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Reinventing the West: Lodges in the U.S.

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.

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