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Madroño Ranch: An Inspired Legacy

A quiet getaway on a family ranch energized writers’ creativity

After struggling to conquer the last stretch of a steep, rocky climb, I soaked up my reward: a panoramic view of wooded limestone hills stretching to every horizon under a wide, blue sky. I wanted to keep walking for hours, lost in thought, yet I yearned to sit and write for those same hours, words pouring forth without effort.

In 2011, Heather and Martin Kohout had just launched their dream of creating a residential center for environmental writers and artists on Madroño Ranch, 1,500 acres near Medina (served by Bandera EC). They offered me the chance to be one of the first to experience it, a few days of solitude representing quite a gift for a self-employed writer with a home office and three teenagers.

Heather died of metastatic cancer in October 2014 and, understandably, Martin suspended the residency program, which by then had gifted some 60 individuals with time and space to create. For me, the experience has become one of many legacies Heather left behind.

I arrived at the ranch on a gray winter afternoon and settled into a spacious stone house with a wall of windows overlooking a tranquil lake. My hosts had stocked the kitchen with fresh produce, other staples and a dozen multicolored eggs—produced, I later learned, in the ranch’s large and coyote-proof chicken coop, fondly known as the Coop Mahal.

I cooked and ate dinner at a leisurely pace, wandered outside to look at the abundant stars, then curled up in a chair to read some long-neglected reference materials.

My days there followed a natural rhythm long lost to my regular life. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love being a mother, and my work brings me much satisfaction. I feel blessed to have been able to meld the two so well as an independent journalist. Before the Kohouts called, I wouldn’t have said I needed to get away.

But I did.

At the ranch, I rose more or less with the sun, read, brainstormed ideas and organized my thoughts. I took long walks around the lake, up the hills and through the fields, where a resident herd of magnificent bison grazed. Physical activity always jump-starts my brain, but in this landscape, free of time constraints and obligations, the effect seemed amplified. It worked like a spring cleaning, clearing out cobwebs and dust to let in light and freshness. My mind was left refreshed.

This clearing-out created space for new ideas and energy. For a writer, that leads to words on the page. Fellow resident Juli Berwald came to the ranch with four rambling pages and left with a 30-page chapter of a book that recently sold to a major publisher. “I had this idea but no chance to sit down and work on it. After two weeks, I came home with something whole,” she says. “I’m so grateful for that opportunity.”

Such creation is what the Kohouts hoped to produce through the residency program. “For both of us, the residencies felt like the satisfaction of being a midwife, helping in a very small way to bring things of beauty and thoughtfulness into being,” Martin says. “It is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.”

Martin worked for many years as a writer and editor with the Texas State Historical Association and Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Heather, a theology teacher and published poet, served for a time on the staff at Seton Cove, an interfaith spirituality center in Austin. The couple met as undergraduate English majors at Williams College in Massachusetts, married in 1985 and had three children. After years of enjoying Madroño Ranch as a family, they became uncomfortable with the idea of keeping such a beautiful place all to themselves, Martin says. A residency program seemed a fitting way to share it.

A few months before Heather died, she and Martin hosted a reunion for the souls lucky enough to have called themselves Madroño Ranch residents. “The reunion was everything we hoped for and more,” Martin says. “We have met so many interesting, bright, wonderful people. It has been a huge pleasure to be of service to creative people in some way.”

The gift of my residency came without strings attached, my midwives laying no claim to whatever I might or might not create while at the ranch or afterward. Unlike Berwald (and probably most of the other residents), I didn’t produce a chapter or article while at the ranch. My experience produced instead a new direction, new life to all my work from that point forward. Anything worthwhile I have written since then owes a portion of its merit to my residency. Heather and Martin gave me a tremendous gift.

Melissa Gaskill is an Austin writer who specializes in travel and nature topics.