By Jayne Clark, USA Today
WELLS, NEV. -- This flyspeck town has two brothels, three truck stops, six churches and 1,300 souls. Given its remote location six hours and a world away from the shimmer of Las Vegas, it's never been much of a visitor draw.
Until this summer, that is, when a first-of-its-kind resort opened nearby on a ranch so vast that it cuts through two mountain ranges and three valleys and encompasses 900 square miles of unfettered, cedar- and sagebrush-dappled landscape.
Among the amenities: 10 luxury hand-sewn and painted tepees and 10 tastefully appointed safari cottages crafted from old barn wood. Among the inhabitants: 650 wild horses.
Consider Mustang Monument a resort with a mission.
"I woke up one day, and I had an epiphany. The idea was to get a ranch and do some serious (wild horse) rescue work," says owner Madeleine Pickens. "Then I came here and was mesmerized by the beauty of the land."
As the ex-wife of financier T. Boone Pickens who's wealthy in her own right, she had the means to realize her dream. Pickens purchased 25,000 acres, with grazing rights on an additional 590,000 acres. Then she bought 600 wild mustangs that were destined for slaughter and brought them here.
"They'd all be dead by now," she says, gazing out from the porch of the "saloon," Mustang Monument's rough-hewn but elegant watering hole. "The Belgians would have eaten them."
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'A pretty picture'
In the distance, an orderly line of mustangs kicks up dust in the fading light as guests convene on the porch, sipping specialty drinks such as Raging Mustangs and clutching appetizer plates of smoked salmon, caviar and prosciutto-wrapped melon.
Pickens decided to put a "happy, pretty picture" on her wild horse sanctuary by creating an upscale eco-resort.
"It's a pretty picture that's real, with wild horses, Indians and cowboys," she says. "I've been careful not to open a hotel. I know people who don't ride horses who would have a ball here."
With all-inclusive rates starting at $1,000 a night for two, those people are a rarefied lot.
Los Angeles landscape designer Sherryl Brachman and her radiologist husband, Michael, came for a quick getaway in June, though she wasn't certain what to expect.
"When you're paying $1,000 a night to stay in a tent, and there's no electricity, and you have to walk to the bathroom, I thought, 'It's either going to be fabulous, or it's going to kill me,'" Brachman says.
These aren't just any tents, of course. If Ralph Lauren lived in a tepee, it'd look like these. They have hardwood floors, hand-woven rugs, king-size beds with luxury linens and comfortable armchairs. Each has its own bathroom with huge shower, steps away.
The cottages ($1,500 a night), which do have electricity, are individually decorated in similar Western-chic fashion, but they're roomier and have an en suite bathroom with free-standing egg tub and separate shower.
At night, the grounds glow with the light of dozens of solar-powered LED lanterns. Five-course dinners are served in a tepee at tables illuminated by battery-powered candlelight.
After dinner, guests wrap themselves in Indian-style blankets and faux-fur throws to ward off the desert mountain chill and gather outside. Two Lumbee Indians from North Carolina entertain with a Sioux war dance performed by the light of a full moon and truck high beams. There's a cultural disconnect, but no one seems to mind.
A day into her visit, Brachman has ridden a horse for the first time in 40 years and shot a simulated terrorist with a .22 handgun on the firing range.
Tyler Stern, 14, a visitor from New York with his parents and sister, is a Manhattan kid who's found nirvana here in the Great Basin. He's had roping lessons from a former rodeo rider, driven a truck, bounced over rutted pioneer trails in an ATV, played paintball with an ex-Navy SEAL staffer, and ridden a once-wild mustang.
But Pickens is selling more than adventure with Western-chic trappings. She's trumpeting the ethos of a wide-open, free-spirited land that's personified by wild horses.
"I came to this country for the West," says Pickens, who was born in Iraq and schooled in England before arriving in the USA in 1969. "When I found out about the mustangs, I was devastated. They deserve a home on the range."
Not everyone agrees. Wild horses and burros have been federally protected and managed since 1971. But they remain the focus of a long-running debate about how that's best accomplished.
"Ranchers hate wild horses because they compete (with livestock) for grazing food," says Clay Nannini, a cowboy/realtor who works for Pickens.
Nor do locals necessarily get Pickens' motives.
"Her dog has a sweater, and she has a jet and an accent," says Nannini, who grew up in Wells. "But Madeleine's passionate. Anyone who's that driven, you gotta respect them. And like it or not, (wild horses) are protected, and Madeleine's looking for a solution. The more horses she takes, the better off the ranchers are."
Mustang Monument's well-heeled guests may depart with a new awareness of Western range politics. But wild mustang conservation isn't necessarily what draws them here.
They're not really "horse people," acknowledges Denise Stern, Tyler's mother, who learned about the new resort in a luxury-goods magazine.
"I think if I'd told anyone about it, they would have vetoed it because it's in the middle of nowhere," she says at the end of a day exploring the vast landscape.
"We went as far as the eye can see," she says. "It's amazing how quickly you forget about your life out here. It's a place to detach. You leave here wanting to be a cowboy."
IF YOU GO
Where: Near Wells, Nev., which is a three-hour drive from Salt Lake City.
Rates: $1,000 a night, double, for a luxury tepee and $1,500 a night for a safari cabin, includes activities and meals.