Ranch Refuge

Just outside of Austin, a residency on the range offers writers unfettered time to create, and draw inspiration from the ruggedly beautiful landscape.

I arrived at Madroño Ranch with a package of index cards, a bag of coffee, a jug of wine, and thirteen cans of soup. From these ingredients I hoped to construct a novel.

It was fall in Texas, hot and dry, and I’d also tossed a swimsuit and sneakers into my car with the thought that maybe I’d start jogging again, and swim afterward. (I planned to be in pajamas for the rest of my hours.) As a mom of three wonderful and mischievous children, I was tired. When I drove off the paved road into the ranch, I rolled down my car window and inhaled, smelling sage.

I had heard about Madroño Ranch, which is owned by Austinites Martin and Heather Kohout, from my friend Juli Berwald, a biologist and science writer. Juli wrote the first chapter of her book about jellyfish, Spineless, at Madroño. She remembers, “While I was at Madroño, the swifts were nesting in the eaves of the Lake House. Early in the morning the babies would start chirping for food…they were my alarm clock.”

Madroño Ranch is rugged and lovely, comprising 1,500 acres and located on Wallace Creek a few miles north of Medina. The property includes a lake of about 25 acres and numerous other streams and draws; steep, rocky terrain; and grassy, rolling hills. It’s home to a number of plant and animal species, including bison and chickens; the madrone trees (madroño in Spanish) for which the ranch is named; feral hogs; raccoons; whitetail, sika, and axis deer; bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie, and perch; bald eagles; wild turkeys; and many more, according to the ranch’s website.


The Kohout family first began their relationship with the property when Heather Kohout’s mother, Jessica Hobby Catto, bought 600 acres. As the years passed, Martin and Heather bought more of the property as it became available, enjoying time there with their three children Elizabeth, Tito (Christopher), and Thea.

Martin and Heather, both bookworms, fell in love at Williams College. “We didn’t start dating until the spring of our senior year despite some very determined and, in retrospect, probably creepy stalking on my part,” confides Martin. “Since the college closed the dorms during spring break, and I couldn’t afford to fly home to California, I asked Heather if I could stay at her house while she was visiting her folks. She said yes, and when she returned after spring break, well, something just . . . happened, and I stayed. Maybe it was the lilacs.”

The Kohouts wanted to share their ranch but weren’t sure how to begin. “We were uneasy with using the property as a pet, which is what having a nonworking ranch usually devolves to,” says Heather. “Everyone needs to work in a relationship, but the Texas Hill Country is a tough place to make a go of it under traditional agriculture and ranching paradigms, which tend to require slow (or swift) destruction of the land. How do we open the place up carefully? How do we share it? How do we start thinking out loud with Very Practical People and visionaries about managing such a place? A residency program seemed like a good start.”

“Given our backgrounds in various aspects of the word biz, we came up with the idea of giving time and space to writers, specifically environmental writers,” says Martin, adding wryly, “whatever that means; we didn’t really know what that meant then, and we still don’t.”

With the help of an advisory board (which includes Jesse Griffiths of Austin’s Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club, who also hosts “ethical hunting schools” at the ranch), the Kohouts began accepting applications. More than forty artists have now visited Madroño. Geologist Julia Clarke worked on a chapter for the Princeton Guide to Evolution there. “An electric vermillion flycatcher outside the window and low flybys from belted kingfishers during a swim in the pond provided only a small part of the inspiration—diversity! I recorded 80 species of birds, flocks of dusky grey wild turkeys, a silent encounter with an excitable group of wild hogs, and the lonely honks of a single Chinese goose repeating on the canyon walls. Local, introduced, beautiful with or without names,” says Clarke. Novelist Dalia Azim adds, “I went for walks three or four times a day, drawing inspiration from the landscape. It was incredibly centering, inspiring, and productive.”

My first evening at Madroño, I marveled at the wide sky as it changed from blue to orange and then transformed into glittering night. The main character of my novel, Homecoming, is a girl named Carla who leaves her native Honduras to find her mother in Texas. That evening as I typed, Carla also looked up at a bowl of stars.


The next morning I brewed coffee and laced on my sneakers. I puffed along, reaching a wire fence. Undeterred, I hopped over and soon saw what the fence was meant to contain: a herd of bison that snorted at me as I stood, panting, in my running shorts. I couldn’t remember if bison were aggressive, so I sprinted back to the house. I amended my workout plan: after every ten pages, I would jump in the lake.

Many visitors find the bison inspiring. Artist Shelby Prindaville says, “The Madroño Ranch residency provided a wonderful opportunity for me to begin a body of work focused on bison, one of the quintessential American icons.” And during his visit, says writer David Todd, “I was mostly working through a chapter about the fall and return of buffalo in the state. I felt very fortunate to get to write about the century-long recovery of these wonderful ‘crooked-backed oxen’ right there in the midst of the very alive, snorting, steaming, shaggy Madroño bison! How lucky could I be?”

I fell into a wonderful rhythm of writing, swimming, and eating lazy (soup) dinners while watching the sunset. The ranch foreman, Robert Selement, who lives on the property and has worked there since he was a teenager, delivered wood, and when he noticed it went untouched, he asked me, kindly and without judgment, if I needed a lesson on starting a fire. (I did, and the fire was wonderful.)

When I came to a place in my book where I felt stuck, I explored the ranch. Heather describes her beloved land beautifully: “I love all the living water. I love the deep draws with their secret ferns and gnarled madrones and dripping springs, alive with moving things, especially those vexing warblers. There’s a view from a rise near the top of the road above Robert’s house that looks east that I love. I love the rocky valley filled with old maples and hardwoods. I love the side of a hill overwhelmed with cedar that still has moss growing even in the summer. Moss! I love the cleared fields in the cold, sharp weather, especially when the bison are huffing their white breaths and making those grunts that sound like they emerge from the center of the Earth.”

Somehow, in the stillness of the ranch, I found my story. By the time I filled the recycling bin with metal cans, an empty wine jug, and more than a few discarded pages, I had a draft of Homecoming to send to my agent. It still feels like a miracle to me.

I am not the only one to feel that Madroño Ranch might, perhaps, be magic. Remembers Heather, “Once, when I got annoyed at some peacocks that had shown up unexpectedly at the main house and wouldn’t let me in peace to watch the sun rise on the porch, I huffed off to the lake with my binoculars and sat there. I saw something appear in the water about 25 yards away and watched. What was it? Wasn’t a snake, because it wasn’t moving. Could be two turtles, but they looked odd. I checked with the binocs. It was a small alligator. I’ve been accused of all sorts of things since that sighting, and most of them probably aren’t true. No one’s ever seen the alligator again.”

For more information, visit their website.

Amanda Eyre Ward lives in Austin with her family. Her fifth novel, Homecoming, will be published by Random House in 2015.


Photography by Wynn Myers

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