Story by Adrienne So
Photograph courtesy of Visit Sun Valley (visitsunvalley.com)
For anyone who lives in western Oregon’s fertile and welcoming, if slightly soggy, coastal valleys, the topographical transition from western greenery to eastern aridity comes as a slow, but still unsettling, surprise. For hours, the car’s wheels spin through long vistas of open sky, tumbleweeds, and 18-wheelers. After we cross the border, we begin to look for mountains, but the horizon remains flat for a surprisingly long time. Finally, we take a left on Highway 75, about a half hour away from our destination and suddenly, there they are—huge, imposing, leaning in on both sides of the car like nosy great-aunts at a wedding reception. How could they have stayed hidden for so long?
We are undoubtedly some of the humbler pilgrims to journey to Idaho’s celebrated Sun Valley, which has a long and illustrious history as a celebrity getaway. Long before the Kennedys and the Buffets came here seeking a pastoral retreat, railroad tycoon W. Averell Harriman conceived of the area as an American resort to rival the luxurious Swiss ski towns of St. Moritz and Davos.
Harriman was one of the most powerful and influential men of his day. He served as a diplomat through several presidential administrations, socialized with the Rockefellers, and he wasn’t the type of person to cut corners. In 1935, he hired the Austrian count Felix Schaffgotsch to scout a location for his envisioned “American Shangri-La.” Count Schaffgotsch had predictably high standards—he rejected the likes of Yosemite, Jackson Hole, and Zion before settling on Sun Valley. It’s no coincidence that the area appeals to aristocratic tastes.
But unlike many other similarly storied locales, the towns of Hailey, Ketchum, and Sun Valley—all within an hour’s drive of each other—don’t give off an air of rarefied, unapproachable wealth. The narrow highways that connect one another could be cutting through any other small, working-class town. It’s only when we get to the ski resort that we realize that we’ve entered an alternate universe. Uniformed valets greet us at every turn, and in the lodge, breathtaking views are visible through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The bathroom fixtures are plated with gold.
Cutting through deep, fluffy piles of champagne powder, it’s easy to imagine yourself as a hugely grinning Claudette Colbert or Errol Flynn—both of whom frolicked on these same slopes. Afterward, A-listers might have downed a beverage or two at the resort’s huge, awe-inspiring bar, which currently features an impressive array of local beers, like a chocolate brown ale from Payette Brewing in Boise.
Instead, we opt to drive into Ketchum to Sawtooth Brewery. Owned and operated by Kevin Jones and Paul Holle, the sense of hometown pride is palpable the minute you walk through the door. “Why does everyone in here keep smiling at us?” my husband asks suspiciously, as yet another local stops by our chairs to ask how we’re enjoying our cream ales.
When Jones and Holle opened in 2011, Ketchum had no brewery of its own. In a town known for its amazing hiking, biking, and skiing, this was a serious hole in the market, and in its first year, Sawtooth increased production by 1,500 percent. This isn’t entirely due to just being the only game in town, either. The cream ale is fantastic, and their summer seasonals include a genius session IPA that is light on the alcohol and heavy on the citrus aroma hops.
But Sawtooth’s summer brews aren’t the only reason why Sun Valley’s high season might be during its long, warm summers instead of its deep-powder winters. Hemingway certainly loved Idaho more when there wasn’t eight feet of snow on the ground. Harriman lured Papa here for a promotional trip shortly after the resort opened, and Hemingway became enamored of the wild country—fishing and hunting until electroshock therapy took away his ability to write and his will to live, and he shot himself in a nearby cabin overlooking the Wood River.
Hemingway wrote one of his best novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls, while staying in his Idaho cabin. The book is set in Spain’s high, interior desert but most locals claim that the descriptions of the landscape are inspired by central Idaho. Like Hemingway, I’ve been to both Estremadura and Boise and honestly, cold, hard rocky ground and caves look the same pretty much everywhere. But there’s no doubting Hemingway’s attachment to the area. He and his granddaughter, Margaux, are buried here in Ketchum Cemetery.
