Day 1: A Wi-Fi Signal Runs Through It
Two Easterners—my girlfriend E. and I—arrive at the Missoula, Montana, airport to the tableau of a stuffed mountain lion eating a stuffed mountain goat above the baggage carousel. The goat is gasping for its life; the pouncing lion looks insatiable. Meanwhile, a roughly hewn man in a Stetson and duster (many Montanans helpfully reinforce a visitor’s image of their state) calls out to another one, “Bill Cowley, you old sea dog! I haven’t seen you since the Navy!”
“Cut. That’s a wrap,” I want to say to the phantom cameraman filming this Coen brothers western.
We have landed somewhere at the edge of the continental United States to experience a high-end, very mediated encounter with nature at a place called the Resort at Paws Up, 40 minutes from Missoula. In the adventuring industry, E. and I are what are called Soft Adventurers. Literally, we are soft. We don’t exercise more than necessary to remain alive. We both failed the President’s Council on Physical Fitness test under the Reagan administration, an exam which included five difficult activities such as the one-mile run, the right-angle push-up, and the partial curl-up (not partial enough). In a mirror image of the president’s fitness test, we have decided to submit ourselves to five winter activities that we would never imagine doing without a professional staff of coddlers: the lunatic sport of snowmobiling, the debilitating art of snowshoeing, riding on top of a horse, shooting things with a gun, standing ass-deep in a frozen river waiting for the trout to bite. All this will be done underneath Montana’s famously big sky, to the accompaniment of excellent food, a Tolstoy-size wine list, and every creature comfort the Soft Adventurer needs to feel loved in the face of nature’s cruel indifference. Even E.’s dog, Bill, a feisty Jack Russell terrier with no sense of limits, has come to submit himself to an intensive doggie massage at the hands of a professional.
Yawning from the endless plane ride, we pull up to a Paws Up Big Timber cabin, a nearly 1,500-square-foot spread towering over four private acres of land. The houses are named after fly-fishing flies—the Frog Knobbler, Glimmer Stone, the Bunyan Bug, and our very own Pan Fish Popper, with the hot tub gurgling away on the front porch. Inside, the décor is Ponderosa modern: from the photos of cowboys learning the ropes to the cowhide rugs, couches big enough to seat the cast of Bonanza, and the Last Best Bed™ (more on the constant trademarking later), which, like an SUV, can be reached with the aid of a stepladder. Lurking amid this Brobdingnagian setup is a kind of induced homeliness. Nothing has been spared—from the satellite TV to the heated floors in the bathroom to the all-important Wi-Fi signal, which I try to catch with my temperamental iPhone. In advance of tomorrow’s snowmobiling adventure, I read the “Wisconsin Snowmobiles Fatality Summary—2007/2008 Season” and several online articles such as “Why Are There So Many Michigan Snowmobile Fatalities?” (yes, pray tell, why?) and “Montana Avalanche Victim Survives an 8-Hour Burial.” Throughout the night, I can hear E. quaking and mumbling next to me as she dreams about flying off a mountain. Outside, the deathly darkness of a rural night; inside, two figures twisting and turning across their monstrous, hovering bed with its 300-thread-count linens and badger-size pillows. Only Bill the Dog will know the sleep of the righteous.