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.


Bisbee, Arizona is filled with artistic people. Painters. Metallurgists. Sculptors. Jewelry makers. And far-out folks whose work simply makes you scratch your head and ask, “What is it?” Then there there’s Mark Hundley, co-owner of the Teeny Tiny Toy Store on Main Street. Hundley designs and sews stuffed toys.

Hundley’s creations look like long-lost cousins of the monsters in “Where the Wild Things Are.” They’re called Stitches, and they seem bound by no rules: Some are sweet, some are sad; some look like aliens from another planet, some look like critters from your backyard. They are their own breed of quirky.

As of yesterday at 2:40 p.m., Hundley had created 4,623 unique dolls. He constructs these irresistibly squeezable creatures out of recycled vintage fabrics, stitching each one on an antique Singer sewing machine he received in trade for making a tomato costume for a friend. He finishes every doll by hand.

His work fits into the movement of hip-kid crafters and assemblage artists. He is prime material for the pages of Ready Made magazine, which celebrates the remaking and reshaping of found materials into art for a new generation. My generation, I guess.

Teeny Tiny Toy Store, which Hundley shares with fellow artist Hywel Logan, comes by its name honestly — it’s about the size of a walk-in-closet. Hundley and Logan use the space as both store and studio. The shop’s shelves are tidy, and Logan’s paintings hang wherever there’s a free spot on the walls. Hundley’s distinctive Stitches are perched at eye level next to brand-name toys — including an Alfred Hitchcock “The Birds” Barbie. The shop also sells action figures, wind-up robots and handmade President Obama dolls.

If, like me, you have an affinity (or weakness) for fun, artisan-crafted gifts, take a teeny tiny minute to check out the Teeny Tiny Toy Store, as well as Hundley’s etsy shop.


I like hats. Packed away in a closet back home is a box containing a stack of them — fedoras, porkpies and trilbies, molded of felt and straw and fabric. But nearly none of these hats has graced my head in public. That’s because it takes a certain man — Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Depp — to do justice to classic headwear, and I, tragically, am not that kind of man.

I brought only one hat on this trip: a trucker cap Jill purchased for me at a Lucero concert when trucker caps were still stylishly ironical. I figure I’m allowed to wear a trucker hat past its ironical prime, because (1) I also wore a trucker hat before its ironical prime and (2) I presently spend a lot of time with the pedal to the metal.

My current cap has a burnt-oil-black crown and a mesh back the color and sheen of runny oatmeal. It’s a good hat for concealing unwashed hair, and it suits me around the campfire or atop a barroom stool. But it felt completely inadequate atop my head when I walked into Óptimo Custom Hatworks in Bisbee, Ariz.

Óptimo Custom Hatworks is the kind of specialty shop that restores character to boom-and-bust mining towns like Bisbee, where precious metal and historian’s ink tend to exhaust themselves at the same pace. When the Phelps Dodge Corporation, after 90 years, finally ceased its copper-mining operation in Bisbee in 1975, the town probably should have faded into obscurity. But it didn’t. Instead, artists filled the void, nesting like opportunistic sparrows in the miners’ empty homes and transforming boarded-up shops into studios and galleries.

Stephen Grant Sergot is one of those artists. But his medium isn’t paint or stone — it’s felt and straw. And Óptimo Custom Hatworks is both his gallery and studio.

If Don Draper or Indiana Jones owned the world and dictated its fashion, Sergot would be a god. The gentleman knows hats. He knows how to shape them, how to clean them, how to restore them. He knows how to fit them to head shapes and facial features and body types. He is a student of hat history and a connoisseur hat couture.

I spent more than an hour in Sergot’s company as Jill photographed him and his shop, and in that time I observed him handle a hat one of only two ways: with care or with purpose. There was something almost sensual about the way he touched the elegantly dented crown of a Tom Mix cowboy hat, tracing its stiff ridges and gentle curves with impeccably manicured fingers. It was impossible not to watch, but it seemed indecent to stare.

