This is Montana luxury at 4,600 feet, with the kind of service and attention to detail that only the best hospitality can provide.
I never learned Boomer’s real name, which is just as well, because nobody ever calls him that, anyway. Boomer — my fly-fishing guide at the ultra-luxurious Triple Creek Ranch in Montana — got that nickname before he was even born. He kicked his mom’s insides so much that she told friends, “He’s a boomer,” and that stuck. It’s even on his driver’s license: His home is on Boomers Way.
Sporting sunglasses, a Boston Red Sox hat, and a salt-and-pepper goatee, Boomer picked me up at Triple Creek Ranch for the short drive to the Bitterroot River. Snow-draped mountains surrounded us. To our right, parallel to the highway, the river crawled through rocks and snow. Sometimes it was only a few feet wide, sometimes 20. Steering with his left hand, Boomer used his right to wave at the beauty. “This is my office,” he said. “The interior decorator did a great job.”
We parked at a public access site and tiptoed into the Bitterroot River. There’s an old joke that Montana rivers have two temperatures, cold and (bad word deleted) cold. I assume the former is true and can confirm the latter. My Triple Creek Ranch waders kept me warm and dry, but when I stuck my hand in the water out of curiosity, I quickly yanked it out.
I slid my feet across the rocks, inching farther and farther from shore. I cast to the right, watched my bobber float by (it was too early in the season for dry flies), and did it again. After 10 minutes, my bobber ducked deep. I yanked the pole high to set the hook and hollered to get Boomer’s attention. From behind and to my left, he gave me directions. I was so excited to be catching a fish in Montana that my hands could not do what he said. I let my tip drop, and the fish escaped.
Boomer suggested a three-step process to land the next one: “Set, pray, strip,” he said. Brief pause. “It’s the sequel to Eat, Pray, Love.”
A few minutes later, my bobber disappeared again. I yanked the tip high to set the hook and this time kept it there, or mostly kept it there. I would not say that I followed up setting with praying (bringing the pole in my right hand together in front of me with the line in my left) or stripping (pulling the line in) — or with any technique worth repeating, for that matter — but soon I was smiling while Boomer held my 14-inch cutthroat trout and I took a selfie.
When I returned to Triple Creek Ranch, someone asked if I kept the fish. Had we been fishing at the property’s catch-and-keep stocked pond, I could have not only kept my catch but brought it to the kitchen to have it filleted. But our excursion was off-property, so the first true answer is that cutthroat trout is Montana’s state fish, and it’s illegal to keep it. (“People ask what they taste like,” Boomer said. “I say, ‘A little like bald eagle.’ ”) The second true answer is that Boomer and Triple Creek Ranch abide by a catch-and-release policy, regardless of what the fish is.
The lie I told everybody at Triple Creek Ranch was that I threw that cutthroat trout back because it was too big to carry.
It says something about Triple Creek Ranch that the guests and staff cared enough to listen to me lie about the size of the fish I caught. The 18 other guests and half-dozen staff members my wife and I met felt like old friends, and we had only been there one day at that point. The Triple Creek Ranch property is massive — 25 cabins (with 33 guest rooms), 8,900-square-foot lodge, 28,000 acres — but feels intimate.
Besides my wife and me, guests that weekend included two couples on their honeymoons, a third scouting locations for their wedding, and six couples in various stages of retirement. We bonded while cross-country skiing, eating huckleberry everything, and singing “American Pie” together in the bar after merging four small dinner parties into one big one on Friday night.
I don’t know if the constant laughter made the food taste better or if the food’s deliciousness made everything funnier. Maybe it was both.
We gaped at the deer eating from the bird feeder just outside the window, debated movies, and discussed whether home delivery of groceries was super convenient or a sign of the end of civilization.
We also played an addictive game in which you hold a wine cork sideways, a few inches above the table, and drop it. You “win” when it bounces up and stands upright on its own. So, yes, wine lubricated the festivities.
Between bottles of Spottswoode Estate — a Napa winery that Triple Creek Ranch hosted for a vintner event that weekend — Montana nicknames were handed out. “Big Sky” is a gregarious former college football player turned financial planner who one day on a lark got licensed to officiate weddings, has now performed three ceremonies, and jokes that his life’s goal is to grow his cult beyond its meager eight members. “Broken Wing,” a semiretired entrepreneur, had his right arm in a sling, the result of a torn biceps. Beth Novak Milliken, president and CEO of Spottswoode, was christened “Firewater.” Her product made possible her nickname, in more ways than one.
Triple Creek Ranch regularly finds itself on “best in the world” lists. Travel + Leisure magazine and Business Insider have separately named it the No. 1 hotel in the world. Guests come for the luxury, stay for the views, and return for the service — 50 percent of its business comes from repeat customers.
In four days at Triple Creek Ranch, I discovered that staff members’ favorite word is yes.
I can’t decide between steelhead and pork cheek — can I have both? YES!
Can I go cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, horseback riding, fly-fishing, and hatchet throwing, all in one weekend? YES!
Can my wife go cross-country skiing, horseback riding, take cooking lessons, and go to a wine-tasting, all in the same weekend? YES! again.
The morning after fly-fishing, I called the front desk at 7:50 a.m. to be picked up at our cabin for breakfast. A white Suburban arrived at my door at 7:52 and whisked us to the lodge. Fresh coffee in front of us, my wife and I watched as Steller’s Jays (imagine a cross between a cardinal and a blue jay) hopped around on a tree branch outside.
The cheddar bacon pancakes sound awesome, but I really want eggs. Can I have both? YES!
