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.
HODGSON'S STORY IS PRETTY TYPICAL. In 1975, he founded Ghurka, a high-end luggage company. His wife is from the West, his son started coming to summer camp here, and pretty soon he was drawn to the region for relaxation and retreat. A year ago he bought a run-down 1930's dude ranch on Colorado's Smith Fork River, surrounded by 860,000 acres of national forest. But he wasn't content with a private ranch—he wanted to build a business. Since he needed a full-time staff to look after the horses and the property, he might as well keep them busy during the months he and his family weren't there by offering the four bedrooms and three cabins to paying guests.
However, there's clearly more than mere financial calculation here. When you speak to Hodgson and the other lodge owners, you get the sense that they express themselves through their entrepreneurship. They're not just hiring people to build or renovate these lodges; they're doing a lot of the work themselves. It's their way of being more than a guest in the West, of physically contributing to the land's preservation and development. Under Hodgson's supervision, the old dude ranch has been transformed into the Smith Fork Ranch, with 11 horses, a cleaned-up river, and seven trout-filled ponds. He's hired local glassblowers, potters, and ironworkers to make guests feel as if they're walking into a bit of the Old West (but with modern facilities, and an upscale restaurant that specializes in game and produce from the western slope).
This and other places are redefining the Western guest ranch. They owe more to Robert Redford's sensibility than to John Wayne's. Gone is the blood-sport machismo that drew people like Ernest Hemingway to these parts. Gone are the raw living conditions for Teddy Roosevelt-style Rough Riders. Gone even is Henry David Thoreau's urge to live without possessions amid the simplicity of unadorned nature.
These new lodges reject the old categories. They offer a high-end wilderness experience that marries the refinements of civilization with a reverence for nature, and throws in a strong current of consciousness-raising. They preserve some of the traditional guest-lodge clichés—antler chandeliers in the dining rooms, moose heads on the walls, cabins named after native animals (Grizzly, Wolf, Eagle)—but they also offer environmental seminars, health spas, low-fat haute cuisine, and, of course, fantastic master baths with heated floors.
Touring through them, you are reminded that everything in America must now come in an upscale version of itself. Once Mercedes started making SUV's, you knew that there would soon be elk-skin lounge chairs and humongous Western Pop art to hang in the two-story atrium of your log mansion. If Norman Maclean were alive to write another novel about the modern fly-fishing adventure, he'd call it A Jacuzzi Runs Through It.
THE QUINTESSENTIAL NEW LODGE OF THIS TYPE IS PAPOOSE CREEK, located a half-hour west of Yellowstone National Park. Its founder, Roger Lang, received two degrees from Stanford: a bachelor's in ecological anthropology and a master's in Latin American studies. After graduating, he couldn't find a job, being too much of an enviro-liberal, he says, for most government agencies. However, studying how Third World debt burdens were forcing Brazil to exploit its rain forest had taught him something about international banking. So, in 1986, he went into the software business, developing applications to help global banks manage risk. A decade later, his company, Infinity Financial Technology, went public, and in 1999 he sold it.
Newly armed with "liquidity"—as he delicately puts it—he could return to his first love, the environment. He owns a place in Brazil, and he bought Sun Ranch, an enormous spread in Montana, from kick-and-chop actor Steven Seagal. There he started raising Conservation Beef—which means the cows have to act in an environmentally conscious manner so they can get the Nature Conservancy's seal of approval when their shanks are sent to the organic grocery stores.
But Lang didn't want to be just another gentleman rancher. He wanted to set up a lodge that would serve as a model for sustaining enlightened land management through tourism. "I'm very pro-business, and in that sense I'm very idealistic," he says. The economic fact driving most of these new lodges is that the old northern Rockies economy, based on lumber, mining, and cattle ranching, is no longer as viable, and the region must cultivate a tourism business in order to preserve its beauty and its living standards.
