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Today’s run on land out west is spreading not American power but five-star living dressed up as frontiersmanship. Welcome to the home of end-table antlers and Escalades.
On a snowy April afternoon in the rugged empty beauty of remote western Montana, I go out shooting with two guides at what may be America’s most expensive ranch. They pick me up in an SUV with heated seats, they lend me gloves, and we drive out to the range, past the Ranch at Rock Creek’s 70 or so horses, listening to George Strait and Brooks & Dunn on a Sirius country station. We don’t see any people, only a group of white-tailed deer. I practice shooting clay targets meant to emulate the flight of ducks. I am taken aback at first when the guides have me load my own rounds of ammunition into the gun instead of doing it for me. But by my second day at the ranch I come to understand that part of what you get for the $3,600 price (per couple in high season) is the luxury of getting to pretend that you aren’t a luxury guest. Instead you get to settle into an imagined rural idyll, a fantasy of the American West.
It seems as if the other guests—one one-thousandth of the one percent—are drawn in by this sense of purpose, indulging in the idea of genuine connection to the land, even if it is divorced from any sense of personal stakes or necessity. At breakfast in the barn, after selecting from a tasting menu, two couples seated near one another make conversation for a minute. “Do you have activities today?” “We’re doing frontier skills.” (Other activities include “ride along with a rancher” and a weekly rodeo in the summer for guests, among them Hollywood stars, Saudis who come for guided fishing, and the royal family of Qatar.) Or one can traipse around Philipsburg, a well-preserved 19th-century mining and ranching town, which now looks like a charming simulacrum of the “Old West,” even though it caters largely to visitors or new owners and renters from out of town. “Ranching is more about lifestyle than making money or working the land,” the owner of SAJ, a floral boutique in town, tells me. A local high schooler sells “Go home, California!” T-shirts. Rumor has it that last year a developer from California bought almost all the remaining land around town.
In 2022 owning land in the west is the pinnacle of acquisition. “Look at it this way,” says Jim Manley, the owner of the Ranch at Rock Creek. “You’re a billionaire and you’ve already got everything. You’ve got a jet, you’ve got a house in the Hamptons—but you don’t have a ranch. And all of a sudden you see Kevin Costner shooting the bad guys in Yellowstone [Taylor Sheridan’s smash hit neo-western] and the gorgeous Montana scenery. And you say, ‘Hey, that’s cool. I got the money. I could do that.’ ” So they did, sparking a Manifest Destiny–style land-buying frenzy. “The match was lit, and Montana’s on fire now.”
Buyers and visitors are streaming in, enraptured by the staggering scenery as well as the fiction of frontier authenticity. “Ranch-hand make-believe,” as essayist of the west William Kittredge called it in 1995, perpetually appeals to “our desire to inhabit a straight-spoken world with solvable problems… Whatever the decade, whatever the mood…we ride on into a solacing dream” of the cowboy on the range. That timeless dream is now being profoundly recast to suit the tastes of an increasingly rarefied sliver of the population—at an unprecedented pace and scale. “Everyone who gets into my truck and wants to go out looking at ranches, they all bring up Kevin Costner and Yellowstone within the first 15 minutes of the drive,” says Bill McDavid, a realtor with Hall and Hall based in Missoula who sells high-end ranches “like hotcakes.”
It has happened already in Jackson Hole (as early as the 1920s, when John D. Rockefeller Jr. discovered it), and in Ketchum (Hemingway’s Idaho), and now it’s happening everywhere from Spokane, Washington, to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. When I took a late summer roadtrip last year around the Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana, the attendant at the rental car desk brusquely told me to buy any house or land I saw for sale, because soon the region would have nothing left in it. “There’s a sense of urgency, like, ‘Let me get to this before it’s too late.’ It’s like the toilet paper–buying thing at the start of the pandemic,” says Jack Ezon, founder of the Embark Beyond travel agency. “You don’t want to be closed out. You go west.”
