It’s quiet here at Hemingway’s Grave. Sun Valley is filled with late afternoon light and there is a chill in the air. A new red truck drives into the cemetery, parks, and three large men climb out. They come over and ask where Hemingway’s grave is. I point to the long stone slab I’m standing next to. It is inscribed: Ernest Miller Hemingway, July 21, 1899- July 2, 1961. Mary lies next to him. Both graves are covered in pine needles from the trees above. One of the men takes a picture. The others look disinterested. Then they all return to their car and drive away.
Alone again, I sit next to Ernest’s grave and find his Complete Short Stories and a small flask of whisky in my bag. For some time, I sit reading stories, then take out a photocopied picture of Hemingway’s funeral. It shows a small ceremony. In the background are old cars along the road. Behind the cars are the same smooth mountains I see today. Suddenly, it seems strange that the man who wrote these stories is buried next to me, here in Ketchum, Idaho. It is a beautiful place to die. It is especially beautiful now, on this afternoon, with the shadows growing long down the western slopes, and the “leaves yellow on the cottonwoods; leaves floating on the trout streams. And above the hills, the high blue windless sky.” Those are Hemingway’s words on the plaque at his memorial a few miles out of town.
Like this grave, the memorial is a simple affair: a pile of flat stones with a column rising from its middle. A small, diverted stream runs in front. Hemingway’s bust sits on the column in profile.
It was July 2, 1961, at his house near here, when Ernest Hemingway destroyed that profile with a shotgun blast. It had been two years since he moved to Ketchum, where he’d come to try to write the rest that he had never written. But he was badly depressed and his health was failing. Head injuries and years of abuse were catching up with him. He started losing his grip on reality, and he went to the Mayo Clinic for electroshock therapy. Hemingway came back to Ketchum, but couldn’t write anymore. Maybe he had no more stories left in him, or maybe he just didn’t know how to get them out. Either way, he knew it was the end.
At the Ketchum Cemetery, it’s getting colder and the shadows on the hills across the valley are growing longer. I read a few more stories, pour a little whisky on Ernest’s grave, and say good-bye. Driving through Ketchum, I imagine it’s much different from Hemingway’s day. There is a Starbucks, a Visitors’ Center, and a large airstrip. There are many new housing developments. There are B&Bs. There is a film festival and a famous writers’ conference. There are specialty stores and gift shops and parts of the town that have the pre-fabricated old-fashioned look of every mountain resort town. But when Hemingway first came here, it was just another small mining town with a railroad and one resort. He arrived from Cuba in 1939 with his new love, Martha Gelhorn, and held up in room 206 at the Sun Valley Lodge to work on For Whom the Bell Tolls. In the mornings, he wrote and in the afternoons, he played. Three months later, he left for Key West. The next fall, the couple came back to Ketchum and the book was finished. They checked into room 206 again, and Ernest shut himself away to make the final changes. When he finished, he was free to hunt and fish in what he called “the loveliest mountains that I know.”
At the Hemingway Memorial, just past the Sun Valley Resort, it is even quieter. In the background, mountains rise up. There is a curved stone bench, like a tiny amphitheater facing the memorial. I sit for a while and watch the stream swirl around a corner, then look up at Hemingway’s image on the column–old, bearded and balding. My mind runs around this strange, complicated person who seemed in so many ways to embody the American Dream. He was a self-made man, a self-made writer, and a self-made celebrity. He was our prodigal son, and we watched him grow up all over the world, but knew that his heart was always here, at home.
As the afternoon light fades, I move to a nearby campground and cook dinner. When night comes, the moon is bright and the Milky Way is a wide, pale stripe across the sky. In the north, the big dipper is sinking behind a hill. Next to the campground is Trail Creek, a stream filled with rocks that the water rushes over. In the dark, I go down to the stream, sit next to it and let the bubbling stir my thoughts. Moonlight glints off the water. When it gets too cold, I go back to camp to sleep for the night. But on my way, I hear a rustle and shine my light where the sound came from. A fox runs past me and its eyes shine in the light. He disappears into the bushes. I stand there. A few seconds later he comes back. The fox stops tentatively, then walks toward me, eyes glowing. He stops again and spins around in three nervous circles. His fur looks gray and black. He is followed by a huge tail. The fox looks at me again and we both stand still for a minute, engaged in some kind of mutual regard. Then he turns into the bushes and disappears.
It was his favorite shotgun, and his third try. Things had gone badly for Ernest in his marriage, in his writing and in his mind. He had three big books unfinished, perhaps unfinishable: Islands in the Stream, The Garden of Eden, and True at First Light. Of these, biographer Michael Reynolds said, “They were to be his legacy, his most complex undertaking. It was like working a crossword puzzle in three dimensions. All he needed was time, which, unfortunately, was no longer on his side.”
His account of the Bullfights in Spain, The Dangerous Summer, was more or less finished, as was his memoir of Paris, A Moveable Feast. But they were not published because Hemingway remained unhappy with them. In his last two years at Ketchum, he worked intermittently on them, sometimes making progress, sometimes not. But things weren’t right in Ernest’s head. Two decades after he first came to Ketchum, he looked like he had aged four decades. At 61, he was a shadow of the man who arrived at Sun Valley with Martha in 1939 to write For Whom the Bell Tolls and with Mary in 1947 to work on Islands in the Stream. He threatened to kill himself, but Mary talked him out of it. A few days later, he tried again, but was stopped by a friend. The next day he flew to the Mayo clinic for his second course of electroshock. Two months later, he was released from the clinic and drove back to Ketchum with Mary. They arrived on June 30th. Two days later, Ernest Hemingway walked downstairs, put his favorite gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The shot must have rung out through the valley.
At Trail Creek Campground, I wake to the sound of water rushing over rocks. It’s cold and my hands are stiff. But the sky is clear and I watch as the sun drips down the hills like honey. I eat some breakfast, make a cup of coffee, and pack up to leave. On the way out, I stop again at the Hemingway Memorial. On the ground I notice small, wet, paw prints. They had come out of the stream by the memorial, wind through the open area by the bench and go up the path from where I just came. I sit for a while and watch the water swirl in the stream. It is so clear you can see to the bottom. In the distance is the rush of Trail Creek, and just above is the profile of Ernest Hemingway framed against, “the high blue windless sky.” His head is turned away from where I sit, towards the mountains. The inscription–a eulogy Hemingway wrote for another friend talks about how he loved the trees and hills and sky. It ends: “Now he will be part of them forever.” It is a beautiful place to die.
For more information on Hemingway’s life in Ketchum, see these:
Hemingway: The Final Years. Michael