Sergot himself has the look of a fine hat — all symmetry and crisp edges. He wears a dove-gray beard trimmed close, like brushed felt, and his Western-style attire is tastefully adorned with smooth leather and pearly buttons.

Sergot dresses with precision, moves with precision, speaks with precision — even smiles with precision — and Óptimo Custom Hatworks is a reflection of his personality and craftsmanship. Much to Jill’s camera-wielding delight, the place is lit like a museum and the hats are displayed like sculptures. Some are perched atop ash pedestals stained to a mahogany patina (Sergot made them himself, out of piano legs), while others rest inside cases of smudgeless glass. Hats within reach of browsers bear sticky notes that read “Please Do Not Handle.”

Contrary to the shop’s Bisbee location and Sergot’s adopted Southwestern style (he’s a native Michigander), delicately woven Panama hats account for most of the headwear on display. These are Sergot’s specialty and passion. I asked him why, and he recounted a story about discovering his first Panama hat at an estate sale in Cave Creek, Ariz., in 1972.

“It was sitting in a milk crate, shimmering in the sun,” he said. “I picked it up, worked my hands around it, felt the back weave of the brim edge. There was no wire on the brim edge. It was a wonderful, wonderful texture — malleable yet durable.”

He bought the Panama at auction for $15, and thus began a love affair between man and hat.

From listening to Sergot chat with customers who wandered into his shop, I learned that Panama hats are not actually made in Panama. They come from Ecuador. They acquired the moniker “Panama” because laborers constructing the Panama Canal wore them to shield their faces from the sun. The name stuck after Teddy Roosevelt was photographed in one of the hats during a 1906 visit to the canal and the New York Times described it as a “Panama hat.”

Most people who enter Óptimo Custom Hatworks are gawkers and loiterers and tourists. Sergot has observed their behavior for 30 years, and that has no doubt influenced his interactions with would-be customers. Sometimes, when the tiny bell rings above the shop door, he barely looks up from his work; other times, he slides easily into salesman mode.

A favorite routine is explaining to a shopper that hat fitting is all about proportion — that a wide-brimmed hat balances, and even slims, the profile of man with a large belly. If a customer seems serious about a hat purchase, Sergot might come around the counter and measure the man’s (or woman’s) head with a “conformer,” a Victorian-era device that resembles a top hat built from ancient typewriter innards.

As earnest as Sergot is about his craft, I can’t help thinking he would have been a suave snake-oil salesmen back in days when copper was first discovered in Bisbee’s hills. His manner is confident and practiced; his eyes are easily set atwinkle. Donald Sutherland would play him in the film. Or maybe Richard Dreyfuss.

Sergot’s beguiling comportment also extends to journalists. When I asked him how he got his start as a hatter, he unspooled a fascinating story about migrating from Michigan in a truck with two dogs, stopping to pick up a hitchhiker near the rim of the Grand Canyon, getting bogged down in the mud and finding an old felt hat in a ditch. The hat had bite marks on it — “could have been pack rats,” Sergot theorized — but he threw it in the truck anyway, and later put it on while waiting out a storm in Supai, Ariz.

“I’m sitting around a juniper fire, and I’m wearing a poncho and this old felt hat, and these big, wet snowflakes started making the hat wet,” he said. “The brim started changing shape. So I started doing things to it, to try to gutter the water out the front and back. … I laid it on the dashboard overnight, and the next day the sun started to dry it. Once it got very dry, I couldn’t do anything more to it. So that night I put the tea kettle on the fire, and got some steam rolling out, and started steaming the hat and realized, ‘Hey, this is how you do it.’”

It’s a creation story of almost biblical perfection, and you can read strikingly similar versions of it in the “History and Media Kit” section of Óptimo’s website, or in any one of the framed magazine articles that hang on the wall of Sergot’s shop. The guy is nothing if not media savvy. He even showed me a piece of notebook paper on which he has written his responses — augmented with wisecracks — to the most common questions he gets from reporters.