Lang bought a house near his ranch and converted it to a five-bedroom lodge, using lumber reclaimed from old barns to avoid cutting down trees. Then he built three guest cabins on glacial moraines so that if the nearby Papoose Creek ever changed course, it would flow around them. The cabin roofs are made from a metal meant to rust, creating a "homesteader" look (that is, if homesteaders' cabins ever had massive picture windows, balconies, mini-bars, ambient floor heating, and benches in the oversized showers, for people who don't like to stand up when they wash).
The fishing in the adjacent Madison River is unsurpassed, and the horseback rides are magnificent. I'm a veteran of trail rides on docile nose-in-the-butt-of-the-animal-in-front-of-them horses, and I can tell you I've never ridden through more beautiful country. (And it will never be developed, because Lang is putting conservation easements on it.) For experienced riders there's plenty of open range for loping, and of course there is the full complement of wildlife, such as elk, eagles, even a pack of five wolves that has drifted over from Yellowstone.
Papoose Creek Lodge has a home-like kitchen that blends into the dining area, so you can wander in and learn bread making if you want. There's yoga and massages on request, and after dinner the lodge brings in guest biologists, artists, and historians to lead discussions—for all those Information Age burghers who aren't happy unless everything they do feels a bit like graduate school.
The only drawback is that the ranch policy is hostile to children; you can't bring in anyone under 12 unless you rent the whole hotel ($24,750 for six nights). This is a problem for me, because I believe that every father should bring his kids out West at least once to show them what a rugged outdoorsman he is, and he has to do it while they're young enough to fall for the act. But other than that, Papoose Creek, and other ranches like it, cater very well to the targeted clientele: upscale urban dwellers and suburbanites who spend their lives dashing from airports to office parks. (At least, the kind who can afford the room rates—from $250 to $500 a night.)
THESE RANCHES APPRECIATE THAT WE INFORMATION AGE TYPES don't feel corrupted because we've got too many comforts. We feel corrupted because we've got too many distractions. We all live in the jumble of messages competing for our attention: too many e-mails, too many voice mails, too many Web pages, TV channels, advertisements, and books. With all that data flow we don't have time to think, to step out of the information loop and let our brains noodle around and relax. We don't even have time to consider who we are and where we're going.
So while the modern lodges are pretty indulgent about creature comforts, many of them are also pretty rigorous about restricting communication. Most don't have televisions or phones in the rooms. The manager at Papoose Creek, Warren Boling, insists that guests check their cell phones at the desk, just as gunslingers of the Old West had to check their six-shooters with the sheriff. One lodge, the Spotted Horse Ranch near Jackson, Wyoming, not only bans televisions and telephones; it has no clocks in the cabins or locks on the doors. After about three hours at one of these retreats, you notice that you actually have your brain to yourself. You can think what you want to think and you feel as if a great buzz has stopped ringing in your ears. The idea of checking your voice mail and re-entering that electronic jungle seems utterly revolting.
Each ranch has placed itself somewhere on the continuum between complete isolation and complete inter- connectivity. Brooks Lake Lodge, for example, offers the former. To get there, you start at Grand Teton National Park and head east on a largely empty road. You go over a pass that crosses the Continental Divide, and then you see a sign to Brooks Lake, and a dirt road. You take a left on that dirt road and start going even farther up. And up and up. Finally, when you're sure you must have crossed the Arctic Circle, you come across a high mountain lake and a hillside with six cabins and a seven-room lodge. It feels as though you're on a different planet. The day I arrived, the temperature was 14 degrees colder than down in Grand Teton Park (which itself isn't exactly Death Valley). In a typical year there's snow on the ground until June. In winter, visitors reach the place either by dogsled or—in a triumph of convenience over environmental sensitivity—snowmobile.
BROOKS LAKE LODGE IS SURROUNDED BY VAST GREEN FORESTS and huge looming gray stone cliffs. The terrain is rugged; up there, nature provides little in the way of sweet softness. When you stay at Brooks Lake (whether for summertime horseback riding or wintertime snowshoeing and cross-country skiing) you sleep in a small bedroom, and the people you see around the common dining room table are pretty much the only ones you'll be communicating with that week. There are no phones in the rooms, so the staff can't connect you to any callers—though they will give you a message in case you should conceivably want to call someone back. The whole atmosphere suggests that these people have a lot to teach the FBI Witness Protection Program.
