Freeport, Texas was merely a pit stop on our path eastward. Neither of us had seen the Texas coastline, and we were due for a night of camping — both for our souls and our budget. As always, we seemed to be the last guests to arrive at the campground — this one Quintana Beach County Park — but at least, for once, we were able to pitch our tent and cook dinner before dark. We also were happy to see a flat expanse of grass, which is a luxury for tent campers accustomed to sleeping atop dirt and rock and roots. The dogs chased seagulls across the open field, and later zigzagged through the sand in pursuit of crabs during a late-night walk on the beach. It was a perfect pit stop, and it set us back only 17 bucks.


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

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.


Jill and I are not cool enough for the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, and it would be deceitful to pretend otherwise. But we keep coming back anyway.

We were naïve enough to think we “discovered” the Ace last spring during a weekend visit to Palm Springs. Jill got a tip about the place from a Los Angeles-based model she photographed during a fashion shoot. That should have been our first clue we were about to wander too deep into the hip end of the pool, but we were blinded by the promise of $89 rates.

Unlike the Hotel Congress, the subject of an earlier post, the Ace’s coolness is not the product of historical preservation. Rather, it’s the result of a Weird Science-style experiment in hotel design by a group of impossibly young and stylish entrepreneurs from Seattle. The principal visionary behind Ace Hotels, Alex Calderwood, used to throw warehouse parties in that city during the grungy heyday of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, et al. Seattle is also the site of the flagship Ace Hotel, which occupies a former halfway house and features shared bathrooms.

The Ace in Palm Springs used to be a Howard Johnson back in the ’60s, and the hotel’s accompanying restaurant, King’s Highway, was formerly a Denny’s. But the only legacy the Ace preserves from its predecessors is negative space; beyond rooflines and room volumes, the hotel is a wholly new creation.

A stuffed coyote wearing a pearl necklace stalks you at reception. A snow-cone stand sits beside the swimming pool. A record player and stacks of vintage vinyl await you in your room. If W is the Pussycat Doll of hotel brands, Ace is the André 3000.

There are indeed $89 rooms to be had at the Ace, but only nine of them, and none allows pets. The hotel’s dog-friendly rooms are located on the lower level and have enclosed patios with gas fireplaces and L-shaped couches. These rooms, however, are considerably more expensive, especially during Palm Springs’ spring tourist season. And a $350 hotel room is not in our budget.

But one lesson of road travel is that Lady Luck often will smile on you if you simply introduce yourself and exchange a few pleasant words. This is what happened to Jill and me on the night of the Academy Awards, when our heads rested inside a tent at Joshua Tree National Park but our hearts longed to watch the Oscar telecast. With a dark, cold evening ahead of us, we decided to make the half-hour drive to Palm Springs in search of a TV. We thought we might find one at the Ace’s bar. We were right.

That bar, called the Amigo Room, sits atop the desert floor, but it feels like the underground lair of a Mexican outlaw. The brick walls are painted greasy black, and every tabletop is inlaid with old Pesos. The barkeep said the flat-screen TV mounted at the end of the dark room was installed in anticipation of Oscar-night patronage.

During a couple of commercial breaks I went out to the car to rouse our sleeping dogs, and each time I made small talk with the hotel’s friendly front office manager, Sean. Tipped off by our outdoorsy duds and loaded-down vehicle, Sean deduced that we were camping. I told him about our trip and how earlier in the day we saw snow at Joshua Tree. “It’s supposed to get down in the 20s tonight,” I said.

“You guys should stay here,” Sean replied.

“Well, we’d love to. If only those lousy dogs didn’t keep us out of the cheap rooms. The last time we were here, back when y’all first opened, we loved it.”

I wasn’t fishing for a discount, not at all, but Sean lobbed one at me anyway. “We like to take care of our repeat guests. I could probably go 99 dollars for you on one of our patio rooms.”

