There and back again 

A nerd comes to grips with her awkward past at the Shire of Montana

The relics of a tragic adolescence are littered throughout my old bedroom in my parents' house. A life-size cardboard Legolas peeks out from behind old clothes in the closet. Figurines of all nine members of the Fellowship, complete with removable cloaks and moving arms, are in a dusty pile on a bookshelf. Shutting the door reveals a corner plastered in cutout magazine pictures of Orlando Bloom. A tarnished, plastic version of the One Ring, which I used to wear to school on a necklace every day, sits in a drawer somewhere. If I stop to linger in this room, it brings back a formative time of my life. I spent most of my early teen years fixated on one particular fantasy world: The Lord of the Rings.

A New York magazine article published in January, "Why You Never Truly Leave High School," explained that during adolescence, our developing prefrontal cortex starts to give us the "intellectual capacity to form an identity." Scientists say that it's the things we discover in our early teens, like music and books and hobbies, that are most likely to imprint on our brains and become the identity-defining things we carry with us our whole lives. (This is why 60-year-olds still dig Bob Dylan, I guess.) When I watched Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in a theater for the first time as a 12-year-old, it clicked at exactly the moment my brain was searching for an identity. This was right around when the internet started to become less of a novelty in my rural Montana hometown and more of the dominant medium in our lives. When my family and I got home from the theater and it was my turn on the computer, I Googled "Lord of the Rings" and felt a rush of happiness. Over time, I delved into Rings trivia, Tolkien backstory, Elvish vocabulary, smutty fanfiction, pictures of Legolas that I downloaded to a folder labeled "Hotness"—and it all gave me a rush of pure, uncomplicated joy.

click to enlarge News_News1-1.jpg

Until The Hobbit movie came out last year, I hadn't really thought about that part of my life in quite a while. I might have boasted that I read the Silmarillion (Tolkien's unfinished prequel), but really, talking about Rings too much makes me uncomfortable. It reminds me of some of the most painfully lonely years of my life. Sure, everyone was kind of awkward in middle and high school. But I remember coming home crying more often than I care to count because I didn't think I had friends. Nobody who watches The Two Towers—a three-hour movie—more than 20 times over the course of a few months is having much actual fun.

So when I first learned of the Shire of Montana, an underground hobbit house that operates as a guest resort outside of Trout Creek, I felt a mixture of amusement and trepidation. What could such a place possibly entail? Who on (Middle) Earth runs it? What sort of tangled nostalgia could this place trigger for me? After all, I've tried hard to leave that miserable stage of adolescence behind. I've grown up—at least a little bit—and moved past my obsession with getting lost in some make-believe world. It felt more than a little weird to be traveling to an elaborate re-creation of that very place.

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The drive from Missoula to Trout Creek feels like a film-worthy quest all by itself. Highway 200 winds alongside the gemstone-green Clark Fork and past steep slopes where bighorn sheep roam. The small logging towns that fill Sanders County nestle in the valleys shadowed by the Cabinet Mountains. After about a two-hour drive, a dirt road heading west into the mountains, just out of cell service, leads to the Shire of Montana.

click to enlarge The Shire of Montana in Trout Creek has drawn visitors from as far as Singapore and Wales. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The Shire of Montana in Trout Creek has drawn visitors from as far as Singapore and Wales.

I grinned like an idiot as soon as I saw the "Hobbit Lane" street sign. I drove my '92 Oldsmobile up the steep driveway through the forested mountainside and there it was: The Hobbit House, just like in pictures, tucked into the side of the hill, surrounded by an entire intricate village. Smaller decorative hobbit houses, with short, round doors, are set into the hill, with doormat-sized front yards. Signs label Bilbo and Frodo's homes. Scattered throughout the pine trees, birdhouse-sized fairy, dwarf and elf homes cluster in little neighborhoods, with tiny tools, wheelbarrows and even little dresses hanging on clotheslines out front. Ornate doors the size of playing cards are set into the bark at the bases of several trees. (I feel compelled to note that fairies and sprites aren't really in Lord of the Rings, and dwarves and elves are, of course, not supposed to be that small.) A giant several-hundred-year-old cedar trunk is hollowed out, fitted with a door and labeled the "Troll House." Nearby, a stone troll-mine set into the earth has a club leaning against it and a light that comes on at night to ward off any lurking trolls. A bridge over a small creek has motion sensors and hidden speakers that play the sounds of children's laughter. As I stood there, a group of mule deer picked their way past the elf houses and stared at me before leaping away.

click to enlarge The facade of Bilbo Baggins’ house is scaled to fit a hobbit. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The facade of Bilbo Baggins’ house is scaled to fit a hobbit.

In the sunshine of a late spring afternoon, with no other humans in sight, the place feels surreal, like invisible hands are at work and little people might just be lurking behind your shoulder. A few modern-day touches keep it somewhat grounded in reality, like the "slippery when wet" sign on the deck, which has a gas grill.

In the middle of the landscape is the Hobbit House proper, a lovely guest quarters that happens to be underground and festooned with wizard paraphernalia. The entry is a heavy door painted nearly the same shade of green as Bilbo's Bag End is in the movies. Dedicated Rings fans may be slightly disappointed that the door isn't actually round—presumably an eight-foot-tall round door would be prohibitively expensive, even for a business where no expense seems to have been spared, down to the custom-made lampshades covered in silhouettes of Gandalf.

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