Almost as soon as the captain announces that we’ve begun our initial descent into Missoula, the light goes brown outside the windows and the cabin of our small commuter plane starts to smell vaguely like a campfire. At the beginning of the flight, the pilot had said something about the wildfires in Montana, and was there some mention of a smoke jumper? Wait, what’s a smoke jumper? Suddenly I wish I’d been paying better attention.
Maybe it would explain why we’re currently flying through a dense smoke cloud, banking and bumping side-to-side through a descent so rough that people are actually praying. Outside the windows, a solid, unbroken brown. I focus deeply on my Delta pretzels, its own kind of prayer.
Luckily, we don’t die. Back on the ground, the heat echoes off the tarmac and the smoky humidity is locked in place with no breeze, the sky brownish and apocalyptic. It still smells like a campfire, but stripped of its imminent danger it’s kind of homey, like we’re about to be served s’mores and brisket. On the way out to the car, the guy driving me from the airport to the resort (let’s call him John, since I don’t remember his real name) says, “It’s supposed to clear up in the next day or two.”
This will become a familiar refrain. Montana is called “Big Sky Country,” known for its blue expanses and scenic vistas, but I’ve also arrived during wildfire season, meaning we’ll get neither of those. Folks whose incomes are tied to Montana’s natural beauty are naturally defensive. Out in Western Montana, in Flathead County, Heart Butte, and in Native American land, people are being evacuated from their homes. Where I’m going, the fires just mean rich people can’t coo at stars. Trivial, but also like ending up in Hawaii when the beaches are closed.
Clear skies or not, Montana is still beautiful. The smoke just makes it feel more temporary. With the right spin, they could play it to their advantage. “Montana: See what the fuss is about before it catches fire!”
It’s about a 40 minute drive from Missoula to the Resort at Paws Up. On the way, I learn that Not-John, who seems to know everything about Montana, is both a fan of electronic music and pronounces the word creek “crick.” It’s one of those combinations that’s more than the sum of its parts.
City Slickers Meets Jurassic Park
I’m in Montana to… well, I’m not exactly sure how I got here, to be honest. The Uproxx Life Editor asked if I wanted to attend a special dinner that a Top Chef finalist was cooking (yes, duh) and the next thing I knew, I was receiving glossy brochures and had a publicist asking what kinds of activities I’d want to try during my stay (they have horseback riding, a cattle drive, a river float, fly fishing, canoeing, an ATV tour, clay pigeon shooting, rappelling, a nature hike, archery, mountain biking, paintball, a spa…). Turns out, the dinner I was attending came with a resort vacation. I was reminded of my favorite line from Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper. “Hey, Mr. Cooper, you want a free–” “Yeah I’ll take two.”
The Resort at Paws Up (a name which was “originally inspired by those over friendly, wriggling dogs who greet visitors by putting their paws up in the air”) is a former working cattle ranch-turned rustic country retreat for rich city folk. At least, that’s who I assume it’s for. As someone who grew up out in the country, on two acres of dirt nestled between raisin rows in California’s central San Joaquin Valley, I’ve found that country-bred folks like myself tend to seek out the hustle-bustle for our vacations. We go for civilization, culture, history — in short, all the things we were deprived of growing up. By this same logic, city people are usually most desirous of privacy, and the ability to see stars. So they go to Paws Up.
Not-John pilots us past University of Montana’s experimental forest and Garnet Ghost Town (a mining town that’s been abandoned for nearly a hundred years), and into Paws Up’s turnoff, just past signs for Greenough, Montana (population 250). As we wind through trees and the occasional cabin (Paws Up houses just 250 people at max capacity), Not-John tells me that Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio were here last week, for Maguire’s 40th birthday party.
It’s a massive property, 3700 acres, about eight miles by eight miles square, with a history that, according to lore, dates back to Lewis and Clark. Two of Charles Lindbergh’s sons owned the property from 1964 until 1986. Las Vegas businessman David Lipson bought it in 1998, and it was still a working cattle ranch in 2003 when it was “rated as one of the top 10 Black Angus seed stock operations in Montana.” It became a resort a year later.
