Inside the Super Secret
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love
a wall, That wants it down.
—The Mending Wall, Robert Frost
A wall rises from the middle of the Shields Valley, one guarded more securely than the United States border with Canada or Mexico, and so hard to penetrate that it has been compared to Area 51, the super secret military installation in the Nevada desert. The wall, a fence really, between the outside world and the institution within, is so protected that many who know of it question at great length anyone who has made it behind the gates and returned. Most Park County residents know it’s there, but few know what lies inside, which has many of us pondering Robert Frost's timeless question—do good fences make good neighbors, or, as the poet suggests, do they offend?
I first stumbled onto the wall by accident a few autumns ago while looking for a place to hunt along Cottonwood Creek. After a frustrating morning, seeing no game north of Wilsall, I figured it was time to find someplace new to hunt. It was an unusually warm November afternoon, and a nice cruise on a gravel road seemed like a fine idea. I had the window down, was drinking a PBR, eating peanuts, and singing along with Toby Keith when I crested a small hill on an old road northeast of Clyde Park that looked like it might lead into the southern reaches of the Crazies. I was surprised to see that down at the bottom of the hill there was not a big ol' buck, as I had hoped, but something far more interesting—an old Western frontier town that looked like it was lifted from the set of Lonesome Dove. I brought the truck to a standstill, pulled out my binoculars, and tried to figure out what the heck was going on down below. The place appeared to be empty—I thought I'd found a completely preserved ghost town, or stumbled onto a movie shoot during lunch break. It just seemed unbelievable that there was such a cool looking little town less than an hour from Livingston, and I had never heard of it.
I decided to take the road on around and see if I could find a better vantage point to look down onto the town, or perhaps find a road that led to it. I drove up a couple more miles then turned left onto another road. Then, out of nowhere, a giant red SUV pulled up behind me with a couple of big guys in it. I cruised on, but kept one eye on my rear view wondering why I was being tailgated on an isolated country road. After a couple of minutes I came to an intersection, and then yet another red SUV with a couple of intimidating looking gentlemen inside fell in behind me. When I slowed down, they slowed down. When I sped up, they sped up. I was starting to get a little spooked, and was wondering if I had stumbled into Montana’s version of Area 51. Then I rounded a corner and saw the giant gate, with the huge logs and cryptic cast iron symbol. At that point I knew my fate. I was obviously trespassing on some crazy cult's property and would soon be dealt with in an efficient and painful manner—and nobody would ever see me again. I would die as a human sacrifice slowly burning to death to appease some angry god, or something similar. But, oddly, when we pulled even with the turn off for the gate, the goon filled SUVs turned in and stopped following me. I hit the gas and before long I was off the gravel road and back in Clyde Park—I didn't stop again until I made it safely to the Murray Bar in downtown Livingston.
I told a couple of barstool sages there about my adventures in the foothills of the Crazies, and they had a good laugh. Turns out the people inside the fence aren't members of some apocalyptic death cult (not the usual kind anyway) but employees and guests of the Phillip Morris tobacco company.
After my brush with "security," I knew I had to learn more. I had to find out what was behind those locked gates.
Known locally as the The Marlboro Ranch, the official name of the place is The Crazy Mountain Ranch, but the spread was originally called the Deadrock Guest Ranch before Phillip Morris bought it. It is nearly 18,000 acres, and is a working cattle ranch where cows are raised for rodeo stock, beef products, and tax right-offs. It is used by the Phillip Morris Co. as a retreat for Marlboro cigarette consumers and their guests. Marlboro smokers fill out forms on-line and are then selected and invited to the ranch by the Korman Marketing Group, a marketing and hospitality firm that puts on Marlboro promotional events. All visitor expenses are covered by Phillip Morris—airfare, transportation, meals, entertainment, even wardrobe costs are put on the tobacco giant’s tab. The goal is to provide an experience that will create a lifetime bond between smokers and Marlboro cigarettes. Basically, the corporate strategy is to wine and dine a target audience to build brand loyalty. Phillip Morris wants to burn Marlboro into their minds and lungs to keep them smoking for the rest of their lives. So that’s what's going on behind the wall—smokers are being catered to and treated like royalty and rewarded for all their years of dedicated consumption. Once I saw the inside with my own eyes, I even pondered taking up smoking myself. It's that grand.
Over the past few years I've been behind the gate several times. I've worked for a couple of different inde-pendent contractors that provide services for the guests. I’ve had the opportunity to meet lots of smokers and staff, and I have even gone through their employee enculturation program. The good pay and brainwashing, though, can't change the fact that they are helping to promote a product that can kill the user and those unlucky enough to be breathing nearby.
