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.


Igrid Bergman, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable skiing in Sun Valley

Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable skiing in Sun Valley

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Well, if it’s September, we must be going to Sun Valley. Yep, like lemmings to the sea, each September we migrate to Idaho in search of great hiking, spectacular golf, and cooler air. That last part becomes very important this time of year – our lows in Scottsdale last week averaged 84. The 10 day forecast for Sun Valley has the lows in the 30’s. I may just sit outside in the mornings with a cup of coffee until ice forms on either it or me.

Friends often wonder why we return to Idaho every year. People who haven’t been there usually ask something along the lines of, “Oh, do you have to go see family”? Like it is some obligatory trip that we take to an ugly part of the country to see people we don’t much like who require that we sleep on a hide-a-bed in their basement. But people who have been lucky enough to visit Sun Valley ask us if they can climb into our suitcase. Since its inception it has been the playground for many celebrities – Ernest Hemingway lived (and died) there and Gary Cooper and Clark Gable made regular visits to ski and hunt. Since we’ve been going there for 26 years we’ve also seen our share of modern-day movie stars, although they don’t seem quite as big as Cooper or Gable. Maybe some version of that line from “Sunset Boulevard” applies here – the scenery is the same, it’s the stars who have gotten smaller. My husband spent 30 minutes talking to Arnold Schwarzenegger once about tax policies in California, but even though he’s big, I’m not sure he counts as a “star”. We’ve seen Candice Bergen, Muriel Hemingway and I once ran across Jamie Lee Curtis in a store. I was tempted to tell her that the Activia really wasn’t working for me but then my better angels prevailed.

The Lodge at Sun Valley - made of concrete poured to look like wood

The Lodge at Sun Valley – made of concrete poured to look like wood

From the outset, the Sun Valley resort was marketed as a haven for the rich and famous. It was developed by Averell Harriman, who was chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 30’s. He was an avid skier and after the success of the Lake Placid Olympics in 1932 he correctly assumed that Americans would develop a keen interest in winter sports. Harriman had the idea of building the first destination ski resort in the U.S. in a place so remote that – what a coincidence – the only way to get there was via the Union Pacific Railroad.  In 1935 Harriman hired an Austrian count, Felix Schaffgotsch, to travel across the western United States to find the perfect setting for a ski area. When Schaffgotsch visited Ketchum, Idaho he decided that the combination of good snowfall, sunshine and the perfect ski mountain was where Harriman should build. Harriman started construction immediately and then hired a marketing genius to spread the word. Harriman was afraid that people would not be attracted to the cold climes of Idaho, so he named the resort “Sun Valley” to conjure up images of warmth and coziness. He installed the world’s first round swimming pools to garner more attention and they did.  Sun Valley took off as a locale synonymous with great skiing, fine dining and first-class entertainment.

But the really interesting history of Sun Valley lies in the story of the ski school. Count Schaffgotsch helped Harriman attract the top ski instructors in the world, including Friedl Pfeifer. Pfeifer was Austrian and not only the most famous downhiller in the world, he also managed to carve out time to teach between racing circuits. His pupils ranged from the famous (Claudette Colbert) to the infamous (Rudolph Hess). In 1937 he fled Austria weeks after Hitler’s invasion and was lured to Sun Valley, just in time for the opening of the ski school. As it turns out, Schaffgotsch was a huge admirer of Hitler and among the Austrian instructors he recruited to Sun Valley were several avowed Nazis. From 1937 to the outbreak of the war, they put Sun Valley’s ski school on the map and, despite the instructors’ political leanings, people flocked there by the thousands to learn from the very best.

Friedl Pfeifer as a dashing ski instructor

Friedl Pfeifer as a dashing ski instructor

But the shadow of World War II loomed large. Once the war broke out, Schaffgotsch and several other instructors returned to the “Fatherland” to enlist in Hitler’s army. Schaffgotsch joined the SS and while he was in Italy he received a letter from Harriman letting him know that his duties were complete at Sun Valley but that he was welcome as a guest at any time.  The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed FBI agents from Salt Lake City descended on Sun Valley to investigate reports of Nazi sympathizers among the ski school staff. Three of the most prominent instructors were arrested, including Pfeifer. Pfeifer and several other Austrian instructors enlisted in the U.S. Army and had distinguished war records as part of the 10th Mountain Division.

In 1942, Harriman offered up the Sun Valley Lodge to the Navy to serve as a hospital for both officers and enlisted men. He thought the quiet and solitude of this remote mountain village would sooth their war sufferings. Most of the men enjoyed the peacefulness of the Wood River Valley, but some found the isolation difficult. No matter, the resort remained in service to the Navy until war’s end and did not re-open until the spring of 1946. Most of the instructors came back to Sun Valley after the war and were instrumental in advancing the burgeoning ski industry. Pfeifer returned to the U.S. and settled in Colorado where he helped found the Aspen ski resort.   Ironically, Schaffgotsch was killed in Russia during Harriman’s stint as our ambassador to that country.

In 1995 we were lucky enough to be in Sun Valley when a memorial to the 10th Mountain Division was erected on the Sun Valley grounds. We watched as several elderly men, some in uniform, paid tribute to their fallen comrades. They were a spry and inspiring group, unbowed by the years with their physical prowess still much in evidence. As far as I’m concerned, they were the biggest stars we’ve ever seen in Sun Valley.

And speaking of stars, let me pass along a friendly reminder to ‘Like’ my brother’s video (every 24 hours) at the link below:

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.