SI Vault
E.M. Swift
November 05, 1984
In his later years, Ernest Hemingway preferred Idaho to just about anywhere else, and the author, guided by Ernest's son Jack, discovered why during an evocative hunting and fishing trip
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November 05, 1984

In The Country He Loved

In his later years, Ernest Hemingway preferred Idaho to just about anywhere else, and the author, guided by Ernest's son Jack, discovered why during an evocative hunting and fishing trip

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That evening Dorice Taylor, who for years had been the publicity director of Sun Valley, arranged for us to visit Ernest Hemingway's house, still owned by his fourth wife, Mary. It's a large concrete structure on the outskirts of Ketchum, situated on a storybook 17-acre parcel bordering the Big Wood River. The concrete had been stained, miraculously, to resemble rough-cut pine—in exactly the same manner as the Sun Valley Lodge had been. Hemingway bought the house for $50,000 in 1959. In the fall his local friends used to come over to shoot clay pigeons from the back terrace—Hemingway was a superior shot—and watch the Friday night fights on television. In the winter elk would come down by the river to graze.

The house is now in the care of a local wine steward known as Johnny One-Note. It hasn't changed much. The view has been altered by a few condominiums that have popped up beyond the river. There are a few family photos on the oak-paneled walls—not many—a bullfighting poster, some hunting trophies. Thumbing through one of the books on the living-room shelf, we discovered a postcard from Jack's mother. Hadley. to Mary Hemingway. It was dated July 21, 1967 and read in its entirety: "I remember this day." That would have been Ernest's 68th birthday.

Upstairs there are two bedrooms with magnificent views of the Pioneer Mountains; downstairs a modern kitchen, an informal living room and the back hallway in which Hemingway shot himself. The shotgun he used was later cut up with a blowtorch and buried in an undisclosed location to keep it out of the hands of souvenir hunters.

"He was really a gentle, kindly man with all of us." Mrs. Taylor said. "He gave the first draft of For Whom the Bell Tolls to his favorite hunting guide out here, Colonel Taylor Williams. He told him it might be worth something someday. That's who he's buried beside—Taylor Williams.

"The day after they found Ernest's body Mary held a press conference. But she wouldn't admit that he'd shot himself. It took her a year to admit that publicly. The living room was jammed with correspondents from all the major news services, and Mary explained how it had been an accident, and that Ernest had just picked up his favorite gun the same way she might pick up her favorite camera, and it went off. I remember how horrified Jack looked during all of that, because he didn't want it to be said that his father was ever careless with guns. Afterward Mary ran upstairs. I followed her, even though I didn't know her very well at the time, and when I came in she asked me: 'Did I get away with it?' And I said, 'Mary, you did just fine.' "

Our last morning we drove to the Taylor "Beartracks" Williams State Public Use Area to fish the Little Wood River for brown trout. It's a 480-acre parcel of desert outside Shoshone, some 50 miles south of Sun Valley, that Jack had donated to the state in 1978 with the stipulation that only fly-fishing be allowed. The river was black from the lava stone in its bed and high from the recent rains. A strong wind was blowing upstream. "Streamers are really the best way to fish these deep pools," Jack told me. "But I don't think it's as much fun as floating hoppers. You can start fishing hoppers about July, and they'll work right up into October, especially on a windy day like this."

Fishing the largest hopper in my box, one that was 1½ inches long, I immediately got action from 10- to 12-inch browns, catching three and jumping at least that many before they wiggled free. The rushing of the water and the wind ripping through the desert flora—sage, bitterbrush and some kind of blooming yellow thistle—was an energizing change from the stillness of Silver Creek. At one point a huge sandhill crane came beating downriver, barely moving against the wind, its long neck tucked in as it passed within 50 feet of me. I was waiting for the gulp of a jumbo brown like the six-pounder I had seen on Jack's wall and was just about to try my newly acquired mouse fly when Jack came to tell me it was time for lunch. "Hard to leave, isn't it?" he said. "But we've got to keep moving. I've got special dispensation from the home front to stay out late tonight and shoot some Huns."

A half hour later we were bouncing along a rutted farm road heading toward Fred's favorite spot along the Richfield Canal. We weren't going after Huns yet; this was a place for jump-shooting ducks, something we'd been looking forward to all week. Ahead, a car was parked. We recognized it. It belonged to Cyndi Wright, Fred's girl friend, who at breakfast that morning had fed us steaming hot apple pie before we headed out the door. At Fred's behest, she'd scouted the canal earlier in the week but had returned with five ducks—three green-winged teal and two mallard. Now, not knowing our plans for the day, she'd come there again. We crept carefully along the canal, hoping that we would catch up with her, but at the second bend we found a telltale mess of feathers surrounded by smallish footprints. We decided to go back. Frowning, Jack grumbled, "When I was in the Army and you sent out a scout, he was under strict orders not to fire on the enemy. You can't trust anybody these days."

Jack continued to grumble about scouts and huntresses and armed women in general until we arrived at the ranch where we'd be looking for Huns. Fred got out to ask the rancher's permission to hunt, and while we were waiting, two greyhounds trotted over. The rancher, we later learned, kept them to chase down coyotes. The terrain was different now, the hills more rounded, the soil less rocky. Rather than sagebrush, it was covered by cheatgrass, the delicate-looking pale grass that was brought to this country in the 1870s by European immigrants who used it for thatch. It had thrived in the barren land of central and southern Idaho, and Hungarian partridge (also transplanted into this region, in the '50s) fed on and lived in it.

We parked a short ways up the road. Our dogs ran eagerly into the field as we were taking out our guns, and not a hundred feet from the 4WD, Rickey suddenly froze on point. There was no mistaking it—the setter's nose was into the wind, its tail arced, left foreleg cocked, its body perfectly still. We climbed hurriedly through the barbed wire and moved towards him, fanning out across the field. When we were 25 yards away a covey of Huns flushed into the wind, which slowed their escape. I shot twice, hitting two. Fred knocked down another and was just squeezing off a shot at my second bird when it crumpled. Jack had been blocked of a shot.

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