But savvy works for Sergot, and his beautiful hattery works for Bisbee. Case in point: While he was graciously tolerating Jill’s clacking shutter and my drawling questions, a middle-aged couple from British Columbia entered the shop. They said they had been to Óptimo seven years ago, but Sergot was on vacation and an assistant was manning the store.

“We’ve been waiting seven years to come back,” said the male half of the couple. “We rolled into town 20 minutes ago, and this is our first stop.” Sergot smiled and reached for his Victorian conformer. It was showtime at Óptimo — and it was a cue for Jill and I to move on.

Before I pushed open the door, I took one last, longing gaze at the rows of hats hanging on the wall. A gray cowboy hat with a flat brim and open crown called to me. It had called to me since I first set foot in the shop, tempting me to make an impulse purchase, to have Sergot expertly shape it to my noggin for the road ahead, which, after all, led through New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana — cowboy-hat places if there ever were any.

But I hadn’t even tried the hat on. I was too shy to ask, and now it was too late. So I pulled my trucker cap low over my eyes and re-entered Bisbee’s sun-glinted world of art galleries, antique stores and curio shops.

Those other joints might keep Bisbee’s sidewalks bustling with tourists and window shoppers, but it is people like Grant Sergot and places like Óptimo that prevent the town from descending, like a rickety mine car, into a black maw of homogeneous quaintness.

Somebody in Bisbee should tip a hat to that.


The cracked concrete and peeling paint of Bisbee’s exteriors is eye candy for a photographer with a Holga camera. This old copper-mining town is roughly aged, yet an influx of artists has dusted off the grit just enough to uncover the place’s quirk and class. Bisbee is a blend of the antiquated, new age and plain ol’ old. It’s the perfect subject for a camera that prides itself on recreating photographs from the past, with square negatives, faded colors and random imperfections.

Created in the early 1980s as a medium-format toy camera, the Holga has attracted a cult following. It’s a lightweight, plastic, film camera that requires little technical skill. All you need is a daydreamer’s curiosity and some sunshine. All of this kid-like fun can be had for 30 bucks, plus the cost of film. It brings us photographers back to the days before DPI, RAW and JPEG. It’s just shooting because you love taking pictures.

The best part of shooting with a Holga is not knowing exactly what you’ll get. You see, because of its fantastic plastic construction, the Holga leaks light. This will do one of two things to your photo: make it groovy or flat-out destroy it. In a photography world full of sure things and magical tricks—thanks to giant LCD screens, autofocus and Photoshop—the whimsical Holga makes me feel like a real rebel.


Biosphere 2, in Oracle, Ariz., is a bizarre and magnificent place, a temple of triangular glass and white steel erected on a high desert plain for the edification of space cowboys and the betterment of nerdkind.

On Sept. 26, 1991, eight humans locked themselves inside this futuristic structure in the name of science. They came out two years later, cantankerous and gaunt and pale as vellum.

For the uninitiated, Biosphere 2 is pure oddity; for aficionados of science, it is cause for pilgrimage. I suppose I fall into both categories: Jill will confirm that I blissfully vacillate between ignorance and geekiness depending on the mood of the day and the character of the roadside attraction at hand. So it didn’t surprise her when, after a pleasant picnic lunch at Catalina State Park, I decided we simply must see Biosphere 2 before departing metropolitan Tucson.

I drove like a bat out of hell to get there in time for the last guided tour of the day, cursing the traffic along Oracle Road, which is one of those scenic Arizona highways that has been besmirched by retail development. But if you drive northward far enough, the road narrows to one lane and the stoplights end, and there is little to distract you from snow-dusted beauty of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

It is here, on a 2,500-acre ranch in the shadow of Mount Lemmon, that Ed Bass, a Yale-educated venture capitalist from Texas, and John P. Allen, a Harvard-educated metallurgist from Oklahoma, built Biosphere 2 — an artificial ecological system they hoped might one day help humans colonize Mars.

Bass forked out $30 million to get the project off the ground in the mid ’80s, and the elaborate structure — which houses a rain forest, an ocean, a mangrove swamp, a savannah and a fog desert — took four years to construct. The four men and four women who entered Biosphere 2 in the fall of 1991 did so with the mission living inside this completely sealed ecosystem for two years, raising their own food and subsisting on recycled air and water.