And the trend is currently most intensely embodied in Big Sky, a resort region in southwestern Montana. The state is unofficially nicknamed the “Last Best Place,” originally per biologist Douglas Chadwick, who, in 1983, wrote, “I managed to envision industrializing the Bob [Marshall Wilderness]. But I couldn’t accept it. Not here. Not in the last, best place.” Confronted with development schemes such as this, Montanans perpetually ask, Is it still the last best place?
Doubts were sown even in 1968, when the idea of turning Big Sky into a ski and recreation area was hatched by TV news anchor Chet Huntley, of the NBC Nightly News, and a consortium of corporations. Many didn’t want the unblemished land turned into a playground. Huntley, a native Montanan, flew around the state pitching ranchers and farmers and politicians on the idea, and it became a reality in 1973. In the 1990s the uber-exclusive Yellowstone Club opened in Big Sky, but initially to little interest—it took out full-page ads in the New York Times trying to court members. As Manley tells me, “When Bill Gates and Tiger Woods joined, everyone thought, Wait, these cool rich people are going to Montana? Next you heard about celebrities starting to buy ranches. And now? That lit match is an inferno.”
Today the commuter helicopter from the Yellowstone Jet Center in Bozeman (nicknamed “Boz Angeles” several years ago) to the Yellowstone Club, a private residential enclave, may be the busiest route in America. People go from their jets to a helicopter, instead of taking an Escalade up the increasingly congested mountain roads. The freshly created Big Sky Town Center—a few airy restaurants and outdoor gear stores next to a string of gaping construction sites for workforce housing—exists to give resortgoers and second home owners a small town to come down the mountain to, like a construction site for a western movie. It reminded me of South Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, when the waterfront was swiftly developed into a row of luxury condos and gyms.
Some 50 miles down the mountain from Big Sky, the work-from-home transplants and new homeowners have turned Bozeman into one of the fastest-growing small cities in the country. The corner of the mall that has a Whole Foods with a “coming soon” sign is an apex of shock for many locals. “Where’s next after the great migration here? Alaska?” one resident wonders. “There’s no undiscovered place anymore,” McDavid says. Tesla chargers pop up at remote family hunting locations; Kylie Jenner is spotted; private jet detailing companies have advertisements all over; Glenn Close shows up at zoning meetings in Bozeman; and Lynn Easton, an event planner who specializes in weddings for the Forbes Top 50 Billionaires, says she has never seen so much demand for weddings in the rural west. Of his clients, McDavid says, “they fly in, they have enough money to make the west whatever they want it to be, however realistic or unrealistic.” But it’s never about the real. “They come to me wanting trout jumping across their porch, elk on their lawn, God’s biggest snow peak in view, and all within 30 minutes of a major airport,” he says. The level of detachment seems to be rising with the demand. A “camel-based adventure company” now offers camel rides in Paradise Valley, just north of Livingston. (“Camels?! In Montana?!” one Bozeman resident exclaimed.) The result of all of this is that “now, when I go out and float the river, I feel like I’m floating down Wall Street,” McDavid says.
I drove to Big Sky from Bozeman, up a canyon road behind rows of gravel and cement trucks that slowly wound their way up the mountain almost as far as the treeline. “A few years ago this was all sagebrush,” says Leslie Kilgore, of Lone Mountain Land Company, a real estate developer presiding over much of Big Sky’s current transformation, as we pore over topographical maps. “There was nothing here. This was a pile of dirt.” This week a community center with a rock climbing wall opened, funded by residents, including Yellowstone Club member Nick Woodman, who invented the GoPro camera. It’s in the newly created Town Center (which has no inhabitants of long standing) so that people in Big Sky can, as a new slogan urges, “live like a local.”
