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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Outside, the Hobbit House is all whimsy. Inside, it's a thoroughly grown-up, 21st century marvel of rustic-chic interior design, divided into three cozy main rooms under the arced ceiling and outfitted in golden lacquered driftwood furniture. Logs, kindling and matches are kept next to a small black woodstove. The kitchen, lined with marble countertops, has a sleek black dishwasher and oven. The fridge is stocked with beer and pop. A digital remote controls the Sirius XM radio, satellite television and DVD player. Copies of The Hobbit and DVDs of the Rings trilogy line wooden shelves. The glass door to the main bedroom is etched with another silhouette of Gandalf, and a faux gem is placed in the staff.
I'd meant to keep some kind of detachment from the whole place, but I loved the magic of it all. The absurd attention to detail and depth of the layout reminded me of how I once clung to Middle Earth. I was obsessed with Lord of the Rings at a time when the real world seemed the scariest. Sex, jobs, driving, college—it all loomed in the future, insurmountable obstacles I could never overcome. When I look back, I see a girl with an isolated upbringing, overly protective parents and no natural inclination to find trouble. I didn't have a curfew because it never would have occurred to me to even leave the house on a Saturday night. Talking to people my age mostly made me nervous. Other kids were playing sports, dating, having slumber parties, and I didn't do any of those things. I liked boys, but God, were they ever bewildering. I was also uncomfortable with my size, plagued by zits, didn't know how to pluck my unibrow and wore baggy clothes from the J.C. Penney women's clearance section.
Walking around the Shire didn't exactly morph me back into that pubescent teen, but it did take me back to that time. I wanted to absorb every detail. I wanted to linger. I wanted to pretend just for a little while that it was real.
There are no fantasy creatures lurking in the Shire of Montana, really. The hidden hands belong to Steve Michaels, a 64-year-old man who has curly white hair and wears polo shirts and gold chain jewelry, and is responsible for directing an extensive list of contractors and artisans.
Michaels isn't even a Tolkien fan. He hasn't read the Lord of the Rings trilogy and didn't watch the movies until his wife suggested it, which explains why the Shire is more of an homage than a faithful replica of Peter Jackson's sets.
One wouldn't expect the operator of a hobbit village to be a very mainstream person, and Michaels certainly isn't. He's odd and a little gruff, in a way that's reminiscent of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka. Michaels comes across as kind and generous, but with a dash of saltiness that contrasts with the family friendly cuteness of his Shire.
Michaels will give tours of the property and start to tell stories with a mix of crude self-deprecation and awe. When he's coarse, it seems like his way of playing down what a truly gorgeous thing he has created. "And here's where the hobbits make the honey," he says, pointing to a little treehouse. "I mean, what a load of crap, right?" Then he explains that a thick rope hanging from another tree is there so the trolls can swing off it when they come up out of the mine.
Opening the door to the impeccable bathroom inside the Hobbit House, he offers a word of warning. "And careful, Bilbo likes to come up here and take a big dump. He insisted I put a granite topper on the shitter," Michaels says as he waves at the elegant slab that tops the back of the toilet.
Then later, while reclining inside the Hobbit House, Michaels tells the story of a visiting psychic who told him there really were fairies in the Shire, because Michaels had invited them there. He sounds sincere and thoughtful, as if it's really possible he's cultivated a home for wee people.
After spending some time touring the Shire, Michaels cruises back down to his house on his Kubota RTV, which is painted with the Hobbit House of Montana logo on the back. He and his wife live in the valley down from the Shire, where they work from home running a telemarketing brokerage company. In a way, the Michaels' home is as awe-inspiring as the Shire. They've turned the 100-acre Whitepine Ranch into a veritable playground. Fuzzy, big-eyed alpacas graze outside the red barn. A large man-made pond behind the 95-year-old farmhouse is stocked with trout. A miniature lighthouse on an island in the middle of the pond blinks at night. An orange windsock denotes the stretch of bare field where Michaels lands his ultralight plane.
The Shire is a relatively new hobby for Michaels. He and his wife Chris lived in the Bay Area, spent time on a ranch in Colorado and then decided to move to Montana around 1993. They ran a bed-and-breakfast once before while living in California, and their original intention for the Shire was to build a three-story lodge. When the bank refused a $2 million loan, they looked for more affordable options. While planning to install a guest lodge, a contractor's son mentioned that the spot looked like a hobbit house. Michaels was intrigued by the suggestion. He watched The Fellowship of the Rings, paused the screen to take a picture of the Shire scene at the beginning, and his creativity went wild.
Construction started in 2008 and took about 18 months. A hole was dug out of the hillside and a fiberglass "egg" house placed in, then covered over with more than 20 feet of sod. The entire area is wired so that at night, the fairy and hobbit houses light up. An artificial creek drains into a wishing well, which has a cistern that pumps the water back up to the top.
