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.
Day 2: It Begins
I have to say I really like the bathroom. The slate walls and glass-box showers are fine, but what sets me at ease is the picture-window view of the resort’s ubiquitous ponderosa pines, their roots blanketed by the year’s last snow, and over the horizon, the loaded grandeur of a nearby mountain range. According to Larry Lipson, one of the owners, the bathroom is “big enough to put a horse in.” He is not being figurative.
“This could be our last meal together,” we tell each other over breakfast before commencing our snowmobile appointment. The morning grub is exceptional: a grilled vanilla huckleberry coffee cake topped with caramelized bananas and finished with preserved huckleberries alongside fresh eggs and slabs of flaky ham.
Over at the Wilderness Outpost Center, a nice young man named Jake Hansen dresses us in warm overcoats and snapson helmets and safety goggles. Asked what’s it like to pilot a snowmobile, he says, “It’s somewhere between riding a bike and driving a car.” Since I can do neither, I let E. take the first turn at the throttle. “Okay, if you start to tip over,” Hansen tells us, “you want to just slide off the vehicle. You don’t want to stick your leg out.” The sleek machine starts to tremble beneath us. We promptly tip over. I stick my leg out. Several tries later, all four limbs miraculously still attached to my torso, we are slowly rumbling uphill, my safety glasses fogging up with fear as every bump sends us jolting into the frozen air, our lips coated with fresh snow. We ascend 4,000 feet. As the pines flash past us, falling away into a white abyss, I try to focus on the unimpeachable beauty of the mountain range through which we are hurtling, a beauty this environmentally un-kosher machine is probably destroying, but instead the particulars of the snowmobile “Fatality Summary” present themselves. “Victim…went off a steep embankment [like the one just to our left]…and struck several trees.” Victim “went airborne 20–30 feet into a [pine?] tree.” And taken from another snowmobile advisory website: “Many [emphasis mine] cases of decapitation have occurred.”
Several hours and just as many lorazepam pills later, I start to feel better. I’ve been in dangerous parts of the world before, have been threatened with large knives and kidnapping, and I’ve found that sooner or later my body gets tired of the constant exposure to stress and a surprisingly blissful feeling descends. Decapitation? Sure. Anything to relax. We pull into the well-preserved and oddly bucolic Garnet ghost town, a collection of timber cabins that, according to our guide, at the turn of the last century housed 1,000 miners, 13 bars, and one very busy jail. Surrounded by the hypnotically simple architecture and the remnants of our country’s over-the-top frontier history, we snack on Paws Up gourmet turkey sandwiches and shiver in the midday cold.
After lunch, it’s my turn to drive.
The last time I operated a motor vehicle was as a college sophomore, a cross-country trip that nearly ended when an Oldsmobile I was driving collided with one of Alabama’s Shoney’s franchises. This time around, after a few errant swipes at a snowbank, I begin to warm to the machine beneath me. It becomes evident that the snowmobile operates on the same principle as the American economy—you’ve got to rev it up something crazy, or the whole thing will just stall and flip over. The faster you go, the easier it gets, the more you’ll think you’re in control. Soon we’re floating along the mountain ridges within a noxious cloud of gas, beneath us the sharp outlines of an endless constellation of trees, above us a sky so frighteningly clear and blue that it feels like a riff on eternity. And for a brief moment, I allow myself to actually enjoy the ride.
Back in our Big Timber cabin with the CNN blaring and the Wi-Fi pumping, I pick up my copy of the indispensable 1,160-page Montana anthology The Last Best Place; along with Big Sky Country, this is one of the state’s favorite nicknames. The owners of Paws Up, the Lipson family, have riled the heck out of the state’s governor and residents by trying to trademark “The Last Best Place” (they also own the trademarks to “The Last Best Bed” and “The Last Best Beef”). The legal fight continues, and hasn’t exactly made them popular in these parts, but no matter: we settle into the Last Best Hot Tub (trademark pending?) on our front porch and let the soft late-winter snow coat our tired faces.
Day 3: Bill the Dog Gets a Special Treat
The damage from yesterday’s snowmobiling adventure: throbbing pain in buttocks (from prolonged tension), throbbing pain in biceps (from nervously gripping throttle, E.’s waist), general back pain (unexplained).
After another superb breakfast, this one of granola-studded griddle cakes and the big fat taste of pork-turkey sausage, we head off for another day of what the promotional material refers to as “Roughing It Redefined.™” The first challenge: snowshoeing. Walking through the half-melted snow, our guide points out sagebrush, wolf lichen, and the rather graceful pellet-like droppings that deer leave behind. We watch a girl gang of white-tailed deer streaming across the woods. The sight of these fit, glorious creatures and of a red-tailed hawk floating on the wind angers me: Here I am, my feet tied to some kind of gigantic piece of ergonomic plastic, and this stunning bird is lifted up into the heavens, his strong wings buffeted by temperate gusts.
