Motoring along a two-lane highway toward the remote southeastern corner of Arizona, red hills and red oaks pepper the high desert terrain.The temperature starts to cool during the ascent into the Mule Mountains. Just five miles short of the Mexican border, where Highways 92 and 80 meet by a graveyard, a pink and green neon clock marks the Shady Dell. It’s a night’s stay, a destination, and a trip back to times when hauling cross-country offered more than endless Taco Bells and generic Best Westerns.
The Shady Dell is located in the town of Bisbee, which bustled at the turn of the last century with copper mines. Now its former-grandeur-turned-artistenclave oozes quaint Victorian charm, with the Brewery Gulch full of Old West memorabilia and galleries.Visitors climb the thousand staircases, descend old mine shafts, check out nearby Tombstone, hike the City of Rocks in the Chiricahua Forest.
The Shady Dell celebrates a different era. While migrating “snowbirds” hook up their Winnebagos and Slumber Queens at one end of the property, happy campers cozy up inside eight vintage trailers ranging in age from 1949 to 1957. There’s also lodging in a drydocked 1947 Chris Craft pleasure boat, guarded by tiki gods and surrounded by wafting reeds. As hawks circle above and woodpeckers chomp on cottonwoods, the Ravens and the Orioles play on old phonographs inside these metallic rooms.There’s the standard Elvis, Sinatra, and Glenn Miller to listen to, but co-owner Ed Smith prefers to stock favorite obscure acts from his collection, like 45s of rockabilly Charlie Feathers.
“This isn’t a Disney version of the forties and fifties,” insists Smith, a stickler for bona fide details, recreating authentic environments, not knockoffs. Even the guest book is an original. He used to scour flea markets for Life magazines from decades back, but now a couple of clicks on eBay easily replaces items like wornout percolator coffee pots. “I’m really playing this for other collectors,” he admits. Smith and Rita Personett bought the Shady Dell nine years ago with credit cards in order to restore and renovate a few trailers they’d acquired, including their first—a 1952 Homemade, built from plans in a Popular Mechanics magazine.The hobby-turned-thriving-business leaves the couple yearning for time to travel and tinker with the latest collection of pinball machines housed in a Bisbee warehouse jammed with antiques.
This RV spot first opened in 1927, but history stopped at the Shady Dell in 1960. “You step into an alternative reality, where the rest of the world just doesn’t exist,” says guest Maile Bohlmann, lounging on a leopard-print swoopy chair in the thirty-three-foot 1951 “Mansion,” appropriately eating a TV dinner while watching Lucy and Ricky in A Long, Long Trailer on a retro-fit turquoise and white old TV.
The shiny ten- to thirty-eight-foot dwellings boast birchwood paneling, bamboo furnishings, Formica dinettes, clever compact built-ins, chenille bedspreads, and period martini shakers.The romancing of retro chic recycles memories, but this level of faithfulness shows museumlike reverence for midcentury aesthetics. The entrenchment in Americana makes sleeping in a sardine can entertaining.Yet playing house and preserving the fifties probably holds no appeal to those parked in the adjacent Cruisemasters, who choose modern convenience over reminiscing.
Smith and Personett plan to customize a fifty-sevenyear- old Flexible bus into another accommodation. But since they put the Shady Dell up for sale, the vehicle could take them on the road instead.Perhaps they’ll feel inspired to transform Dew Drop Inns along Route 66 to a style befitting the sixties, when that highway was the best. —Roberta Cruger Rates: $35–$150/night; Décor: circa 1940s and 1950s, Southwest, Polynesian, and nautical motifs; Beds: some sleep three with a foldout sofa (beware the 3/4 bed in the Crown unless you’re alone). 44 blvr12.qxd 8/18/08 5:58 PM Page 44