There and back again 

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

Page 2 of 3

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.

click to enlarge Steve and Christine Michaels and their dog Libby live on Whitepine Ranch down the hill from the Shire of Montana. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Steve and Christine Michaels and their dog Libby live on Whitepine Ranch down the hill from the Shire of Montana.

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.

click to enlarge Since the Hobbit House is underground, the interior stays about 50 degrees year-round. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Since the Hobbit House is underground, the interior stays about 50 degrees year-round.

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.

click to enlarge At night, solar-powered dragonfly lights glimmer throughout the Shire. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • At night, solar-powered dragonfly lights glimmer throughout the Shire.

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."

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