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At El Cosmico in Marfa, stay in a tent, trailer, yurt or teepee

Liz Lambert's funky West Texas outpost is packed with character, community

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Interior of Imperial Mansion trailer at El Cosmico in Marfa. By Pam LeBlanc, Nov 2011

MARFA — At this funky West Texas outpost, the cool kids are skipping the hotel and staying in the well-appointed tents, trailers, yurts and teepees of El Cosmico.

And so are we.

My pal Katie Ryan and I gasped when we swung open the bright orange door of the 45-foot, 1956 Imperial Mansion trailer (affectionately dubbed the Land Yacht), one of six 1950s-era trailers that have been modernized and hipster-ized to perfection.

Besides a king bed swathed in a yummy white comforter and a mountain of pillows, we found a separate twin bed in its own back bedroom, and a kitchen with a stove, stainless steel mini-refrigerator and sink. A funky globe light cast a moonish glow, and a set of deer antlers guarded the front door.

Leave it to Liz Lambert, the Austin creator of the eclectic and artsy Hotel San Jose, to come up with a lodging concept that makes even tent camping hip.

We grab the two thick wool blankets left on the sofa (yes, sofa) and mosey onto the front wooden deck, where we nibble snacks and watch streaks of orange smudge the blue sky before it goes violet. The sky somehow seems bigger and more packed with stars here than anywhere else.

That's the spirit of El Cosmico, an 18-acre oasis on the outskirts of Marfa, where it's all about community, and you're as likely to wander into an outdoor concert by Jimmie Dale Gilmore as a workshop on sewing or sustainable building.

"It really is about self-reliance and learning to use your hands and get in the dirt and get dirty," says Lambert, who splits much of her time between Austin and West Texas these days. "You should be able to share good food, learn to weld and listen to someone play the guitar around the campfire at night."

Just down the gravel path, a trio of guys checks into one of two towering canvas teepees. Each has a full bed and two twins inside, and an electric light. Beyond the teepees stands a row of yurts, furnished with queen-sized futons and cool lantern lights, and a few canvas safari tents. Or you can bring your own tent and pitch it on-site.

It's desert quiet here now, but sometimes the place hops. Tents pop up and crowds materialize for the annual Trans-Pecos Festival of Love and Music each fall, and the population of Marfa roughly doubled during last spring's Railroad Revival Tour featuring Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Old Crow Medicine Show.

Temporary communities sprout up around cooking and art workshops, with people napping in the hammock grove, cooking at the outdoor kitchen or tapping away at laptops in the lobby lounge, where you can buy camp bandanas or a loaf of bread, sip coffee or pet the resident cats. There are even wood-burning Dutch tubs — hot tubs built over campfires — but they're closed now because of a persistent burn ban.

The focus is on the stark backdrop and endless vistas; it somehow spurs creativity and contentment.

"It's the landscape, the way everything falls away and time slows down," Lambert says. "To really experience the high desert of West Texas, you've got to be outdoors as much as indoors."

Lambert, who grew up in Odessa, earned a law degree from the University of Texas and worked in New York City before ditching the legal world for the service industry. She just couldn't resist when she stumbled onto a run-down hotel on a once-forlorn stretch of South Congress Avenue, where rooms rented for $30 a night. She bought the place, began to renovate and opened a coffee shop next door in 1999.

The hotel, which opened shortly thereafter, was part of the spark that blazed into a complete transformation of South Congress. Today it's a bustling hub of boot shops, vintage clothing stores, restaurants and food trailers.

At first, not everyone got it. "Some people were afraid to come to South Congress, and some didn't understand the cement floors," she says.

But Lambert still had a thing for her West Texas roots. She returned to the family ranch outside of Marfa, renovating the bunkhouse, and then invested there, remodeling and opening the Thunderbird hotel in Marfa in 2005. That partnership eventually dissolved, but Lambert was on a roll.

In Austin, she opened another Jo's location on Second Street in 2006, then the posh Hotel Saint Cecilia in Travis Heights in 2008. She added Hotel Havana in San Antonio in 2010.

She had a different vision for a West Texas project, though, something that would work in a town that's jostling with tourists one day and nearly empty the next: a business that could expand and contract with the crowds that blew through town on the West Texas wind.

"That's where tents and trailers come in," Lambert says.

In 2009, that dream materialized into El Cosmico, where you could experience the environment instead of just sleeping on a bed there.

She carefully chose trailers with birch wood interiors, because they felt warmer. She avoided shining silver Airstreams, which are so highly polished that in the Marfa sun they could be blinding.

Each trailer, she says, "feel like a little ship in the desert."

Katie and I agree.

Our trailer has its own bathtub and toilet, but in the morning, we head to the outdoor bath house, complete with showers, to get the full vibe of the place. I giggle as hot water trickles down my back and a chilly wind blows between the slats surrounding the structure. Just like the outdoor showers at Barton Springs!

El Cosmico is ever evolving.

Lambert plans to add a permanent stage in the next year and eventually build a swimming pool and 20 permanent adobe casitas.

She's also plotting new projects, although she won't name specifics.

She owns a hotel site in Houston and is looking at others all over the state — and outside of Texas.

It's hard to imagine any of them topping this one for personality and charm.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994