Death in Ketchum

On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway walked into the foyer of his home here in Ketchum, Idaho, put his favorite gun to his head, and pulled the trigger. It was a shotgun.

If I asked you what’s the first thing that came to mind when I said, “Idaho”, we all know what the first answer would be. And if we were honest, the next “thing” would probably be…nothing. Sure you could muster up some college or geological formation, but for the large majority, Idaho isn’t an afterthought it’s a neverthought. I dare you to point it out on a map. So what the hell was Ernest Hemingway doing here??

Of the famous “Lost Generation”, I’ve always preferred Fitzgerald or Steinbeck over Hemingway. Only in style, because when you get to the grit, there was no other writer or artist of his generation that did more to further the craft. His life, and exploits, became living legend. What was true or false took years to sift through. He’d been rumored dead half a dozen times, only to send a cable or reappear with more writing material. He served in WWI with the Red Cross, covered the invasion of Normandy from off the coast, was there at the liberation of Paris, reported the Spanish Civil War, went on safaris before people “safaried”, made homes in Toronto, Chicago, Paris, Cuba, Key West…and Idaho.

As it turns out, I’m the ignorant fool. Idaho is beautiful, particularly the eastern part of the state I drove through, and this area that became known as Sun Valley where you’ll find the town of Ketchum. Unbeknowst to me, the Hollywoood set has been coming here since the late 1930’s when it became the world’s first ski resort, which included the world’s first chairlifts. Names like Hemingway, Schwarzeneggar, Eastwood, Winfrey, Hanks, Timberlake, Buffet and Zuckerberg have all vacationed here. If you’re like me, you’ll need more than that to draw you in, and Sun Valley provides. Outside of the charming town of Ketchum, and it’s cool little dives, you’ll find the impressive Sawtooth National Recreation Area with its jagged peaks, and pine trees that resemble perfectly spaced pipe cleaners in shades of dark green. Wildlife is so abundant that locals have become accustomed to seeing moose or bear in their front yards on evening walks home. It rather quickly became clear, why, someone with Hemingway’s sense of adventure and imagination would call this home. I stayed twice as long as I had planned.

Rounding the large wrought iron gate entrance into Ketchum Cemetery I looked up and froze. She froze. Our eyes locked. She was so still I thought she was fake, and took a step. The doe followed my lead and without fear, casually pranced off. After stories from folks in town, I took it as a common occurrence and began to look for Ernest’s grave. It’s a weird thing, looking for someone’s grave. Stepping over others, passing through headstones with little reverence or pause, as if death were but a mild current to wade through. After some unsuccessful loops, I broke down and googled where the site was, “beneath a grove of trees, next to members of his family.” Grove of trees, got it. And so I made my way to the back of the cemetery. Up into one grove, and then another, I finally locked into the last possibility, when out of the corner of my eye I see a body. Resting on the ground was a massive 9 point buck. At this moment, I’m maybe 30 feet from it. He doesn’t budge, or make eye contact. Instead, he regally stares off to the West, and the direction of Hemingway’s gravestone. I’d later wonder if it was Ernest reincarnated. The doe, one of his wives….Mary, Pauline maybe. It was special, for me, as I’ve never seen such a wild animal so undisturbed in nature. This is part of the majesty of Idaho.

The gravestone is large, but very modest. Laid flat, it’s become a memorial for Hemingway fans to set coins, bottles of whiskey, american flags, and other mementos from his life and writing. I would lay a rose, not for his influence, or that I had a great knowledge of the man, but out of respect for what he brought to the craft, and what he contributed to the country. Whether you read his work, or cared for him, you must respect his contributions.

Hemingway once said, “Don’t bother with churches, government buildings, or city squares. If you want to know a culture, spend a night in it’s bars.” So in that, I continued to do my best Hemingway impression. The barstool at Lefty’s for four nights would open me up to the town’s history, and provide me with the material to write this piece. I also made a few friends, and shared more than a few stories. I can’t say that I’ll be back….shit, I had no idea the place existed until the night before I drove here….but I hope to. I was meant to see this place.

Originally published at www.onemancaravan.com.