Hemingway’s ghost permeates the place, and even more so during the annual Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, which this year counts National Book Award winner Katherine Boo and former Poet Laureate Billy Collins among its attendees. More than a few of these visitors will probably take advantage of Sun Valley’s second-most popular outdoor pursuit, fly-fishing, which was one of Hemingway’s last, great loves. Just read Hemingway on Fishing or, oh, The Old Man and the Sea if you need a little convincing.
In the course of its lifetime, a salmon born in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains will travel 1,000 miles to the Pacific Ocean, grow to lengths of up to four feet, and then use some mysterious combination of smell and memory to swim all the way back. It’s one of nature’s most fantastic displays of strength, stubbornness, and raw courage, and there are few better places to tackle one of the world’s best aquatic athletes than in Sun Valley’s streams and rivers.
If you’re not already an expert fisherman, many Ketchum outdoors shops, like Sturtevants Mountain Outfitters and Silver Creek Outfitters, offer classes in the basics like knot tying and casting, but probably the best way of ensuring success is to hire a guide. If you’d like to strike out on your own, Big Wood and Silver Creek are the two most famous local spots, but be warned—advanced angling skills might be necessary.
Although Hemingway traveled widely in his day, he probably would have avoided the glitzier places in town, filled with international travelers and subpar beer. Sun Valley Brewery, a brewpub in downtown Hailey, is neither of those. Founded as a brewery in 1986, and then converted to a brewpub in 1993, it was co-owned by Mark Fisher and Derek Gallegos until Gallegos passed the reins on to his daughters. Brewmaster Sean Flynn, who is part of the long-time family enterprise by way of marriage, produces a popular honey weizen whose sweetness cuts the taste of failure for anyone who was unable to hook a big one that day.
Mountain biking is another popular pursuit here and, to my way of thinking, preferable for the lack of cold water in your underpants. Like most ski areas, Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain converts its ski trails to killer downhilling during the summer. There are also two bike parks for stunters, multiuse paved paths for families with small children, and long, scenic highways for those who are addicted to their skin-tight jersey.
But the summer’s premier biking event showcases Sun Valley’s real attraction. This year’s Ride Sun Valley, a week-long celebration of all things mountain bike, will take place from June 29 to July 7 and traverse some of the area’s 400 miles of continuous singletrack. And unlike a lot of singletrack, the trails in Sun Valley are so free of rocks and roots that the words most commonly used to describe the experience of riding them are: “like butter.”
Such a large trail network means that there’s riding for every skill level. The downside is that finding those particular trails can be difficult if you are short on time. For this reason, many local mountain outfitters offer guide services. But for those who find exploring to be a large part of mountain biking’s appeal, there are plenty of paper maps, and even an iPhone app (called, intuitively enough, “Sun Valley Trails”) to help you find your way back in time for lunch.
Even if you packed a sandwich, every mountain biker—except for the under-21s, of course—needs an après-trail venue to rest weary legs, tell tall tales of feats of daring, and sip a refreshing cold beverage. Just a short drive from the popular Croy Creek trails, the Power House in downtown Hailey fits the bill perfectly. Besides offering one of the best beer lists in town, with a glamorous, international array ranging from Japanese rice beers to Czech pilsners to good, old-fashioned English brown ales, the Power House also adjoins a bike repair and fit studio. Die-hards can get their front forks replaced and bunged-up rims fixed without relinquishing one precious second of drinking time.
As it stands, our drinking and adventuring time is up. We start the long journey back to Portland, Oregon and I take one last picture of the dawn’s rosy glow resting on the tops of the mountains. When I look up after examining the image on my camera, the mountains are gone again—vanished like the mysterious and fabled Shangri-La that Averell Harriman so often claimed Sun Valley was. Unlike Shangri-La, however, Sun Valley is not hidden in the lost secret corners of Tibet, but just a day’s drive away. It’s OK, I console myself as we again enter the vast desert between us and home. We’ll find our way back here sometime soon.