The History of Cochise Stronghold Nature Retreat

The History of Cochise Stronghold Nature Retreat

Nancy and I moved to Cochise Stronghold in August of 1996. It was empty land except for a small falling down shack. It had returned to wilderness decades before we arrived. We imagined it as a place for us and our son Sean to live, and for many years that’s what it was.

The property originally consisted of a 15+ acre parcel that we bought together with friends. Subsequently, we divided it into a 4-acre parcel and two 5+ acre parcels. What has now become the retreat center was the one of the two larger parcels that belonged to Nancy and me, which we partially cleared and built on. The other of the two larger parcels belonged to our partners, who sold it to Rob and Janet Schweiger, and who have since built a strawbale house there where they live for 6 months of the year. Nancy and I are still ½ owners of the immediately adjacent 4-acre parcel together with one of our original partners. That is where the well house for the shared well (Schweiger/Yates/Dharma Treasure) and the trailers are currently located. Two of those trailers belong to Nancy and me, one of which is now my personal residence when I visit the Stronghold, and the other we have been allowing Dharma Treasure to use occasionally for retreatants. The largest and newest of the trailers was originally our partners’ vacation home for when they visited the Stronghold and was sold to Dharma Treasure not long after the purchase of our parcel and buildings. (This trailer belonging to Dharma Treasure has a makeshift illegal septic associated with it. This was created by our partners, prior to selling it to Dharma Treasure, and its existence should have been disclosed as part of the sale of the trailer.)

For the first six months after our arrival we lived in a tent and a mobile home, before erecting the 30’ yurt which is now the Dharmatory Yurt. That yurt was originally located precisely where the 30’ diameter circular portion of the large house now sits. Nancy, Sean, and I lived in that yurt for the next 12 years. We built a large, full kitchen and bathroom, a spacious living area, office space for Nancy and me to work in, and two loft bedrooms. A little over a year later, we erected the second, smaller yurt approximately where the large bedroom in the main house now sits. This became our private meditation hall, with an altar and appropriate fittings, and was also where I housed my extensive library. When Sean got older, he used the Airstream trailer we’d purchased as his bedroom, so we all had more privacy.

For the first four years after our arrival, I continued to work in Canada six months of the year until the long separations from my family became too stressful for all of us. We began construction of the strawbale house that now consists of the Casita Manzanita and Agave Suite in 1998, finishing in October of 2000. We had spent all of my retirement funds to pay off the land, buy and finish the yurts, and begin construction on that house. Construction was interrupted periodically while I returned Canada to earn more money.

The strawbale house had been intended and designed as our family home, but we never moved in. When I quit working, we obtained a permit from the county to operate it as a bed & breakfast facility to make a living while we continued to live in the yurt. We also erected a tipi, because our permit allowed us to rent out two tipis as part of our bed & breakfast operation. Although we had planned to knock down the shack that was on the property when we first arrived, the basic structure was still usable. Instead, we completely refurbished it, new roof, siding, drywall, and eventually creating a bathroom, kitchen, and the attached enclosed area now referred to as the “cantina.” That shack became what is now known as the “Cookshack.”

This was the status quo until 2007 – living in a yurt and trailer and running a bed & breakfast in the strawbale house. We jokingly referred to the whole set up as our “monastery for two.” However, by 2007, Nancy was becoming more and more dissatisfied with living in a yurt, and the bed & breakfast was doing well enough that it seemed we might qualify for a mortgage. We drew up plans and got a permit to replace the yurt with a more permanent structure. As part of this plan, we moved the meditation/library yurt to its current location in November of 2007. In the course of moving that yurt I discovered I was rapidly losing physical strength. In 2008 I was diagnosed with ALS (it later turned out to be chronic neuroborreliosis, AKA chronic neurological Lyme disease). Until then, I’d been traveling regularly to my aging parents’ home 5 hours away to help look after them. Following the ALS diagnosis, a decision was made that my parents would build a home using the permit we’d obtained and come live with us. This allowed them to be with me, and to continue receiving the kind of assistance they needed then and would need more of in the future.

The 3000 square foot main house that now dominates the property was built by a contractor paid for mostly by my parents (Nancy and I put in a considerable amount of money as well once my parents’ funds were exhausted). Allegra Ahlquist contributed $50,000 to the construction costs (less than 1/7 of the total cost) to be able to live out her final years in the small apartment we created for her. As mentioned previously, part of the house now sits where the yurt we lived in was located at the time. Our yurt had to be moved, and no longer had plumbing or septic, so Nancy and I moved into the Casita Manzanita. This, of course, had a huge negative impact on our bed & breakfast income. After my Mother died in 2012, we moved into the main house in January of 2013.

Running a bed & breakfast in a separate building from our residence had already stretched County regulations. This new conformation lay completely outside any of the definitions normally used by Planning and Zoning. We were forced to stop construction for several months until we worked out an arrangement with Cochise County, but in doing so they imposed some rather stringent requirements.