Yet there are ample comforts amid the isolation. Guests eat off fine china and drink from crystal. The wine list is top-notch. There is tea in the afternoon, with finger sandwiches, lemon squares, and petits fours, and when you ask the chef about the dinner menu, he spills out a torrent of offerings, including stuffed baby pheasant, salmon-feta ravioli, and tiramisù. Next summer there will be a 4,000-square-foot spa with a masseuse, sauna, and steam room.
In short, when you arrive you think you're in the Siberian Gulag, and then they start treating you like you're Heloise at the Plaza.
THOSE SUSCEPTIBLE TO CABIN FEVER, who think that Brooks Lake sounds too much like the setting of an Agatha Christie novel, should try Mark Rockefeller's South Fork Lodge in Swan Valley, Idaho. The lodge faces the south fork of the Snake River, and for the fly fishing-obsessed, proximity to this particular stretch of cold running water shuts out all other distractions. South Fork is dedicated to fishing, and if you are not the sort of person who is inordinately interested in replicating the movements of river larvae with a few pieces of line and a hook, there's not much here for you. But if you find the mood swings of the cutthroat trout all-consuming, then you'll be able to spend 24 hours a day thinking like a fish.
The windows of the lodge's magnificent domed dining room look out on the Snake, so you can see the little buggers jumping as you eat your morning pancakes and when you take your last sip of wine with dinner. Pictures of fish adorn the shower and the walls. There's such an angling mentality in the air, the kitchen should just hang the lobster quesadilla appetizers from little strings and force the patrons to rise up and strike at them.
South Fork is one of the more luxurious hotels in the Yellowstone area, with vaulted ceilings, remote-control windows, kitchenettes in many of the rooms, and private balconies overlooking the river. It's also one of the most architecturally distinguished complexes: its silo-like structures banded in zinc depart from the hewn-log aesthetic that is de rigueur in just about every other property west of the Mississippi. Still, here, as in all the other lodges, it is the staff's evangelical desire to share the glories of nature that really sets the tone.
One morning, I brought two of my kids, ages 10 and 7, into the fishing shop to make an appointment for some lessons later in the day. A young clerk named Ben Levin dropped what he was doing and took us out to a nearby pond for 21/2 hours of no-charge instruction. Pretty soon my kids were casting flies (after a fashion) and even catching fish (three apiece).
Levin is from Arkansas, and as a kid, while many of his buddies were out playing football or messing around, he became an acolyte in the cult of the hook. Now, in between terms at college, he heads for the streams, finding work wherever the fishing is finest. We came across these enthusiasts at every lodge we visited: young initiates in the church of the outdoors. The amazing thing is that the lodges seem able to find staff members who are addicted to solitary pursuits but still possess the people skills to interact instantly with guests. They remind me of a poetic passage that Benton MacKaye, known as the Father of the Appalachian Trail, wrote in the journal Living Wilderness: "Gregarious man has a lonesome soul/And wilderness ways lead back to a crowd."
So when you stay at an Information Age guest ranch, expect to find yourself conversing about topics that aren't exactly common at your local Chi-Chi's. Out on a trail ride, you'll be asking the wrangler probing questions about the artificial insemination of cattle. You'll find that even the youngest guides have an incredible knowledge not only of flora and fauna, but also of local geology, of living patterns of the early settlers, and of a wolf pack's killing techniques. Their straightlegged jeans hang just right over their boots, in a way you'll never master, and they do so many things, like roping steers, that you can't, you try to remind yourself that, after all, there must be things you can do and they can't. But somehow, it's not that reassuring to know you're vastly superior at hailing a cab or reading mutual fund quarterly reports.