It’s time for some well-earned Soft Adventurer comfort. Over at the spa center, using hot black river rocks and wet towels, a masseur restores my urban dignity in the face of nature’s subtle contempt. Wild lemon and eucalyptus clear my wind-beaten passages—I wake up from the massage with my mind cleansed of doubt, my body free of pain. In another room, a woman named Andrea Hren is rubbing Bill the Dog along both sides of his furry spine. “I’m getting all the little meaty parts and the thighs,” she says as Bill’s ears settle back. “Can we get that tail going?” Andrea says, but Bill is too sedated to wag, his brown eyes staring placidly ahead, all dreams of chasing black squirrels vanquished, replaced with a deep understanding of some canine-headed god.
We dine at Pomp. The chef does especially well with meat—the bison is full of unexpected juice and char—and the wine list offers some fine Pinot Noirs from the Willamette Valley. The appetizer of lobster bisque with a lobster corn dog is sweet and just a little tawdry, like a cheap date in Vegas, where the chef earned his culinary stripes. At Tank, Pomp’s adjoining bar, we play chess beneath a moose head, listening to the amiable bartender discuss his favorite part of the mountain lion—the haunches—over an endless stream of Hawaiian music.
Day 4: Let Me See Your Game Face
The weather doesn’t know what it wants to be today: snow, fog, drizzle, teasing bursts of sunshine. We put on hip waders and head down to the Blackfoot River. We learn the terminology: casting upstream; strike indicator; nymph fishing; Georgia Brown Stone fly. We learn to keep our elbows close to our bodies, to “pretend there’s a Bible there” and then not to drop it. We catch nothing. But standing on a rock surrounded by the snowbanked river, feeling its rhythms, the strength of the wind, the sting of ice against your fingers, the little crabs of pain running up and down your casting arms, there’s a quiet beauty to the endless repetition. There is the hope that something will come your way, will bite, but in the end you come to accept that you are just a biped in rubber waders standing in the middle of endless creation as snow falls dispassionately all around you and the fish go their own way.
We eat a rejuvenating lunch of tender buffalo burgers and salt-and-vinegar fries, and then it’s time to shoot some sporting clays. A local named Heath Roy—Stetson; craggy mountain features; easy manner—takes us to the proving grounds and introduces us to our very first guns. Never having held a firearm before, I’m starting to feel like Elmer Fudd on a bad day. But we are set at ease by a family from Alabama, a middle-aged internist and his two sons, one a freshly minted Birmingham physics teacher, the other a red-haired little spark plug. The doctor proudly tells us that he gave his youngest his first gun when he turned five, to which I can only reply, “Oh.” I pick up the weapon and Roy gives me some last-minute advice: “Pretend there’s a pair of knees hangin’ off that skeet. Shoot the knees.” The recoil punches a pale yellow bruise into my chest, but I hit the target and the clay explodes like a minor firecracker. E. does “real good” too, while the young physics teacher barely misses a clay.
Soon, Roy is referring to me by the first syllable of my name—“Let me see your game face, Gar!”—and his patient advice on following through helps me hit a low-flying, ground-skimming rabbit. By the end of our appointed hour, I just want to shoot everything in sight. Slowly but indubitably, Paws Up is making a man out of me.
On the ride back to the resort, the doctor ruffles the thick red mane of his youngest. “I appreciate your good manners, boy,” he says. As a newly minted sharpshooter I smile and nod my head, wondering why my New York daddy never says things like that.
Day 5: The Last Best Horse
It is time to subdue our final fear. I’ve never been atop an equine, and E.’s experience with riding involved a runaway horse sprinting down a hill and nearly killing her. With that in mind, the Paws Up staff has provided her with one of the resort’s tamest, smartest quarter horses, the amazing Guy, who tends to follow slowly behind his best friend, a Norwegian mountain horse with a beautiful black star on his forehead. I am given the slightly mediocre Fifty, with his chestnut complexion and propensity to snort at the world around him like some willful teenager.
Not being experienced in these things, I use my dog language: “Good boy, Fifty. Good boy. Who’s a good boy? You are!” The animal ignores me, gets distracted by a passing deer, and then charges up a hill like there’s not 140 pounds of quivering man atop him. While E.’s Guy carefully gauges the terrain, Fifty and I fall right through the melting snow, the horse’s belly grazing the ice. After half an hour of riding the beast I feel somewhat beleaguered. But E. has conquered her fear of horses.
On our last morning, while I’m still reeling from shotgun-recoil chest pain and horse prostate, a herd of elk comes running out, stage left, to fill our bedroom’s picture window with their elegant prancing, to complete the vista of snow and pine. Twenty elk does are in the thrall of a young buck, an alpha male who marches them around the clearing in back of our cabin and then whisks them off into the woods.
Outside, we walk past the little one-room, county-run schoolhouse where four boys, ages 4 to 12, are taught by one full-time teacher and a teacher’s aide. The schoolhouse was there before the Lipsons bought the property, and now it sits oddly amid the luxurious accommodations, with its diminutive red bell tower, kid-size basketball court, and the humble cars of its small staff. That’s the final piece of Montana I take back home with me to New York, a city where the sky knows its place, where it broods tiredly over our civilization, and where we pay it no heed.
The Resort at Paws Up; doubles from $940, including meals. The resort is open for the winter season from December 18 through February 15.