More recently, Lipson made headlines for trying to trademark the phrase “the last best place,” a slogan popularized in Montana as the title of a 1988 anthology of Montana stories. The trademark would’ve given Lipson “exclusive use of ‘The Last Best Place’ phrase for the marketing of beef and clothing, including hats, shirts, jackets, underwear, sweaters and lingerie.”
Mmm, beef and lingerie. His bid, and any attempt to trademark the phrase, was permanently denied in 2012. Trademarked or not, the phrase is still all over Paws Up. The restaurant offers a “Last Best Place Cheeseburger,” among other things.
These days, The Resort at Paws Up is a major operation, offering every activity you could ever want in a country vacation (see above parenthetical re: brochures) — privacy, wilderness, stars, country air, the smell of grass, birds n’ fish n’ deer n’ crickets n’ squirrels n’ bears n’ sh*t — plus gourmet dining and jacuzzis. It’s camping without the roughing it; “glamping,” as I’m told it’s called. Paws Up has cabins (one of which I’m staying in, that has a jacuzzi outside and Direct TV in), with ample space between them, and “tents,” which technically do have walls made of canvas, but also bathrooms with rainfall showerheads and heated tiles. The Honeymoon suite is the smallest of them (and the cheapest, $1200 – 1900 a night, depending on the time of year). That one has a copper tub at the foot of the bed.
The “tents” are arranged into camps, each of which have their own concierge (someone who cooks for you full time) and a rec tent, a sort of open-air bar where you can drink and eat and the kids can play board games (or video games) or whatever. There’s a t-shirt in the gift shop that says “I (heart) My Camping Butler.” Which must look like a random word jumble to anyone who hasn’t been to the resort.
One of the company reps, a mischievous fellow named John (real name this time — don’t judge me, I met like four Johns and two Grahams), says each camp used to have just one communal bathroom. It’s supposed to be camping after all. But this, in his words, “made certain sales harder.” So now every tent has its own.
I’m tempted to make fun of all this, but the truth is, I’ve always been a bit wary of true camping (and not because of the peeing outside, that part I love). “Wait, you mean we’re just going to drive out to the woods and pretend to be homeless? For how long? What if I get bored?”
Thus I can understand glamping’s appeal. I can imagine all the hardcore campers out there sneering and scoffing at the pampered tenderfeet, but let’s face it, camping is just as much a rich person hobby. Have you ever seen a camping supply store in a poor neighborhood? You show me a guy who’d make fun of people camping like sissies and I’ll show you a guy with a thousand bucks worth of REI gear. It costs a fortune to really live rough. And so all we’re really comparing is how hard someone’s trying to maintain that contrivance. Paws Up makes no pretense towards “roughing it,” which is respectable. I can enjoy nature just fine without having to wipe my ass with lichen.
The other “journalists” and I (sarcastiquotes mostly for myself), Beth, and her British photographer boyfriend, Simon, who I’m sharing a cabin with (all with our own huge rooms) pile into our provided green Kia Soul (they replaced golf carts as Paws Up visitors’ form of transportation a few years back) and head to Paws Ups’ central village for dinner.
Can you imagine how you’d drive a Kia Soul that isn’t yours, on dirt roads, through private property? Yeah, I drove like that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Leo and Tobey got two and smashed them together like bumper cars. After tearing around the gravel dirt road, I pull us into a line of identical green Kias, all with Paws Up’s bear claw logo on the door, and park in front of what used to be a giant barn where they auctioned bulls. The identical cars, the anachronism-cum-luxury-resort, it’s all very Jurassic Park.
We’re supposed to meet one of Paws Up’s Grahams for dinner, who turns out to be a handsome ex-basketball player, appropriately bearded and duded up in plaid shirt and boots. He’s apparently one of those guys whose entire job is to entertain travel agents, corporate reps – people who represent large groups of other people with money to spend on fancy vacations (or, occasionally, “journalists”).
A professional leisure demonstrator, of sorts. Not a bad gig.
The dinner menu, clearly designed to fit the “rustic vacation” theme, is chock full of exotic game options — kangaroo, pheasant, yak meatballs. I order the lamb, which is delicious, and also quail and foie gras for an appetizer, because that’s the kind of thing that seems like a nice salad option when someone else is paying.