In 2010, the Hobbit House of Montana opened. Things were quiet at first, Michaels says, but then MTV's "Extreme Cribs," The New York Times and the BBC showed up. Since then, he's had guests from English Tolkien societies and as far away as Singapore.
Other hobbit-inspired houses exist, including a British couple's sod-covered home, a Pennsylvania man's stone cottage and a Green Bay, Wis., botanical garden restroom. But none would seem to come close to the attention to detail that has gone into the Trout Creek acreage.
The business side of this one-of-a-kind attraction can be a killjoy. Michaels recently had to change its official name to the Shire of Montana, since "Hobbit House" is a copyrighted phrase belonging to the Saul Zaentz company, which owns the rights to the movies and merchandise.
Steve and Chris also explain that the Shire isn't really a money-maker. "People ask us what's the return on our investment, and there really isn't," Chris says. "We do this because it's fun."
"Well, you do the math at $245 a night for six months out of the year," Michaels says, though neither he nor Chris will specify how many guests the Shire usually has.
A flip through the guest book shows a number of satisfied visitors from last summer, including many couples from the Seattle area. Still, if the Shire hosts guests for two nights every weekend for six months, it yields less than $12,000 a year. That number falls far short of the roughly $420,000 Michaels has spent building and outfitting the resort.
Michaels isn't in it for the money. He's the type of person who isn't comfortable unless he's busy with some sort of project. His interests include wildlife photography, hypnotherapy and self-publishing—he's written a few books of folksy wisdom, like Homespun Insight: A Collection of Short Stories with Down-Home Values Brought to Life For Today's Businessperson.
"I'm on the phone with attorneys all day," he says. "It's nice to come up here and use my hands." He has more plans for the Shire, too, like putting in a "low-rent" fairy neighborhood.
When Michaels talks about all the little touches he's put into the Shire, it's clear why he's done it. Like so many people throughout the years, Michaels has taken Lord of the Rings and made it into something entirely his own.
"It's nice to be creative," Chris says. "We just kept thinking, wouldn't it be nice if we did this and this."
As evening approaches, Michaels is excited to jump in the Kubota and cruise around the property to watch as one of his latest installations—several dozen solar-powered dragonfly lights scattered throughout the Shire—start to glow in the dusk.
Michaels remembers fireflies from his childhood in Vermont. "We used to say, 'Hey, let's go out and get some lightning bugs,'" he says.
As we rush around on the Kubota, I am about ready to call my city life quits and move out to a remote cabin in the wilderness. But Whitepine Ranch reminds me that these days I have new, more grown-up dreams beyond meeting a foxy elf or going on an epic adventure. I want to keep making a living doing what I like, to afford a nice house, to be self-sufficient. It's harder to cut that dream out of a magazine and tape it to my wall.
My Lord of the Rings obsession once seemed all-encompassing, but it was fairly brief, to the point that it was fading by the time Return of the King came out on DVD. I've only had the patience to watch it a couple times. By late high school, I got a job, learned to drive and figured out a little about finding friends and making conversation. Adolescence's awkwardness seems eternal at the time, but it is mercifully fleeting.
Another defining marker of pubescence, I've read, is that teen brains are still figuring out how to regulate impulses. They spur us to do stupid, fun things like dye our hair weird colors, date dubious characters, drink malt liquor and swim in the river at 3 a.m. I was a late bloomer in this regard, but I caught up pretty quickly once I escaped my insular small town, got to college and met other nerds. I found more interests to share with people, like music and pop culture. I have boyfriends sometimes, but more importantly, I have close friends. I figured out how to pluck my eyebrows, too.
I've come a long way since high school. But have I become too apathetic to bury myself in movies or books or music, or lost my ability to fall into worlds of my imagination? Oh, heavens no.
After meeting the Michaels, I had the Shire to myself. When night fell and the mountain was sprinkled with fairy lights, I grabbed the eight-foot-tall wooden wizard staff from where it leaned inside the door and set out for the nighttime wonder of the place. I marveled at the lit-up houses and hobbit holes and the dark forest. I can only imagine what I must have looked like in my knit earflap hat and puffy pink coat, clutching the staff as I clambered on the smooth concrete roof of the troll mine, giggling as I sat back and gazed at the stars. I probably looked exactly as wide-eyed and transported as I would have as a kid sitting in the movie theater seeing The Two Towers for the first time.
I still regret spending so much time dreaming about elves—not because it's uncool, but because it kept me from meeting like-minded people that much longer. It's not that I've quit being a nerd, but that eventually I met other nerds and they became my friends. There are all kinds of people in this world. Some of them are weird enough to hang out with me. Some of them are even weird enough to build places where other odd folk can congregate and live out real-world dreams, like a hobbit house.
I wound up stargazing on the roof of a troll mine in Trout Creek, on the border of the Cabinet Wilderness, in part because of those awkward teenage years. I realized I was content, happy to be in this magical place and equally happy to head back home the next day and brag about it. Sometimes, the things you think held you back will take you exactly where you wanted to go.