As soon as I’d made the decision to turn my ranch house into a writing retreat, I started coming back to the ranch more often to help my assistant, Tamara, get ready to make the plan a reality. She provided unlimited energy and creative ideas, as well as hard labor. She recalls “mowing the huge yard (and the wonderful varied odors as I cut the different plants that had been baking in the sun), painting the rooms, putting weatherproofing stain on the deck.”
During periods without retreats, we cleaned, rearranged and renovated. One year, for example, we bought 20 new windows; Tam stained and varnished every one. She writes, “I finished the last windows while listening to NPR’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina.” That summer was hot and dry, hard on the cattle, but the weather allowed her to leave the house open to the elements while the stain and varnish dried. Unfortunately, removing the windows to replace them scattered insulation over everything in the house, making our spring house-cleaning particularly difficult.
If we were working on changes while retreat writers were in residence, sometimes they insisted on pitching in to help.
I can tell I’m home because I want chores to do. . . . Itching to haul and rake and hammer. . . . What if Linda thinks I’m criticizing? Maybe she won’t realize I know homes are never perfect and it’s our loving them that makes them precious. . . . But I’m not a stranger here anymore. Somewhere back there Linda foolishly left a gate open and now I have limestone under my fingernails, buffalo grass in my hair, thunderstorms in my veins.
Years before, I’d acquired an ancient claw-foot tub, but couldn’t find anyone willing to install it, so I parked it on the hillside and used it to water my horse. I shared the upstairs shower with retreat guests until Jerry installed the tub in the lower level during the retreat’s second year.
I’ve never visited a writing retreat, though I’ve explored some online, being astonished and briefly envious of those that provide wine, hot tubs, massage therapists, yoga instructors or chefs. Some operate almost like hotels, with maid service for rooms. Others provide individual cabins for work and sleep, but serve meals in dining halls. The establishments advertising these pricey amenities, though, are often supported by a foundation and run by a paid maintenance staff, so they have to charge enough to finance luxuries. While these places clearly fill some desires, they are not my ideal retreat.
Perhaps if I had foundation backing or a private fortune, I might have chosen differently, but I remembered longing for silence, space, and time to write when I had no money to spend on these things so necessary to a writer. I’d established writing nooks in every apartment I occupied, in a closet, a hallway, and in a corner of my bedroom. I wanted Windbreak House to welcome writers at all financial levels, but especially at the birth of their careers; low costs encourage novice writers who can’t afford chefs and massages, and who want to focus on their work without interruptions from maid service.
If knowledge is power then I am a much stronger woman now than when I entered this place.
Analyzing my one-family house for its suitability as a retreat, we decided that visiting writers would occupy the main floor, sharing the kitchen, dining room, living room and bathroom. We named the master bedroom Eagle in honor of a Daniel Long Soldier painting. A smaller bedroom became Dragonfly after a colorful print. My study was already established in the walk-out basement, abutted by a half-bath with its walls lined with bookshelves. I created a single bed by putting a door across two antique trunks and adding a foam mattress. Tam dubbed the place Burrowing Owl after my favorite prairie owl, which lives in old prairie dog burrows.
We aimed for cozy comfort on a slim budget that forced us to make do. The house was still partly furnished after my tenants departed, but we bought new beds, pillows, and a couple of futons that doubled as couches. We piled extra pillows on the beds for reading, stocked up on plush towels, and draped woven shawls in chairs for more reading comfort. My mother had collected quilts, both antique and new, and stored them in trunks in the ranch outbuildings. Sadly, some of these works of art from our community had been damaged by mice and mildew, but the surviving ones soon graced the retreat beds. Quilters often worry about damage to the quilts, fold them, and carefully stash them in the closet during retreat; I explain how I’d saved them from oblivion, and my belief that they were made to be used.
To add extra space, we parked Jerry’s small travel trailer in the yard outside the walk-out basement, and named it Prairie Chicken. Nervous about guests who might not be familiar with using propane, we left the trailer’s tank empty so it was without heat or its stove. When we had three writers in residence, I could sleep and work in the trailer, and dash inside to use the bathroom.
I didn’t want to have to cater to differing eating habits, so each writer would bring her own food and cook for herself. Neither the kitchen stove nor the refrigerator were new. We filled the cupboards with enough plates and bowls, glassware, pots and pans, cutlery, and serving dishes for five or six people. I explained to writers who came alone that they might choose to let the dishes stack up and do them the final day. We got better acquainted while cooking and, as one writer put it, “bumping butts” in the tiny kitchen.
When I returned to my ranch-house-turned-retreat, I loved seeing the house come alive. The first day, everyone carried their notebooks and books to their rooms, until I reminded them that none of us would read another’s private writing, or move a book left open. The next day the tables, chairs and floor would be decorated with clusters of writing materials, slippers, anything else that might aid a writer to think. Writers sprawled on the couch and floor, reading to each other. After an especially vigorous discussion, we might all be unable to sleep, and gather in the kitchen at midnight to warm milk and continue our talk in the living room or on the deck.
To be continued . . .
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this review of twenty years, so unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers at the conclusion of their retreats.