Across the highway from the scenic Swan Lake, an old two-story wooden building with a cheeky sign and a classic Montana charm sits just out of reach of the nearest cellphone tower.
Run by a vibrant, smiling woman with a long silver braid, the historic Laughing Horse Lodge provides the perfect escape from the beeping, blaring chaos of the world outside its gate.
Kathleen Moon moved to Swan Lake in 1999 when she fell in love with a man she said wanted to be a real life Jeremiah Johnson, living off the grid in the backwoods of Montana.
The couple was traveling through Swan Lake to Condon to look for property when they first stopped at the run-down old lodge off Montana 83.
At the time, Moon said the place was bare-boned and closed, but the owner of the place still lived there.
Like a scene from “The Shining,” Moon said a wizened old cowboy opened the door to them and offered to let them stay in one of the rooms for the night, free of charge.
The next morning, he offered to sell them the place.
A far cry from her former life as a corporate career woman in Los Angeles, Moon said the lodge became a compromise for her and her partner, a project they planned to fix up and flip.
Originally built in 1959, when Swan Lake was a booming tourist town, the lodge had passed through at least 17 hands before Moon bought it, and few of the owners had done much more than patchwork maintenance.
“It’s an old woman. This is over 60 years old, and maintaining her is a tough one. Nobody maintained it before,” Moon said.
Before the couple could open for business that May, the entire place needed major reconstruction, rewiring, new plumbing and a new foundation.
Then Moon had to learn how to cook.
“I didn’t even know how to turn a grill on,” Moon said. Fortunately for her, however, she found both the equipment and help she needed at a café in Condon that was closing for business. The owners sold her most of their kitchen equipment and then offered to stay and help them get the place going, teaching Moon all she needed to know about running a kitchen, a staff and a business of her own.
They started out simply, making enough money from the diner to make a living and hire a small staff.
However, six years into the venture, Moon’s partner walked out, leaving her in Montana to carry on alone.
But by then, she said, she’d made Montana her home, and the lodge her life.
“Montana women, we work,” Moon said.
After her partner’s departure, Moon took up the challenge of refashioning the place in her own image rather than the diner he had planned.
She acquired skills in construction, plumbing, wiring and more as she sculpted the tired roadside lodge into the ultimate retreat.
A variety of colorful flowers and greenery fill the private garden in the center of the property, filling the outdoor dining area with their sweet fragrances.
Swallows leave their nests perched in the nooks and crannies of the building and take to the skies as evening falls, feasting on mosquitoes and treating guests to their songs.
A treat for all the senses, wine and spirits flow as customers sit down to dine in the comfort of the garden, where they can get down to live music, or in the dining room decorated with local art.
Rather than rushing guests in and out, as some businesses do during the busy summer season, Moon has worked to create an easy, welcoming atmosphere where patrons can spend their evening unwinding, chatting about books or politics, and enjoying her “casually fine dining.”
“It’s really good food, but the value’s on the plate, not underneath it,” she said of her cooking.
Moon’s golden retriever, Cooper, wanders the grounds, mingling with both human and canine guests while her parrot, Sampson, looks on and provides commentary from his perch.
The lodge features eight rooms for overnight guests. The rooms boast a modest décor, with no cell service or alarm clocks and a shelf of books in the place of a television.
“I made a conscious decision that this is where you come to decompress,” Moon said. “It’s designed to just chill out.”
Early birds up in the morning also enjoy a full breakfast made by Moon before heading out to start their day. Those unsure of what to try can also go through Moon to plan an adventure with one of the many guides or outfitters in the region, like Base Camp Bigfork or Swan Mountain Outfitters.
Still, Moon said, despite the lodge’s success, she fears its days may be numbered.
With the privatization of most of the housing in Swan Lake, Moon said the area doesn’t see the same crowds of tourists as were common prior to 2000.
Moon runs the lodge by herself with a small staff of five, but with affordable housing so hard to come by, she said she struggles to find even a small seasonal staff to work from May to October when the lodge is open.
Still, as Moon said, “Montana women work,” and she plans to keep it going as long as she can.
For more information about reservations or dining options at the Laughing Horse Lodge, visit http://www.laughinghorselodge.com/
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.