There and back again 

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

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"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."

click to enlarge The Shire’s creek supplies water to the trolls, dwarves, elves and fairies. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The Shire’s creek supplies water to the trolls, dwarves, elves and fairies.

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.

click to enlarge Steve Michaels wears a pair of hobbit slippers. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Steve Michaels wears a pair of hobbit slippers.

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.

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