In Hemingway's footsteps: Ketchum and Sun Valley

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Flag of United States  , Idaho
Monday, August 8, 2011

As we drive north from Twin Falls, through the lava fields, farms and sage, I take in the majestic mountains up ahead as they emerge from the clouds.  It's easy to see why this area had a special place in 'Papa' Hemingway's heart, and why he had chosen this as his final would hard to find a better setting. 

I'd first heard of the adjoining twin towns of Sun Valley & Ketchum when reading about one of my favorite writers, Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway was a complicated individual but an extremely talented writer.  A man who lived life to the fullest in almost every way -- manly outdoor adventure, partying, drinking, and writing about these experiences in fiction which resonated with many (read his novella, 'The Old Man and the Sea', the catalyst for his Nobel Prize in Literature, as a fine example of his style).   When Hemingway first came to Ketchum in 1939 the town was small, a simple mining town with few tourist accommodations.  He stayed at the newly built Sun Valley Lodge and liked it so much he came back to this resort year after year for several decades.  While in Sun Valley during his first visit, he worked on and completed For Whom the Bell Tolls.   When this book was finished, he hunted in what he called "the loveliest mountains that I know" and fished for trout in iconic Idaho streams and rivers.

For twenty years Hemingway visited Ketchum frequently, enjoying the mountains and its opportunities for outdoor adventure, especially the hunting and fishing.  In 1959 he bought a small home in Ketchum and spent the last two years of his life here.  During these years Hemingway was profoundly depressed and unable to write; sadly it was in Ketchum that Hemingway took his life and he now lies buried in Ketchum's small cemetery, under a small cluster of pines. The cemetery is easy to find off the main highway; you'll recognize Papa's grave at a distance by the many mementos left by his fans, such as empty wine bottles, shot glasses, shotgun shells, small liquor bottles...and a t-shirt bearing Papa's image. Papa's grave faces Bald Mountain and the setting sun and is a great final resting place.  I know he would have loved it.

So what will you find in Ketchum/Sun Valley if you visit 50 years after Hemingway walked its streets?  The town certainly has changed.  It's still a relatively small town but it has grown substantially and has developed into one of Idaho's premier tourist resorts.  Like Aspen and Tahoe, Sun Valley is home to countless celebrities and other 'elites' who maintain homes here, either temporarily or on a permanent basis.  For example, I know that Adam West (TV's Batman) and Van Williams (TV's Green Hornet) live here year round, and Tom Hanks and Dennis Miller and many others have vacation homes here.  With the influx of money, many fine shops and restaurants have sprung up. 

Mostly people come to Sun Valley for its recreational opportunities.  In the winter it's all about the skiing, the main peak being famous Bald Mountain, a very reputable ski area.  Activities in the summer are much more diverse including golf, white water rafting, biking, hiking and fishing.  Hunting is popular in the fall.

After a few hours spent strolling the streets of Sun Valley and enjoying a fine lunch, we were ready to head out into the wilderness, just like Papa Hemingway loved to do, so we drive to the mountains north of town.  The road takes you along the Big Wood River valley where you'll enjoy views of the Pioneer Mountains to the east.  We continued over Galena Summit (nearly 9000' above sea level) and descended into the beautiful Salmon River Valley where the headwaters of the legendary Salmon River rise (downstream it becomes one the best white-water rafting rivers in the world).  In the days of the wild west there was a lot of gold mining in the region but these mines have been abandoned and now it's a fairly pristine natural environment.  It certainly is beautiful.  We ended our drive north with a stop at lovely Alturas Lake, in the foothills of the Sawtooths.  I definitely need to return to these mountains soon and explore them more -- they're remarkable!

We returned to Sun Valley at dusk and headed to the Hemingway Memorial, just off Sun Valley road past the golf course.  There's a touching tribute to Ketchum's most famous citizen, which is framed in a beautiful setting.  While the mountains and valley first capture your attention, soon you enter a small sitting area built like an amphitheater.  Behind a diverted creek sits a bust of Hemingway in profile, atop a pillar of rocks and concrete bearing this inscription from his writing:

" Best of all he loved the fall 
  the leaves yellow on cottonwoods
  leaves floating on trout streams
  and above the hills, the high blue windless skies…
  Now he will be a part of them forever"

Thank you, Papa, for one last gift -- leading me to this beautiful place. 

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