The ranch operates as a customer retreat eight months out of the year, shutting down during the cold, gray stretch before the first snow falls and again while grass fights through the melting slush. Every rugged detail is carefully calibrated. Employees dressed in red western shirts and cowboy boots pick up guests and their duffel bags from the airport in a convoy of tour buses. More employees, on horseback, wait along a stretch of road between the entrance gate and the frontier town. A dispatcher radios the riders after the convoy passes through the gate, and when the first bus crests the hill just before town, they gallop out from behind trees, whips cracking, to lead guests down the slope onto main street.
When Rachel and her boyfriend arrived in the ice of February, the horses were stabled, but the buses were met by more employees in red shirts and boots who carried their bags into private rooms. Each bed was piled with gifts: a Stetson hat, boots, wool socks, a heavy and light jacket, and five packs of each guest's preferred Marlboro-brand cigarettes, selected in the pre-trip paperwork. (The pile used to include a number of smaller gifts, but the ranch recently switched to a system of wooden tokens, good for $150, which can be used to "purchase" digital cameras, coffee mugs, t-shirts, and other souvenirs at the General Store.) The only place guests could spend their own money was inside the saloon bathroom, where a quarter-fed vending machine dispensed pain medication.
Depending on the season, daytime activities at the ranch include trips to nearby Yellowstone Park, skeet shooting, river rafting, scenic horseback rides, and cross-country skiing. During their winter visit, Rachel and her boyfriend mushed a dog sled, rode a zip line between stands of Ponderosa pines, and spent a day snowmobiling on the upper bounds of the property. "I was calling my mom every day saying, I can't believe this, it's getting better!" she said. After gourmet dinners, guests gathered for parties in the saloon with live music, entertainment, and an open bar. One night,employees built a bonfire on an outdoor patio and passed out skewers of chicken and rattlesnake meat, while wood and tobacco plumes twisted toward the stars.
Rachel discovered the Crazy Mountain Ranch eight years ago, when she turned 21 and logged onto Marlboro's Web site for the first time. She'd started smoking Marlboro Menthols when she was 17, but Philip Morris, like all the major U.S. tobacco companies, restricts direct marketing communications to smokers 21 or older -- a voluntary measure, according to the company, to prevent contact with an underage audience. (The site's age-verification form, which requires each visitor to enter his or her name, address, last four social-security digits, and preferred smoke or smokeless product, is also a funnel to the mailing list.)
On the site, Rachel came across a gallery of ranch photos, showing people having fun against a backdrop of beautiful scenery. She had never been to Montana, but had always loved Western movies and cowboys. The site shared few details about how to visit, though, and none of the friends or family members she asked had heard about the place. Then out one night in early 2011, she met a guy whose girlfriend had won a trip and brought him along. He raved about the experience, and Rachel was mesmerized. She scoured the web for information in past winners' blogs, and started placing daily calls to Marlboro's 800 number, bombarding the customer service representatives with her interest in going.After almost a year of persistence, she received a form for the limited-entry Rock the Ranch sweepstakes.
Marlboro selects other winners straight from the customer database, in a process David Sylvia, a spokesman for Altria Group -- the parent company of Philip Morris USA -- would describe only as "more thought than randomness." Mike, an IT consultant from Alabama whose friend Shawn received an unsolicited invitation seven years ago and invited him as a guest, thought at first that the offer must be a scam. Shawn had signed up for a Marlboro promotion at a bar one night in college, about 10 years before, but had since quit smoking. Now he was being offered the vacation of a lifetime, for free?
"It sounded too good to be true," Mike told me. "There's a catch. We're going to get out there, and they're going to try to sell us a timeshare, or there's going to be some brainwashing session for Philip Morris." He completed the required paperwork and packed his things in the red luggage that arrived one day in the mail. But, he said, "I think I was still skeptical until we got on the plane."
He arrived at the ranch to find scarcely a trace of the Marlboro brand.The ranch property isn't exempt from federal or state regulations, like the law that any object featuring the brand -- right down to the dinner menus -- must also carry a warning from the Surgeon General. But Philip Morris also seems to avoid subtler opportunities to push their products,even asking employees who smoke to take cigarette breaks in an alley between buildings, out of guests' sight.
Mike's suspicions faded as he shot clay pigeons, tried out a branding iron, and hiked with Shawn through the mountains. "In retrospect, and prior, certainly, to going on the trip, I just kept going over in my mind: what could possibly be their motive for doing this?" he said. "During the trip itself, it was not really something that was on your mind, just because you're having so much fun."