Dispatches From a Writer’s Retreat on a Playground for the Super Rich
Ying-Ju Lai on Cognitive Dissonance and Elaborate Schemes
I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled
by the inexhaustible variety of life.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Here was the plan: I was a Chinese heiress, the nouveau riche kind, whose family had acquired their fortune during the Asian real estate bubble through dubious government connections. Jason was a coding wunderkind who had sold his startup to Facebook for millions. He had just returned from a day-long cattle drive adventure, and I from a hot stone massage at the spa teepee. We would go back to the guest lodge at the Ranch, sit at the bar, and nonchalantly order two martinis.
Facts: Jason was a classical music composer who had just completed his second master’s degree; I was an English teacher who fantasized about writing an epic novel that spanned three hundred years of Taiwanese and Dutch histories. It would be reviewed in the New York Times, in which Michiko Kakutani would say, “With her sparkling prose and her sharp-eyed observation, this young Taiwanese writer is staking her claim as the spokesperson for a new generation of polyglot, cosmopolitan millennials.” We were at an artist residency attached to a luxury dude ranch in Wyoming. There were seven of us: two musicians, a writer, a filmmaker, and three painters. We were miles away from the nearest liquor store and even farther from anything that could be called a “town”; the internet speed was reminiscent of the 90s, and in order to get decent reception on our cell phones, we regularly hiked for two hours to the top of a mountain.
For four weeks, our only obligation was to be inspired by the vast Wyoming landscape, be attuned to our own voices amidst the silence, and devote ourselves to our arts. We didn’t have piles of papers to grade and endless department meetings to attend; our days were not spent stuck in long commutes or wrangling with broken copy machines in the office. There were no crying babies, smelly teenagers, quarrelsome spouses, temperamental bosses, the raucous frat boys down the street, the overly civil-minded neighbor who trapped us in lengthy conversations about the home owners’ association. All of them were kept outside of the gate.
A striking blond named Lauren brought us three meals a day. A rosy-cheeked girl, Chrissy, arrived every Monday to straighten our rooms and fluff our pillows. If we needed anything, be it unsalted peanut butter, herbal tea, extra blankets, humidifiers, paintbrush cleanser, or printer toner, all we had to do was write them down on a white board in the common room, and they would magically appear the next day.
From my study, which was larger than my entire apartment in Boston, I could look out of the window and a see rows of aspen trees, their yellow-green leaves flickering under the sunlight. A bit farther away was a small corral that kept two horses, a buckskin and a sorrel. In between writing, I fed apples to the horses, took long walks on the hiking trails in the Ranch’s 30,000-acre property, or read in an overstuffed leather couch in the library.
Legendary art residencies like MacDowell Colony and Yaddo boast histories that go back to the 19th century, with Pulitzer prize-winners and MacArthur geniuses among their residents. The founder of Yaddo envisioned it to be a place where artists “will drink the Fountain of Hippocrene” and “find the Sacred Fire and light their torches at its flame.” Aaron Copeland is said to have written part of Appalachian Spring at MacDowell, and scholars agree that Sylvia Plath produced her first mature poems while at Yaddo.
For over two years, I had been telling people I was working on a novel about a 17th century Dutch woman, a modern-day Taiwanese woman who might or might not be her descendent, their parallel journeys across the world in the opposite directions, and their ultimate self-discovery. The truth was that when I arrived at the Ranch, all I had were an increasingly convoluted outline and thirty pages of rough draft. My Dutch heroine hadn’t even left the drawing room in her house in Amsterdam, and the Taiwanese woman was still stuck in a long taxi ride in Taipei.
The four weeks at the Ranch were supposed to be a pivotal moment in my life as an artist. In ten years, I’d like to say I had become a different kind of writer during the residency, the kind who wrote. I wanted not only to write. I wanted to craft every single sentence to pure, honest perfection. I weighed over each word, each sentence, until none of it seemed to mean what it was supposed to mean. With the luxury of time, I sometimes spent an entire morning changing a sentence from active to passive voice, reversing the word order for a more formal tone, breaking the sentence into two for a more clipped rhythm, then putting them back again for the intricacy in structure to reflect the character’s mood.
