Jill and I follow the girl in the wispy cotton dress and dirty cowboy boots across the grounds of El Cosmico, our footsteps lifting puffs of dust and crunching snarls of gray grass. We walk past a woman with unshaven armpits doing yoga in the paltry shade of a mesquite tree. She sits cross-legged atop a purple mat, seemingly oblivious to both our presence and the rumble of a one-ton pickup truck motoring northward on Highway 67.

I silently wonder what the rancher behind the truck’s wheel must think of El Cosmico — this quasi-campground, quasi-commune scattered across 18 acres of West Texas nothingness, where ladies contort their bodies beneath mesquite branches and guests pay good money to bathe outdoors in old tubs. It must beat anything he ever saw.

I just hope the old boy doesn’t pull over and ask why I’m about to fork out 75 bucks a night to sleep in a teepee. Because, at the moment, an explanation eludes me.

Jill had been talking about El Cosmico for months and miles. She saw an article about the place in ReadyMade Magazine and was intoxicated by the photographs of empty landscapes and old trailers. Initially, I was skeptical about the idea of paying extra dollars to sleep in an old camper when we owned a perfectly good tent, but our stay in a vintage trailer in Patagonia, Ariz., softened my stance. So when we drove through Marfa — a windswept town 400 miles west of Austin and 200 southeast of Juarez, Mexico — and sighted El Cosmico’s red neon sign, I shared at least a smidgen of Jill’s giddiness.

Asking someone who has stayed at El Cosmico to describe it is a little like asking a proudly eclectic musician what genre of music his band plays. Don’t expect a straight answer. El Cosmico is not a motel, but you sleep there. It’s not a campground, but you can pitch a tent there. It’s essentially a scattering of refurbished trailers, modernized yurts, safari-style box tents and one teepee.

El Cosmico is the brainchild of Liz Lambert, a former lawyer who almost single-handedly turned Austin’s once seedy South Congress neighborhood into the hipster–friendly “SoCo” district. She is also the creative force behind two boutique hotels in that area — Hotel San Jose and Hotel Saint Cecilia — as well as the Hotel Havana in San Antonio. (She is not, however, the Liz Lambert who violently yanked the ponytail of a collegiate soccer foe to became a YouTube legend.)

Lambert said she envisioned El Cosmico as a “community space that fosters and agitates artistic and intellectual exchange.” She might be disappointed to learn that the fellow guests we encountered there were a pretty cloistered bunch. There was the young Canadian couple with a penchant for skinny jeans, billowy scarves and furtive glances. There was the precocious teenager who had apparently convinced her parents it would be a grand idea to vacation in a 1953 Vagabond trailer next door to the Marfa Border Patrol station. And there was the group of bicyclists, en route to Key West from San Diego, who upon arrival summarily ate, showered and collapsed in their tents.

None of those folks collaborated artistically with us (or the dogs) during our stay at El Cosmico. But we did enjoy lengthy intellectual exchanges with the groundskeeper, a fascinating man who claimed to have lived three years on the shores of the Rio Grande before winding up in a Mexican prison. When I mentioned this story to the property manager, Sarah (the  girl in the cotton dress and cowboy boots), she was incredulous. “I’ve told him to not talk to the guests,” she said, brightly. “Half of what he says is complete bullshit.”

Sarah herself seems like a straight shooter. After all, she convinced us to choose the teepee over of one of the vintage trailers, which proved one of our wisest decisions of the trip so far.

The El Cosmico teepee is a replica of an authentic Sioux dwelling. It is big — 22 feet in diameter and nearly 20 feet tall — and furnished with a futon bed, four floor pillows and two stool/tables made from recycled tires. Cowhides cover the ground, and a 55-gallon fire cauldron sits in the center of the room. (A Duraflame log and firewood are provided.) A well-hidden extension cord carries electricity into the teepee (something the Plains Indians would have relished, I’m sure, had they brandished iPhones in need of recharging), and a lamp shrouded by a bell-shaped wicker shade hangs over the bed. The shade casts disco-ball-like light against the tent walls — a nice touch — but no nighttime glow beats the fire’s flickering flames.

