Where Hemingway Died
Ketchum, Idaho is almost directly in the center of the state. It is a resort town now. It is unclear to me whether this has anything to do with Hemingway or not. Whether the Ketchum/Sun Valley area would’ve become a famous resort destination on its own. I’m a little divided. On the one hand it’s macabre to openly celebrate the location of a man’s suicide. Hemingway’s grave is very plain and unadorned. But there is a big, 6 ft photo placard of him right across from the library. And he is mythologically recognized. The local bartender can talk about him, biographically. But from what I hear the ultimate boom of Sun Valley might be more to do with Bruce Willis, who built a very expensive mansion there (after Die Hard, sum-time in the early 90’s) and anyone who’s spent time living in that area of the state seems to have a story about him, his then wife, Demi Moore.
I’ll admit right away here; I don’t give a damn about Hemingway. I mean, he’s interesting to me only as a concept. I really like the ideas he allows other authors to bounce off him. His comical portrait in the beginning of Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, how Kundera uses him as an example of the desires for literary immortality in Immortality. But as a writer person, if I hear or read another wanna be literary connoisseur talk about baby shoes never worn, so help me I will storm Google headquarters, take a programmer hostage and demand removal of all mention of that puerile probably fake story.
I don’t care about his oeuvre, I don’t care about his renowned machismo, I don’t care about his history as an Idaho outdoorsman. At a library book sale I picked up a picture book of Hemingway in Idaho for 50 cents. I would not have paid more for it. Though it did turn out to be mildly interesting. Firstly, for just how much things have changed. Many of the pictures in the book were devoted to victorious hunting conquests. Where Hemingway in his group of fellow outdoorsman would kill 4–10 Elk at a time. No one worried about the proper tags or paperwork. You went out hunting and felt powerful. Looking at the pictures you can’t help but see a kind of recklessness. The generation that ruined it for the rest of us. But Idaho was all open country back then. Ketchum through the 40’s was a tiny little town. Pictured in the way Hemingway knew it, Ketchum was 8 buildings on a main street. These days, one could call Ketchum; Aspen light.
It is primarily recognized for being a recreational skiing destination, and a corporate retreat for billionaires. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates apparently holding large functions there. I guess I can see why, too. There’s still a quiet quaintness to the place. It has all the modern amenities to please the luxurious traveler, but that part of its appeal has yet to utterly take over. Though it wont be long. The city has a referendum on the docket to push all the gas stations outside city limits. The driver can run out and get gas while you’re shopping.
Actually it’s funny, Idahoan locals are very aware of the Sun Valley takeover. It’s a topic of head shakes and eye rolls. This kind of development not being for them.
When you look at Ketchum on a map, it has Sun Valley listed right next to it. Before driving there I had an impression that they were sister cities or something. In a way I suppose you could say that, but Sun Valley itself is not a town, it is a resort. The signs to Sun Valley lead into large resort parking lots, rows of identical condos on streets with names like Bunchberry, and, Arapaho Ct. Now I don’t know if it’s absolutely unique to see written on a map the name of a resort. Disneyland surely appears on maps of California and Florida, and while ultimately bigger than Sun Valley, I wouldn’t think anyone would be pretending that they function like actual cities (even though they do) they wouldn’t be listed as such. I guess it confuses me a little. People around Idaho use Ketchum and Sun Valley interchangeably. One wouldn’t call Orlando, Disneyworld. So I guess this is a way of saying how sincerely a resort town it is. It’s as much known as resort than town.
Hemingway would’ve hated this. I’m assuming. Maybe not if he was born with identical DNA but in a different time period and environment. One whichin our world, a type of veneer has learned to expertly cover over the harsher realities. No, of course he would’ve hated it. He was one of those freedom obsessives. Ketchum how it used to be, dealing with people on a one to one basis.
I cannot accurately give you an impression of how Ketchum is now, because I don’t have any money. I couldn’t afford a lift pass to go skiing and I think they would frown on me hiking up their hill and skiing on their runs, armed only with the excuse that that’s how Hemingway used to do it. Not that I want to either. All that hiking for a two minute ride back to the bottom. I imagine the only pleasure in doing that kind of thing in Hemingway’s day was for the comradarie and whiskey. Setting up base camp, carrying your rifle along to snipe a deer for dinner. I’m sure there’s already plenty of places in Ketchum to get a nice meal.
There is one thing I can sing in praise of Ketchum though; its local library. I am an aficionado of the local library. It’s very strange, the size of a city will not necessarily reflect the quality of its selection. I should admit, I’m a little bit of a snob. I want the ratio of Literature to Commercial fiction to tip in favor of Literature. This more often than not doesn’t happen. For example, the Brooklyn public library is surprisingly mediocre considering its size and number of literary writers who hail from that piece of land. Charleston SC has a huge fiction section which is abysmally curated; it’s tough to even find a Bradbury. The Anchorage public library is cool only because of a really specific local book mezzanine with plenty of works on the history of Alaska. The downtown Chicago library is good because of the size of its collection, though I get the feeling if they had to pare down, literature would be the first to go. Anyway what I’m saying is there’s no guarantees when it comes to libraries, so when you see a quaint little library with a carefully curated selection, like Ketchum, it warms my heart (even if this means that the general public will end up using it less, but, I say, the people who really appreciate it, do really appreciate it).
Also, the land is quite beautiful. The drive up the highway north of Ketchum to Stanley Idaho is about as beautiful as anything around. The hiking is great. If you’re interested in Alaska, but anxious about the expense of making the trip, give the Sawtooths a try, or the Salmon-Challis National Forest, its a very similar type recreational experience (all that’s unique left in Alaska, is its mystique of romance).
Ketchum still carries some of that mystique too I suppose, though in literal terms it is gone. Which is why I wonder, like I wondered at the beginning if Hemingway has anything to do with this town. How much do popular figures influence development, even if after the fact they are forgotten for how much they increased the romantic notion of a place? There’s no trace of what Hemingway would’ve liked about Ketchum now. But he has a placard, a tombstone, and a nice little library.