The ranch and its activities are run by a mix of independent contractors, Korman Marketing Group employees, a few Phillip Morris people, lots of locals, and those with exceptional hospitality skills brought in from around the world. In general these employees are well educated, good looking, and freakishly nice, polite, and engaging. Most seem to come from a middle or upper middle class background.
Guests are normally the polar opposite of the staff. The Crazy Mountain Ranch is probably one of the few places in the world where the socio-economic tables are turned upside down. For the most part, guests of the ranch have never been to Montana or on a vacation of this magnitude. A holiday for the majority of these folks might be a Sunday in front of the TV watching NASCAR, a fresh pack of smokes, and a case of Bud Light. Yet that is the beauty of working at the place—treating people who otherwise would never get to see the wonders of Montana to a world class vacation, though they are more often impressed with the free alcohol and cigarettes than the wildlife and breathtaking mountain views.
Marlboro and their staff go to great lengths emphasizing appreciation for the environment and the natural world. But most often this falls on deaf ears. Maybe its because they don't get it themselves, and convey it without sincerity. In staff training, a video of last years highlights was shown (after we sang the national anthem). Much of the video consisted of smiling faces and scenic vistas. But for every spectacular sunset, there was equal footage of a red Hum-vee or Jeep busting through a mountain creek, or a group of motocross bikes ripping up a streambed or meadow. The sights and sounds of nature are often drowned out by the buzz of a two-stroke engine and the shine of a brand new urban assault vehicle.
A false sense of environmental awareness isn't the only contradiction behind the gates. The craziest thing going on at the Crazy Mountain Ranch is their in-house security staff and the reasoning behind the obsessive control and secrecy.
The aptly named Iron Gate Services provides all on-site security, and they do a good job. The Dallas-based company prides itself on the level of surveillance and control they maintain. These are not rent-a-cops milling about the town, but retired law enforcement professionals, former CIA, FBI and Special Forces who give the place the feeling of being under martial law. Everything, mind you, is fun, relaxed, and low key, but there is an underlying sense that if you step out of line a goon in a dark suit or a commando unit will storm down and whisk you away to an interrogation room. During employee encul-turation (a term perhaps borrowed from Stalinist Russia) we were told why all the security is necessary.
During the Security and Confiden-tiality section of employee training, members of the Iron Gate staff share with the rest of the workers at the ranch the importance of on-site security. First, we are told that "trust and integrity" are the two most important qualities an employee can have. Then they explain the need for everyone’s movements to be documented, for safety in case of emergency. In the event of fire, for example, they would need to know the exact location of everyone on the ranch to ensure no one is caught in harm’s way. Guests and staff are monitored at all times as a precautionary measure. The perimeter fencing and around-the-clock surveillance is to prevent industry espionage. Apparently, Phillip Morris, Korman Marketing, and Iron Gate don't think other tobacco companies understand the concept of wining and dining their clients, so they feel compelled to protect trade secrets—at least that's what they tell you when you ask about all the security. That, though, doesn't explain the great effort put into locking up all vehicles, tools, and supplies of every kind. And so, for an organ-ization that claims to place such a high value on trust and integrity, they display virtually none in their dealings with staff, guests, and employees—who must sign confidentiality agreements so they cannot talk to the press or others about the ranch. The reason, though, that the Marlboro Ranch and Phillip Morris are not required to practice what they preach is because they offer something to their employees in place of trust. They offer money.
It’s no secret that it’s hard to find a good paying job in Park County. Locals, though, who secure a position serving guests of Phillip Morris can expect an above average paycheck. The tobacco giant’s commitment is to spare no expense securing the brand loyalty of smokers, and if good pay for employees ensures good service and a quality experience for guests, then they will pay that cost. Cooks, maids, servers, barten-ders and the like all make well over industry standards for the area. And, in general, people who work at the ranch are happy with their jobs—and too fearful of losing them to speak openly about the obsessive security. And so, just as brand loyalty can be bought with extravagant vacations, employee loyalty can be bought with better-than-average pay. Phillip Morris knows that if you throw enough money around people won't complain. They have, after all, been selling a product for decades with the approval of the United States Congress and the Food and Drug Admini-stration that is known to cause lung cancer.
Is that, though, what is happening in our community? Is silence and acqui-escence being bought and paid for? Good paying jobs are the backbone of an economy, and there’s no doubt the local economy needs infusions of capital. Crazy Mountain Ranch must be given its due—it contributes to the community in that respect. But do any of us serve our communities and children by perpetu-ating smoking and the serious risks that go along with it?
Phillip Morris markets a product that causes cancer—only tobacco companies deny that fact. A viable community, invariably, ranks health and well being as its top priority. And so, from this side of the wall, how does a community support an endeavor dedicated in principle, if not in reality, to its own demise?
And so, needing an answer, the question returns again, as it did in The Mending Wall—do good fences make good neighbors, or do they conceal that which cannot endure moral scrutiny?