While I produced two sentences each day in average, all kind of sounds trickled out of the music studios. Lilly, a Singaporean concert pianist, was practicing De Profundis, a contemporary piece “for speaking pianists” set to Oscar Wilde’s letters to his lover. When I walked past Lilly’s studio, I would hear her chanting lines from the letter, “I wanted to eat the fruit of all the trees in the world,” accompanied by atonal melodies. As part of the piece, she’d sometimes slap herself in the arms and legs with a pained, frantic expression.
Jason finished the orchestral arrangement of his opera within a week, which was to be premiered at the Kennedy Center. He spent the rest of the residency experimenting with cocktail recipes and logged on dating websites, trying to meet men within the 100-mile vicinity.
The painters’ studios were now splattered with colors. Dirty palettes accumulated on the floor. Sketches and paintings, in various stages of completion, were stacked carelessly against the walls or hung on a line like colorful laundry. Joyce, a blond with a Minnie Mouse voice and a sharp chin, was working on a series of water colors inspired by the ponds near her home in Ohio. She was so overwhelmed by the landscape of Wyoming that the soft pastel colors in the watercolors slowly transformed to earthy green and gold-flecked brown; the fine, feathery lines became bold brushstrokes. Valerie, who had received a Guggenheim to work on her animated short film, was making every single frame by hand. They were collages composed of 19th-century medical illustrations and stills from silent films. The animated results usually involved worms and bugs crawling over Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford’s quivering bosoms. As days went by, hundreds of handmade still images piled up on her table, meticulously organized in color-coded folders.
In the evening, when we ate at a communal table in the kitchen, I often pretended I had made more progress than I really had. I described new scenes I had not written (a dinner on a 17th–
I could almost see the cover of the published book, its translation into multiple languages, the awards it would win, and all the speaking invitations and job offers I would have to graciously decline.
* * * *
Less than a mile away was another world of unattainable dreams. With rates beginning at $1,500, the dude ranch was a playground for the wealthy and the powerful and more than a few celebrities. Helen, the administrator at the residency program and a horse wrangler at the Ranch, insinuated a few times that several boldface names were staying at the guest lodge, except she couldn’t say who they were due to the confidentiality agreements she had signed.
The Ranch’s website quoted the travel writer, William Least Heat-Moon: “The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.” The landscape was unmistakably grand: an endless expanse of rolling hills, prairie land dotted with clusters of sagebrush and large stone formations; a mountain range in the distance that reached as high as 12,000 feet in elevation; the sky so wide that sometimes one half of it would be overcast, with lightening striking through the clouds, and the other half completely clear and sunny. You could be out in the fields all day long, and the only creature you’d see were deer, rabbits, and possibly an elk if you were lucky. It was the kind of setting that set you free from your worldly burdens, where you could gain perspective and have epiphanies about your existence.
However, the guests were in no danger of getting lost, and the strangeness they encounter was never so strange as to be alienating. Unlike in the olden days, when the travelers had to conquer the open road on foot or, if they were lucky, on horsebacks, people here roamed through the property in golf carts. The Ranch provided all three meals, childcare service, and numerous organized activities: yoga classes, horseback riding, lessons on rodeo skills like barrel racing and pole bending, and hunting and fly-fishing trips led by experienced guides, with all equipment provided, as well as gourmet lunch baskets containing locally-sourced ingredients.
Not only were the guests’ daily lives carefully choreographed, the mis-en-scene was also pitch-perfect. Two tiny “spa teepees” stood at the exact right spot on the top of a hill like pristinely white flowers. A “yoga yurt” by the creek had a skylight on the ceiling, through which you could watch the clouds (or the moon, if it was at night) when you lay on your back during a resting pose. Even the cows here, Texas longhorns, were like the photogenic but well-trained supporting cast in a movie. “Their meat is too tough,” Helen said, “but they look good, you know, look like cows in Western movies.” The highlight of the Ranch experience were the cattle drives, during which the guests, like true cowboys, herded the livestock from one pasture to another. The cows all knew the roles they were supposed to play.
