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Reinventing the West: Lodges in the U.S.

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.

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