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Big Picture, Big Sky, Montana

The metaphor of American Film comes persistently to mind during a visit to Southwestern Montana, the area best known for Yellowstone National Park, but also home now to two of the West’s greatest ski resorts and summer tourist destinations.  Big Sky and Moonlight Basin are contiguous resorts at the foot of Lone Peak, a 12,000 foot plus stark mountain of glades, meadows and cliffs facing the Spanish Hills to the west and the Rockies to the South.  Think Bonanza and Hoss, Little Joe and Ben Cartwright riding on the Ponderosa.  (Virginia City, MT is about 20 miles west of Big Sky). The ski area just surpassed Vail with the most trails, but boasts only a quarter of Vail’s average daily ski population of 30,000, or about 7,000 skiers on an average day.  A Jack Nicklaus designed golf course is underway and will be ready next year.

During the summertime, activities abound–horseback rides through Yellowstone, (only a 30 minute drive), river rafting trips, elegant outside dining on the Madison River, fly fishing on the Gallatin or Madison.

At 8,000 feet, Moonlight Basin boasts spectacular views of the Spanish Hills and the Rockies’ Gallatin Range.  The condos range from cabins at about $1,500 per week that sleep 4+ to 4 bedroom townhouses at $2,500 that sleep 12.  All have the required hot tub, granite kitchen counters and complete stock of the necessities to prepare any meal.  Even a short walk of 500 feet to the lodge will leave you breathless until you can acclimate to the elevation, so be prepared to move slowly at first and build to short hikes.  After a few days, I was able to walk and jog the Mountain Loop of 2 miles with little difficulty.  At the base of Lone Peak, you are at twice the elevation of Killington; add another Killington on top of that and you’re at the end of the ski lift.  Across the valley is Yellowstone Club, home of Oprah, Arnold and Bill and Melinda Gates.  The area is a boomtown and several folks I chatted up in bars said their businesses were booked for years in advance; painters, carpenters, landscapers, etc.

We spent one day on horseback up to Big Horn Pass in Yellowstone.  Think Jeremiah Johnson guiding the Mormons across Utah.  Like the Mormons, we could not make it through the Pass because of snow still too deep for the horses.  The date was July 9.  Our guide, Bob Campbell, was a close match to Gene Autry in both voice and appearance– his stories quietly relayed as we moved through meadows of bison were riveting—12 Boy Scouts dead of hyperthermia in Lake Yellowstone’s 40 degree water after their canoes capsized one summer night years ago.  As a search and rescue volunteer, and former sheriff, the hardened guide has seen it all.  Grizzly eyeing his horse, kids using his slickers as toboggans to slide down the snow covered trails.  We came over a rise to come face to face with a bison the size of a Buick, chewing thick grass, not in the least concerned.  As we maneuvered around him, he turned to remain square with us, hence the term, “to be buffaloed.”

Bob has a knack for knowing when he’s run into a guide who’s lost—stayed a little too long for coffee; left handed questions about the way Bob came in.  So, he’d offer up a softball question like, “You taking the long way to the camp down that trail right over there to the pond and then South for a couple of miles until you hit the River, or you going the short way up that trail there to the ridge and then down the meadow to the camp?”  Bob says they always take the short way.  Getting a guide’s license is like getting a liquor license in Massachusetts.  You buy it from someone who has one and wants to sell it.  No real expertise required.  Bob’s been guiding for about 50 years, so no worries there.  Might be a good idea to ask someone you feel comfortable with if they know an experienced guide.  Bob also conducts a week long trip around Yellowstone Lake, one of the most famous vistas in America.  Think Kevin Costner in “Free Range.”  Bob’s cooking is reputed to be extraordinary.  Cost is $1,500, food included.  Despite a big white cowboy hat, he has the ruddy, tanned complexion of someone who spends a good deal of his waking hours in the sun.  Though the hat covers his shoulders, neck, and face, the setting sun can cast a shadow of a man a mile long, so riding off into the sunset does have its risks.