Triple Creek Ranch is busier in the summer, but don’t be afraid of the winter there. The lodge is in what locals call the banana belt of Montana because it has the mildest winters in the state. The average high in January in the Bitterroot Valley is 35, and the low is 17. That isn’t Florida, but it isn’t Alaska, either.
The mildness makes outdoor fun possible year-round. My snowmobile guide, Brent, strode into Triple Creek Ranch like Quint climbing aboard the fishing boat in Jaws. I asked him how many layers I should wear, and he took one look at my gear and scoffed at my city-slickerness.
If I wanted to drink a beer with Boomer, I wanted to wrestle a bear with Brent. A Vietnam veteran who used to build houses and now owns a lodge in addition to his snowmobile/ATV company (Bitterroot Adventures), he looked like he could break me in half with his bare hands, suck out my marrow, and laugh while doing it. I told him he looked damn good for 75. “I know,” he said. “I like it that way.”
Once I convinced him I could handle the cold — or at least that I would wear his gear and probably not complain too much — we talked about pushing limits and testing ourselves and surviving austere conditions, all necessary skills to live in Montana for five decades, as he has. “All of life is an experience,” he told me, a wry smile curling amid his close-cropped white beard, which told me his experiences were of an order different from most people’s. “You hope you live through most of it. It might seem horrible at the time. But you can talk about it later, and it won’t seem so bad.”
We faced no such dire challenges on that day. The big blue sky begged to be sat under. It was in the 20s when we started out, but the bright sun reflecting off of the snow made it feel much warmer. I didn’t need his gear after all. But I wore it anyway.
After riding on trails cut through the evergreen forest of the Bitterroot Mountain range (a northern section of the Rockies), we stopped for a break. I walked between snowmobile tracks and dropped into waist-deep snow. Brent started a fire to cook hot dogs and poured hot apple cider and hot chocolate. I shared the chili Triple Creek Ranch had sent with me with the family of five from Atlanta that joined us on the snowmobile tour. Then Brent encouraged us to climb back aboard our snowmobiles and let ’em rip in an adjacent meadow.
So we did.
The meadow was half a mile wide and half a mile deep, bordered by a forest on three sides and a creek on the fourth. I zipped across the pristine powder, back and forth, back and forth. I peeked down at the speedometer — it read 45 miles per hour, which felt like 450 after I spent the morning cruising at 15 through forest trails.
I let off the throttle and coasted to a stop, exhilarated. I asked Jeff, the Atlanta family’s patriarch, what his top speed was. He said 20, and I fell for it. On the next run, he blew right by me and admitted he had crested 50. Not to be outdone, I hit 45 again, pushed a tick harder on the gas and reached 52.
Brent corralled us together for the ride back to the trailhead. After spending the previous hour in the meadow trying to go fast, now I tried to go slow, to spend as much time in the forest as I could. We turned right and left and went up and down, and I never knew which direction we were going. Trees surrounded and swallowed us, endless green on all sides.
To my right, the green suddenly ended and I skidded to a stop. On the downslope, gray trees, bare as skeletons, tall and limbless, dominated the landscape, the result of a forest fire 20 years ago. When I looked closely, far down the mountainside, I spotted small trees, no taller than I am, their light-green needles hinting at rebirth.
Only at Triple Creek Ranch can you spend all day riding a snowmobile, get back to the ranch, get cleaned up, then see one of the most impressive collections of Western art in the world. Broken Wing, Firewater, and the rest of us gathered for a tour in the living room of Elk Meadow, the home on the property owned by Craig Barrett, the former CEO of Intel and owner of Triple Creek Ranch.
I couldn’t have counted the paintings, ink drawings, and sculptures if I tried. Barrett told detailed stories about more than a dozen of them, stopping in particular to celebrate the work and lives of Frederic Remington, Charlie Russell, and Eanger Irving Couse.
The art on display in the house is only a small fraction of what Barrett owns. Each cabin also features pieces from his collection, as does the lodge. A spare room in Elk Meadow had art piled on chairs and leaning against the walls.
Barrett believes the point of having an art collection is to share it, so he encouraged us to walk into every room and stop to study whatever captured our attention. “Don’t forget the bathroom, the closets ... ” he said.
We piled into white Suburbans to go back to the lodge for the highlight of the entire trip. Billed as a wine-pairing meal, dinner consisted of courses of lobster, morel risotto, roasted venison, all served with a different Spottswoode.
I don’t drink alcohol. Triple Creek Ranch’s staff did not want me to feel left out, so the resort’s wine and spirits director, Angela Gargano, offered to bring me a new drink for each course, just like my wine-drinking brethren. I thought it would be Coke, and then Sprite, and then maybe root beer as a piquant digestif.
I should have known better.
The first drink was huckleberry lemonade, and it was so good I almost said, “Just bring me this every time.” The second was even better: A blend of cranberry juice, apple cinnamon shrub, Sprite, and club soda, garnished with an orange peel, it tasted cared for, tested, perfected. I imagined our bartender and cellar master pouring a little bit of this, taking a sip, adding a bit of that, taking another sip, and cackling like a mad scientist when he finally got his latest creation just right. I described that to Angela, and she said, “Yep, that’s pretty much exactly what he did.”
The drinks were a YES! to a question it never would have occurred to me to ask. I tried to think of any place I’ve stayed where they cared that much about what I drank and came up blank. After dinner, as the group broke up and the ever-present laughter finally quieted, I spoke to Barrett. I told him how much I appreciated, and was surprised by, the drinks. He smiled and said, “That’s Triple Creek.”
Click here for Triple Creek Ranch's recipe for grilled bison quesadillas.
Photography: Images courtesy Triple Creek Ranch
From our November/December 2020 issue.