After dinner Beth and Simon leave, but I make Graham take me to the resort bar. There’s only one main bar at Paws Up, which is attached to the same long building that houses the restaurant. I’m hoping to find some wealthy single women with lowered standards. The kind really looking to slum it on vacation. We walk through the wood-paneled corridor out into the bar, which ends up being completely empty except for Graham, the bartender, and I. We opt for a beer before we leave (Paws Up has a few local beers on draft, and booze is all-inclusive for guests).
The following day I tell Mischievous John about the empty bar and he turns suddenly businesslike. “The Paws Up experience isn’t about night life,” he says. Fair enough (and having your own full-time butler on your campsite would seem to defeat the need for a centralized bar). Though I do wonder what the Tobey Maguire/Leo DiCaprio crew (formerly known as “The Pussy Posse,” after all) did while they were here. Probably threw apples at Turtle while he tried to do charades (oh yeah, Turtle was also there). I assume that’s a game they play.
A Trust Exercise Between You and a Rope
The next morning it’s time for my first activity, rappelling. The night before, Graham had told me this was a great choice, and that the guide was a “total hottie.” I meet at the appointed time in the newly-built activities center, which is sort of like a giant bingo hall, just down a gravel-dirt road from our cabin. My guide turns out to be a college kid with red hair who reminds me of the drive thru guy on the Simpsons. He introduces himself as John or Graham or something.
We drive out to Lookout Point, site of the rappelling, in a dusty Ford Expedition (everything is dusty in Montana). We get there and I put on the harness, which sort of cups your thighs (think George W. Bush in his “Mission Accomplished” get up), and I approach a wooden fence with a clip on it where you can practice, letting out rope with your left hand in front of your crotch and guiding it with your right hand behind your ass. The idea being to control the speed of your descent (falling) using the friction of the rope. Crotch friction.
After about 90 seconds of this, John-Graham asks if I’m ready. “Sure,” I lie, and we walk up towards the big rock.
The challenge begins to reveal itself the closer we get to the top, and gradually I discover that this rock, imposing but not insane when viewed from the trail side, is wrapped in new, but too-small-looking-for-keeping-me-alive nylon ropes. On the other side of the rock yawns 200 feet of sheer rock face, a cliff I don’t even feel comfortable standing next to, let alone dangling off of. I’m convinced John-Graham can actually hear my scrotum shriveling. He points to the rope-wrapped rock and says, “Here’s where you attach your harness.”
“You know what? I think I’m good,” I tell John-Graham, trying to sound casual.
“Haha. …Wait, what?” he blinks, not understanding at first.
“Yeah… I think I like the view fine from up here. It’s… it’s a little high. I guess I’m not crazy about heights.”
“Totally. So… what were you expecting?”
Great question, John-Graham, great question.
In any case, the view is beautiful. You can see three mountain ranges on a clear day. Which this day isn’t, but the Blackfoot river winding beneath us is majestic enough. That’s the river from A River Runs Through It, by the way, which no one here will fail to remind you. I try to enjoy the view without getting too introspective about wimping out. I used to climb all the time, up buildings, radio towers, a 60-foot Sycamore that we’d jump off of into the Kings River (you’d land with your feet ankle deep in silt at the bottom, and that’s if you did it right). Have I lost some need to prove things to myself? Is that a bad thing? Is this a sign of things to come?
Partly it’s the lack of control. Climbing is surely more dangerous, but it feels like an accomplishment. Rappelling is more just a trust exercise between you and a rope you just met.
Anyway, the fact that my guide was a ginger kid and not a pretty lady turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It made my decision not to try to play action man all the easier (I’d rappelled before, but in a group. You wonder, how much of rappelling relies on peer pressure?).
Back at the cabin I pour myself a local bourbon and drink it in the hot tub. That’s the eternal silver lining at Paws Up. There are no losers in glamping.
The Surprising Virtues of Cowboy Poetry
That night it’s time for the “Chuckwagon Dinner Experience,” which involves taking a horse-drawn wagon out to the riverside for a feast featuring Fred Flintstone-sized tomahawk ribeye steaks cooked over an open fire. Or at least, they would be cooked over an open fire, if open fires were allowed during wildfire season. Nonetheless, with real-life fake cowboys manning the horse-drawn wagon and a secluded camp site next to the Blackfoot river, it seems plenty rustic even with the meat being cooked over regular barbecues. The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket, and we rode on in the friscalating dusklight and all of that.
