Out of Africa
A new retreat in the hill country sets the bar high for luxury camping, AKA “glamping”
by Dorothy Guerrero
Photographs by Will Graham & Kate Zimmerman Turpin
Let us first get something straight: If you’re a person who loves to glamp, you have probably never been a person who loves to camp. You have been a person who loves the Four Seasons, and car services, and seafood towers. You want to glamp not because you want to camp but because you can luxuriate in a manner to which you’re accustomed, only in the middle of a quiet, starlit nowhere. I am you.
Thankfully, Blake Smith, the founder and CEO of Walden Retreats, and his wife, Sarah, are aiming to “redefine the outdoor experience” at their glorious property a few miles outside Johnson City. The luxury camping destination is geared toward city dwellers who want to experience nature but not, you know, experience it. Two extravagant, apartment-size tents with wraparound decks sit on a bluff that overlooks the Pedernales River and the rolling hills beyond. When I stayed there, for an unforgettable 20 hours in early April, blankets of bluebonnets were everywhere I looked.
Both Blake and Sarah are from the United States — he from Dallas, she from California — but met, almost 10 years ago, in Kampala, Uganda, a city near the source of the Nile River. At the time, he had just founded Akola, a social enterprise jewelry company whose goal is to help women in Africa escape poverty. She was a graduate student in international development. When Blake hosted donors to his company several times a year in Africa, he often would take them on safari. As a result, the couple had the opportunity to visit luxury safari camps and ecolodges in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. On these trips Blake says he was struck by how excited his guests would become about the prospect of sleeping outside for the night.
“Beyond just the wildlife,” Blake says, “these people were so enamored with the idea of staying in a tent.” That’s when the entrepreneurial wheels started turning in his mind. He and Sarah wanted to return home to the U.S. and bring the safari experience with them.
Luxury camping certainly existed in the States but mostly in very secluded, hard-to-reach locales. “What about people who just want to go for the weekend?” Blake asked himself. “There are a lot of places in America that aren’t Yellowstone or the Rockies, but they are really worth spending time in. I wanted to serve major cities and make this experience super-accessible.”
Walden, which is just an hour’s drive from Austin, where the Smiths now live, is in beta-testing mode for a year. In 2016, the couple bought 96 acres of the old Gipson family ranch and began laying the groundwork for making their dream a reality. If all goes according to the couple’s plan, by this time next year they will be breaking ground and expanding with additional structures and offerings for guests. Blake says the land can accommodate up to 20 tents, a lobby, and communal areas with outdoor games. All while preserving that lonesome, quiet illusion of living in the wilderness. And if all of that goes according to plan, the couple envision Walden Retreats all over the country.
The “tent” is more like a canvas-walled hotel suite, with multiple rooms and all the amenities you could ever want while trying to convince yourself you are bucking civilization: a fully appointed kitchen, Aesop toiletries, fluffy robes, a wood-burning stove with precut wood, a king-size bed, even a claw-foot tub and shower. And this being Texas, and given the fact that we’re not our hardy ancestors, there is of course air conditioning.
Jack Sanders, the architect behind Design Build Adventure in Austin, helped the Smiths lay out the interior. Sarah, who owns a handcrafted textiles company, Ara Collective, handled the design. Her bright, modern pillows immediately catch your eye when you walk into the tent. “It just so happens I am married to someone who has her own home-goods company,” Blake says, “and she did a fully custom job.”
The end result is a delightful feeling of improbability. It wasn’t so very long ago that people were trying to coax the barest kind of living out of the beautiful but thin-soiled Hill Country, and now, lo and behold, there is a climate-controlled oasis by the rocky banks of the Pedernales — with a minifridge and a corkscrew. “We’re trying to preserve the elements of camping that are fun,” Blake says. “You still get to build your own fire, cook your own food, and even split your own wood.” Should you want to so bestir yourself, there’s a handy little wood splitter on the deck.
The night I stayed at Walden with my husband and another lucky couple, I had a rare peaceful sleep. Then I got up, made my way to the kitchen, brewed a strong cup of coffee in the fancy Moccamaster the Smiths had supplied, and unzipped the canvas to bring the clear, crisp morning right into the room, er, tent. I sat on the balcony and watched a few deer toddling down to the river for a drink. The pastries we’d picked up from Easy Tiger the day before were warming in the toaster oven. I was about as one with nature as I’ve ever really cared to be.
“There is no reason you have to sacrifice comfort to be outside in nature,” Blake says. “There is no reason you have to sleep on the ground.” Amen, Blake. Amen.