The development of Big Sky’s resorts and private clubs is inextricably bound up with a carefully cultivated sense of ruggedness—billionaires in Wrangler jeans. “The new west is big nature, an authentic relationship to the environment, this limitless access to the untamed,” says Christina Calabrese, vice president for design at Lone Mountain Land Company, a subsidiary of the Boston-based private equity firm CrossHarbor Capital, which purchased the Yellowstone Club in 2008. Lone Mountain is now developing Montage Spanish Peaks Mountain Club (which opened the Montage Big Sky hotel in December 2021) and Moonlight Basin (where there’s a One&Only hotel and members club opening in 2024). These are the newest iteration of five-star living dressed up as frontiersmanship. In her 1985 essay “The Solace of Open Spaces,” Gretel Ehrlich wrote that the “chic affluence” of Jackson Hole was “mismatched with the rest of the state” and that Wyomingites “still feel pride because they live in such a harsh place, part of the glamorous cowboy past.” It seems that today’s western settlers want to seamlessly couple this harshness with affluence. Eastern clients have, after all, always visited dude ranches for authentically western experiences in complete comfort or, as one rancher put it, “homemade bedsteads but with 40-pound mattresses.”
At the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, where the main vista from the lobby’s floor-to-ceiling windows is of the Spanish Peaks mountains, with an enormous red construction crane dangling in front of them, a smattering of people in Carhartt hats sit in front of laptops and order small plates of buffalo cauliflower while golf plays on the TV. Black-and-white photographs of cowboys in bars hang on the wall; they could be in Montana, or not. Cool-girl Supergoop! products sell in the shop. Art Deco end tables feature artfully placed elk antlers, a symbol frequently used to conjure the west. (Antlers are now so commodified that the annual Boy Scout Elk Antler auction in Jackson Hole draws thousands looking for social media fame, spawning its own influencer culture.)
Montana plays itself, and people are lining up for the other parts. Akin to antlers on end tables, the aesthetics of national parks are being used in an ersatz way, tailored to the rich. The gates of the three private clubs in Big Sky look like the traditional monumental stone entrances to national parks, but with private security instead of rangers; the entrances to new developments cosplay as cathedrals to nature. At Moonlight Basin, each “neighborhood” of the development has a name like “Cowboy Heaven.” Paws Up, another Montana ranch resort, this one outside Missoula, advertises itself as “a national park in every way, except it’s private”—an elite getaway modeled precisely on an almost bygone style of direct engagement with the lands of the west, marketed in stark contrast with the standstill lines of cars queueing outside Yellowstone. Rivers and mountains are most easily accessed through luxury behind fences, like the private fly-fishing lake at Moonlight Basin, the Yellowstone Club’s private ski mountain—the only one in the world—or the preposterously unsustainable new glamping development being considered for an island in the Gallatin River, outside Bozeman, with teepees for accommodations and covered wagons as transport, as though one were a pioneer.
“It’s this land of myth and reality: You can have your L.A. life, the luxury and comfort, but up in the mountains of Montana, ensconced in the tranquil western hinterlands, with a stone fireplace and an elk antler and pictures of the landscape,” says Justin Farrell, a professor of sociology at Yale and author of Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West. “The Palm Springs vibe is bleeding up to the Rockies now,” Farrell says, describing a rootless ambience that feels more like the Ace Hotel than anything else.
“It’s creatio ex nihilo,” one Montana writer who requested anonymity tells me of today’s Big Sky. “All of a sudden a spaceship for planet oligarchy lands in the mountains. To real Montanans, Big Sky is what Monaco is to French people. It’s there, but it’s not part of things. It’s like an airport in Dubai, an Emirati supercity—is it a theme park, a town, a gated community? The feeling of living in the real world dissipates. It’s becoming a separate bug-out civilization for billionaire survivalists. And it’s like a baby chick and a black hole, in terms of the power difference between the have-nots and the haves.” Along the highway going there, a billboard featured a woman from the Montana Meth Project (“ask me what it’s like to go to a funeral in hand-cuffs”) opposite a billboard advertising luxury safaris in Africa.