On the wagon train, Simon, Beth, and I have our first chance to mingle with some “regular” Paws Up guests, part of a group that includes Top Chef finalist Brooke Williamson and family, a group of travel agents, and a husband and wife from Florida with their two daughters. One of the daughters is hoarse from yelling at horses all day (she names her favorites on the ride over), and has a slight speech impediment that gives her a Boston-y accent. I’m usually 50/50 on kids, but I’m charmed by this miniature Amy Adams from The Fighter.
Our caravan parks next to the Blackfoot, and I sidle up (this being Montana) to two of the travel agents, the younger of which seems to be here without a significant other. After about five minutes of conversation, she drops the “my fianceé…” bomb, and as always in situations like these, I’m reminded of the Snuff Box “my boyfriend” sketch.
I mention it to Simon, who appreciates the reference because he’s British, and works in media. Turns out he was also an assistant director on one of the Harry Potter films and has some great stories about working on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding — like having a methed-out gypsy point a loaded gun at his head on his first day on the job. Reality television is always so much more interesting than it looks.
After choice cuts of melt-in-your mouth ribeye and baby back ribs (of which I ate about 10) the Chuckwagon Dinner Experience ends with s’mores, banjo, and “cowboy poetry,” a sort of rhyming storytelling delivered by two historical re-enactor types. (You always wonder how deep the lifestyle goes with these guys. Like, would you find them warming a tin of beans in the fireplace at their house, or are they otherwise modern in other situations, albeit with anachronistic facial hair? I’m reminded of a guy I used to work with, who I’d see at his desk, busily working on his computer while wearing a ten-gallon hat with a plaid flannel shirt and a neck kerchief. He was graphic designer at a porn website).
One of the cowboy poems is about a cowboy who goes for a drink at the end of a cattle drive, and some city folk in the saloon snicker at his hat. It’s a long story, compelling, and I can’t help being impressed by the memorization. It rhymes the whole way through, naturally, shades of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” Mischievous John tries to catch my eye on the other side of the rhyming cowboy, to communicate some private joke through telepathy.
It’s a strange thing, this cowboy poetry. It seems at once like an utterly bizarre thing for rich people to pay for (“Hey, you wanna go surf in Hawaii? Nah, let’s eat s’mores and listen to cowboy poetry.”) and yet strangely enjoyable when you’re in the midst of it. Sort of a metaphor for my whole Paws Up experience. I’ll admit, I really did want to know all about the cowboy and his pappy’s hat and what it meant to him.
Misadventures on Fury Road
The following day I’m scheduled for a three-hour ATV tour of the property, so I drift race my Kia Soul, which I’ve gotten incredibly cocky with in the previous 48 hours, down to the activities center, with half a beer in the cup holder. There I meet my guide, Sarah, and my fellow tourers, a German couple about my parents’ age who seem to fit every German stereotype, from the wife’s Teva sandals to the husband’s pink plaid cowboy shirt (two things German tourists love: bright colors and Teva sandals). Paws Up provides bandannas to keep the dust out of our mouths along the trail, but the Germans, ever prepared, have brought their own, in different shades of camouflage. When I shake the husband’s hand and introduce myself he doesn’t say his name.
We set off down the trail on our Polaris quad bikes and I quickly realize that this is exactly how I’ve always wanted to experience nature. Friends are always inviting me on hiking excursions, but walking is just so slow. Drive for an hour somewhere just to walk for two more? I don’t know. Screaming through sylvan wilderness on a wheeled jetski going fast enough to barely not die offers all the natural beauty with none of the potential boredom. Don’t just see nature, take it as a personal challenge.