We wasted no time lighting a fire and plugging in our portable speakers. We fell asleep with mesquite smoke and Sade’s voice wafting through the teepee’s vented ceiling toward the Texas stars.

I’m not sure staying in a tricked-out teepee counts as camping. But even when I’m not camping, I like to feel like I am, and El Cosmico granted me that desire.

Nearly every vacation I took as a boy entailed camping. Year after year, the campgrounds remained the same — Fall Creek Falls and Cades Cove in Tennessee, the Myrtle Beach Trav-L-Park in South Carolina — but my family’s accommodations kept evolving. We began in a 1978 Ford F-150 pickup truck with a fiberglass camper top; my parents slept atop a piece of foam in the truckbed, and I slept crossways above them on a piece of plywood. Later my parents moved into to a canvas Coleman tent, and I moved down to the big foam in the truck. Next came an Apache pop-up camper, then a bigger Apache pop-up camper, both of which had tiny sinks and stoves and fridges. Finally, the coup de gras: a 21-foot Coachman trailer that belonged to my granddad; it had a shower and a microwave, even curtains.

The teepee, though, was a quantum leap for me. It is the most sublime form of camping I have ever experienced. I would go so far to say my night with Jill in the teepee, warmed and illuminated by fire, sleeping beneath a Bolivian wool blanket, the dogs curled up at our side, made for the most memorable accommodations of our trip — and maybe my entire life.

(Jill and I also tried out one of El Cosmico’s yurt-like “eco shacks” — with their white fabric walls and bamboo floors — but after two nights in the teepee it was like relocating to the camel-tender’s tent from the sultan’s quarters. The yurts are groovy, but they lack panache.)

Aside from the teepee, my favorite thing about El Cosmico is its bathhouse. At many campgrounds, bathhouses are cesspools of dread. They tend to be dank and dirty, besmirched by puddles of other people’s shower runoff and strands of other people’s body hair. Cobwebs span nearly every right angle, and all manner of critters — spiders, beetles, roaches, frogs, lizards, slugs — creep across tile floors.

Not so the bathhouse at El Cosmico. It’s an open-air structure with concrete floors, exposed plumbing and truncated walls of slatted wood. Sunlight (or moonlight, depending) seeps through the wood slats, and the West Texas wind keeps everything relatively fresh and dry. Unisex bathroom stalls and showers — separated by canvas-and-rope privacy curtains — might make overly prudish persons feel awkward, but I enjoyed the invigorating sensation of showering outdoors. (Jill was less enamored of the facilities but still agreed to the idea of building an open-air shower in our backyard when we return home to Phoenix.)

The teepee and bathhouse compensate for El Cosmico’s imperfections, which are not few. There is little shade, thorny goatheads cover the grounds (that sucked for the dogs), and none of the trailers is equipped with air conditioning.

And the lifelong camper in me questions some of designers’ logic, wondering things like, “They ran a water line to that trailer, so why not extend it 30 feet and put a spigot near the teepee?” Or, “Why put a tub in the bathhouse? Who wants to use a communal bathtub?” Or, “I’m cool with the outdoor kitchen being way out yonder, but a picnic table or two would be nice over here.”

But El Cosmico is still in its infancy — it opened in November 2009 — and I’m sure the kinks will be worked out soon enough. The place probably will never win over hotel snobs who blanche at the idea of showering in a bathhouse or salty campers who balk at spending $125 to stay in a 60-year old travel trailer, but it’s a hoot for everyone in between.

Still, if the folks who run El Cosmico want to alter the personal cosmos of every traveler who periodically longs to sleep somewhere besides his or her own bed, I can bolster their business plan with three simple words of advice: Build. More. Teepees.

Those suckers are heaven on Earth.

— Scott

There I am, on the side of a two-lane highway in rural West Texas — sweaty, dirty, hair in a bun. I can smell my feet, and I’m standing up. Yet, improbably, I’m looking into the windows of a Prada store.

It’s a small, square building with awnings that bear the Prada name. Inside, the fine handbags and shoes the Italian fashion label is famous for are neatly displayed.

