Saturday, December 31, 2011
By JOYCE WADLER
TROUT CREEK, Mont.
“DO you have hairy feet?” asks Steve Michaels, proprietor of the Hobbit House, when a reporter calls about his pet project. “Bilbo Baggins gets off on hairy feet. Hobbits have hairy feet. They also have hairy bellies. They eat about six times a day.”
If you are a J. R. R. Tolkien fan, this information is old news. But if your reaction is closer to “Hobbit? Short, some kind of elf, annoying. Bilbo? Bilious? Rocky Balboa?” it is a new world.
And thanks to Mr. Michaels, you can spend the night in it. No need to bring slippers: a big hairy pair await you. Also a wizard’s hat, belonging to someone named Gandalf. How to get there? It’s a long, long journey, because wherever you live, it is not close.
Glorious August, the time for road trips. While it may seem that roadside America has been taken over by motel chains, one as sterile and uninspired as the next, this is not true: there are lots of rich and varied places to stay out there.
The Hobbit House, in northwest Montana, about a three-hour drive from Spokane, Wash., is a guesthouse. Number of units: one. But it is a large unit. The Web site, which the reporter studies before arriving, shows a 1,000-square-foot structure built into a hill, on a 20-acre site dotted with structures that range from small to perfect for squashing with your foot: a four-foot stump-shaped troll house, a few round-door hobbit houses with chimney pipes and several shoe-box-size fairy houses.
Studying the pictures, the reporter has the sinking feeling that she will be spending the night at a miniature golf course. After arriving at the Hobbit House, this fear is quickly put to rest: there are no putting greens.
Mr. Michaels, who turns 63 this month and can be found at his own house across the road, is white-haired and as jolly as Santa, but with a much darker back story and some ambivalence about children. He makes his living as a broker of telephone answering businesses, running a company called TAS Marketing with his 59-year-old wife, Christine, who tends to practical matters like contracts.
But Mr. Michaels has also been many other things: a hypnotist; the author of a self-published self-help book called “How to Die With a Smile on Your Face”; something called a futurist, which seems to involve getting out of the city and arming yourself; and a llama rancher. He keeps four alpacas as pets; pilots what he calls his flying machine, a Buckeye Dream Machine-powered parachute; and gets about his 100-acre property in a Kubota RTV that resembles a hybrid golf cart and dump truck.
A HOBBIT, according to the literature, likes to be comfortable at home, and the guesthouse, shaped on the inside like an inverted bowl, is first class. Mr. Michaels charges $245 a night, and paid about $410,000 to build and furnish it.
There are granite counters in the kitchen, elaborate lighting and a Harmony audiovisual system. A gold ring, which figures prominently in hobbit lore, hangs from a rafter. The rustic wooden furniture is custom-made, and the headboards are embedded with the Hobbit House logo, a hobbit door with a red light — and on the headboards, it’s a real red light.
But what is a visit to the Hobbit House without a tour of the shire? Into the RTV we go, accompanied by Mr. Michaels’s dog, Libby, a collie-shepherd mix. Here is a tiny sod-roof house belonging to Frodo, a Baggins relation; there, in the trunk of a tree, is a mother-son fairy abode (complete with two doors). Not everything is hobbitically accurate: there is a two-foot-tall hairy-back frog, because Mr. Michaels figured that if hobbits were hairy, their frogs should be, too.
“And look,” he says, steering the cart toward the sod-covered roof of the life-size guesthouse. “You can drive over the house, because it’s built into the ground. Right now, we’re 30 feet over your bedroom.”
Wahoo! Try that at the Best Western. The view of Mr. Michaels’s house across the road, beside the pond, is lovely, and there is an abundance of wildlife here, he says: they have seen coyote, elk, mountain lions, even a grizzly.
Does the wildlife ever damage those little structures?
“This spring we hauled almost a truckload of elk turd from the top of the Hobbit House,” Mr. Michaels says. “On top of the house it’s nice and warm, and the grass comes in early, and they like to hang out there.”
Back at the guesthouse, we talk about the financial side of things. The Hobbit House was completed last fall, but the guest book shows only about 14 entries. How are they making a go of it?
“We’re not,” Mr. Michaels says. “TAS Marketing is the way I make my money. This started out as a simple guesthouse, then my contractor’s son said, ‘Oh, it looks like a hobbit house.’ Then my imagination went wild. We read the book and watched the movies, and then we had to have a hobbit house, we had to have a troll house, we had to have the mushrooms. It’s all custom. I’ve got real rich taste.”
