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Montana resort offers springs, spas and specter

Sun., May 16, 2004, midnight

PRAY, Mont. — Last time our family went on a group vacation, it was to a quaint little bed-and-breakfast in Glendive, Mont., near the North Dakota border.

“No way,” said my younger brother Chad, while walking into the rustic, slightly Gothic-looking Charley Montana B&B. “If this thing is haunted, I’m sleeping in my truck, outside the police station, with my windows rolled up and my doors locked.”

Luckily, the Charley Montana wasn’t haunted, but my former Army Ranger sibling still chose to sleep in the same room with my mother and sister rather than have his own accommodation.

So for our next family vacation, I booked us into Chico Hot Springs, Montana’s most famously haunted resort.

“You didn’t,” Chad said.

I did.

But what I didn’t tell him was that I reserved a chalet above the supposedly haunted main resort building. A hundred years ago this was a wellness center and hospital. Now a steady stream of locals and non-natives alike frequent Chico Hot Springs’ pastoral lodgings in Montana’s appropriately named Paradise Valley.

Located just outside the small town of Pray, Chico Hot Springs — or “Chico,” as most everyone calls it — sits among the mountains southeast of Bozeman on the road to Yellowstone National Park. Historical visitors include President Theodore Roosevelt and actors Peter Fonda, Jeff Bridges and Dennis Quaid, who still plays with his rock band from time to time at the Chico Saloon.

In the center of the resort compound, adjacent to the saloon, a pool-sized mineral spring bubbles — nature’s hot tub at 96 degrees Fahrenheit (a smaller attached pool advertises 105 degrees for diehards).

It’s said that once, a few years ago, when revelers moved their party to an after-hours shindig in the hot springs — breaking into the place and shouting to wake the dead — they did just that.

According to the story (featured on an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries”), a protective spirit dressed in white appeared above the pool, a sight so shocking that the trespassers exited hastily.

Speculation has led most to believe this is the ghost of Percie Knowles (1860-1941), the original proprietor of the Chico Warm Springs Hotel, which opened in the summer of 1900. It seems Knowles was so devoted to the resort that she sticks around to keep an eye on things.

Most other stories revolve around Room 349, where Knowles once resided. It’s said the rocking chair in that still-for-rent room always ends up facing the window, no matter how the furniture is arranged. A Bible in the attic, legend goes, is always open to the same page in Psalms and is said to stay eerily dust-free. For the last 50 years, many employees and guests have witnessed the specter, joining “the Percie Club,” although she remains a bashful phantom.

But the Chico of 1900 barely resembles what it is today. Even since 1990, the lodge has undergone bits of cosmetic surgery, including a new wing dedicated to former patron and actor Warren Oates (consummate cowboy and Sgt. Hulka from “Stripes”). Perhaps all the renovation has confused Chico’s apparitions, and they’re haunting a converted broom closet.

Hotel guests enter the partially sheltered, open-air pools from the saloon, then walk quickly across a loose-brick walkway to a pair of changing rooms.

If Chico is haunted by anything, it’s contradictions. For the past few years, Chico has been caught in the crossroads of renovation, making improvements to the lodge, building new cabins — but neglecting the core attraction: the hot springs themselves.

Once in the water, you’re in heaven. But before that, you have to brave unsanitary changing rooms (the men’s room has one urinal, one toilet and two showers) with mud-tracked floors. Ankle-turning octagonal bricks that surround the pool pinch toes like stone crabs. The proprietors might be better served to hand their ghosts hardhats, mops and buckets to earn their keep.

But just sitting there, soaking up the heated mineral water while your hair freezes, is a bracing, one-of-a-kind experience.

Even though the resort prides itself on a well-regarded restaurant, the Chico Dining Room, its poolside eats are strictly hit-or-miss. The pepperoni pizza from Percie’s Poolside Grille is adequately cheesy, about what you’d expect of mountainside fast food. Its hamburgers, however, seem to come in three varieties of doneness: shoe leather, hockey puck and inedible. Percie might be turning over in her grave if she already wasn’t so active.

No matter the deficiencies in the facilities, however, Chico’s friendly staff encourages a return visit. Not only are they helpful and polite, but playful. Upon request, when the woman at the front desk (dubbed the “Department of First Impressions”) handed keys to my brother’s traveling posse, which arrived after mine, she made sure to tell them it was the “most haunted” property on the premises. It was a white lie, of course, but it provided my sister, mom and me with more teasing ammunition.

Even if ghosts, or needling those who are afraid of them, aren’t your thing, Chico has plenty else to do, even though the rooms and cabins are absent televisions and modern entertainment vices. Horseback riding and dog sledding are popular, as is cross country skiing. We preferred to shop and see the sites, traveling another half-hour south to the original entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner.

But if you want to stay close to the resort, board games are available in the lobby, and the chessboard under the giant elk head seems to be in constant use. Chico also has a quaint, on-site shop, open 365 days a year, full of books, postcards, locally made jewelry and chocolates. I even ran across a revised edition of “Christmastime in Montana,” a book written by Dave Walter, the father of a Montana girl I almost married. In fact, I kept running into it in Livingston and Gardiner, so it was I, in the end, who was haunted.


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