Somewhere between the Strip and the Brothel Art Museum art near Pahrump there’s a turn to the left marked by a little sign that says “Tecopa.” It’s the Old Spanish Trail, and it leads in a long fine line through flat desert land, a little snarl of sharp mountain turns and then down again to the desert floor. Signs appear just before Tecopa, leading you down to the China Date Ranch.
Cynthia’s China Date Ranch oasis features a tiny museum.
My wife and I weren’t prepared for what we saw next: a slaloming, amusement park ride of a road descending through towering gray rocks into an oasis of cool air, lush grass, date palms from North Africa and the Middle East and the sound of flowing water and what seemed like thousands of loquacious frogs. I’d seen desert oases in old westerns, but never knew how surprising and peaceful and exhilarating they could be until I experienced this one. A Chinese borax miner with a name like a sneeze (Ah Foo) planted vegetables and raised cattle here in the late 19th century; Vonola Modine (grandmother of the actor Matthew Modine) put in the date palms in the 1920s; and the Brown family of Shoshone took over a half-century later.
We’d come for the dates, but before we left we went down a dirt track that ended at a small cottage set on a lawn and in the shade of high cottonwood trees, with, in its back yard, three majestic, 24-foot-high Plains Indian teepees. They were, we learned, for rent, and constituted the most unusual and intriguing hotel we had ever seen. It seemed foolish to resist.
We booked a teepee a few weeks later, and drove the 80 or so miles from Las Vegas. When we got to the Date Ranch, we went for a long afternoon walk through the Amargosa River Valley, along an old railway line, past abandoned mine shafts and the hulks of old rusting cars and into a surprising desert water land of high riverside vegetation, swirling water patterns in the sand, slot canyons with streams flowing down the rock faces and a desert-floor waterfall.
Cynthia Kienitz, owner of the teepees, was there when we came back. We lay in a hammock outside our teepee, and she rocked us gently in the dusk light and told us about how she came to the desert. She’d been an interior designer in Las Vegas—she designed the Bedouin tent-like Paymon’s Mediterranean Café on Maryland Parkway, with its Hookah Lounge—and when her children were grown decided to begin again. Although she was originally from the lake lands of Wisconsin, she found her place in the desert. “I don’t know what it is—the ancientness, the light, the silence—whatever, every time, every day, it just makes me happy,” she said. She has a hostel and three-room guesthouse up on the Old Spanish Trail closer to Tecopa, but has plans for a bigger, more ambitious desert experience, a place of food and talk and beautiful rooms. “I love connecting with people,” she said as she rocked us some more. “I love bringing them together in the extraordinary environment that the desert provides.”
Cynthia went to her cottage, and we sat out with glasses of wine under a spectacle of starlight. In time we went into our teepee, a high, cream-colored cone with Turkish rugs on the floor, art deco lamps with upturned palms holding candles and a magnificent bed piled high with pillows. “There are other places where you can sleep in a teepee, but they usually give you sleeping bags or camp beds,” she said. “Mine are the only five-star-level ones.” We lit a fire in a steel grate at the foot of the bed and watched the smoke rise through a hole into the sky, listening to the night-talk of the coyotes.