Something happens to you in the West Texas desert. Anyone who has driven through the tiny towns of Marathon or Marfa or explored Big Bend National Park can attest to that. It’s a kind of mystical disconnect. At some indistinguishable point, everything starts to move slower and seems to suddenly have deeper, more profound meaning. It’s like this vast desert is still the prehistoric ocean that once covered our state. And like the ocean, certain people are drawn to West Texas for its keen ability to evoke a larger sense of awe, allowing them to think clearly, maybe gain some enlightened introspection and, eventually, to feel something outside of themselves.
An ideal place to absorb this unique regional aura is at El Cosmico, the eclectic lodging concept on the outskirts of Marfa designed by Liz Lambert, famed local hotelier responsible for Austin's Hotel San Jose and Saint Cecilia.
Lambert, who grew up in Odessa, has a knack for creating hotels that truly capture the essence of a place, and El Cosmico is no exception. The 18-acre property offers six renovated vintage trailers, connected by vague trails outlined by an assortment of cactus and brush and short footlights, that boast warm birch wood interiors and immaculate redesigns. Lambert collaborated on the look with Jack Sanders of Design Build Adventure, the Lake|Flato architecture firm, and other local artists, builders and students.
Beyond the trailers, there are two traditional Sioux teepees (22 feet in diameter) housing a luxurious king bed, two twins and warm cowhide rugs, along with a row of yurts and safari tents furnished with queen-sized futons and artisan lantern lights. Guests can even bring their own tent and pitch it on-site, if they want.
Time spent at El Cosmico is time spent as another person — a person who isn’t tied down by the modern distractions of work, deadlines, inhibitions or even time. Someone who doesn’t look at a watch anymore, but pays attention to the moon hanging over the horizon. Someone who cares more about leaving a bowl of water out for thirsty desert creatures than taking a hot shower. El Cosmico, and Marfa in general, seem to invite guests to surrender to their surroundings in order to learn more about their own true identity.
Chinati, the art-lovers top Marfa destinaton, is accessible by guided tours only (Wednesday-Sunday) and cameras are not allowed. But its nice to walk through this extensive collection — each artist’s work showcased in a separate building, of which there are over a dozen — without looking through a viewfinder. Parallels of time, perspective and inspiration are allowed to echo throughout the stillness of the isolated surroundings, evoking genuine, individual responses from every visitor, whether its utter confusion or inspired alignment.
If El Cosmico guests want to venture to another arresting landscape — from a timeless institution of art to a town that stands still — they can take the 45-minute drive to the Shafter ghost town. The tiny village (population 22) is home to Texas’ oldest silver mine, which has been closed for 70 years (and has just been scheduled to reopen in May of this year).
While the mine may be bustling with workers, constructing new roads and underground infrastructure, Shafter remains sleepy and relatively untouched to the curious passersby. The cemetery, at the foothills of the Davis Mountains is an especially quiet place to reflect on the history, fast-approaching future of this unique town.
Like Shafter, things are continually changing here at El Cosmico. Rust wears down the paint on the trailers. New businesses come and go. People of all kinds drift in and out of town.
And that’s why Lambert’s eclectic design works so well here in a town that sees so much change on a day-to-day basis. Whether it's a sold-out spring break holiday or a virtually empty Sunday night, El Cosmico can effectively expand and contract with the crowds that blow through town. After all, what’s more nomadic than a trailer or a tent?
And while its nice to have the entire property to yourself on a Monday night, some of the best times to visit are during El Cosmico’s special events, like the annual Trans-Pecos Festival of Music and Love (September) and the upcoming Tonalism (March 10) — an all-night ambient music happening where guests are encouraged to bring blankets, pillows, sofa cushions, bean bags or any other plush accoutrement for an evening of live musicians, DJs and video artists, who will perform from sunset to sunrise.
It’s during these special events that visitors can enjoy the active inspiration behind El Cosmico — the imaginative residents and creative entrepreneurs of Marfa.
The idea that a landscape can inspire myriad people over the years to uproot themselves from their modern lives, to achieve a higher plane of creative expression and happiness in the middle of the desert, is a whimsical one. An idea that seems too good to be true.
As the sun sets on my last day at El Cosmico, making the metallic shells of the trailers glitter and setting the surrounding dry brush and cactus ablaze with a fiery red as a daily parting gift to guests, I’m reminded of Roxaboxen, the children’s book by Alice McLerran.
Set in a mystical, almost glowing desert landscape with “cactus and greasewood and thorny ocotillo,” the story follows a group of imaginative children who create their own world of sparkling homes and city streets in the middle of nowhere. I can think of no better parallel to the artistic spirit and inspiration of the real life ingénues like Liz Lambert behind this soulful oasis. But unlike Roxaboxen, El Cosmico isn't a fairy tale story for children. It is, however, truly “a place that really was, and, once you’ve been there, always is.”