By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

The Sun Valley Inn

The Sun Valley Inn

Each year, beginning in 1988, we have travelled up to Sun Valley, Idaho to relax, refresh and, let’s be honest, get out of the Arizona heat.  Almost always we come in September, when the leaves are turning and – this is critical – the kids are back in school.  It is clear from our travel patterns that we are creatures of habit, for while other people dream of new places and revel in collecting travel brochures, we come to the same place every year.  Sort of like lemmings.  Sun Valley is made up primarily of the Sun Valley Resort, with its two lodges, ice rink, golf courses, shops and restaurants.  Walking through “the village” is like stepping back in time, assuming that the time was Bavaria in the 1930’s.  The resort was conceived by Averil Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific back in the mid-twentieth century.  He employed surveyors and architects from Germany to carry out his vision and their influence is apparent from the moment you step on to the grounds.  The resort has long been a favorite of the rich and famous…but more on that later.

Downtown Ketchum

Downtown Ketchum

Ketchum, Idaho is the town adjacent to Sun Valley.  In fact, if you blink your eyes you will not see the sign that indicates you’ve left one jurisdiction and entered the other.  Ketchum is a former rough and tumble place that allowed gambling long after it was outlawed in the U.S. and is famous for hosting Ernest Hemingway in his heyday.  He was known to throw back more than his fair share of cocktails in the local bars and even staged a phantom bull-fight after one particularly “wet” night.  Ketchum is still a small town in many ways – the only national chain store of any sort that has been allowed to open is Starbucks and that was only after much hue and cry among the locals.  The shops and restaurants in town are owned by hard-working people who make a living catering to the seasonal crowds.  And some years are a lot better than others.  Last year, the wildfires forced evacuations the first week of August, thus cutting in half the normal summer season.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the snowfall last winter was a bit sparse, so the ski season was also worse than normal.  We have gotten to know many of the local merchants over the years and you could not find a nicer group of people.  Which is why they really don’t deserve the summer “swells”.

As I mentioned, we are usually here in September when it’s quiet.  It is a wonderful time to re-charge and appreciate the surrounding area.  This year we decided to rent a house for July and August.  Mistake.  Big, big mistake.  First of all, there are kids everywhere.  Why is it that when your children are crying and running around they are still darling, but when it’s other people’s offspring they are just a pain in the neck?   And up here they all seem to be on bikes, darting in and out of traffic as if they were in cahoots with the auto industry to test tire treads and braking efficiencies.  But the worst are the “swells” who come to the area to spend time in their summer homes.  Many of them are from Santa Monica or San Francisco, although I suspect there are jerks from everywhere here.  I have personally witnessed three occasions where these socialites have treated local merchants and their employees as if they were personal servants…or worse.  And the locals have to just grin and bear it as their livelihoods depend on “service with a smile”.   I’ve been appalled by what I’ve seen and heard and then last week we got “the treatment” ourselves.

Sun Valley in the Fall

Sun Valley in the Fall

We were on a walk down the “street of dreams” in Sun Valley, a lane that is resplendent with some of the most spectacular houses here – or anywhere, for that matter.  At the end of the road is a National Forest Service trail so the street sees plenty of hikers and bikers going up and down the road.  We were across the street from one of our favorite houses when the owner came out to the front lawn.  We were about to tell him how much we admired his home when his VERY large dog came bounding over to us.  He was intent on pouncing on Dash the Wonder Dog, so I picked him up to get him out of harm’s way.  The dog kept pursuing us and that is when I learned that you just shouldn’t threaten the Wonder Dog with my husband around.  He told the owner that he needed to get control of us dog.  No action.  Again, my husband asked him to get his dog away from us.  Nothing.  Finally, the man looked both of us up and down and asked where we lived. Admittedly, we were not dressed to the nines, but our jeans didn’t have holes in them and I swear that neither of us has body tattoos or piercings through our noses.  So “none of your business”, was our reply.  He then told us that we just didn’t “belong” on his street and that we should leave.  A public road!!

So, would I recommend Sun Valley as a place to vacation?  You bet!  It’s got everything – hiking, golf, biking trails, rafting, shopping, and tons of good restaurants.  But I advise going in the fall. when the leaves are turning and the summer “swells” no longer own the streets.

Papa Hemingway’s Place


By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Each year my husband and I think about where to spend our vacation. We gather brochures, drool over pictures of exotic places and then end up going to Sun Valley, Idaho. Each September since 1988, like lemmings to the sea, we return to that idyllic spot. Mad cap adventurers we are not.

We used to beat ourselves up about this – we should see more of the world, yadda, yadda, yadda. But each year when we arrive in Sun Valley a great sense of peace comes over us and we know that we are in the right place.

Sun Valley is in some respects a typical resort town. You can buy lots of cheap t-shirts and baseball caps with bears on them. And the prices? Definitely aimed at tourists. It took Starbucks 10 years to get a permit to open here and it remains the only “chain” in town. If you can’t live without your Big Macs or Whoppers, this is not the place for you.

Celebrities flock here, in part because the locals are totally unimpressed with them. Visits by Tony Hawk and Lindsay Vonn cause more excitement than Bruce Willis or Bill Gates. The celebrities who come here are more relaxed and friendly than you might imagine. My husband once spent 20 minutes talking to Arnold Schwarzenegger about California’s tax problems in the local coffee shop. Obviously that was not a fruitful conversation.

Perhaps the celebrity most closely associated with Sun Valley is Ernest Hemingway. It was there that he relaxed, and wrote, beginning in 1939 until his suicide there in 1961. He holed up in a room at the Sun Valley Lodge to write arguably his best novel, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. As one walks the hallways of the Lodge, there are numerous pictures of him hunting, fishing and, not surprisingly, drinking. Some of the bars he frequented in town are still in business; they are what would be colloquially known as “shit-kicking” saloons. It’s not hard to imagine him sitting in one of these dark corners, whiskey in hand, observing human behavior. It’s rumored that one night, well into his cups, he staged a mock bullfight down the middle of the bar.

The picture shown at the top of today’s post is of a sign that sits at the busiest corner in town. It is comprised of 10,000 tiny pictures taken of Hemingway during his years in Paris. It overlooks the new town square and gives the impression that “Papa” is still participating in all the local festivities…and gossip. Further down the road is the cemetery where he is buried (pictured below). Aside from the occasional tour it is usually quiet, the only hint of traffic is the occasional flower or note placed on his grave from an admirer.


Our favorite Hemingway spot is the memorial that was erected in his honor, built just east of the Lodge in 1966. It consists of a tall granite base topped with a bronze bust of his head. It is perched amongst a grove of his beloved Cottonwood trees, overlooking the beautiful Trail Creek with the mountains in the distance. Here is a picture of his “view”:



It is inscribed with the words that Hemingway spoke at the funeral of a friend, but projects his own feelings as well:

Best of all he loved the fall,
the leaves yellow on cottonwoods
leaves floating on trout streams
and above the hills
the high blue windless skies
…Now he will be a part of them forever.

Whenever I read those words I feel justified in our trip there each September. After all, if it was good enough for Ernest Hemingway, it’s certainly good enough for us.