it, I can see why it didn't win for best taste.
With the official slogan "Keep Austin Weird" and renowned for its live music scene, Austin is a great city in which to walk from bar to bar, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, hearing bands play. The Continental, in South Congress, is the hottest venue in town. We walk in just as Redd Volkaert is strapping on a guitar and meet fans who call him a "living legend". They'd know; these fans are also band members from JD and the Straight Shooters, who were on stage an hour ago supporting the Eagles at the Austin City Limits Festival. After Redd's show, the band seems too shy to step up and meet their idol but we drag them backstage like carefree tourists and soon we're chatting like a bunch of regulars.
The next night, at Antone's Nightclub on Sixth Street, we meet blues singers set to perform later and we start to realise that Austin is where musicians mingle with the audience because much of the audience includes musicians as well as the music-obsessed. Antone's has has hosted the likes of B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bono, Eric Clapton and Elvis Costello, and the night we're there, the guitarist from The Who plays a couple of songs.
Sixth Street venues host jazz, rock, punk, hip-hop, metal, country and other genres but the free entry and cheap drinks are aimed at younger revellers. The better venues charge a few dollars' entry - we never pay more than $US10 ($9.30) - but the talent and atmosphere is priceless.
Having now mastered the art of driving in Texas, it's time to watch a game of football in Houston, where the local team is taking on the New York Giants. Our second-row seats provide an eye-candy view that surpasses the attractiveness of cowboys, bikers and musicians we've met. The Houston crowd is roaring, as massive Texan flags blow proudly in the wind.
United Airlines, V Australia, Qantas and Delta fly from Sydney to Los Angeles or San Francisco, with connections to Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin or Houston airports. 13 31 33, flightcentre.com.au.
Forth Worth: The Stockyards Hotel, +1 817 625 6427, stockyardshotel.com.
Austin: Radisson Town Lake, +1 512 478 9611, radisson.com.
Houston: Indigo Hotel, +1 713 621 8988, houstonluxuryhotel.com.
Dallas: Stoneleigh Hotel, +1 214 871 7111, stoneleighhotel.com; Westin Galleria Dallas, +1 972 934 9494, thewestingalleriadallas.com.
Texas has a diverse and thriving arts scene. Key cities have world-class galleries and museums that between them boast coups — from Michelangelo's first painting to Picasso's first sculpture.
Painted by Michelangelo at age 13, The Torment of Saint Anthony, is in the Kimbell Art Museum. kimbellart.org.
The Fort Worth Modern Art Museum is the second-largest modern art museum in the US, after New York's MOMA. themodern.org.
The National Cowgirl Museum honours riders, sharpshooters, artists and authors. cowgirl.net.
Picasso's first sculpture is displayed in the garden of the Nasher Sculpture Centre. www.nashersculpturecenter.org.
The Performing Arts Centre comprises four venues and a park. www.attpac.org.
Dallas Museum of Art has more contemporary artworks (23,000) than any general museum in the US. dm-art.org.
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza chronicles the life and death of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated just metres away. jfk.org.
The city's museum district has 18 excellent options including the Museum of Fine Arts (mfah.org) and the Contemporary Arts Museum. www.camh.org.
The Menil Collection is one couple's vast, privately assembled collection of 20th century works. menil.org.
The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum has three floors of interactive exhibits. thestoryoftexas.com.
The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas is recognised for its European paintings, contemporary American and Latin American art. blantonmuseum.org.
The capital's political legacy is showcased at the LBJ Library. lbjlibrary.org.
Long Centre for the Performing Arts is home to the Austin Lyric Opera, Symphony and Ballet, on Town Lake. thelongcenter.org.
Art on 5th Gallery has a permanent exhibition: The Secret Art of Dr Seuss. arton5th.com. LG