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Originally published Friday, August 12, 2011 at 10:28 AM

A Montana vacation cottage just right for hobbits

Guests at the Hobbit House in Montana can have a Frodo-style getaway at a hobbit-style cottage built into the ground

New York Times

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TROUT CREEK, Mont. — "Do you have hairy feet?" asks Steve Michaels, proprietor of the Hobbit House. "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 Michaels, you can spend the night in the Hobbit House, his pet project that's unusual vacation lodging. 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 east from Spokane, is a guesthouse. Number of units: one. But it is a large unit. The website www.hobbithouseofmontana.com/) 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, I had the sinking feeling that I 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.

Michaels, who turns 63 this month and can be found at his own house on his 100-acre property across the road, is white-haired and as jolly as Santa. 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 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. 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. 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? Off we go in Michaels' Kubota RTV, that resembles a hybrid golf cart and dump truck.

. 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 2-foot-tall hairy-back frog, because 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 Michaels' 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," 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," 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."

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