To live deliberately requires intention. To step into each morning with an awareness of our direction demands purpose. Constructing a conscious life calls us to reflect upon what we want for ourselves, our communities, and the world around us. And while a few days spent glamping in Texas might seem more like a time to tune out than to look inward, at Walden Retreats, both aims coexist beautifully in one transformative experience.
Sarah and Blake Smith’s lives are imbued with these values. Slow meals, thoughtful conversations, and an intimate connection to nature—these are the truths that shape the direction of their days, and they’ve inspired what guests have come to know and love about Walden Retreats.
Having met while working in Uganda, Sarah and Blake were inspired to bring a similar appreciation and respect for nature stateside. “I always thought that offering the same type of camping experience in the U.S. would be appealing,” says Blake. “It would allow people to spend time outdoors without sacrificing comfort and alleviating many of the inconveniences camping brings with it.”
On a recent trip, our team had the opportunity to experience a bit of the magic behind Walden Retreats. During the evening, we caught up with Sarah and Blake for insights and observations on living in alignment, pursuing purpose, and spending each day guided by intention. Keep reading to learn how Walden Retreats came to be, Sarah and Blake’s secrets to an easy and elegant weeknight dinner, and, of course, how the creative couple makes the perfect meal.
How Glamping in Texas Can Lead to a Life of Discovery
What Was the inspiration behind walden retreats?
As a society, we don’t take the time to slow down and reflect on who we are, where we are going, and if we are living the kind of lives we want to live. I believe that giving people time in nature without distractions allows for a deeper kind of reflection. — Blake
We’re really good at learning how to do, but not very good at learning how to be. Walden is all about giving people time for the latter.
How did Walden Retreats come to be?
In 2016, I graduated from the Acton School of Business where I presented the concept for Walden as a final project. I received a lot of positive feedback, and it was something that had a lot of potential and that I was passionate about. Soon after graduation, I began working on a formal business plan and raising funding to acquire a property.
The property opened to the public in April of 2018 with just two rooms that I operated by myself. This gave me a hands-on understanding of the customer experience as well as a lot of time out on the property to envision what a future expansion would look like. Of course, COVID forced us to push pause as we navigated how it would affect the industry. Turns out, offering people a secluded place to go within driving distance was just what everyone needed, making 2020 our busiest season yet. — Blake
Walden Retreats Is Both Secluded But Stunning. Could You Describe the Vision Behind It?
The interior design has been Sarah’s creation from day one. She’s done an amazing job at making the space functional but also thoughtfully curated with unique pieces that offer a homelike feel for guests. furniture makers, and artisans from around the world.
We are proud that the rooms reflect a lot about our background, where we have been in life, and our value of fair trade practices. There are items from places we have lived including Guatemala, Uganda, and Indonesia as well as others that we have traveled to like Peru, Morocco, and Mexico. — Blake
How Did You Find the Property, and what’s your favorite part of the space?
We were looking for a large, beautiful property outside of Austin. We didn’t have a past connection to the area ourselves, but we loved the topography, access to the Pedernales River, sunset vistas, and the fact that the location was an hour from Austin despite feeling much farther away.
My favorite part of the space is all the beautiful rock formations, including the cliffs that lead down to the river. It’s humbling and awe-inspiring knowing that it has been there in the same place for thousands of years, showing the effects of weather over time. Many different people have walked on it, cooked over it, and made tools out of it. It represents the constant shifting and evolutions of the earth, and it puts a lot into perspective. — Blake
What does A Typical Day look like For You?
My days have been very different lately, as we’ve been working to get the property complete. I wake up between 6 and 6:30, make coffee for the family, and get ready in time for our two boys (5 and 2) to wake up. Immediately after getting out of bed, our 100-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback, River, hops into my spot next to Sarah and makes herself at home.
I’m the early bird of the family, so I usually handle most of the morning prep with the kids while Sarah gets to sleep in a bit. Our oldest son, Grayson, and I leave for Montessori preschool at 8, and if I’m working in the office, I get in by 8:30. Lately though, much of the work has been on-site, which is another hour drive.
In the evening, we do our best to get our kids in bed by 8 p.m. so we have time to catch up on the day. After that, we tidy up the house, finish up any urgent work, and I try to sneak in a workout on Zwift or go for an evening run a few times per week. I like to be asleep between 10:30 and 11.
Get the recipe for Blake’s Reverse Seared NY Strip Steak
As Blake said, he’s the morning parent, so I start my days slow with a cup of coffee that he brings me in bed (THAT is true love!) and some morning reading next to our big fur baby. I love that both our boys come in with their bedheads to say good morning and then go to play and have breakfast with their dad.
Until Beckham, our younger son, starts Montessori preschool, we have a part-time nanny, so I work three long days a week in our home studio (or on-site at Walden) and have two days with Beckham. I always crave more work hours but I cherish this time with him. Those days consist almost entirely of being outside on a trail, at a park, or at some body of water, running errands for Walden, and squeezing in some work and a workout during his nap.