The highly specific terms of our permit are very relevant to the Directors of Dharma Treasure in the operation of the new retreat center.

The house was permitted as a multi-generational single-family dwelling only. Allegra was regarded as family. There was a strict stipulation that all parts of that building had to be in the form of a single home with direct interior access between all parts of the building. Hence the doors that connected what have come to be treated as different “parts” of the building. One has to wonder how an inspector would respond to bookshelves being placed against doors. It was further stipulated that at no time and in no way would any part of that building be used as rented accommodations. We could not provide guest accommodations in our home. Yet another stipulation (one we never honored) was that the kitchens in the Casita Manzanita and the Cookshack would have to be decommissioned upon completion of the house.

Beginning in 2008, after the smaller yurt had been moved, we did use the facilities for small group retreats once or twice a year, usually over the Christmas/New Year holiday period and in July when bed & breakfast demand. We housed retreatants in legitimate bed & breakfast accommodations in the Casita Manzanita, Agave Suite, and Dharmatory Yurt. For some retreats, we also housed additional retreatants in the Forest Service rental called Halfmoon House, in spaces rented from neighbors, and a few camping in tents (the one thing for which we did not have a permit, and was not covered by our existing permit).

Running a bed & breakfast is far more work than most people realize for comparatively little return. It is basically a 24/7 job. In early 2015, Nancy and I realized we could not continue to do this, especially as we were both getting older and had other interests. We also recognized that our only way out was to sell, since our only real asset was our land and buildings. We also knew from the outset that preparing the property for sale and then selling it could take two or more years. (As it turned out, from the time Nancy and I recognized we had to sell until we were actually free to move on with our lives took more than 4 ½ years.)

I proposed that, in the interim, we see if we couldn’t shift at least partly away from bed & breakfast guests, who typically only stayed for 1-3 days at a time, required daily breakfast preparation and often lunch and supper provisioning as well, to solo meditators who would stay for a minimum of a week, and be responsible for their own meals. This would be completely consistent with the conditions of our Bed & Breakfast permit. Over the years, we often had one or two close friends and students doing solo retreats in one of our trailers, our guest bedroom, or in the B&B accommodations during the slow seasons. We’d also experimented with having several people at once doing solo retreats alongside our bed & breakfast guests. I made some careful calculations and came up with a schedule of accommodation rates for meditators, based on what I considered reasonable occupancy rates, that would provide roughly equivalent income. We began to do that and found it was economically viable to accommodate solo retreatants. It also had the desired effect of greatly reducing Nancy’s workload, and lowering housekeeping costs. The unforeseen consequence, though, was that it increased the demands on my time because the meditators always wanted to talk to me. I was, after all, the draw.

Please keep in mind that at no time prior to the sale were we operating as a retreat center, although we called our bed & breakfast business Cochise Stronghold Nature Retreat. At no time were we providing accommodations solely for solo retreatants. It had also been a very long time since we’d last held a group retreat on the premises. We were still primarily a bed & breakfast, and solo retreatants were present alongside our regular B&B guests, which, of course, brought its own set of problems! Our hybrid solo retreat/bed & breakfast operation was an improvement, but it still continued to be a completely unsustainable lifestyle.

The opportunity to sell the Cochise Stronghold property to Dharma Treasure, possibly to be used as a retreat center arose suddenly and unexpectedly. A dream come true – or so it seemed at the time. We had, for the most part, assumed that it would end up being a vacation home for some wealthy person or family. It is important to note that the primary intention of the person who made this sale possible was to free Nancy and me from the trap we were in and allow us to get on with our lives. That it might become a full-time retreat center we would continue to be involved with, but no longer had to run, would just be icing on the cake. As it turned out, rather than being immediately freed, we found ourselves having to continue running the retreat center for more than a year after the sale was complete.

We operated primarily as a bed & breakfast right up until the sale of the property and buildings to Dharma Treasure. Please note, we sold land and buildings only, we did not sell it as a business, much less as a retreat center. All we had done was demonstrate that it was financially viable as a retreat center where the maximum number of retreatants was limited to about 8-10 people. That number by the way, with a potential increase to 10-12 for group retreats, was agreed to as a maximum by the entire Board during our Strategic Planning meetings. There was never any discussion of trying to accommodate more people than that until after the purchase by Dharma Treasure, and that was primarily driven by someone we had hired who was not a good fit. Rather, we had defined our special niche in the retreat center industry as providing for solo retreatants and small, intimate group retreats.

The intent following the purchase was for Dharma Treasure to do what might be necessary to make it into a retreat center corresponding to that special niche. This was to be accomplished either while still adhering to the requirements of the bed & breakfast permit as we had done before, if the permit was still valid, or by obtaining a new and different permit. As part of Dharma Treasure, and with our knowledge and background, Nancy and I could and would have made sure that happened. Instead, Nancy and the rest of the Board became distracted by other things, then I was removed, so now it’s all up to the new Board.

I will continue to be available to help the new Board of Dharma Treasure make things happen as they should.