Upon return, and after a long soak in the hot tub, we rallied for dinner at The Timbers at Moonlight Basin Lodge.  The Timbers has an extensive wine list, though a Selby Zinfandel I was encouraged to try tasted like corn syrup.  The bison steak was lean, juicy and could be cut with a fork.  The “Legend Montana Rib Eye” beef was excellent as well.  Desert was a no show and the cappuccino was watery.  The view up Loan Peak, with a full moon, was wonderful.  Moonlight Basin Lodge also has an excellent spa with exercise machines, an outdoor pool and hot tub.  Get the foot massage.  For the ladies, the bride told me the skin peel is exhilarating.

The culinary highlight of the week’s trip was a drive around the Spanish Hills to Ennis, MT, a small town where my son worked at the National Trout Hatchery before starting at Montana State in Bozeman.  The 90 mile drive ends up at Lake Ennis on the Madison.  Moonlight on the Madison is the brainchild of Lee Page, a former ranch hand, now partner in the Moonlight Basin resort.  A cheery group of waiters, chefs and managers operate a “camp” hard on the Madison, with cabins, tents, kitchen and a dozen or so outdoor tables on the banks of the swift moving Madison River.  You arrive by parking on a mesa overlooking the valley and are picked up by a shuttle for the two mile drive down to the River.  Think Chris Cooper’s ranch in “The Horse Whisperer.”  There you are greeted by Anna, a hilarious, deadpan, green eyed waitress from North Dakota. “Oh sure, North Dakota, place you wanna gota.”  The camp operations manager, Joe, is also a fly fishing guide and will spend as much time as you want teaching you how to fly cast between courses or after the meal.  No charge.  The wine list is thin, understandably, so if you bring your own, be prepared for a $20.00 corking charge.  The prix fixe of $68.00 is fair, the food excellent—I again had the bison, this time in rib eye form.  It went very well with a 2001 Gigondas I brought with me. Delicious.  The manager was pushing the Ahi Tuna—“Just flown in fresh today.”  I said, “If he’d swum in, I’d try it.  I’m from Gloucester, Mass. and don’t see much bison back there, but I do see a lot of tuna.”  Oh.

The view from the camp looks South across the Madison back to Lone Peak through a 20 mile pass, given as conservation land by Moonlight Basin–a 90 mile drive around the Hills.   Behind you are rolling hills and rangeland.  Think Brad Pitt in a “River Runs Through It,” which was indeed filmed on the Madison.

Dining on the Madison evokes the scene in “Out of Africa” when Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are dining on the Serengeti, minus the Rosenthal China.  Frightfully civilized.  A Golden Eagle swoops down to take a stab at the trout I’ve unsuccessfully tried to angle all night.  Maybe he should try the tuna.

We were advised to practice the “Elk Duck” on the drive back to Big Sky.  Theory holds that elks’ legs are long enough, like Moose, to put the body of the animal at windshield height.  If you realize you’re going to hit one, don’t lean back—you’ll only postpone the inevitable by a split second.  Lean to the left or right behind the stanchion holding up the roof.  You have a much better chance of survival.  Having seen large deer or elk every time we left the condo, (and deer pellets on the door step) and no less than two animal induced accidents, I took their advice.  I stopped at the Ennis Market and bought two of the biggest steaks I’ve ever seen.  I froze them at the condo overnight and flew home with them for dinner that night.  The best steak I’ve ever had on my grill.  Nothing comes close.

Leaving Big Sky for the Bozeman Airport, an easy 50 minute or so drive, the last words of Sam Neal’s Vasily Borodin to Sean Connery’s Marko Ramius in “The Hunt for Red October” came to mind:  “I would like to have seen Montana.”  I wish you had, too, Vasily.


Book your flight to Bozeman via Denver; much easier than a change at Chicago’s O’Hare (should be O’Tortoise).  Bozeman is a delightfully simple, clean, easy to maneuver airport.  Car rentals are a breeze, right outside the terminal, no shuttles etc.

Do your shopping in Bozeman at any of the three or four supermarkets.  The drive to Big Sky/Moonlight Basin is about 50 minutes on Route 191.  At Moonlight Basin (the end of the line up the access road), the Lodge is staffed by several knowledgeable concierges including Dan and Christie.  We asked to change places for a south facing condo.  No problem, just return the keys to the old place when you can.  Big Sky is a boomtown, so be prepared for construction activity.

Visit:  You can link to Moonlight on the Madison from there.

The local beer, Bozone, is pretty good.

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