A $99 hotel room is not in our budget, either, and our sleeping bags were already awaiting us us back at Joshua Tree. But after three days of camping in an icy wind, a gas fireplace and hot shower sounded awfully good. I asked Sean if his offer would stand the following night, and he said it would. Jill, who had been a study in rosy cheeks and clenched shoulders since the Colorado Plateau, was thrilled.

The irony of us taking a hiatus from campgrounds to stay at the Ace is that campground-style living inspired the Ace’s design. “There are elements of camping, elements of communal living, elements of nature,” Roman Alonso of the design firm Commune, which created the Ace’s aesthetic, said of the hotel in an Los Angeles Times article.

The patios certainly reflect that back-to-nature vibe, but the rooms’ décor seems to answer the call of the sea. You can stare at the walls all you want, but you won’t see any; that’s because they’re covered by canvas sailcloth and louvered panels. You don’t feel like you’re staying in a retrofitted Howard Johnson as much you feel you’ve ventured below beck on the yacht of a flamboyant record executive — maybe David Geffen — in the year 1979. Only the faux animal skins on the floor and the Willie Nelson album next to the turntable reel you back into Far West reality.

Jill and I might not be cool enough for the Ace, but we sure dig it. We especially enjoyed sitting in the hot tub and sunbathing next to the pool less than 24 hours after shivering amid snow-dusted Joshua trees. (An aside: The pool towels at the Ace Swim Club are like soft-spun crack. I might pay 99 bucks just to curl up in a warm pile of them.)

The only real complaint I have about the place concerns the restaurant’s breakfast menu. Ricotta hotcakes? Irish porridge? Coconut-bread French toast? Organic or not, such foo-foo fare makes me want to hurl all over David Geffen’s sailcloth. Give me a Denny’s Grand Slam any day.

But, heck, push-button fireplaces on the patio and L.A. models on the pool deck more than offset posh porridge and $8 French toast. All you Phoenix folks out there should definitely deal yourself an Ace weekend sometime. It’s a short drive, and you can stop at Joshua Tree on the way. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you spot a coyote accessorized like Barbara Bush.

If Sean is behind the front desk, tell him the guy from Tennessee who warmed his pizza in the patio fireplace sent you. A poser like me can use all the Ace points he can get.


Two months into our trip and a scant 200 miles from our home in Phoenix, I feared it was all over. Jill was studying for-sale flyers in front of houses and surveying plots in the community garden. The dogs were smiling and running loose on gravel roads. I found myself gazing toward the mountains of Mexico and imaging a life less transitory.

We were in Patagonia, Ariz., and we were in love.

Patagonia takes its name from the Patagonia mountain range south of town, which in turn takes its name from the Patagonia Mine that was discovered inside the mountains in the mid 1800s. How the mine got its name neither locals nor the Interweb seems to know. Patagonia’s historical tale features the usual Southwestern players (American Indians, Spanish missionaries, homesteaders, prospectors, cowboys) and props (open space, ore, cattle, train rails), and during its heyday the town was a supply hub for nearby mining camps and ranches. Nowadays, about 800 people live in Patagonia. The mining camps are ghost towns, and the old train depot is a city park.

Jill and I never planned to visit Patagonia, except maybe for a meal. Our intended destination was Patagonia Lake State Park, about 7 miles southwest of town. But when rain started smacking the windshield as we drove along Highway 82, we reached for our iPhones and began exploring other accommodation options. The option we settled on was a 50-foot trailer parked next to the Patagonia Public Library.

Listed on the Patagonia Area Business Association’s website as a “vacation home,” our room for the night was actually a 1958 Spartan Imperial Villa Travelcoach. The owners of this vintage trailer have christened it “Dos Palmas” in honor of the two palm trees that tower above its patio. When Jill and I arrived, these palms swayed in unison as raindrops pelted the trailer’s silvery hull. We looked at each other and laughed. Then we released the hounds and made a break for the front door.