But this roadside boutique isn’t really a boutique at all — it’s an art installation completed in 2005 by Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. It’s called “Prada Marfa” — even though it’s not quite in Marfa, Texas, but 35 miles down the road in Valentine.

I first learned about Prada Marfa through the images of Allison V. Smith, a Texas-based photographer who documented Marfa before it was cool to document Marfa. I fell in love with her perfect square photos, especially the one of the stucco and adobe structure on the side of the road.

As we drove along Highway 90, I knew the installation was nearby, but I didn’t know exactly where. This allowed me to experience Prada Marfa as I assume its creators intended — snapping my head around as we drove past at 80 miles per hour, then turning the car around to take a closer look.

The artsy town of Marfa is one of the destinations I’ve most wanted to see, and (much to Scott’s grumbling dismay), I rushed us through the Guadalupe Mountains to get to it.

Prada Marfa obviously doesn’t belong in this flat landscape of pastures, train tracks and tumble weeds. The building’s windows are large, the awnings are crisp, and lights illuminate the designer goods after nightfall. The artists who created this bizarre installation plan to let it slowly disintegrate into the natural landscape. Barring a twister, the building could stand for a millennium, outlasting even Prada itself. (In case you’re wondering, Prada Marfa has not escaped vandals. Three days after its completion thieves made off with 14 right-footed shoes and six handbags. The graffiti has since been painted over and the store “restocked.”)

In my current life as a road tripper, I have no need for high heels or luxury fashions. I think about the $750 price tag for a pair of Prada shoes, and I calculate that it equates to two week’s worth of accommodations, meals and gas. There are no designer shoes back in my closet in Phoenix, either, and I only know one person who actually owns Pradas. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t love a pair — they’re beautiful.

Once, while picking through the cluttered shoe aisles at Nordstrom’s Last Chance, I actually got to touch a pair of Pradas. They were black pumps, precariously resting at the top of the size 7 rack. I think I may have gasped. I tried them on and took a few steps, admiring the shoes’ beauty below the frayed hem of my Gap jeans. They were marked down to $295 from $900. I put them back on the rack.

I’m not one of those people who scoffs at the extravagancies of high fashion. I respect it. In my most recent job, I photographed fashion. I drew inspiration from the incredibly stylish women I worked with, all of whom treated their ensembles like works of art. To me, that’s what high fashion is — art. That’s why I think Prada Marfa so smart.

Preserved inside this little stucco building on a straight-as-an-arrow highway in West Texas, these gorgeous goods are more apt to be admired than coveted. There are no price tags, no shoppers, no trappings of materialism. The doors don’t open — for anybody. You can’t pick up a pair of heels and say, “I would never pay that for a pair of shoes,” and you can’t judge someone who would. These Pradas are still out of reach — but they’re out of reach the way a Michelangelo painting is out of reach. The concept of “buying power” has been rendered powerless.

I’ll never attain Prada shoes, but at least I finally have a photograph of Prada Marfa. My photo is not as good as Allison V. Smith’s, but it’s a memory and a feeling and a piece of art all rolled into one, and those are the things I really covet.


Sometimes a girl just needs a kitchen. I don’t care what degree of feminist I claim to be, it’s in my blood to want a stove, a fridge and some beautiful food to prepare. When you’re on the road, this sort of urge is difficult to satisfy.

So far on this journey I’ve made sandwiches on the hood of the car, let goat cheese go bad in our cooler and mastered an Italian sausage pasta using small backpacking pots. I’ve poured many bowls of cold cereal in motel rooms, and botched a vegetable-filled omelette atop a wet picnic table. And I’ve had to wash every dish in a stream, beneath a campground spigot or in a bathroom sink.

But one glorious night in Roswell, N.M, I found myself in a fully equipped kitchen, chopping lettuce for a salad, prepping potatoes for baking, and seasoning a T-bone for the stainless gas grill outside. And when it was all over, I loaded the dishes in a dishwasher and pushed a button. It was awesome.

I have Britt and Veronica of Cozy Cowboy Cottage Rentals to thank for my night of domestic bliss. Scott and I weren’t finding much by way of lodging in Roswell other than chain hotels. On a whim, we searched online for vacation rentals — even though we were going to be in town for only one night. We found an inviting studio apartment, but it was a 30-day rental. Scott sent an e-mail anyway, and we were surprised by Brit and Veronica’s reply. The studio wasn’t available, but a bigger place was.

This is how we ended up in the “Roswell House Moderne,” a two-story, three-bedroom home with a fenced backyard — for $50 cash. Britt and Veronica apologized that the cable TV and phone weren’t in service, but we didn’t care. The house was way more than we needed, and the washer and dryer were almost as much of a godsend as the kitchen.

We had intentions of checking out downtown Roswell’s hokey alien attractions, but we abandoned those intentions after seeing the House Moderne’s backyard. Instead, we kicked off our shoes and sat in the sunshine, reading our books as the dogs snored by our sides. Later we enjoyed a candlelit dinner on the patio, and I took a bubble bath.

Basically, we played house far away from home. It was nice.

I could probably road trip for the rest of my life. I love traveling. I love camping. But every once in a while, I need to work through a natural desire to nest. This alien environment allowed me to do that, and I moved on, feeling refreshed.


The highway from Alamogordo, N.M., to White Sands National Monument is straighter than a country preacher and patched with black tar. The tar patches, stretching before us in a continuous squiggle of crests and troughs and splotches, called to mind a line of Arabic characters. I imagined they spelled out ancient wisdom, or maybe a warning, as if a Muslim cleric were in charge of road maintenance here and considered the work sacred.

This day-dreamy mental lurch was no doubt influenced by the Saharan vision on the horizon: a hazy expanse of sand dunes that came into more crystalline focus with each passing mile. It was an anti-mirage — a rifle-sight view of endless sand between a blurred corridor of gas stations, drug stores and tattoo parlors. A strong tailwind gave me the sensation the car was being sucked forward by this sea of sand. The air that curled into my open window tingled the hair on my forearm and dried my lips. I was terribly thirsty.

White Sands National Monument is surely one of our country’s oddest federally protected natural attractions. The 275 square miles of dunes that constitute the monument seem strikingly out of place, even in the rugged landscape of southern New Mexico. Smooth and elegant and rhythmic, the waves of sand stand in stark contrast Alamogordo’s cluttered cityscape and the lumpy peaks of the Sacramento and San Andreas mountains. It’s as if God busted a brobdingnagian hourglass above the valley and then did a half-ass job of blowing the glittery, granular mess away.

Adding to the monument’s surreality is a couple of neighbors prone to secretive maneuverings and roaring backyard parties. White Sands Missile Range has been known to disturb the dunes with errant missiles (oops), while Holloman Air Force Base occasionally punctures the monument’s tranquility with a sonic boom.

But neither missiles nor jets can compare to the splitting of atoms. A once-secret site in the northern reaches of the missile range is where, in the pre-dawn hours of July 16, 1945, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb. The historic big bang vaporized steel, turned sand to glass and shattered windows 120 miles away. It also, of course, changed the world. The dunes near ground zero still carry a trace of radiation from the 65-year-old test blast.

That’s a heavy backstory for a place where children now spend sunny days sliding down dunes atop plastic sleds and flattened cardboard boxes.

Make no mistake: For all its geological weirdness and military history, the number one reason people come to White Sands National Monument is to play in the sand. I lived in New Mexico for four years and have visited White Sands on several occasions, each time making the obligatory tour of the visitor center to learn how the dunes are formed and what critters and plants survive in them. But the monument’s visitor center is one of those rare museum-like environments where my Inner Child bullies my Inner Nerd away from the exhibits and out the door.

A fact about White Sands that both my Inner Nerd and Inner Child can appreciate is that the dunes are made of gypsum crystals, which, unlike the quartz sand of most beaches, do not readily convert the sun’s energy into heat. That means the sand usually feels cool to the touch and you can tromp across it bare-footed during the hottest of summer days.

One other fun fact about the gypsum: It’s actually translucent, not white. But as the wind bounces the sand crystals along the ground, they collide and scratch each other. The scratches alter the way light reflects off the grains, making the sand appear white to our eyes.