The veneer of western paradise, no matter the impact on the ethos or environment or those who came first, is rebranded as a wholesome quest for purity. This American turn inward, the quest to get away from it all and be left alone, long entrenched in Montana’s character, is now co-opted by the hyperupscale. As Farrell points out, “There is the profound sense of ‘This is the last place where I can go. This is the last place where I can be free.’ ” The experience of primordial America offers salvation from, and alleviates, the existential burden of the overdeveloped world just outside the gate. As Ezon, the travel specialist, puts it, “It’s a hyperelite crowd, but what they see out west is pristine nature. Life out there is toxic, and you get to be pristine.” Farrell continues: “People use nature and rural people as a vehicle for personal transformation, creating versions of themselves that they view as more authentic, virtuous, and community-minded.” This fiction might be the most mesmerizing myth of all.
Just north of Livingston, at the former Crazy Mountain Ranch, once owned by Philip Morris, winners of a sweepstakes offered in the company’s cigarette packs used to be flown to Montana for a dude ranch vacation. The ranch was the manifestation of the Marlboro Man advertisements: cowboys on horseback against the backdrop of the Rockies and a faux–ghost town. Guests rode horses on saddles that had ashtrays. But last year Lone Mountain Land Company bought the ranch; the old western ghost town can no longer be visited, even as an empty stage set. The Wall Street Journal reported that some Marlboro smokers were so let down, knowing they could now never win their dream holiday, that they quit smoking in protest—another constituency edged out in this plan for the new west.
“The emptiness of the west was for others a geography of possibility,” Ehrlich wrote in “The Solace of Open Spaces.” “Fencing ultimately enforced boundaries, but barbed wire abrogated space,” she wrote. “It was stretched across the beautiful valleys, into the mountains, over deserted badlands, through buffalo grass. The ‘anything is possible’ fever—the lure of any new place—was constricted. The integrity of the land as a geographical body, and the freedom to ride anywhere on it, were lost.” So much writing about the west is imbued with this profound sense both of looming possibility and forthcoming loss.
At the White Front Bar in Philipsburg, a resident tells me about a popular Travel Channel series about a haunted house set in neighboring Anaconda, The Ghost Town Terror, which is now bringing more tourism to the town. Shows about haunted, abandoned Old West properties (to say nothing of Yellowstone’s ranchers-versus-land-developers plot, which shows a west encroached upon from all sides) may be so popular because we yearn for them, and they seem illusory in real life, even if we go out west compelled by their ghosts. Perhaps the mythology is this pervasive because the reality is available to very few, and the increasingly elusive idea intensifies for those who can attain it.
In Big Sky the desire to feel as though one is on the frontier, the attempt to cultivate wide open spaces, has transformed the very character that drew people to Montana in the first place. “People fall in love with authenticity but then wonder where they’ll get organic hummus, so then the franchise comes in,” McDavid says. As environmental historian Betsy Gaines Quammen tells me over dinner in Bozeman, “A lot of people come here because they think they know the place, but they only know it through cartoonish portrayals. The west is at risk because people do not truly understand its limits or its culture.”
“For real Montanans, Big sky is like an airport in Dubai.”
In a bar in Livingston, Dan Lahren, former fishing partner to the late writer-legend Jim Harrison and “fixer” for Anthony Bourdain when he filmed his show in Livingston, tells me that years ago the west was “just Colorado.” Now, he says, there is total “Aspenization”: The sense of glitzy retreat, formerly concentrated, now feels indiscriminately replicated all over. At a small campaign event in downtown Livingston, Gary Buchanan, an independent congressional candidate, tells me that at most Republican fundraisers almost none of the attendees vote in the state. “They vote in Beverly Hills or New York.”
In mid-April, even before fly-fishing season starts, the new Kimpton hotel in Bozeman is fully booked at midweek. Walking down Main Street early in the morning, a geologist on her way to a five-dollar breakfast deal falls into step with me and says, “You’ve probably heard we’re getting overrun here.” That afternoon I go to see the small civilization of RVs parked behind a liquor store on the outskirts of town, at an intersection called “Dead Man’s Gulch.” Most people living in the vehicles, priced out of town, work at least two jobs. The American scene of living in cars at a crossroads next to a Target while private jets fly into the nearby Jet Center isn’t anything new. Now Montana just looks a little bit more like L.A.
This story appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW