SEAVIEW, Pacific County — When I pulled into the parking lot at the historic Sou’wester Historic Lodge and Vintage Travel Trailer Resort in tiny Seaview, after driving 176 miles from Seattle, I felt like I was getting away with something. The cheery old lodge — once the vacation home of an Oregon senator — was inviting, the eclectic clutch of teardrop trailers adorable, miles of beach beckoned just down the road, and I’d be spending the next two days holed up in a trailer doing nothing but writing.
As I picked up my green keytag at the office and unpacked my groceries in the Boles Aero, one of the resort’s petite “Baby” trailers, I looked forward to focused work time in a setting that was strikingly unusual, but cozy and safe.
The impulse is nothing new.
From New York’s legendary Yaddo to Whidbey Island’s women-only Hedgebrook, there’s no shortage of high-profile residencies available to writers and artists seeking time and space to invest in their work. Those who make the cut typically get a fully funded stay, with lodging and meals provided. (One of Hedgebrook’s perks? A cookie jar that’s never empty.)
But full funding and prestige come at a cost: These programs tend to be competitive, with their pick of talented newcomers and mid-career artists — that’s great if you already have experience, and utterly useless to folks just starting out.
So what’s a weekend hobbyist or moonlighting first novelist to do? Writers can look into official retreats. In the Pacific Northwest, there are several. Powerhouse indie publisher Tin House brings in big literary names every year for its summer workshop at Reed College and a low-key winter workshop at the Oregon Coast’s delightful Sylvia Beach Hotel, where each room is decorated to honor a particular writer.
Closer to home, Fort Worden hosts the annual Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. Faculty members from years past (dating back to 1974) include Northwest heavy hitters like Tom Robbins and William Stafford, and there are few places as good for writing as bookish, ghostly, Victorian Port Townsend. For wilder environs, set your sights on the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, which has brought the likes of Barry Lopez, Jane Smiley, Anthony Doerr and Namoi Shihab Nye to Land’s End Resort (that’s really what it’s called) in Homer, Alaska.
The downside to workshops and retreats is an obvious one: Tuition and travel can be a barrier, and counter-intuitively, they’re often not great places to actually get writing done. It’s not impossible, but between how heavily scheduled these programs can be and the fact that you’ll be workshopping something you’ve already written, your odds of coming home with new material aren’t great.
The solution? Take your own do-it-yourself creative retreat.
A recipe for a DIY retreat
Most creative projects don’t require much more than a door that closes and perhaps an outlet for your laptop — time is really the key ingredient, and you can spend it anywhere.
Here’s a recipe I’ve used with success in the past: Take a few days off work (whatever you can spare), a cheap rental (whatever you can afford), a few fun itinerary items for when you need a break from your project (whatever might relax your brain), and good company in case you get lonely (a friend who’s also working on a project is ideal).
A DIY retreat has the benefit of being as opulent or as simple as your budget and enthusiasm allows, so do whatever works best for you: Writers I know have reported success with DIY retreats everywhere from the South of France to a budget hotel room in the Midwest.
As for me, I like the Sou’wester Lodge, the only place I’ve found that melds the idea of a DIY retreat with some of the more palatable elements of the official kind. In an unusual move outside of educational settings — most writing retreats have some kind of academic or institutional affiliation — the resort offers a residency program to writers and artists that’s refreshingly accessible and open-ended compared to its more traditional ilk.
Instead of the fully funded stay you might find at a residency or the structured environment of a formal writing workshop or conference, something else is offered to artists and writers interested in coming to the Sou’wester: They can apply for a discounted weekly rate that pencils out to $250 to $350.
There’s even an onsite recording studio for musicians to use. (It’s inside a trailer, of course.) In keeping with its open-minded approach, the Sou’wester identifies “writers, musicians, visual artists, craftsmen, cooks, engineers and more” as artists. If you fit into any one of those categories, you can apply for a residency.
A DIY retreat case study: The Sou’wester
What would your residency at the Sou’wester look like? I put it to the test, with satisfying results.