Sarah, who’s exactly how I always imagined Montanans — polite, plainspoken, probably quietly judging me for my adopted city ways — leads the quad caravan, maintaining a consistent speed of about 15-20 mph and stopping every so often to unlock farm gates and make sure the rest of the group is still alive. My strategy is to drift race through all the flat terrain, putting the quad into increasingly longer skids, trying to see how far I can push it and still bring it back under control. Then in the steep rocky areas and places where the path winds between trees, I play fantasy rally driver, going as fast as I can while still keeping it on the trail (a challenge all its own). Of course, in order to make this happen, I have to try to let Sarah get far enough ahead of me that I can pin the throttle a few times before I catch up to her.
Simply maintaining a leisurely pace is a subtly brilliant containment strategy on her part, because it uses my own impatience against me. The more eager I am to pin the throttle, the quicker I catch up to her and have to slow down. It accomplishes the desired effect without her having to scold me like the child I am.
The trail is a mix of pastoral farmland and rocky mountain wilderness, cow pastures backdropped by mountain ranges, with creeks and forest and deer running sh*t scared from our noisy two-strokers. I’m told that they put their tails up to expose the white patch underneath to warn each other of danger, and that this is called “tagging.” The deer are actually less scared than you’d expect, and so ubiquitous that they eventually stop being picture worthy. At one point I think I swallowed a butterfly. It tasted… like victory.
As we drive along a dirt road astride a pasture, we pass by an ATV turned sideways crashed halfway through a barbed wire fence and just left there, with no one around. As if this wasn’t disconcerting enough, there are three other ATVs parked around it, abandoned, as if whoever crashed through the fence had to be helicoptered out of there. It feels very Mad Max.
At the next farm gate, Sarah pulls to a stop (fist in the air, to warn the riders behind you) and I hockey slide in next to her (she must be beyond annoyed by this, but never lets on — a real pro). We wait about five minutes for the Germans to catch up. Then five or ten more.
“I better go check on them,” Sarah says, and turns back down the trail.
I follow her, and just a few minutes back down the trail we see the German couple. The wife’s ATV is jacknifed sideways in the middle of the trail. Apparently she lost control — probably clipped something just off the trail and then overcorrected — and somehow smashed the front end of the ATV sideways against a tree as she was spinning out. Amazingly, all she has to show for it is a scrape on the back of her hand. The ATV, on the other hand, has a busted front axle, an injury that’s plainly obvious even to mechanical moron like me.
“In two years, this is my first accident,” Sarah says, unconvincingly.
She calls in to headquarters to tell them there’s a busted ATV in the middle of the trail (one of Paws Up’s glammiest glamping touches is that you can still get great cell service anywhere on the property, thanks to a relatively inconspicuous cell tower disguised as a pine tree along the ATV trail). After the call, the wife climbs on the back of her husband’s ATV and we continue on the tour like it’s no big deal. Which makes me even more curious what the hell happened next to that pasture that the people just abandoned their vehicles there. Maybe they got raptured?
Our ATV tour next takes us back to Lookout Point, the sight of my infamous rappelling fail from the day before. John had made sure to really rub it in the previous night when I told him. “I’ve seen 80-year-olds do it,” he said, showing me the iPhone video of his own rappelling experience. “Graham, didn’t Lisa’s 10-year-old go rappelling last month?”
Seeing the cliff a second time, however, only makes me more confident in my initial decision.
“This is actually our safest activity,” Sarah tells the Germans. “The guide is holding onto you by one rope the entire time, and you’re controlling yourself with the other. If something went wrong, it’d have to go really wrong.”
Right, a rope break, an Earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a momentary gravitational anomaly. The trouble is, the height inspires you to dream up those scenarios.
The most dangerous activity at Paws Up, in case you haven’t already figured it out, is the ATV tour. The lack of control that freaked me out about rappelling is the same thing that makes it safe. Giving people the freedom to test their limits and do something stupid? Now that’s dangerous.
ATV dangers abound, from getting pinned, thrown, crushed, collided with, and smashed by cars, such that “how dangerous is your ATV??” is practically an evergreen local news story. A frequently cited statistic from the Consumer Product Safety Commission says ATVs are the “fifth deadliest product” they oversee (I haven’t found information on the top four). ATVs kill an average of about 700 and send 136,000 people to the emergency room every year.