“These guys are old hands,” Helen said lovingly of the cows. “They know exactly where to go. You could almost see them say to each other, ‘here we go again.’”
* * * *
The first thing Helen said when we arrived at the Ranch was that we, the artists, must respect the guests’ privacy. We were not to go near the guest lodge, a stunning two-story log mansion half a mile from the artists’ compound. We must stay out of the way during outdoor events like picnic, sunrise yoga classes, and stargazing/wine-tasting socials. If we ran into a guest on the hiking trail, a friendly “hello” and a smile were enough. “Do not,” she said, “do not try to engage them in conversation.”
Once in a while, one of the guests, like a stray bear cub, would stumble upon the artists’ compound. We would follow Helen’s instruction, smile, say “Hi,” and politely point them toward the direction of the lodge. But in a 30,000-acre property, sometimes days would go by before we see anyone outside of our little circle.
One day, Jason found out from Helen that the $1,500 rate was for one person, not one room. “$1,500 for a room is conceivable,” he said. “But per person?”
“How much would a family have to pay for a one-week vacation?” Joyce asked.
Everything about Joyce was soft and airy. She wore flowy chiffon blouses and pastel colored scarves. She was the kind of person who’d spend half an hour ushering a fly out of her studio rather than killing it. One of her favorite stories was about the time she and her toddler son saved a wounded, dying baby duck at a shopping mall and nursed it back to life. Yet sometimes she’d suddenly become combative over small things, like the overly sweet spaghetti sauce we get for dinner. At those moments, her face would be tense, almost gnarled, and her Minnie Mouse voice would become plaintive.
None of us was very good at arithmetic, so I punched the numbers into a calculator. A week’s stay at the Ranch for a family of four cost $40,656. How about two weeks? ($81,312.) Did the children get discounts? How much? We tried to add the plane tickets on top of the vacation expense, but when you were talking about a price tag that was the equivalent of a year’s college tuition, issues like children’s discount and plane tickets seemed irrelevant.
Who were these people? Tech millionaires from Silicon Valley? Texan oil barons? Financiers from New York? Hollywood power players? What did $40,656 get them? Personal bodyguards? Meals prepared by Michelin-starred chefs? Were the guest rooms covered in silk and cashmere? Did each child get a personal pony? At the absence of reliable information, rumors began circulating, and soon we all believed there was a landing strip for private planes inside the Ranch, and that Natalie Portman’s former ballet instructor now taught yoga here.
More importantly, why were we not welcome among them? We ask ourselves over and over again. We, the Artists, were supposed to add prestige, a bit of culture, to this little town, which calls itself the taxidermy capital of the United States? It was inconceivable, an affront really, that anyone would not want us, the possessors of such charm and refined tastes and endless bon mots, to grace them with our presence.
“You can totally play the part,” Valerie said to Jason over dinner one evening. “You’ll have no problem blending in. You just walk into the lodge one evening, get a drink at the bar, and no one is going to find out.”
Jason contemplated the idea. He was in his mid-thirties, tall, lanky, and had a mop of graying hair that stood in contrast with his boyish face. He not only owned a suitcase full of Brooks Brothers shirts but also traveled with a box of cufflinks, dressy and casual ones to suit every occasion. He regularly lectured the rest of us about the advantage of buying fewer items of high-quality clothing over a large quantity of cheap fashion.
“Do it, Jason!” I egged him on. “You could be a tech guy from Silicon Valley.”
“I don’t think people in Silicon Valley wear cufflinks,” Valerie said.
“Okay, a producer from LA then,” I said. “Jason could be a producer from Hollywood.”