That gypsum is really what makes White Sands unique. Tom Charles, an Alamogordo insurance agent who in the early 1930s led a movement to make the dunes a national monument instead of a mineral factory, argued that “gypsum may be divided into two classes — commercial and inspirational. The former everybody has, but as for recreational gypsum, we have it all. No place else in the world do you find these alabaster dunes with the beauty and splendor of the Great White Sands.”

Charles’ logic won out. President Hebert Hoover proclaimed the dunes a national monument in 1933, creating a sandbox of mythical proportions for future visitors to enjoy, and, more immediately, providing construction jobs during the dark days of the Great Depression. When FDR took office, his Works Progress Administration crews quickly got to work building the visitor center, public restrooms, maintenance facilities and park residences — all of which are still in use today.

Those WPA restrooms were a welcome sight after the long drive to the monument from Magdalena. We would need to avail ourselves of them again four hours later, after consuming a gallon of water while playing in the dunes. We had a blast. Isabel frolicked in the sand like Scrooge McDuck in a pile of gold. Jack’s thunderous paws scratched more gypsum than a week’s worth of windstorms. And, like a child, I badgered Jill to take my picture as I leaped from the crest of the tallest dunes I could find.

We watched the moon rise and the sun set, and somehow managed to get back to our car without losing our way in the blanched landscape of confusing sameness.

Back on the highway, my calves ached. Grains of sand shifted in my underwear. The dogs slept the sleep of the dead. The car wheels whirred hypnotically on the roadbed as Arabic tar scripture passed between them.

I wanted to think the tar held a sage message for weary, happy travelers like us, but I’ll be damned if I could decipher it. I just pointed the car toward Texas and put my bare, sandy foot to the gas pedal.

— Scott

I have no business evaluating restaurants, in a blog post or Yelp! rant or any other published medium. The reason is simple: I have the palate of a child.

I start my mornings with sugary cereal. I inwardly cringe when foods touch on my plate. And under no circumstance does a vegetable pass my lips. Jill diplomatically describes me a “meat and potatoes” guy, but this categorization is too expansive. I’m really just a meat guy; potatoes, to me, are overkill.

So when Jill suggested I write a little something about our visit to Jocko’s steakhouse in Nipomo, Calif., I was hesitant. She might as well have asked me to submit an article to Architectural Digest based on my prepubescent reputation as a masterful Lego builder. My lack of sophistication in gastronomical matters is laughable, really. I can’t tell an artichoke from an asparagus, and I don’t even know what most brightly colored foods taste like.

But I’ll tell you what, despite these inadequacies, there’s one thing I’m comfortable stating with supreme confidence: Californians don’t know shit about barbecue.

I came to this conclusion after driving through the Central Valley and passing a slew of restaurants with neon “BBQ” signs hung in front of them. The first time I saw such a sign, my heart leapt. I assumed, reasonably, that a Southerner had moved to town, built a pit, found a supply of hardwood, and was now smoking pork and sausage and brisket to the delight of a new and appreciative audience.

But after passing another “BBQ” sign, then another and another, I realized there couldn’t be that many transplanted Southerners populating the same swath of the state. Something smelled — and it wasn’t hickory smoke and pork fat.

What I soon figured out is that Californians confuse barbecuing meat with grilling it. All those California restaurants with “BBQ” signs? They’re actually steak joints. Nary a one serves pulled pork with a tangy, vinegar-based barbecue sauce.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with steak — I love steak — but these days I can’t afford to eat one. Words matter to a hungry traveler on a budget, so shame on the Golden State for false advertising.

The facts: In this country, barbecuing means cooking meat with hardwood smoke over indirect heat. Grilling, on the other hand, refers to cooking meat directly over hot coals or flames. I’ve heard and read several theories about the origin of barbecuing, but the most credible concerns a culinary exchange between American Indians and Spanish colonists five centuries ago in what is now South Carolina. The Spanish introduced pigs to the New World, and the Indians showed them how to slow-cook one with smoke. A delicacy was born.

