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.