It would be a magical anniversary trip in The Shire of Montana—as long as their daughter could follow the rules.
Posted in , Jul 26, 2022
Fifteen years. That’s a big anniversary. I wanted to surprise Jim with the best trip ever.
Anniversary trips were a tradition nearly as old as our marriage. Each year, we took turns planning a secret trip for the other. We’d stayed in a historic train car in Livingston, the Ghost Rails Inn in Alberton, Montana, and Chena Hot Springs in Fairbanks, Alaska. But this anniversary required someplace special. Somewhere completely unexpected. After 15 years, could we still surprise each other?
The pressure was on—and I found the perfect spot: The Shire of Montana. It was a J.R.R. Tolkien–inspired guest home, a “hobbit house” built into a hillside near the small town of Trout Creek, a seven-hour drive from our place in Roundup. Jim and I had often talked about how fun it would be to build a hobbit house, so I knew he’d be impressed. And our six-year-old daughter, Aurora, would love it.
Whimsical structures dotted the grounds—a troll mine, a wishing well, houses for elves and dwarves and fairies. What child wouldn’t be fascinated by a village made for child-size hobbits? This is going to be the best trip yet, I thought as I clicked on the website to make our reservation.
Jim inadvertently started our surprise trip tradition with a getaway for our first anniversary. When I asked where we were going, he playfully refused to tell me. “It’s within a day’s drive of Roundup,” he said. “That’s all I’m saying for now. But make sure you pack something nice for dinner.”
Our destination? The landmark Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton. I was blown away. The surprise made it even more fun. I called dibs on Year No. 2 and planned a trip to Valier’s Stone School Inn. After Aurora was born, she came on our adventures too.
She might love The Shire even more than we do, I thought, glancing at our daughter, her little blonde head bowed over her latest painting-in-progress.
I was about to book our reservation when I saw a note on The Shire’s website: No kids allowed.
That ruins everything! We couldn’t leave Aurora behind, and I had no Plan B. A year without an anniversary adventure was unthinkable.
There was an email address on the site. Dare I ask if an exception might be possible? It couldn’t hurt.
A reply wasn’t long in coming. “The rule exists because previous children destroyed large parts of the Elven Village,” wrote Mr. Michaels, the owner. “But if you give me your word that your daughter is responsible and will not touch, she can come.” I gulped, glancing again at Aurora. She was a good kid. Thoughtful. Well-behaved. This would be okay. Right?
I wrote back, pledging nonstop close supervision, and filled out the reservation form.
Over the next couple weeks, I received several emails from Mr. Michaels about our upcoming visit, each one addressed to “Erin, Jim and the well-behaved six-year-old.” Mr. Michaels wasn’t missing a single chance to remind me of my promise. Each time, I felt a prickle of concern. Aurora was so young. What if she made an innocent mistake?
What if it was me who’d made the mistake? Our annual trip was supposed to be a fun adventure. How much fun would we have if I was hovering over Aurora, scolding her if she put a foot—or hand, in this case—wrong? The last word I wanted to associate with an anniversary trip was no.
The day finally arrived. We piled into the car for the drive to western Montana. I couldn’t help but be excited, imagining Jim and Aurora’s reactions. Still, turning onto Hobbit Lane, I felt a pang of anxiety.
God, please let this be a good experience for Aurora. For all of us.
We passed a hand-carved wooden sign that read, “the adventure begins….” Jim looked at me curiously.
“You’ll see.” I pulled into The Shire, tucked into a grassy hillside surrounded by tall ponderosa pines. Jim’s and Aurora’s jaws dropped.
Now came the hard part. As soon as we got out of the car, I pulled Aurora aside. “Children aren’t usually allowed here,” I said. “So you have to be very, very careful. You can look at everything, but don’t touch.” I explained the reason for the rule and how terrible it would be to damage anything.
Aurora’s eyes widened at my no-nonsense tone. “I promise, Mama,” she said solemnly. I tried not to wince. Had I just destroyed any illusion of wonderland? Nothing could kill joy faster than a stern “Don’t touch!”
We pushed open Bag End’s front door and walked in. The interior did not disappoint. Every detail had been carefully thought out. From the cozy fire crackling in the wood stove and the furry extra-large hobbit slippers (hobbits have big hairy feet) to the character-specific hats, Shire-themed lampshades and hobbit-height peephole in the door. There was even a golden ring on a delicate chain—just like the one in the novels—hanging from a rustic railing near the ceiling.
Aurora took everything in, keeping her hands pressed to her sides.
Outside brought more wonders. Murals depicted the rest of the village. A massive tree stump out front served as a troll house. There was a hobbit honeymoon suite with a large round door, and even a hobbit firehouse, with a real bell, red door and fire extinguisher.
“Remember, no touching,” I reminded Aurora, feeling like a scold.
She nodded and wrapped her arms tightly around herself.
Had I scared Aurora so much about touching that she couldn’t think about anything else? What fun is that? I thought.
As darkness fell, one by one, little colored lights winked on, scattered throughout the woods. We stepped onto the wooden footbridge that spanned the stream gurgling down the hill. Aurora walked beside us, hands clasped behind her back.
“It wouldn’t take long for a careless kid to wreak havoc here,” Jim whispered to me.
“I think Aurora understands,” I whispered back. “Everything is so carefully made. It’s beautiful but fragile.”
Halfway across the bridge, a whizzing sound overhead almost made us duck. Were those fairies zooming by? Aurora stopped, looking skyward. “Where’d they go?” she wondered out loud.
I took a second look with her, clasping my hands behind my back too. Flying fairies no longer seemed impossible.
We spent several days at the Shire. Aurora delighted in each discovery but never disturbed a thing, not even the miniature bicycle and fairy clothes in the Fern Grotto that begged to be played with. She took her responsibility to protect Mr. Michaels’s work seriously. Respecting boundaries didn’t take away the beauty and wonder; it allowed The Shire to remain beautiful and wonderful into the future.
Not so different from a marriage, I thought. Now I understood why God had brought us to this place to celebrate our fifteenth anniversary. Jim and I moved through life side by side as a couple, but we’d learned to accept each other’s individuality and boundaries as well. Marriage was full of surprises, challenges and adventure. The key to making it work was respecting each other.
Like The Shire of Montana, our marriage was a labor of love. One worth protecting. If we treated it with care, it would last a lifetime.
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