I volunteered to join him, even though the best dress I owned was from H&M, and I had a tendency to fidget and stutter when under pressure. I could never pull off the part of an heiress or a trophy wife. Perhaps I could be Jason’s personal assistant? Or I’d say I was the nanny for one of the families staying there. We decided we shouldn’t be contented with simply sitting at the bar. We should explore the lodge, chat the guests up, and perhaps we would finally discover which celebrities are staying there. Or we’d try to convince one of the millionaires to give us a ride on their private jets. With bravado, we say we didn’t care if we were found out, since we didn’t plan to come back anyway. Still, we recruited Valerie, who was the only one here with a car, to be our getaway driver. Just in case we blew our cover and one of the hunting guides chased us out with a shotgun.
As days went by and more and more whiskey was consumed each night, our plans became increasingly elaborate. Joyce would be a hippie heiress who ran a spiritual retreat center in New Mexico. Valerie was in her late fifties. With her brisk manners and expensive linen dresses in neutral tones, she could be a gender studies professor who secretly wrote bestselling conservative Christian romance novels under a pen name. I was no longer contented to be the nanny or the personal assistant and began to believe that I had what it took to be a millionaire, or at least someone a millionaire would want to sleep with.
Our plans were quickly derailed when a new group of guests arrived at the ranch during our last weekend there. An Indian family had rented the entire property for a four-day wedding celebration. Overnight, shiny white tents appeared in the most scenic spots in the Ranch. U-Haul trucks arrived one after another carrying large cardboard boxes. During the day, somber-faced Indian men in embroidered long coats and women in glittering saris and full makeup roamed up and down the dirt roads in Ranch-issued golf carts. At night, Bollywood tunes and Nineties dance pop wafted from the direction of the lodge.
Before the wedding, Helen came to the compound in person and called a meeting. As usual, she would not reveal who the happy couple were but she trusted that we would respect their privacy. She posted an hour-by-hour agenda for the four-day celebration on the bulletin board, so we could make ourselves incognito and stay away from the venues.
One evening, we huddled outside of the kitchen by a bonfire and heard the music again, the bass so loud we could feel the vibration from half a mile away. We could almost see the gleaming lights inside the white tent, where the guests were no doubt gobbling up lobster and caviar and downing Veuve Cliquot by the cases. The temperature had dropped quickly in the last few hours. Our clothes and hair smelled like smoke.
“If you have that much money,” Joyce said, “would you spend it on a wedding bash like this?”
“I certainly hope I won’t need all this pomp to prop up my relationship,” I said. “Besides, it’s all a scheme of the wedding industrial complex.”
“What I’d like to know is,” Jason said, “after all this, when they wake up on Monday morning, how do they go back to real life? How do they deal with— an ordinary marriage.”
“I’m not sure this is what you’d call ‘an ordinary marriage,’” Joyce said.
“Who are these people?” We asked that one question we’ve been asking over and over again since we arrived.
We had forgotten about the marshmallows we were roasting, and they all fell into the fire, suffusing the air with sickening sweetness. The smoke was blowing into my face and stung my eyes. We drank up our cheap Wyoming whiskey, pulled out our laptops and smartphones, and we Googled.
There they were: the couple’s names, their parents’ names, their employers, where they had attended school, the charities they supported, where they had gone to brunch the weekend before, and much, much more. We perused their wedding website and read everything aloud in funny voices. We criticized the unoriginal pictorial composition in their engagement photos, the lack of a clear narrative arc in “The Story of Us,” and the clunky, cliché-ridden prose. We went over their registry, item by item, and decide they had very bad taste in table linen.
All of a sudden, we heard sounds of explosion. We looked up and saw fireworks, radiant flowers blooming in the big Wyoming sky, gold and silver and purple and red and green. The petals lingered, then receded into darkness. A giant sparkler flew up, shimmered, and dissolved into dozens and dozens of shooting stars descending in all directions. There was more and more. Sometimes we thought the finale was approaching, then another big flower sprang up and opened like a warm smile. Then a real smile, a firework shaped like a smiley face, then a winking face, another and another. We gasped and laughed and clapped.
