Retreats are a time-honored tradition for writers — a chance to escape the pressures and distractions of everyday life and focus on their craft.
Many of the writers residencies offered around the country occur in rural or secluded settings, but few provide a true wilderness experience.
Since 1994, the PEN/Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency has awarded writers a unique prize: the opportunity to spend seven months as a caretaker of a remote backcountry homestead. In exchange for an hour of light maintenance on the property each day, residents get a small stipend, a quiet spot to live and work, and the experience of long periods of true solitude.
The residency takes place at the Dutch Henry Homestead, which sits on 92 acres of forests and meadows in the Rogue River canyon west of Grants Pass. Surrounded by federally protected wilderness, the site was once the homestead of Dutch Henry, an early gold prospector who made most of his money selling supplies to other miners. It was purchased in the late '60s by a Portland surgeon, Allen Boyden, and his wife, Margery. They added two cabins to the site, one for their own getaways and fishing trips and another for a caretaker.
Dutch Henry Homestead owner Bradley Boyden fishes on the Rogue River.
The Boydens' sons, Frank and Bradley, inherited the property after their father's death. Frank Boyden is an accomplished ceramicist and printmaker and founder of the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Lincoln City. As the brothers' own visits became less frequent, Frank came up with the idea of inviting artists to stay at the property and help cover caretaking tasks. With help from their friend David James Duncan, author of "The River Why," they developed a plan for an annual writers residency on the property, which they named in honor of their mother, and approached PEN/Northwest to administer it.
Each year, PEN/Northwest chooses a writer or pair of writers to spend at least six months living in the caretaker's cabin. Most residencies begin in April and last through October, depending on weather conditions. The site is accessible by car, but the two-hour drive over rough roads discourages frequent trips into town. A few residents have chosen to stay through the winter, when snow at the higher elevations often makes the road impassable until spring.
The caretaker cabin is small and rustic, but comfortable. It has a kitchen, living room, two small bedrooms and a large covered deck to watch the neighbors — deer, black bears and the occasional cougar — who make regular visits. There is just enough solar-powered electricity to charge a laptop and provide reliable hot water, but few other modern conveniences. There is a fenced garden, a small orchard and wide-open views of the Rogue River, which runs below and is a 25-minute walk away.
Author John Daniel was one of the first Boyden residents and has spent two extended periods at Dutch Henry. He now administers the program for PEN Northwest. He says the program is open to all types of writers and that residents are chosen on both the quality and promise of their previous work. But, he adds, the program also looks for people who are willing and able to live in isolation for long periods. He tries to emphasize to applicants that the residency is not just in a rural environment, but is a true backcountry wilderness experience.
"It's important in our application process to try to separate out people who seem to be in love with the idea of solitude, but who perhaps might not be up to the reality of solitude," says Daniel. "So in addition to a writing sample and resume, we ask them to explain what interests them about the prospect and what qualifies them in terms of life experience. We like it when the applicant has spent long periods of time alone."
Since the program began, more than 30 writers from around the country have stayed at Dutch Henry, and numerous works have come to life at the homestead. For those who are willing to embrace the rustic lifestyle, it can be a powerful experience.
"Two things abound in a Dutch Henry residence — silence and time," says Daniel. "The silence at Dutch Henry is vast and it's sweet — not emptiness at all but full of nature's sounds ... And there is enough time for your thoughts and feelings to develop — at least in my case — to develop a real clarity as you go along."
In 2005, Gary Whitehead came to Dutch Henry after a failed marriage and with a desire to "hunker down and figure out who I was and what I wrote and why." He summed up his residency experience in an article on the PEN American Center website: "At Dutch Henry, I became a better writer, no doubt. But I also became a better cook, stargazer, fisherman. And I became more comfortable in the company of myself and others."
Steve Edwards wrote about his 2001 residency in his memoir, "Breaking into the Backcountry." In an online interview, he describes the experience as transformative, but says he struggled with loneliness and the challenge of filling the empty hours. "There were times I felt trapped in my body. Caged in. And it was a struggle to sit with that feeling — like trying to tame a wild animal. But day by day, breathing in and breathing out, I cultivated a kind of intimacy with my loneliness. Pretty soon, that big silence wasn't a cage — it was freedom."
John Daniel credits the luxury of time and silence afforded by the Dutch Henry experience with helping him find his voice for two memoirs.
During his first retreat in 1994, Daniel went into the residency with the intention of writing about his mother who had recently died after suffering from Alzheimer's. As the months went by, he wrote poetry and some articles, but wasn't able to get started writing the book. Then in early September, Daniel says he woke up one morning, sat down and started writing the prologue to the book that he'd intended to write the entire time. Subsequent chapters soon followed.
"It was almost like I had been laboring with this book idea for the past five months and it had been forming itself inside me," says Daniel, "because the chapters came out with a sense of sequences and structure among themselves. I think it had been gestating down in the compost heap of my unconscious and forming a certain order before it was even born."
"Looking After: A Son's Memoir," was published two years later and won the 1997 Oregon Book Award.
Daniel returned in the winter of 2000, this time to experience and write about a more extreme form of solitude and to work on a memoir about his relationship with his father.
"I found myself following my thoughts in my journal about my daily activities right into thoughts about my dad and right into thoughts of coming of age in the '60s. I found it all weaving together as one fabric. I didn't resist that tendency. I said, 'Let's just make a big snarl out of this thing.' "
He came out of the woods in April with 274 handwritten pages of what would become "Rogue River Journal: A Winter Alone."
But perhaps the best part of the experience for a writer, says Daniel, is the luxury of restructuring your days around new rhythms and the unlimited opportunities to follow your muse — to write when and as long as you like, or spend the day reading a book, tending the garden, doing chores or hiking to the river to fish.
"Writers will always find ways to write, even with the everyday distractions, but boy, it sure is a great experience to have those lengths of time to let it happen in."