Cowboy comforts

    30 November 2013

    How did I get myself into this? I’m halfway up a mountain in Montana, wrestling with a pair of cross-country skis, trying to stop myself from falling off the edge. The rest of my group have disappeared beyond the next switchback. My heart’s pounding so hard I can feel it in my throat. And then I force myself to stop, take a deep breath, and look around. White-capped peaks frame the landscape. Some are so far away they seem a mere suggestion on the horizon. Tall, dark Ponderosa pines, sleeved with fresh snow, surround me. On the opposite ridge there’s a line of elk moving slowly between the trees, their shadows flickering like old movies, and as they retreat beneath a snowy outcrop, I forget all about my aching muscles and recalcitrant skis.

    You see, I don’t do adventure holidays. When I was offered a week of winter sports at the Ranch at Rock Creek, my initial response was, ‘Are you sure you’ve got the right person?’ But I’d always wanted to see Montana — a disproportionate number of my favourite writers hail from there — so, with some trepidation, I accepted.

    Montana is one of those split-personality American states, in common with much of the modern West: a happy contradiction of rugged cowboys, miners, hippies, ranchers and dropouts. Its boom years began with the discovery of silver in the late 18th century. Towns popped up overnight to service the mines, grand hotels were built, banks and bars and dance halls with sprung floors stood next to opulent theatres and opera houses. But the silver was soon tapped out and the towns were abandoned. Ranching became the state’s biggest industry. In recent years, Montana has tried to rebrand itself as an alpine playground. But it’s the startling emptiness, with a mere six people per square mile, that is still its biggest attraction.

    We were picked up from Missoula airport by a cowgirl with a journalism degree and driven through the night-black mountains to the ranch. There’s something strange and slightly magical, I’ve always thought, about arriving at one’s destination in the dark. It holds its mystery — and then the next morning you pull the curtains to find yourself surrounded by picture-postcard mountains, the snaky meander of a burbling creek and a sky so massive it takes up most of the view, and you know that you have truly arrived.

    Ranch owner Jim Manley spent 20 years looking for the perfect location. He stayed in more than 400 ranches and noted what they did and didn’t do right. -Consequently, the Ranch at Rock Creek has it all. There are pristine slopes for skiing, a river full of slippery trout, horses and hiking trails, and no one around for miles.

    The main building, the Granite Lodge, contains nine themed rooms, a dining area, and the aptly named Great Room with its crackling fireplace and welcoming bar. I’d feared the ranch would be a kitsch Disney version of the Old West and was pleasantly surprised by the taste and sensitivity in the decor. Sure, there are Wild West curios hanging on the walls — animal skins, old typewriters, and light fittings made out of antlers — but nothing feels forced or overdone. Venture further afield and you come across individual cabins tucked in the folds and hollows of the landscape, some big enough to house a family of six, others perfect for a honeymooning couple. Vintage black and white photographs stare from every wall, witnesses from another time, and despite the mini-bar and iPod dock in your room it’s easy to forget the clamour of the 21st-century world.

    Dinner is served in an unpretentious log-beamed dining room, but the food is anything but ordinary, including such delicacies as elk steak and bison meatloaf. The ranch is part of Relais & Chateaux and the chef’s inventive twists on local recipes were expertly matched with a selection of fine wines.

    Evenings tend to be spent in the Silver Dollar Saloon, a lovingly recreated frontier-style watering hole where you can also try your hand at bowling, play pool, or lie back on a sofa and watch a western on the big screen.

    The second day was devoted to guns and horses. I’d always imagined clay pigeon shooting would be incredibly boring, but when you’re standing at the bottom of a steep ravine with clays coming in from eight different angles, and you hit one and watch it shatter into bright orange powder against the immense sky, it’s anything but dull.

    After a day’s exertion, there’s nothing better than a hazy sauna. Most guest ranches don’t have a spa, but the one at Rock Creek is equal to any you’d find in a luxury hotel. The signature Rock Creek Ritual massage had me floating through the snow as I joined the rest of the party for an evening of ice-skating on the frozen lake followed by hot toddies around a sizzling camp fire.

    If you’re into skiing, there’s the nearby Discovery Ski Area, which boasts serious slopes and no queues to get on the lifts. You can ski down an entire piste without seeing another person, though you might have to slalom around the occasional stray deer or moose. There’s archery and paintball and fly fishing, not to mention the thrill of hurtling down a mountain at 50mph on a snowmobile.

    But the ranch isn’t just for powder junkies and Wild West aficionados: there’s plenty to do for every-one. Pick one of the hundreds of rare books about Montana populating the bookshelves or take a hike around the land, soak up the big sky and the raw silence, and if you’re lucky you might see a bighorn sheep crossing the road or a bald eagle suspended high under thin cirrus.

    The owner once described his hiring policy as ‘cowboys with college degrees’ and it was this happy contradiction that made my stay at the ranch such a unique experience. The staff are not only good at what they do, they are passionate about it and can’t stop talking about it, making it feel more like a visit to a friend’s house than an exclusive resort. That impression was strengthened by Maja and Thomas Kilgore, the managers, who sat and entertained us with their stories every night. Guests to the ranch pay an all-inclusive fee which covers everything from food and alcohol to activities and even phone calls and tips. It’s not so much the money that matters but its absence: you’re never asked to sign a room bill or to think about the nearest cash machine, and that utterly transforms the relationship between you and the staff.

    It’s easy to see why the ranch is popular with Hollywood A-listers and music moguls: it’s the perfect place to escape the world, with its blend of European-style hospitality and unpretentious Americana.

    What do we really want from a holiday? Is it to discover new places, or just to discover new places within ourselves? Perhaps more than anything it’s to find somewhere that will allow us to slow down our increasingly hectic and shuttled lives. The steady acceleration of the world is not so evident here, only the slow geologic time of mountains and elk herds that have crossed this rugged landscape for thousands of years.

    Prices start at £550 per person per night based on two people sharing a room with mountain views in the Granite Lodge, fully inclusive. Lodging, meals, beverages, two daily on-site activities, downhill skiing at Discovery Basin with ski concierge, excursions to historic local towns, internet use and telephone calls are all included in the nightly rate. For reservations call +1 877 786 1545 or visit Butte and Missoula are the nearest airports. The transfer drive time to the ranch is an hour and 20 minutes from Missoula.

    Stav Sherez’s latest novel, Eleven Days, is published by Faber.