I knew I was in trouble the first morning of our cruise. We were headed up the Columbia and Snake rivers on a Lewis and Clark bicentennial expedition, and this well-dressed widow sat down beside me at breakfast. Her diamond ring was the size of an unshelled peanut, and her hair matched the silver flatware laid out on the starched and pressed tablecloth. She casually mentioned that after the Columbia cruise, she was planning to take the Queen Elizabeth II to London and then fly home on the Concorde. I almost choked on my breakfast sausage.
Such is the life of a Western tour guide in the world of high-end travel for the ultra-rich. In our post-September 11 world, patriotism is in, and folks who might have routinely shopped in Singapore are now seeing America first. For those who have the means, there are private train trips on the American Orient Express, and even whirlwind tours to nine national parks in two weeks by private jet.
Imagine boarding a plane with few security hassles, sitting in your plush, extra-wide leather seat, while a polite hostess offers you a basket of fresh fruit. From the trip’s starting point in Denver, it’s a 40-minute flight to Rapid City, S.D., and a tour of Mount Rushmore. Next, pheasant for lunch in the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park, then off to the Tetons in Wyoming for cocktails and a sumptuous dinner at the Amangani Hotel in Jackson. At $675 a night, the Amangani features decor that is a cross between Northern Plains Indian and Maori bushman, with a touch of Malaysian teak. Not a bad way to start a Western vacation!
For those of us who have knocked around the Rockies in Volkswagen buses, rusted-out pickup trucks, and an assortment of other aging vehicles, guiding these tours is more than a little surreal. Imagine breakfast at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, and lunch at Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier. Or how about breakfast at Yosemite’s Ahwanee Lodge, and lunch on the rim of the Grand Canyon? Travel in a private jet compresses time and space, shrinking the vast distances of the American West.
Our job as guides is to provide the finest in luxury hotels, up-close looks at wildlife, uninterrupted views, and lessons about the West in 90-second bursts. We explain the contours of Western culture and ecology in tightly choreographed mini-lectures, and then brace ourselves for any question imaginable. Some basic ground rules: Explain local history, but do not get too deep into details. Avoid politics. And never, ever argue with your clients ... no matter how wrong they may be.
And who are these millionaires who want to see the Old West in New West style and comfort for $33,000 a couple? They are San Francisco dot-com millionaires who want to raft through the Grand Canyon. They are Boston Brahmins out to see bison in the Tetons. They are class-action lawyers, car dealers, commercial contractors, cardiac surgeons, and a startling number of rich widows from California and Texas.
They come because the mythic West appeals to them. They delight in quaint excursions, such as flying over the rim of the Grand Canyon in helicopters playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries over the sound system, à la Apocalypse Now.
In the Tetons, the jet is met on the tarmac by a fleet of Chevrolet Suburbans. Local guides explain natural history and wildlife, and the roofs of the Suburbans open for safari-style photographing of Yellowstone’s grizzlies, elk and buffalo. Visitors listen to their guides with special headsets identical to those used by the president’s Secret Service team. After a hard day of touring Mesa Verde National Park, guests are met in the lobby of the historic 1887 Strater Hotel in Durango with iced lemon water and soothing hot towels to take the dust off their hands and faces. In their rooms after dinner, they find their luggage, pillow gifts, and the next day’s typed itinerary, written in hourly intervals.
Such trips are a logistical tour de force in time- and luggage-management. Millionaires on holiday do not pack lightly. Each night is a different fashion show. Two years ago, flying out of West Yellowstone on a hot summer afternoon, our jet could not take off because of the weight of passengers and fuel. No problem. A second jet arrived to carry the luggage.
There are some tourists you’d like to leave standing alongside Route 666 in Utah. There are really domineering clients for whom you can do nothing right. Some families prefer guided tours to nursing homes, and so they pack granddad off to see the West in lieu of treatment for Alzheimer’s.
Occasionally, clients do not get the message about staying in a group. Three years ago, having just arrived from Chicago and stunned by the spectacular weather in southwest Colorado, two visitors disappeared into the new Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The monument is over 160,000 acres, and trails are poorly marked because vandals keep removing signs.
“Will you find them?” one of their companions asked.
“Sure,” I answered.
“How do you know?”
I pointed overhead to the slowly revolving turkey buzzards and said, “Oh, we’ll find them. It’s just a matter of time.” We did find the errant hikers 10 minutes later. After the buzzard sighting, the whole group stayed remarkably close together.
And so it goes. But we guides shouldn’t make too much fun of the tourists. Tourism is the lifeblood of the New West, and just as they can learn from us, we can learn from them.
During my first tour of Western national parks by private jet, I was still getting to know the clients. When we saw the impact of the 1988 Yellowstone fires, one of the clients suddenly began to rant: “This is awful. This is not a national park with all these burned, dead trees. Get rid of it. Give it back to the Indians.”
Here was my chance to give an environmental history lesson. I began to talk about too many trees in the forest, fuel loads, national fire policy, and the reason for a “let it burn in the wilderness” rationale. I tried to explain fire as a natural tool in the Rocky Mountain ecosystem.
Nothing doing! This Texas attorney was beside himself. He simply could not see the natural restoration under way. I figured that he had spent too much time on the golf courses in Houston. So I gave up on him.
The jet whisked us off to Montana, and after breakfast the next morning we explored a magnificent grove of old-growth Douglas fir near Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier. Breathing in the lush, damp smells of a Pacific rain forest, the Texas attorney caught up with me and remarked, “This is more like it. This is what a national park should be. This is like the woods I gave to the National Park Service.”
What had he said? I asked him to explain. He did.
As chief counsel for a large multinational corporation, he learned that the company owned thousands of acres of copper-mining claims in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest park in Alaska, and one of the most pristine wilderness areas in the world. He had convinced the executives to give the land to the National Park Service. That was in the 1980s; Reagan was president and James Watt was secretary of the Interior. Watt refused. He did not want the gift. Watt was a Christian fundamentalist who believed the world was coming to an end, so why add more land to national parks? My client insisted. He badgered Watt, badgered the White House, and finally got the Interior Department to accept one of the largest inholdings ever given to the National Park system.
Our clients come West for the scenery, for the cinematic myth. They’ve come to see the Big Sky, the Land of Enchantment and Colorful Colorado.
But Western tourism is about more than scenery. It’s about insiders, outsiders, and the ties that bind us to the landscapes that we love. I have a test for my visitors — to see if, over a week of travel, they’ve learned to appreciate Western culture and aesthetics. Early on, I talk about small-town life and the difference between yard art and junk. Whether in Silverton, Colo., or Silver City, N.M., this is an important distinction.
I try to give the final exam when we have dinner at the Cow Canyon Café in Bluff, Utah. As we approach the old trading post, an aging hulk of a 1949 Buick reclines gracefully in the parking lot, flanked by an equally ancient farm truck, whose license plate expired at least 30 years ago. After seeing magnificent national parks and stunning sunsets, here is a chance to view the real West, the worn-out West, up close.
Before I let my visitors out of the van for our private catered meal, I ask, “Okay. Is this yard art or junk?”
“YARD ART,” the travelers shout. I smile and we walk in for dinner.
Andrew Gulliford is director of the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.