The prologue of John Rember’s fine memoir of growing up in central Idaho, Traplines, opens with this:
In the early spring of 1961 a friend and I were making a snow fort on Warm Springs Avenue in Ketchum, Idaho, when Ernest Hemingway walked up and began staring at us.
After a few minutes he said, “What are you doing?”
We replied that we were making a snow fort.
A little while after that he said, “Hello, boys.”
We said hello.
“What are you doing?” he said again. We had already answered that question. He stared at us in silence for a while, and then hobbled on down the road.
This was Hemingway in the last dark months of his life, sick and confused, the result of electroshock therapy at the Mayo Clinic, and soon to perform America’s most spectacular literary suicide in his home nearby. Ironically enough, bright fall days lived amongst mountains and streams get me thinking about him. He lies next to his fourth wife Mary under a granite slab as unadorned as his best prose in the Ketchum cemetery 150 miles south of where I sit writing this. “Papa” periodically wrote, hunted, fished, and entertained friends here in the last twenty years of his life.
His first trip to Idaho was the sort of free ticket that Hemingway cultivated all his life, especially since he married his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, whose wealthy father financed the African safari that resulted in the pretentious Green Hills of Africa (1935). Papa never made it through America’s Great Depression on his book sales alone; he had help.
In 1939 as a public relations ploy Averell Harriman (of the Union Pacific Railroad fortune) invited the world famous author — along with Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, and other Hollywood celebrities — to take up free residence at his new Sun Valley Lodge. Here Hemingway (soon to be married to his third wife Martha Gelhorn) pursued his twin recreational passions of hunting and fishing. It was at the lodge that the famous photos of him working at a typewriter outdoors were taken while he labored on his novel of the Spanish Civil War For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Always the world traveler in peace and war, Hemingway was absent from Idaho from 1948 to 1958. His life there can be divided between the good times of 1939-’48 and the final dismal period of 1958-’61, finally staying permanently when Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution drove him from his beloved Finca Vigia estate outside of Havana. By then he was a morbidly depressed man with only a couple of years left to live.
Of all the places Hemingway lived he didn’t write about Idaho very much, only one marginal short story about antelope hunting titled “True Shot.” It was as if he sought to keep it a secret because it was the place to which he seasonally fled to escape being the public Ernest Hemingway. But there are references to the state in his letters, as he touted the sporting life to his family and friends. To his son Jack he once wrote: “You’ll love it here Schatz [nickname]…. there’s a stream here called Silver Creek where we shoot ducks from a canoe…. Saw more big trout rising than have ever seen…. Just like English chalk stream…. We’ll fish it together next year.”
Hemingway had a small circle of friends in Ketchum who were good about guarding his privacy. Lloyd Arnold was a photographer who did much work for the Sun Valley Company. His wife Tillie had first met the writer when, while working as a waitress at the lodge, she skeptically served Hemingway breakfast and two beers one morning. The writer — probably suffering a hangover, yet exhibiting his typical bravado — touted beer for breakfast as “good for the kidneys.” Bud Purdy was a local rancher and hunting companion. Taylor Williams — known as “The Colonel” — was the Sun Valley Company’s locally influential Chief Guide.
This sense of security extended to the home he and Mary bought in 1959 in Ketchum, and today owned by the Nature Conservancy and open for tours. It’s a square, cinderblock house with a rustic wood exterior. Structurally, it’s indestructible and mostly fireproof. The irony is that Hemingway in residence there in the last years of his life was falling apart physically and mentally himself. This deterioration has been well documented by Papa’s many biographers. Here’s Carlos Baker from later in that previously noted bleak spring of 1961 from the biography Ernest Hemingway: A Life. “The spring was advancing, the sagebrush was turning green, juncos and larks went flashing past the window, the snow was gone from the slopes of the mountains. But Ernest had eyes for none of this, locked as he was in the cage of his despair.”
Poor Papa. But Idaho continues to remember, celebrate, and in a few ways profit from a small part of the legacy of the American writer who truly personified the phrase “larger than life.” When the ducks fly along the Big Wood River on sunny fall days and the trout rise to the fly on Silver Creek, it’s almost as if he’s still here.