I must confess that after getting a flat tire 20 minutes before reaching Bisbee—and then discovering that my spare tire was flat as well—I was pretty much over my entire trip before even setting foot inside the Shady Dell trailer court.
I arrived annoyed and quite a bit overheated—and I was far from impressed. I had been hearing rave reviews from folks around Tucson for a while, and as I looked around, I began to regret my decision to see what all the fuss was about.
"All that hell for this?" I thought to myself. The place looked like nothing more than a gravel lot with several trailers and some patches of AstroTurf thrown in for good measure.
I wandered around for a few seconds, past a big white gazebo and another patch of bright-green AstroTurf, until I found Jennifer, a tough-but-sweet rockabilly-looking chick who runs the park with the owner, her boyfriend Justin.
"Where should we start?" she asked, smiling.
I asked how much longer Dot's Diner was open, hoping she'd pick up on the fact that I felt like I was dying of thirst. She handed me a water bottle, and we headed for the diner, which, she told me, was an original Valentine 10-seater that was built in Wichita, Kan., and transported to Bisbee on a flatbed truck from California.
I looked around the diner and was immediately impressed by its condition. The mint-green paint on the walls looked as if it had been painted the day before. Being the clean freak that I am, I also took note of how spotless the whole place looked—it was as if the whole diner had been successfully wrapped up and preserved in 1950, before being unwrapped at that very moment.
The waitress—an extremely friendly woman—greeted me before promptly getting to work making the strawberry shake I ordered.
While she scooped the ice cream, I scoped out her attire: a light blue, button-down dress with white embroidered flowers that vaguely reminded me of the threads worn by the waitresses in the movie Grease. It was just vintage enough to look authentic, but, strangely, it didn't strike me as the least bit cheesy.
Jennifer then introduced me to the chef, Ian, who, like her and Justin, lives in a trailer onsite.
As I finished my shake—which came in an old-fashioned shake glass—Jennifer pointed out the many small, subtle details that make the diner and the outside of the park feel genuinely retro. For example: The glass soda bottles that were on display in front of me are all authentic and shipped in from Washington and Scottsdale, she told me. Then there were the vintage Coke machines outside and the curtains hanging in the trailers—just a few of the many authentic finds that she and Justin are always on the lookout for, Jennifer said.
The first trailer I stepped into, called Crown, was a lot roomier than I'd expected. At a modest 12 feet long, Crown's inside was maintained with the utmost care and attention to detail. The light-oak interiors were shiny and new-looking. I imagined this was what a 1954 trailer would have looked like fresh off the lot in 1954. Vintage cherry-print curtains shaded the windows, and an inviting, old-fashioned yellow booth was in place near the kitchen area.
As we were about to head for the next trailer, I noticed something that significantly added to the old-time ambiance: the radio. The Shady Dell has a radio station, Jennifer had explained earlier, which is broadcast throughout the park using her and Justin's iPod. To add to the authentic retro feeling, the station only plays songs that could actually be heard during the '40s and '50s. It was a mix of music, commercials and old rhythm and blues, she explained.
In addition to the radios, each trailer is equipped with working, old-fashioned iceboxes, TVs and phonographs. Inside the cabinets were DVDs like The Long, Long Trailer and It Came From Outer Space, while records by musicians like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass sat on shelves, waiting to be played.
I walked with Jennifer from Crown to Airstream, and Spartanette to Royal Mansion, and she talked about the quirky touches that made each one unique—like the big, green vintage couch in Spartanette, and the leopard-print carpet and vintage martini glasses in Royal Mansion. Other artifacts from the era—like a Life magazine dated July 29, 1940, and the delicate chenille bedspreads that were in each trailer—made it seem as though staying at the Shady Dell not only promised a change of scenery, but a change in decades.
Coffee percolators, Melmac dishes and old yearbooks sat in each trailer, waiting to be discovered and marveled at by the next guest.
In total, nine vintage trailers, plus a 1947 Tiki Bus and the Chris Craft Yacht, are all available for rental, Jennifer explained as the tour wrapped up.
Whether it's to experience an era long before their time or to relive the simple pleasures of their past, the people who stay here, I'm more than willing to bet, feel the same way I felt: The Shady Dell is one hell of a Dell, a place more than worth a flat-tire adventure.
For more information, visit www.theshadydell.com.