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Reinventing the West: Lodges in the U.S.

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.

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