“I have an addictive personality,” he says later.
What is the saga of this hobbit fan with the healing pyramid hanging from his neck, and from what exotic land did he emerge? Burlington, Vt., it turns out.
Mr. Michaels was the middle child of seven children, and his parents were strict and demanding. Also, they were poor. He got his brother’s hand-me-down socks, and in school, when the children took off their shoes to play a marching game, his too-long socks preceded him, flop, flop, flop.
At the urging of his father, a tool and die maker at General Electric, he attended Vermont Technical College after graduating from high school.
“When you finish this, you will be able to fix a radio,” an instructor said one day.
“I don’t want to fix the radio,” Mr. Michaels thought. “I want to be on the radio.”
So he went out to Eugene, Ore., and worked as a radio disc jockey while going to Lane Community College, living, he says, like a maniac: crashing cars, stealing food from grocery stores, racking up so many D.U.I.’s that a judge finally gave him the choice of going to jail or leaving the state. (He left the state.)
Eventually he went into sales, married and spent much time in metaphysical searching, exploring reincarnation and the power of the mind to heal physical ailments like cancer. (After the reporter tells him what she thinks of this — picture everyone in the Bronx doing the cheer that bears the borough’s name and you get the idea — he becomes guarded, but he does say that as a hypnotist, he regressed people to past lives.)
The Michaelses moved around, running a bed-and-breakfast in California, a llama ranch in Colorado. One day when they took a few of their llamas for a walk, a neighbor complained because they had walked across his property, and they knew it was time to move along.
They moved to Montana. Mr. Michaels’s communications business was thriving, but he had started drinking at night and smoking marijuana. Then, in the summer of 2004, some neighbors told him about a spiritual healer in Brazil named John of God, who could tell the state of your soul by looking at a photo.
Mr. Michaels sent the healer a picture, and it came back with a red X through it. His heart started pounding. He flushed all the pot he had just bought down the toilet, left his beer in front of a neighbor’s door, went up on the hill behind his house, where his first dog, One Eye, was buried, and wept. He reflected on his life, thought of all the hurtful things he had done as a young man and resolved to do better.
That was when he wrote his book about how to live a richer life and began giving “life assessment” workshops and playing Santa Claus in Trout Creek, intercepting the letters children sent to Santa at the post office and buying them gifts himself. He left waitresses $100 tips. He considered building a three-story lodge for his workshops, but the bank wanted to be too involved.
So the next thing you know, here comes the Hobbit project. Children were not admitted at first (Mr. Michaels did not want their sticky fingers on his expensive furnishings), but so many people wanted to bring them that they are now welcome if they are well behaved.
Mr. Michaels takes the reporter on a tour of the rest of his property: his three-bedroom home; the alpacas; the flying machine, which he has flown up to Cougar Peak (once a bald eagle with a fish in its talons flew alongside him). He seems to have bought all the toys he couldn’t afford as a boy, he is told.
Mr. Michaels agrees.
“There was a time my father wanted a pond on his property, and my brother and I spent two summers and a winter cutting down trees,” he says. “My brother and I worked for two summers, my father never even said ‘thank you.’ I decided to build my own pond, and I have a nice island out there and electricity on mine and a lighthouse where the lights go on.”
At the reporter’s request, they go up the hill where Mr. Michael did his vision quest, sitting beside the dog’s grave and thinking about what would become of his own spirit when he died. Four pets are now buried there, and when Mr. Michaels and his wife die, they will be buried there, too.
That evening, he and his wife invite the reporter to a supper any fat-bellied hobbit would appreciate: ribs made according to Mr. Michaels’s secret recipe, potato salad, huckleberry pie. Then it’s to bed.
The reporter tries on Gandalf’s felt wizard hat (too pointy) and the fuzzy deer-hide slippers (too clammy) and, unable to figure out how to turn off the red light on the headboard, throws a blanket over her head and tries to sleep. It occurs to her that she is 30 feet under a hill and the deceased pets are across the road under another hill. It seems as if there should be something profound in this, but the reporter cannot figure out what it is.
The next morning, when she goes to her car, she sees muddy paw prints on the door near the handle, about the height of a hobbit, a bear cub or a dog — a mystery that will remain unsolved. Then it’s back on the August road.