All sorts of drama ensued. Ants preyed on pollinating insects. Birds died. Cockroaches prospered. Pet monkeys went rogue. Tribulations were even worse among the biosphere’s human inhabitants. Hunger was perpetual. Philosophies clashed. Romances formed and unraveled. Eventually, the eight crew members split into quarreling factions that ceased to speak to one another.

It was an epic experiment in reality TV, only without the TV.

America wasn’t able to watch back then, but anybody with $20 and a healthy curiosity can explore Biosphere 2 today. As billed, it resembles a miniature planet Earth, complete with trees and caves and a coral reef – a weird and wonderful terrarium in the middle of the desert. (In case you’re wondering, Biosphere 2’s name reflects its sequel status: Earth itself is considered “Biosphere 1.”)

While the five “biomes” of Biosphere 2 call to mind a fantastical movie set or Disneyland ride, the real genius of the place lies in its belly. The underground engineering that controls the biosphere’s “weather” — by raising and lowering air temperature and regulating moisture levels — is beyond my powers of description. Our tour guide mentioned more than once that the 3.15-acre structure is “sealed better than the space shuttle,” and perhaps its most fascinating bit of engineering — a pair of “lungs” that modulate air pressure caused by hot days and cold nights in the desert — is the subject of scores of scientific articles.

Unfortunately for the humans who lived inside Biosphere 2, none of this technological forethought could prevent oxygen levels inside the super-sealed structure from plummeting. The atmosphere came to resemble that of a 14,000-foot mountain, causing fatigue and sleep apnea among a crew already beset by caloric deficiency. This prompted the medical team to order an injection of oxygen into Biosphere 2 a month before the mission concluded.

A second biosphere mission was launched in 1994, but it was disbanded after just six months amid defection, sabotage and a visit by a federal marshal. Disheartened, the owners relinquished management of Biosphere 2 to Columbia University, which used the facility as a research site. Columbia pulled out in 2003, and the biosphere sat relatively dormant until its owners sold it to a real estate developer for $50 million in 2007. These days, the University of Arizona pays $100 annually to the developers to keep Biosphere 2 open.

The catch phrase for Biosphere 2 on its official website is “Where Science Lives.” But a more accurate motto might be “Where Science Crashes on the Couch” or “Where Science Stops by for a Cup of Tea.” Nominally, the university uses the structure to study climate change, but I suspect its real value lies in revenue generation as a tourist attraction and conference facility. Unscientifically, I counted hundreds of tour goers and zero researchers during my visit.

About that tour experience: Throughout it, sunshine and cottony clouds were visible through the biosphere’s geodesic glass panes, and our fit and attractive guide related stories about the project’s engineering feats and scientific ambitions with confident cheer. Yet, as I strolled single-file through this surreal environment with my fellow tour goers, little pangs of sadness crackled though me like static electricity.

Creative minds dreamed up Biosphere 2, and lots of smart people worked hard to create it. But now that the $200 million compound isn’t being used for its intended purpose, it emits a faintly mournful odor of improvidence. In this way Biosphere 2 reminds me of Graceland, the late Elvis Presley’s singularly audacious home in Memphis, Tenn. The footsteps of gawking tourists keep both places alive, but those footsteps mostly lead backwards through time. Progress, it seems, is futile.

But all may not be lost. William Shatner, a visionary in his own right (and one who, like Elvis, has a penchant for stretchy polyester), saw potential in Biosphere 2 and chose it as the setting for his low-budget sci-fi flick Groom Lake. Maybe this will lead to Biosphere 2 opening its air-locked doors to Hollywood, giving the facility new life and a fresh revenue stream.

One lonely night, I shall convince Jill to stream Groom Lake to her fancy laptop, and we will bask in the movie’s cool glow inside our tent. Until then, we will continue to muddle along in Biosphere 3 — which is a lot like Biospheres 1 and 2, except all matter within it is covered in dog hair.