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.