If you go camping in the Rockies way up by a mountain lake, late at night some of the grizzled old wranglers might start recounting the legend of Stoneheart McGee, the high-tech executive who spent a week in Montana and decided not to buy a ranch there. Personally, I don't believe a word of it. Every big-city cell-phone jockey I've ever heard of came off his first trail ride with a full-blown case of Big Sky fever. These are third-generation suburbanites whose closest contact with animal life is with their mouse pads. They get a good look at the snowcapped peaks and endless stretches of landscape and they discover their inner cowboy. Country songs start to make sense. They begin to regard trout fishing as a quasi-religious activity. They're overwhelmed by the urge to purchase some of the vast empty land they see in front of them. Their attitude seems to be: I've already got the Range Rover; I might as well get the range to go with it.
It all started with Ted Turner, who founded CNN and then decided to buy the Rocky Mountain time zone. He was followed by a whole wave of spiritual piners. He-man cardiologists from Chicago were buying 20-acre ranchettes; eco-sensitive Hollywood producers were snapping up 150,000-acre trophy valleys. These were people who ended up with the music from The Horse Whisperer playing on their sound systems and Wallace Stegner novels unread on their coffee tables. For a time, it was like a soul rush: successful people with hectic lives flocking to achieve a mystical communion with nature. When the rush was in full flow, I half expected the newly arrived Rocky Mountain Buddhists to come into the gourmet coffee shops in Bozeman, Missoula, and Jackson Hole asking for cups of beef jerkyccino—half skim, half mocha.
The good news is that most of the poseurs have washed out. The northern Rockies are just too hard to get to, and way too cold most of the year, for the casual romantic. The latest ranch-purchasers seem a little more experienced. And the best news is that several of them are opening guest lodges on their properties, so some of us in the non-zillionaire category can enjoy the isolated splendor just below the timberline.
Microsoft's Paul Allen, who must have the fastest modem in the West, has bought the ultra-exclusive Teton Ridge Ranch in eastern Idaho. Mark Rockefeller has built South Fork Lodge nearby on the banks of the Snake River. Silicon Valley's Roger Lang has put his Papoose Creek Lodge on the Madison River in Montana. Max Chapman, the former head of Nomura Holding America, is renovating Brooks Lake Lodge near Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park. Bo Polk, the former chairman of MGM, has created Breteche Creek Ranch near Cody, Wyoming, and Marley Hodgson is putting the finishing touches on Smith Fork Ranch in Colorado.