Since we’ve been married, Blake and I have prioritized a weekly date night. Our nanny stays until 7:30 p.m. once a week so we can squeeze in an early dinner, catch the happy hour deals, and reconnect. This weekly practice is the single most common piece of advice we’ve received from old married couples.
Once the kids are down in the evenings, Blake and I either sit down to unwind and watch a show or we go our separate ways to polish off some work tasks, catch up on Instagram, prep for the next day, or (as all working moms probably know) get house projects or family tasks done. It’s usually late nights for me, but I love the quiet house. With a good glass of red. — Sarah
What informs your approach to food?
Easy to make, lots of spices (top priority when your family is Italian and you grew up in Asia!), and healthy. I want to leave the table full but not heavy. — Sarah
What Are Your must-have cooking tools?
Cast iron pan. It’s versatile, durable, inexpensive, and timeless. Also, a temperature probe! A must-have if you want to nail a good steak. — Blake
My zester! I never knew I could love one tool so much. And my Our Place pan, because I sauté food nearly every time I cook. This pan can do everything. — Sarah
What are your favorite cookbooks?
My mom’s! Yes, she made a cookbook complete with her favorites and many of the things we used to eat growing up. Franklin Steak is also a great resource for all things beef, including information about various cattle breeds, cuts, and preparation methods. Lastly, I’d add Bonnie’s At 1. This is a cookbook from an iconic ski restaurant on Ajax Mountain in Aspen. I learned how to ski in Aspen when I was three and Bonnie’s has always been our family’s favorite place to stop for a bite. They’re known for their famous white bean chili and homemade apple strudel. — Blake
Cook Beautiful by Athena Calderone and Half Baked Harvest by Tieghan Gerard are both on repeat. They’re approachable dishes that are familiar, but with a new twist, and we’ve loved every recipe we’ve tried from those cookbooks. Even the kids like them! — Sarah
What Are a few things we’ll always find in your refrigerator?
Lemons, strawberries, baby carrots, an insane amount of milk per everyone’s preferences, and a drawer full of cheese. (Sarah’s family is from Wisconsin and this, apparently, is a normal thing). — Blake
Your go-to weeknight meal to eat at home?
Mediterranean Chicken or Steak Bowls. This involves marinated kabobs, rice, hummus, chili paste, sun-dried tomatoes, marinated artichokes, lemon juice, and grilled pita bread.
How Sarah and Blake Smith Gather
What does a great gathering look like for you?
A great gathering involves great friends. Not just ones who are fun and like to have a good time, but our closest friends who know and care about us, our struggles, our joys, and everything in between.
Great company is more than just laughter for us. It’s thoughtfulness, being intentional to ask the hard questions to one another, and being able to share the journey of life together.
Get the recipe for Sarah’s Grilled Watermelon Salad
What Are three Products You Love For The Table, And Why?
Linen napkins, stoneware dinnerware, and wooden serveware like boards, bowls, and serving spoons collected from my travels, markets, and any little shop I walk into. These things add texture, warmth, and interest while allowing the food to take center stage. — Sarah
What Scares You About Entertaining?
Time management. Even when I prep ingredients beforehand, I find it hard to simultaneously socialize and cook food that is hot and fresh. I’m working on mastering recipes that can be 90% ready when people arrive so I can serve food I’m proud of but also enjoy the company fully. — Sarah
Embrace buying yummy sides from the grocery store, because who really cares?
Your Signature Dishes For Gatherings?
Homemade BBQ, including smoked brisket, sausage, chicken, and ribs. I have an offset stick-burning smoker and have been honing my skills for about 15 years now. — Blake
A big charcuterie board, a large salad, and grilled meat (like tonight!). — Sarah
What’s One Tip For Someone Who Wants To Host A Gathering On A Budget?
Have guests bring a side and a bottle of wine! People are always asking what they can bring, so take them up on it. — Sarah
Favorite conversation starter?
What new shows or podcasts have they gotten into lately? Or, one place they’d recommend we travel to and why. — Sarah
The perfect dinner party playlist includes:
Ella Fitzgerald, always. — Sarah
Chris Stapleton. — Blake
Go-to centerpiece solution:
Greenery! Leafy green stems are sculptural, low-cost, and smell amazing. — Sarah
What is your no-stress party rule to live by?
Pour the wine, turn on some good music, and just sit down. Everyone needs a break. And, if you have little kids like us, send them outside and clean up the mess later! — Sarah
Dream dinner guests?
I can think of a dozen famous people I’d love to spend an evening with, but ultimately, my good friends are the ones I want to unwind, vent, and laugh with. It’s the wind in my sails. — Sarah
Fill in the blank:
“A perfect meal should …” involve a dash of lemon, a great cheese, and a bold Californian red wine.
“It’s not a dinner party without …” music and laughter.
“Every cook should know how to …” cook with simple ingredients like olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. And cook pasta properly! There’s nothing worse than overcooked or undercooked pasta.