What Indians and colonists were doing in the 1500s “barbecuers” in Californian still aren’t doing today. But just because Californians don’t know what they’re cooking doesn’t mean what they’re cooking isn’t good. Take Jocko’s, a restaurant one of Jill’s old high-school friends practically demanded we visit when she learned we were holed up in a dive motel in nearby Pismo Beach. Jocko’s menu proclaims the restaurant has been serving barbecue since the 1950s, but in reality Jocko’s specializes in grilled meats — lamb chops, pork chops, chicken, spare ribs, linguisa and, above all, steaks.

Jocko’s is special-occasion dining for locals, most of whom work on vineyards or ranches or farms. These are the sort of folks who put product before presentation and value good food over frills. You don’t get a lot of the latter at Jocko’s. If not for the dimly lit bar you see when you open the front door, you might think you’d walked into a church basement for a potluck social. The walls are block, the light yellow. Laminated-wood tabletops are set with paper placemats, and water is served in textured plastic tumblers like the ones used in your neighborhood Pizza Hut back in 1978.

The service moseys a fine line between no-nonsense efficiency and homespun apathy. Our waitress, tall and brusque, possessed the jawline of Linda Hamilton and the tableside manner of Murphy Brown. When she forgot to bring the root beer I ordered, I was a little afraid to call it to her attention.

The steaks at Jocko’s start at 20 bucks. I ordered the “Large Spencer” and kissed three days’ worth of budgeted meal money goodbye. The steak — a massive, bone-in ribeye — turned out to be a worthwhile splurge, arriving charred on the edges and glistening as though dipped in lacquer. It was a little tough for a thick steak prepared medium rare, but its smoky flavor and aroma overshadowed the sinewy texture. It’s not the best steak I’ve ever eaten (that title is held by the bone-in ribeye I once had the pleasure of masticating at Talavera in Arizona), but it made for the tastiest dinner I’ve had on this trip.

At meal’s end, I fetched a toothpick and wandered out back where the magic happens at Jocko’s: at a pair of open-air, brick pits that adjoin the long, narrow kitchen. There I found grill man Aubrey Mayo presiding over a raging oak fire. Several steaks sizzled on a crisscrossed iron grate about a foot and a half above the flame, and Mayo controlled the grate’s height via a simple pulley system. The pit was hot. I leaned against the back wall and was rewarded a soot stain on my t-shirt.

Mayo told me he cooks 400 to 500 steaks “on a good day,” and about 1,000 on Mothers Day and Fathers Day. He is one of only two men who mans the grill at Jocko’s. He rose to the job when his predecessor retired with a torn rotator cuff after turning steaks for 19 years. I detected a Southern tinge to Mayo’s accent and asked him where he was from. “Elizabeth City, North Carolina,” he said. “Been out here for about seven years.”

Mayo has a gift for cooking multiple orders of meat while carrying on easy conversation with a curious stranger. He is obviously used to the presence of onlookers. Like the grill at a backyard cookout, the pit at Jocko’s tends to attract manly loiterers who feel all the more manly for the loitering. As I chatted with Mayo, a fellow with a receding hairline and protruding paunch swaggered out from the dining room. Addressing me but speaking loudly enough for Mayo to hear him over the crackling fire and sizzling steaks, he volunteered that he had come to Jocko’s all the way from Pasadena. “They make the best steak I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve been all over the damn place,” he said. “You just can’t beat the beef that comes from this part of the country.”

Mayo turned a steak without looking up. When the paunchy fellow left, Mayo confided to me that Jocko’s doesn’t actually get its beef from California suppliers — it comes from a ranch in Colorado and has for the past 35 years. But visitors to Jocko’s bar room will still find local cattle brands burned into the pine-paneled walls. Another example of Californian false advertising, I guess.

After being entrusted with this mildly conspiratorial fact and having previously established that Mayo and I are fellow Southerners, I finally posed the question I had been dying to ask the grill man: Why did Jocko’s and other California steakhouses categorize the meat he was cooking as barbecue?

Mayo smiled behind a haze of gray smoke. “I don’t know,” he said. “They don’t call this barbecue where I’m from. But Californians sign my checks, so I’ll call it what they want.”

— Scott