There’s Bears in Them There Hills
A gay getaway thrives in an unlikely place
Published: May 16, 2012
There’s not much in Lost River, W.V., which is why city folks go there—to get away from all the hubbub. After a three-hour drive from Baltimore into Hardy County, you’ll find the Lost River State Park (with hiking and horseback riding), Teets farm, the Lost River Bed and Breakfast, N&S Family Restaurant, another nameless restaurant that seems to be in the front room of someone’s trailer, and this year a sheriff’s race so contentious that the roadside signs feature one candidate with a cougar on one arm and a yellow jacket on the other while a psychedelic rainbow bursts from his head.
That’s all you’ll find if you don’t happen to turn up on Settler’s Valley Way and discover the Guesthouse Lost River. Up there, another world opens up, a world you wouldn’t expect to find in rural West Virginia, one where bears aren’t ursine critters roaming the woods but big hairy guys bellied up to the Guesthouse bar. It’s the kind of place that allows dogs, but not kids, and has both ashtrays and rocking chairs on its many decks.
Set at the foot of a rolling Appalachian hill and surrounded by gardens, the six separate buildings—many connected by raised porch-like walkways— create a maze of elegant man-cave dens: log-cabin walls, an endless profusion of leather couches on which to loll about and read, stone hearths, and pool tables (there’s also a pool and a hot tub). If the upscale rustic Southern magazine Garden and Gun opened a gay bar, this would be it.
Bob Dillard and his partner David Mickow are responsible for the aesthetic of the place, and its success. Dillard points at one of the dozens of stones that make up the mantle in the Guesthouse’s original building— the log cabin Dillard initially built as a home. “See those eyes in it,” he says of two holes in the gray stone. “That’s why I remember it. I liked those when I picked it up. I picked up all these stones.”
“It looks like this because it’s an extension of who we are,” Mickow adds. It’s easy to see what he’s talking about. The two mustachioed men, both in their 60s, have the same outdoorsy sophistication as the 18-room compound they built around the log cabin.
“It was literally a guesthouse,” Dillard says. “It was all our house. The customers were our guests.”
Dillard says he was the only openly gay person in the area when he first moved here in 1978 to manage properties his brother had bought in the area. In 1982, he started the Guesthouse Lost River, consisting at the time of only six rooms.
Dillard had run a hotel in Amsterdam before, where he noticed that about 20 percent of the customers at an inn would be gay. “Gay people have disposable incomes and travel a lot,” Dillard says. “At the time, we still got beat up, and it could be dangerous for us. We needed a safe haven, so I started advertising exclusively in gay publications. We went gay in 1984.”
But the Guesthouse did not isolate itself from the surrounding community. To the contrary, Dillard and Mickow have done everything possible to integrate themselves into the fabric of the unincorporated community of Lost River. Dillard and Guesthouse Realty donate money to the volunteer fire department, volunteer at a 5K walk, support a bike ride, and participate in other activities to raise funds for the local community. Last year the local Chamber of Commerce named Dillard Entrepreneur of the Year.
All of this organizing has paid off: As more weekend visitors fell in love with the area and decided to buy vacation homes, not only the Guesthouse but the entire county became a haven for the more affluent members of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.’s gay communities. By Dillard’s count, there are over 200 gay homeowners (mostly weekenders) in the area and several other gay-owned businesses. Though there are no official records to document the sexual orientation of homeowners, Dillard is in a position to know. Through the Guesthouse and Guesthouse Realty, he built up the gay community in the area in the same way that he built a sprawling complex around this log cabin.
Eventually, Dillard, Mickow, and a third partner, Tammy Stanley, decided it was time to get out of the innkeeper business. “Most people only last seven years,” Mickow says. “After 30, it was time for a change.” They were looking for someone younger and more technologically savvy to take over the business.
They found Michael Cooley and Gary Robinson, friends who had been visiting the Guesthouse for years. Both owned property in Hardy County and they had begun to consider opening an inn somewhere.
“I wanted to change my life,” says Robinson, who, with his bald head, thick beard, and big glasses, is the spitting image of gay Catholic conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan. “Michael is the entrepreneur. He really wanted to own his own business.”
When the two attended a weekend seminar on innkeeping at the Guesthouse, the solution became obvious. Cooley and Robinson took over the ownership of the Guesthouse at midnight last New Year’s Eve, but Dillard and Mickow, who live in an enormous compound down the road, are still quite involved. “We basically left it like they had it,” Cooley says. “A few small changes, but it is great the way it is.”
Among these changes is that Cooley has taken to social media to promote the Guesthouse. “When we [advertised on] Living Social, we got about 80 percent straight people,” Cooley says.
“The way we put it is that we’re ‘straight-friendly,’” Dillard says.
“It doesn’t make sense to be closed off now,” he adds. “So many straight people have gay friends and gay people have straight friends, and families with gay and straight people want to come and vacation together.”
Though they may be straight-friendly, the Guesthouse and the surrounding weekend homes continue to foster a primarily gay community. “When we first found this place, it was like we could get away without being isolated,” Cooley says. Though he describes his time at Lost River as “a movie with a changing cast of characters,” Cooley is still drawn primarily by the community. “That’s what I missed in my former life.”
> Email Baynard Woods