This particular travel trailer might no longer roll across America’s byways, but it is still transportive. To step inside is to step backwards through five decades. Floral carpet and bataan furniture adorn the living room. Fiestaware and Formica fill the kitchen. A vintage chenille bedspread with a needle-tufted peacock covers the bed. The principle design motif hails straight from “I Love Lucy.”

(In the interest of preserving my dudehood, it is necessary to point out that I heretofore had no clue about Fiestaware, chenille fabric or needle-tufting. Jill provided those details. I swear.)

Vintage ’50s décor typically doesn’t do much for me, but I have to say that Dos Palmas provided us especially cozy shelter from the storm. I felt like a raggedy tent camper waiting out the rain inside the neighboring trailer of some old lady — except the only old lady on hand was mine. And she’s super hot.

Here’s the thing about my old lady, though: When a place makes her happy, she starts dreaming and scheming. She starts envisioning a new future woven from the wispy pleasures of the immediate present. She starts settling in.

“We could totally live in something like this,” Jill said. I followed her voice to the back of the trailer. I found her lounging across the needle-tufted peacock, her own tail feathers figuratively fanned out in a display of self-assurance. We had barely unloaded the car.

“Are you serious? I would kill you.”

And I would. As I enumerated in an earlier post, The Universe of Jill, like the Soviet Union under Stalin, has a tendency to push its borders outward with startling speed and carelessness. This doesn’t jive with trailer life, where the mere act of not cleaning the kitchen after a meal can make you feel like a hoarder worthy of cable TV. No trailer, even a 50-foot one, is suited to Jill’s ever-expanding menagerie of cords and hairpins and panties.

But a funny thing happened as we lingered in Patagonia and Dos Palmas for another night, and then another, and then two more: I came around to Jill’s point of view.

For one, the Spartan’s narrow confines and clever hidey-holes induced Jill to keep her things in fastidious order, which kept me off the precipice of claustrophobia and brought me great joy. More importantly, this long trailer in little Patagonia jelled with our new worldview.

If this trip has done anything for us, it’s increased our love for simple things and our desire to live more simply when we get back home. Dos Palmas had everything we needed and nothing we didn’t. A simple place to sleep. A simple place to cook. A simple place to bathe. Outside, there was a gas grill, a fenced yard for the mutts, and a shed with a washer and dryer. Next door was a magical public library where neighborhood dogs roamed the aisles and Gandalf-bearded old men checked their e-mail. (On my third visit to the library, a little boy in the children’s section belted out the entire lyrics to “Black Betty” by Ram Jam. If that’s not a selling point for Patagonia, I don’t know what is.)

Once the rain gave way to the Southern Arizona sunshine, Jill and I didn’t spend much time inside the trailer; but the time we did spend there — reading by the little windows, lunching at the little kitchen table, watching nightly movies on the little TV — was extraordinarily peaceful. Maybe there’s a theory to be posited here: that the simpler your home, the less time you will spend inside it — but the more rewarding that time will be. Big houses with lots of stuff in them only tie you down, make you soft, hinder you from meeting new people and seeing new scenes. Maybe the world needs more trailers.

Getting outside in Patagonia is a no-brainer. There’s a nature preserve, a national forest and a terminus for the Arizona Trail. And when the day’s done, places like the Velvet Elvis Pizza Company and Wagon Wheel Saloon conspire to keep you away from the trailer just a little longer.

Patagonia fit us. And neither pounding rain, nor a mountain-bike wreck, nor tales of Mexican drug-gang violence could dissuade Jill from pricing property near the Dos Palmas’ lot. It’s pretty cheap by Phoenix standards, even post housing bust. If I turned to Jill tomorrow and said, “Darlin’, let’s sell the house, buy a lot in Patagonia, and go live in a trailer,” I’m pretty she would do it. In fact, I know she would.

But I’m keeping my mouth shut. At least for another eight months.