THE SPOTTED HORSE RANCH, OUTSIDE JACKSON HOLE, is a step more casual than the other places, and a bit cheaper, the perfect destination for people just introducing themselves to the West. Over the course of our stay, we met a posse of romantic Rocky Mountain missionaries: Alessandro, the Italian chef with a law degree from Brazil, who as a child dreamed of living in the West; Brad, a young wrangler who works his family ranch most of the year, 16 hours a day on a horse, and comes up here to be near the high mountain campsites; Aaron, a kid from Casper who's a punter on the Purdue football team and wears a cowboy hat so naturally he must have teethed in one.
We actually had a bad experience at Spotted Horse. It was having a Memorial Day concert in a big tent outside our cabin, and the second night we had to flee to a motel in Jackson to get some sleep. But it's hard to hold a grudge against a place where the people are so nice; where cabins are sprinkled on a hillside beside a surging river, horses mill about their stable within earshot, and saddles are oiled just outside your door. Across the valley, you can see the fields where thousands of elk spend their winters.
Let's face it, it is hard to build a bad Rocky Mountain guest lodge (though I suppose Donald Trump could do it). You've already got the mountains, the animals, the rivers, and the fabulous eco-pilgrims who flock to the region looking for work. But what's interesting about these new wave guest lodges is how they blend seeming opposites. They are luxurious, yet feel natural. They are relaxing, and also educational. They are frankly environmentalist, but their owners and staff don't have that contempt for mainstream America that you sometimes find among environmentalist druids.
Some would say it's all phony. How can you have a real nature experience when you're staying in a $400-a-night hotel?All this is too easy, some would say. Luxury lodges give you pseudo-nature, an easy mock-experience for people who want to get the wilderness without straying too far from their SUV's.
All I can say is, try it both ways: rough and luxurious. See if your thoughts are any finer because you slept on the ground, instead of in a comfortable bed. See if you contemplate the eternal verities more sublimely because you wash out of a canteen, instead of in a slate shower with one of those multi-stream heads. I confess my own thoughts are not sullied when I feel rested, comfortable, and clean. After our trip out West, my kids said they never want to see Disney World again; they just want to go back to the Rockies—which, as you know, is the highest prepubescent compliment imaginable.
A lot of our ideas about nature are based on old polarities: man versus the great outdoors; money versus freedom; technology versus wilderness; civilization versus simplicity. But I wonder how many of these old romantic oppositions are real. Loving nature doesn't mean you hate your job, your suburb, your culture. Nowadays you can bring your laptop into the forest and enjoy both technology and wilderness without too much difficulty. In fact, nearly 30 years ago the poet Gary Snyder dreamed of ways of combining the life of technology and work with the life of nature and peace. In his 1974 book, Turtle Island, he offered the ideal of "computer technicians who run the plant part of the year and walk alongside the elk in their migrations during the rest." Sounds good to me. And the new Western guest lodges have gone pretty far toward realizing that ideal—with heated bathroom floors to boot.
Smith Fork Ranch 4536 E50 Dr., Crawford, Colo.; 970/921-3454, fax 970/921-3475; www.smithforkranch.com; three-night stay from $1,100 per person. Open May through January.
Papoose Creek Lodge Hwy. 287 N. Cameron, Mont.; reservations exclusively through Off the Beaten Path, 800/445-2995, fax 406/587-4147; www.papoosecreek.com; three-night stay from $1,050 per person, including meals and all ranch activities. Open May through October.
Brooks Lake Lodge 458 Brooks Lake Rd., Dubois, Wyo.; 307/455-2121, fax 307/455-2221; www.brookslake.com; doubles from $250 per person, including meals and all ranch activities. Open June through September and January through April.
South Fork Lodge 40 Conant Valley Loop, Swan Valley, Idaho; 877/347-4735, fax 208/483-7007; www.southforklodge.com; doubles from $354, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Open May through November and December through March.
Spotted Horse Ranch 12355 S. Hwy. 191, Jackson Hole, Wyo.; 800/528-2084, fax 307/733-3712; www.spottedhorseranch.com; doubles from $330, including meals and all ranch activities. Open May through October.