The idea that a deep pocketed resort still lets anyone who can pay a few hundred bucks for the privilege drive a souped-up go cart with no safety restraints through rocky, pitted, undulating, tree-lined wilderness without a team of lawyers trying to tie them to the ground like Gulliver is one of the most refreshing things about this place. It’s fitting in Montana, a state with no open container laws, where bartenders have been known to chase customers down asking “do you want a go cup?” when they prepare to leave without finishing a drink. I’m not sure if it’s “the last best place,” but it’s definitely one of the last places that doesn’t try to protect you from your own stupidity. And isn’t acting stupid the ultimate vacation?
Back at the Activities Center, Sarah is busy filling out paperwork, consulting with a coworker about all the information to include. As I’m turning in my helmet, she looks up at me and says, “It’s crazy, I thought if anyone was going to crash it’d be him.”
Enjoying Nature Through Explosions
That night, we’re all attending the Bounty of the Blackfoot dinner cooked and hosted by Top Chef Brooke. In the morning, some of us had tagged along to the Missoula Farmer’s Market, where Brooke and her family bought produce for the meal while we peppered her with foodie questions (soak your kale in olive oil for 30 minutes or so before you serve it to make it more tender being the tip of the day). One of the guests, a bookish looking finance guy from Manhattan wearing circular eye glasses, was there with his effusive son of about 10. The son was apparently an aspiring chef and even got to help Brooke with her prep. Before dinner, I see the guy and his kid at the bar. I ask the kid how prep went. “I was a little disappointed in her menu, to be honest,” he says.
It’s exactly the kind of precocious, obnoxious thing I would’ve said when I was his age.
The five-course meal, for about 50 people, was, not surprisingly, fantastic. I’d brought along my bottle of local bourbon, since it was still almost full and I wouldn’t be able to bring it on the plane. People laughed at first, and then asked for a glass. Between the bourbon and the fresh glass of wine that the waiters poured with every course (paired to the food by the chef), things got a little fuzzy by dessert.
After the meal, there was a concert in the old steer barn, a massive wood structure that looks like a viking dining hall on the inside. Originally, the concert was supposed to feature dreadlocked American Idol runner up Crystal Bowersox and Seth Glier (neither of whom I’d heard of, but clearly part a Paws Up strategy to utilize reality TV name recognition). Crystal apparently begged off with a sore throat, so it was just Seth. This part of the evening was a bit fuzzy as well, but I remember sitting with the other journalists and the travel agents. At one point our table got shushed, so we must’ve been having fun.
* * *
The next day’s activity is a shooting course. Basically, a golf course with shotguns, where we trek our way from stand to stand through beautiful, dewy early-morning wilderness shooting clay pigeons with shotguns. It fits with the theme of me enjoying nature much more when I’m exploding it in some way. Inside the gun house where they store the shotguns, shells, eye wear and whatnot, I take a picture of a promotional poster that says “It’s like you died and went to heaven and got to take your gun with you.”
We get through about three holes — me, our guide, a tall kid from Orange County, an ex-Navy guy travel agent from Dallas, and another travel agent, a woman from Florida — before the rain starts to fall. Not the kind of California rain I’m used to, either, but big, fat, thunderclap peas that can soak you in seconds. The precipitation chases us back inside, where watch it run off the roof of the gun shack in thick rivulets, promising to clear out the smoke and fill up the thirsty rivers and streams, whose high point this summer was almost identical to last year’s low point, playing havoc on the canoe and float trips.
At we wait out the rain, it dawns on me that the Paws Up experience is an elaborate facsimile of an average high school weekend in the Central Valley. Shooting guns, floating the river, drinking beer next to bonfires, and generally trying to find the silver lining in our total isolation from both culture and civilization — hello, teenagerhood! If Paws Up offered stealing chairs from Taco Bell as one of their activities, it’d be perfect. (Thank God none of us could afford ATVs back then). Cultural isolation can mean loneliness, but with enough beer, guns, fire, and firearms, it also means freedom. Also… uh… nature, peacefulness, the great outdoors and whatnot.
It’s a (somewhat) controlled environment, sure, but the point of it seems to be to create a place where you can act like an idiot teenager on a property big enough that no one gets hurt, for people old enough to actually appreciate it. That is my cup of tea. My open go-cup of local bourbon,for the road.
LEARN MORE: www.PawsUp.com
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.