A friend of mine once compared staying at the Sou’wester to starring in a John Waters movie, and she’s not wrong: There’s a kitsch factor here that could be polarizing, but I’ve enjoyed it with each of my visits.
Guests can choose from a variety of lodging options, from small “Rustic” and “Baby” trailers (I stayed in the Boles Aero; Potato Bug is also impossibly cute) to family-size park-style versions, plus suites in the lodge and red-shingled vintage motel cabins that look like they came off a movie set from the 1950s. There’s a ton of character here, a number of spaces that work for just one or two people, and nothing that cries sterile Airbnb.
Regardless of where you sleep, swing by the lodge in the morning for coffee and tea before you begin your solitary day (leave a dollar in the jar) in a big communal room with a fireplace, a huge record collection and comfy chairs. The space hosts occasional live music and is essentially the Sou’wester’s living room, so you’ll likely bump into other guests. Among the occupants during my stay: a dad visiting in conjunction with his daughter’s graduation from Evergreen, impossibly cool-looking youths, kids in PJs and parents with a newborn on their first camping trip as a family.
Guests also have access to picnic tables, outdoor grills, larger gathering spaces, showers (if you’re staying in a trailer without one), a sauna and a big outdoor kitchen. (Fair warning: Travel-trailer kitchens are TINY. I was happy to live on quesadillas during my stay, but if you have four-burner culinary ambitions, you’ll want to use the outdoor kitchen.)
Need inspiration? You can borrow records from the lodge to play in your room, plus VCRs and VHS tapes for when you’ve met your daily word count. I listened to Joni Mitchell and Yves Montand while I worked.
If you hit a creative block, walk it out on the Discovery Trail. A short distance from the Sou’wester, the trail covers seven smooth miles of Pacific coastline between Ilwaco and Long Beach, perfect for strolling or pedaling a beach cruiser (you can borrow these from the lodge). The views are beautiful, the sight of cars driving right on the beach is weirdly novel, and it’s all so pleasant that you can rack up the miles without really noticing how far you’ve gone.
If you’re really in a flow state, though, you don’t even need to leave the Sou’wester at all. Seaview has a limited number of dining options and small grocery stores, but you can likely get what you need at the honor store in the main lodge, where guests can pick up cooking staples and snacks, browse original art and zines left by previous artists in residence, or pick up towels and water cups to take into the resort’s sauna. You’ll track your own purchases and pay at the end of your stay.
However you fill the time, the beauty of a creative retreat is that it’s totally up to you. For me, that meant days spent writing and reporting, and evenings running on the beach or reading mysteries in the trailer court with a bowl of tortilla chips and can of rosé for dinner.
Though I love being alone, one of my favorite things about doing this at the Sou’wester was that it didn’t feel particularly lonely. The Boles Aero, where I stayed, is right by the front door to the lodge in the resort’s main trailer court, which functions as a kind of downtown for the Sou’wester; it’s a good place to be alone without being completely alone.
As I did background reading on my trailer’s tiny front stoop or the picnic tables scattered throughout the open space between the trailers, hipsters in crop tops cruised past. A little kid held forth very imaginatively with his action figures. Travelers walked by with their dogs, or poked into the office to pick up sundries from the honor store or coffee from the lodge.
It felt private, but safe and communal, like an impossibly whimsical, pleasantly grown-up version of summer camp, which is exactly what a creative retreat should be. It was the perfect place to get my work done.
If you go
The Sou’wester Historic Lodge and Travel Trailer Resort is located right off Highway 101 in Seaview, Washington. The drive takes between three and four hours from Seattle.
Nightly accommodations ranging from campsite rentals to lodge suites are available from $45 to $178. Rates are lower mid-week and in the fall and winter. The Sou’wester offers occasional creative workshops that are open to guests. The full schedule is available at souwesterlodge.com/art/workshops/.
The town of Seaview, is small, but has basic essentials like fuel, coffee, a small grocery store and a few places to eat. The Sou’wester keeps a directory of these on hand in the lodge. For travel needs beyond the basics, Astoria, Oregon is 15 miles away.
Correction: The headline on a previous version of this story misidentified the location of the Sou’wester Historic Lodge.