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 part of them forever.
—ERNEST HEMINGWAY, 1939
The shot didn't reverberate. Rather, it spread over the brown, treeless plains like a splash of watercolor, thinning and finally disappearing, like the bird that was now beating its wings safely into the cold October sky.
I'd missed it.
I watched its irregular flight until there was nothing more to see, and we rejoined the vast late-afternoon silence. It's not such a bad feeling when your quarry escapes and your shoulder still tingles from the warm thud of the gun butt, and it might have made a lovely ending to the day—except that something was wrong. I'd been the only one who fired. And there was something else, something different about the bird and yet strangely familiar, so that I turned and asked hopefully, "Dove?"
"Meadowlark," Jack Hemingway said with a short, staccato laugh.
My first gunshot in the state of Idaho had been leveled—thankfully without positive result—upon a songbird. It wasn't an auspicious start.
I'd known that I'd be in for a long day ever since breakfast, when I watched Jack pull a chair up to a pair of nine-inch circular waffles, wearing the determined look of a man seated before a stack—make that two stacks—of unopened mail. The waitress had delivered the waffles on separate platters, each with its own ball of butter and sprig of parsley, so that Jack's side of the table was a panorama of 127 square inches of crisp golden dimples, plus the two on his face when he grinned. He picked up knife and fork and cheerfully went to work at an even pace, much as he would hunt during the day, and when he'd finished every morsel, he patted his unnervingly trim stomach and said, "Unfortunately, I inherited my father's appetite, but I'm going to need those carbohydrates today."
We were going into the Idaho hills for blue grouse and spruce grouse, which Jack collectively calls forest grouse—shy, wide-ranging birds found in aspen and evergreen forests. If we were lucky we might also run into chukars, or Hungarian partridge, widely known as Huns, and perhaps a stray dove. There was no foremention of meadowlarks. Jack is the oldest of Ernest's three sons, the one called Bumby in his youth, a ruddy-faced, distinguished-looking man who, that week last fall, would turn 60. He has pursued a number of vocations—soldier, stockbroker, flytier, columnist—but his abiding passion has been the outdoors. He served as Idaho's Fish and Game Commissioner from 1970 to 1976. His term began three years after he moved with his wife, Puck, and three daughters (Muffet, Margaux and Mariel) from Mill Valley, Calif. to Ketchum.
Jack had agreed to show us some of the territory I had begun to think of as Hemingway Country. "A helluva lot of state, this Idaho, that I didn't know about," Ernest Hemingway had said during his first visit to the state, to Sun Valley, in the fall of 1939. I wondered how much it had changed.
There's an interesting story behind that trip to Sun Valley. Ernest might never have come to the area had it not been for a man named Gene Van Guilder, who back then was the publicist for Sun Valley. At the time, Sun Valley was a little-known 3-year-old destination resort that had been built and was owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. Knowing that Hemingway was an avid hunter and fisherman, and eager to give Sun Valley the image of a year-round resort that attracted the rich and famous, Van Guilder invited Ernest out for the fall season. Hemingway accepted, toting along his manuscript-in-progress, For Whom the Bell Tolls. (Sun Valley is mentioned in Chapter 13 of that novel, the same chapter in which the famous "Did thee feel the earth move?" conversation takes place between Robert Jordan and Maria.) In the mornings, Hemingway worked on his novel; in the afternoons he hunted for duck, pheasant, dove, sage grouse and geese. He fell in love with the place, gushing after one successful pheasant hunt, "Idaho bird shooting is the best in the world."