My writing friend Amanda and I were jonesing to get away from the daily routine of work, kids, and family to delve into writing projects—a poetry manuscript for her, a memoir for me. We applied for a joint residency but didn’t get it, so I suggested we create our own retreat. On a budget, that’s not easy to do.
Idyllic little cabins near the coast (or anywhere really!) through Air B&B or VRBO were cost prohibitive. And in a wet January, camping didn’t seem the best option either. But my stepmom owns a little old house five hours north in Grants Pass, Oregon. Who is up for a drive?!
With only four days, we would have two solid days of writing, with two days on either end of some writing and lots of driving. Perhaps not ideal, but better than nothing.
We stop for a late lunch in Ashland on the way north where we find a divine mushroom burger with caramelized onions and fontina cheese on a brioche bun toasted with garlic oil. And a Caesar salad with half slice of anchovy on top…and fries! Good thing we shared.
We arrive at the house shortly before dark and I get out my list of instructions from Dad: how to light the finicky pilot light in the wall heater of the living room; put up a blanket in the narrow hallway leading upstairs so all the heat didn’t leave the area where we needed it; flip the breaker panel switches in the basement to turn on the hot water heater; and where in the basement to find the shutoff valve that supplied water to the house.
The air is colder inside the house than outside along the Rogue River. We go straight to the heater to get that going. Following my notes though, we can’t get the pilot lit so I call Dad. After a few minutes of trouble shooting, he suggests FaceTime.
But you don’t have an iPhone, Dad.
Sure, but my friend here does, I’ll call you right back!
So we connect on FaceTime and in a few minutes, Dad sorts out which red button I should be holding in (the other one!) while Amanda holds a match to the hole with the pilot light, hoping it doesn’t ignite with a bang. How do you do this by yourself, Dad?! Heater on, we rummage through duffle bags for fleece hats and another layer because we can see the breath in front of our faces and it will take a while to warm the house.
Amanda unpacks groceries in the kitchen (after our stop at Ashland’s fabulous Food Co-op) while I go down to the basement to turn on water for the house.
Stop, turn it off! she yells just after I open the valve.
She meets me at the top of the stairs, wet towel in hand. Water had sprayed from the sink faucet where it attached to the wall all over the kitchen.
Hmm, let me call dad again. He tells me where to locate the toolbox, but there isn’t a large crescent wrench to deal with this and I’m not sure there is anything accessible I can fix anyway. It’s too late to call the plumber without paying an arm and a leg.
Just use water from jugs to flush down the toilet, Dad says. Yeah, I have experience with that. We’ve been using warm up water collected from the shower in five gallon paint buckets during the California drought and using those for flushing toilets when the need arises.
Think of this as a writing assignment, Dad suggests. What would it be like to be homeless?
Not as comfy as this, I’m sure. We have a roof over our heads as it starts raining (never mind the chill remaining in the house), electricity, and good food.
Too bad we’re not boys right now, we could just pick a tree outside, I say.
I look up at Amanda and her raised eyebrows. Then an idea hits me.
Hey, have you ever had to shit while backpacking—you know in a place where you have to carry everything out? When we climbed Whitney, they gave us wag bags at the ranger station.
A plastic bag you open that has a little kitty litter stuff to mask the smell and then you tie it up when you’re done!
You want me to poop in a plastic bag??
I can see Amanda’s brain googling the location of the nearest Motel 6.
Well, it’s cheaper than using bottled water!
But I can see that isn’t going to be a workable solution so I laugh and she opens a bottle of Santa Barbara pinot noir. I dash off to Safeway to get several gallon jugs of water and when I get back, we fix a plate of Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk cheese drizzled with habañero honey, thick as caramel.
Did I mention the matter of food? In one of the first emails about planning for the trip, Amanda made it clear that good food was a serious priority. Duh! Definitely on the same page there. Along with the lentil and kale soup Amanda made and slices of whole grain seeded bread from the co-op, our dinner puts many restaurants to shame.
Bottled water used to flush a toilet goes pretty fast though—and it’s expensive! So the next morning I was off in search of the nearest McDonald’s bathroom and a fully functioning toilet with soap and water for washing. (Being on your period without running water and a flushing toilet is a hassle. Good thing I always keep a package of baby wipes in the car for road trips.)
While I am out, I take our empty jugs and refill them at the Chevron next to the McDonald’s. I think of the homeless woman I see periodically in our town, often with a water jug in each hand as she walks. Does she fill them at a gas station too?
By noon, Dad puts me in touch with Dan, the son of the couple in the house next door who handles all of Dad’s plumbing issues when Dad can’t be there to fix them himself. Dan grew up running around with his friends between the two houses, playing in the full basement. He knows the peculiarities of an old house. Thankfully, the pipe behind the wall seems fine, but where it comes out of the wall to meet the faucet had frozen and cracked. Not too hard to fix, but the faucet was ancient so he’d have to put a whole new one in the following week. In the meantime, he is able to cap off the cold faucet. At least we were able to turn on water to the house again!
Despite the bumpy start and having to deal with a few more things than we planned, Amanda and I settle into a routine. She makes coffee first thing in the morning, we say quiet good mornings and leave each other to our notebooks and steaming mugs of caffeine. We take turns sitting in the rocker in the sun porch to watch the morning light dance over the Rogue River and record our thoughts.
At some point our stomachs start growling and we fix some toast and work some more. Finally, we break for a breakfast fit for a farmer. One morning we had left over polenta, sautéed greens and a fried egg…with a little goat gouda shredded over the top.
Late afternoons we take time to walk and explore. I google hiking spots nearby and find Cathedral Hills County Park where we walk for a few miles, sharing our paths to this writing life and how we juggle to carve out the time in our days for putting our thoughts into words.
More time for reading or writing before dinner and then we pour a bit of wine and create feasts. After dinner, we typically read or share ideas on journals to submit to and residencies to pursue. Amanda found out while we were there that she had been accepted to Dorland Mountain Arts Colony!
The few days pass too quickly, and we can’t wait to do it again. Maybe closer to home next time and in a place that doesn’t need as much work. But you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth!
A few tips we found that were key to creating our retreat:
—Discuss your budget and what the ideal location would be if you’re planning with another person. (Next time, we’d really like a claw foot tub!)
—Communicate beforehand about your needs. Do you just want quiet in the morning with a cup of coffee while you read/write? Or do you like to chat? How long of a stretch do you want to work before taking a break for a walk?
—Talk about your goals before you go. What are you hoping to accomplish? A certain word count per day or hours with your butt in a chair? This helps keep each other accountable.
—What kind of food do you like to eat? Any dietary restrictions? Eating out all of your meals could get expensive fast. We splurged on one yummy lunch and bought quality ingredients and cooked for ourselves for the other meals. We both probably gained a few pounds!
—Jot down your expenses in one place as they occur: gas fill ups, grocery store trips, restaurant tab. It was pretty quick and easy to figure out who owed who money when we came home.
—Be prepared for a few surprises! Things don’t always go as planned, but keeping a sense of humor and going with the flow (or lack thereof!) improved our first 24 hours.