Ketchum Idaho – Hemingway’s Last Stand
Ernest Hemingway is one of those writers who people have little ambivalence about – you either really like him or you hate him. Whether these dispositions are based on his actual writings or on his unabashedly mysogynistic lifestyle doesn’t seem to make a difference. I can overlook his adulterous womanizing, lying and ridiculous braggadocio because at the end of the day he was a great writer, leaving behind one of the best bodies of work of any 20th century author. Just like I don’t have to like Picasso to like his paintings, I don’t have to like Hemingway as a person to appreciate his writing. But that’s a lie – despite his many faults, I still like Hemingway the man. That’s the reason I have travelled to many parts of the world to experience the same things he did. Whether it be his home town of Oak Park, Illinois, Toronto where he started his craft, Paris where he lived larger than life, Kenya where he survived not one, but two deadly plane crashes, Pamplona where he fell in love with bullfighting or Key West where he was a living legend, I have enjoyed this quest to understand this complicated man. And now I am arrived in Ketchum, Idaho where he ended it all on July 2, 1961 by his own hand. To paraphrase Marc Anthony, I am here not to praise Hemingway, but to see where he is buried. Please join me on this somewhat solemn mission.
The first question you might ask is, “What the hell were you doing in Idaho?” It is after all a long way from Nova Scotia and not that easy to get to. The answer lies with Canadian RVing magazine for which I have been writing two or three articles a year for the past decade. I keep my RV in Nelson, B.C. where my youngest son Dale lives and as a mechanic, maintains it. When deciding where to go this year we got out the maps and realized that Idaho is only a few hours away from Nelson. It’s a huge state with a number of world famous attractions including Hell’s Canyon, the Craters of the Moon and Shoshone Falls. But for me the number one attraction was the twin towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley, both for the Hemingway connection and just to explore this famous ski resort which still attracts people from around the world.
The drive to Ketchum from Boise is relatively uneventful until you get to the foothills of the Sawtooth Mountains after which the highway rises gradually and the scenery improves dramatically. I had been expecting something along the lines of an Aspen or Banff with towering snow-capped mountains creating a true alpine setting, but the mountains around Ketchum/Sun Valley are much smaller. This is Bald Mountain, the largest of several ski hills in the area. It doesn’t look like much, but it does have a 3,400 foot vertical which is quite respectable.
What makes the area so attractive in all four seasons is the great variety of outdoor activities from fishing in the Wood River, which Hemingway loved to do, to hiking or mountain biking the many slopes that surround the towns. One thing that was a really great and pleasant surprise were the night skies. The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve starts just north of Ketchum and contains over 900,000 acres that is essentially free of all light pollution. We parked the RV in the U.S. Forestry Service Boundary Campground just a few minutes up Trail Creek Road from Sun Valley Resort. At night the skies were simply amazing. First the planets came out, then some slow moving satellites and finally the stars by the seeming millions. I had forgotten that the word ‘starlight’ has a real meaning. Every few minutes or so a meteor would streak through the sky for a few seconds before flaming out.
But I’m digressing – on to Hemingway.
Pioneer Saloon, Ketchum
Our first stop in Ketchum was the Pioneer Saloon where a wooden miner stands on guard – Ketchum originated in the 1800’s as a silver and lead mining town.
This place is as western as it gets with stuffed animal heads, Indian artifacts, cowboy sculptures and paintings, you name it. It also has one item I came here specifically to see, a double-barrelled Winchester shotgun once belonging to Hemingway. It’s not the one he killed himself with, but was well used by him for bird hunting at the Purdy family ranch at nearby Silver Creek. Hemingway’s son Jack became Idaho’s Fish and Game Commissioner and was instrumental in helping the Nature Conservancy acquire the land his father loved to hunt and fish. You can do the same thing today at Silver Creek Preserve, but your shots will be with a camera and not a gun.
As a bonus, the food at Pioneer Saloon is pretty good as well and Hemingway was a frequent patron.
The Hemingway Memorial, Sun Valley
My next Hemingway stop was his memorial which sits on a ridge above the Wood River halfway between Sun Valley Resort and Boundary Campground. He first came to the Ketchum area in 1939 as an invited guest of the Sun Valley Resort which used the attraction of celebrities to lure the rich and not-so-famous to its doors. The memorial is on a spot he would often hike to and contains this epitaph to a friend who died in a hunting accident.
“Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods
Leaves floating on the trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless skies
Now he will be a part of them forever”
It could equally have been written about himself.
As a tribute to the writer I placed a pen, as have others, on the memorial and have to confess that I became a bit teary while doing so. This man’s short stories and novels played a major role in my transition from reading the Hardy Boys to adult fiction and I felt both gratitude and a sense of loss at the same time.
Sun Valley Lodge
Next stop was the Sun Valley Resort just down the road. As noted above Hemingway first came to stay at the Sun Valley Lodge in 1939 and virtually moved in with his third wife Martha Gelhorn. He occupied Room 206 which is now officially the Hemingway Suite. This is where he completed arguably his best and most satisfying novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The Sun Valley Lodge was the first destination ski lodge in the United States and it is well worth the time just to poke around its storied halls and look at the photographs, sculptures and paintings that adorn the interior. Of course there are numerous pictures of Hemingway, but just about every other celebrity from the 1940’s onward as well. This is the bar where he no doubt downed more than a few cocktails and I had a martini in his honour.
The Bar at Sun Valley Lodge
By now I could no longer put off visiting the primary Hemingway site in Ketchum, his grave. As graveyards go Ketchum Cemetery is pretty ordinary looking, with few ostentatious monuments. But it is nicely treed and has a pretty location at the base of a grassy hill.
Hemingway’s grave is also very ordinary, merely a slab in the ground with his name and dates. Unless you knew he was a Nobel laureate writer, the person buried here could have been a house painter, electrician or ski bum.
I was tempted to take a swig of the Crown Royal that a previous visitor had left, but thought better of it.
I wasn’t overcome with emotion as I almost was at the Memorial, but rather, just sad. This man who had disrupted so many lives while he lived, but still had and has a legion of friends and followers, lies alone, unsurrounded by friends and family. Somehow, I think he always knew that would be the case.
Jimmy Buffett has a song I often listen to at this time of year, Merry Christmas, Alabama in which he describes his life as ‘a wild and crazy run’ that began in Mississippi. I think Ernest Hemingway’s life was a wild and crazy run that ended in Ketchum, Idaho with a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head, as ever, a selfish-bastard, but a bastard I loved.
While this is where Hemingway’s run ended, my quest to visit all the places he lived and wrote continues in February when I will travel to Cuba. Stay tuned.