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Cross-country skiing in Montana. Lone Mountain Ranch: a variety of offerings on and off the trails

I knew cross-country skiing had come a long way, but I didn't know how far until that evening in the southwest Montana mountains when a high-hatted chef approached my table with his flamb'e equipment bared. Flamb'eed pepper steak after a day on skinny skis? That's only part of the fare at Lone Mountain Ranch, a picture-book resort a half-hour drive from Yellowstone National Park and a far cry from the Spartan operations that characterized the sport 10 to 15 years ago. In those days you were fortunate to find a warming hut with a few pairs of splintered skis for rent. You could sign up for a lesson, but the conventional wisdom was that cross-country skiing was as easy as walking.

Take it from one who tumbled through a week's tour from Bozeman, Mont., to Jackson Hole, Wyo.: Skiing is more than walking. But at hideaways like Lone Mountain you can learn the finer points with a minimum of hardship amid almost all the creature comforts the Vails, Aspens, and Sun Valleys supply their downhill skiers.

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Although cross-country skiing has never quite boomed in the United States, it has grown enough in popularity for a handful of resorts to specialize in a sport that is a way of life in Norway. Some operations have tried and failed, realizing perhaps that cross-country skiers resist the herding instinct of their downhill brethren. Lone Mountain Ranch obviously has the right ingredients, and I knew it the moment the bus from the Bozeman airport dropped me off.

Snow lay in leavened crusts on the dozen or so log cabins, and brightly clad skiers dashed along tunnel-like trails leading to sunlit meadows. Best of all, at that late lunching hour, a puff of smoke lifted from the log dining room, and crocks of homemade soups, breads, salads, and desserts lay in wait for us late arrivals. Food, if you haven't already gathered, is an important part of the Lone Mountain package.

Skiing, though, is what draws people from as far away as Taos, N.M., and Indianapolis. Most come for a week, arriving on Sunday and going through an inspection on the practice loop on Monday morning. Lessons, complete with video taping, cost extra, but meals, lodging, and unlimited skiing are part of the $532 weekly package (write Lone Mountain Ranch, PO Box 145, Big Sky, Mont. 59716).

Lone Mountain, named for the peak that towers above the Big Sky downhill resort up the road, maintains about 65 lovingly tended kilometers of trails that climb and fall through the Madison and Gallatin Ranges.

So sophisticated is the cross-country scene of the '80s that operations like Lone Mountain divide the network of trails into beginning, intermediate, and expert -- color-coded like alpine areas. I stayed away from the black-diamond expert terrain but found enough fresh skiing on the easier trails to keep me sated for days. Those who hanker for more variety can join day trips or overnight excursions to Yellowstone Park.

Back in the 1970s cross-country ski wear was whatever it took to keep warm. I knew things had changed when on the Frontier Airlines flight from Denver to Bozeman I read in Powder magazine that jeans were out. Most of my mates at Lone Mountain wore knickers and long socks, but I got by on the unmentionable jeans, adding a pair of handmade gaiters to keep the snow and moisture out of my boots.

Of course the joy of cross-country skiing should not be lost in discussions of its new trappings. There is nothing in sport quite like the free-and-easy striding and poling through a pine forest. The pauses are just as delicious, to take in a rush of warm sun or to regard a fat, nut-cracking squirrel sitting on a snowy bough.

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In its quiet way, Lone Mountain can occupy the skier after-hours in the manner of a downhill resort. When you finish dinner beneath the huge moose head, there is always some event in the little lounge 100 yards away. One night we heard Fred Donaldson, the house naturalist, discourse on the life and times of the Indians and fur trappers of the early 19th century. Clad in buckskin, he looked for all the world like my earliest heroes -- Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, and others who roamed these very parts from about 1825 to 1840. Mr. Donaldson, who leads nature hikes in the summer when Lone Mountain is a dude ranch, also donned a ``possible bag,'' so named because its users carried every possible supply in its large leather insides.

Other cross-country havens in the Lone Mountain class are Busterback Ranch, which grooms 35 kilometers of trails near Ketchum and Sun Valley (write Star Route E, Ketchum, Idaho 83340); The Home Ranch, 18 miles from Steamboat Springs, a small, well-run operation (PO Box 822, Clark, Colo. 80428) and Togwotee Mountain Lodge which puts up both cross-country skiers and snowmobilers (PO Box 91, Moran, Wyo. 83013). I can't promise flamb'eed pepper steaks at each spot, but all the other new cross-country trimmings are included.

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