The spectacle must have lasted for over ten minutes. As I gawked at the splendor in the sky, one thought flashed through my mind: business school. I should go to business school and find out how to make money. Or I’d learn to code and design the next mindlessly addictive smart phone game. Let someone else write the Great Taiwanese/Dutch Novel and define a new generation of polyglot millennials. I’d write fan fiction of Fifty Shades of Grey, except instead of a trilogy I’d write a hexalogy. Was I too old and too chubby to be a gold digger? Where did gold diggers go about finding gold to dig? My imagination failed me. I had no idea how people managed to have so much money that they could literally burn tens of thousands of dollars in ten minutes. It was an outrage, a vulgar excess, an embodiment of the ills of free-market capitalism, an ostentatious display that overcompensates for the spiritual void of modern society.
I wanted that.
“How much do you think that cost?” Joyce finally said.
“I don’t know,” Jason said, “probably more than I’ll ever make in my entire life as a composer.”
We spent the remaining evening researching the cost for fireworks.
* * * *
We did go into the guest lodge, not as Hollywood tycoons or even the tycoon’s hangers-on. Valerie handed Joyce and me her glasses. We took them to the lodge and turned them in at the front desk, pretending we had found them on a hiking trail. Two hours later, Valerie and Jason went into the lodge and claimed them.
Joyce and I did not sit down at the bar. We didn’t even lingered at the lobby. We looked around furtively but acted as if we didn’t care. Antler chandeliers hung from the ceiling—I was told later that each of those cost tens of thousands of dollars—stuffed heads of bison, deer, and antelope stared at us from all four walls, and the remaining surface was covered with animal skin: cow hides, bear rugs, sheepskin, and horsehair cushions. Up close, the guests looked unremarkable. A large number of the men were sunburnt. The younger women wore expensive athletic wear, while the older women mostly had on pristinely white shirts. The children were all exceptionally well-behaved.
* * * *
One more thing happened. On the day before our departure, Joyce came face to face with a mountain lion on a nearby hiking trail. She had never seen one before, so at first she thought it was a cat. (The landscape in Wyoming had the ability to skew your perception sometimes.) Then she knew it was a mountain lion and that it had been stalking her for a long time. She tried to summon everything she knew about the animal, then realized she knew nothing. So she acted as she would when confronting a black bear: she waved her arms in the air to make herself look bigger, she backed away slowly and did not make eye contact. The mountain lion was not impressed. Looking bored, it eyed Joyce as if it already owned her.
It is often the case that in moments of life and death, your body tends to have other ideas as to what is exigent. When Joyce felt a sneeze coming, she thought it was the end of her. She was going to die because she couldn’t control her sneeze. She did anyway. But the noise must have scared the animal. It ran away soundlessly, and she began to run as well, against her better judgment.
“Being placed in the position of a prey”—she said later—“I am learning to see myself, my life, from a different angle.”
As we were getting ready to leave for the airport the next day, the head mechanic at the Ranch walked past. He was a handsome young man who, with his cowboy hat and chiseled jaw, looked like a model in a Marlboro ad.
“So you are the lady who saw the mountain lion, eh?” he said to Joyce. “They are having a meeting about it right now.”
“What kind of meeting?” Joyce asked.
“Oh you know, how to make sure everyone stays safe.”
“You mean they’re going to kill it?” I said. “Do you think the guests will want to pay a lot of money to hunt a mountain lion?”
“No! No! No!” Joyce squealed and began sputtering about the poor, poor creature. If she had known they’d hunt the animal down, she said, she’d never have reported the sighting. She’d rather be attacked by the mountain lion than be the cause of its demise.
“Don’t you worry about anything.” The mechanic chuckled and patted Joyce’s arm.
“We’ll capture the mountain lion, the vet will make sure it’s healthy, then we’ll release it to a beautiful forest far, far away, where it’ll hang out with its mountain lion buddies and have access to organic, vegetable-sourced protein.”
Oh, good, Joyce said. Good, we all said. What a relief.
A version of this essay previously appeared in Thresholds.