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?"
November 5, 1984
"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."
Van Guilder was also a devoted sportsman, but his love of hunting would bring him to a tragic end. Six weeks after Hemingway's arrival. Van Guilder was accidentally shot and killed while jump-shooting ducks from a canoe. He'd been in the bow, the only place from which one may safely shoot in a canoe, and there was another Sun Valley employee in the rear. When a flock of ducks ahead of the canoe took flight, both men aimed their shotguns, the canoe lurched and Van Guilder was fatally shot through the back.
Nin Van Guilder, the young widow (who would later marry the man who accidentally killed her husband), asked Hemingway to say a few words at Gene's funeral. He obliged, and what he wrote of Van Guilder—a portion of which appears at the beginning of this article—eventually came to express his own feelings for Idaho. Hemingway is buried in Ketchum, two graves away from Van Guilder's, and the inscription on the Hemingway Memorial, situated on a lovely spot overlooking Trail Creek, is taken from the eulogy he read that day. Here's how it ends:
"Best of all he loved the fall. He told me that the other night riding home in the car from pheasant hunting, the fall with the tawny and grey, the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies. He loved to shoot, he loved to ride, and he loved to fish.
"Now those are all finished. But the hills remain. Now Gene has gotten through with that thing we all have to do. His dying in his youth was a great injustice. There are not words to describe how unjust is the death of a young man. But he has finished something that we all must do.
"And now he has come home to the hills. He has come back now to rest well in the country that he loved through all the seasons. He will be here in the winter and in the spring and in the summer, and in the fall. In all the seasons there will ever be. He has come back to the hills that he loved and now he will be a part of them forever."
Hemingway, too, came back. In the falls of 1940, '41, '46, '47, '48, then again from 1958 until he ended his life on July 2, 1961. And now, of course, for every fall that will ever be.
We had no shortage of guns that first morning. Chuck Webb, assistant manager of Sun Valley, was along, as were Lou Black, a fishing pal of Jack's from Michigan, and Dave Baldridge, a former Sun Valley ski patrolman who now works for the Professional Cowboys Association. On the way, we also stopped to pick up our guide, Fred Arbona Jr., who lives in Hailey, the birthplace of Ezra Pound. Our hunting party was rounded out by two dogs: Fred's 15-month-old black-and-white ticked Llwellin (English) setter, Rickey (full name, Cedric of Silver Creek) and Jack's 3-year-old liver-and-white Brittany spaniel, Basil of Fox Creek.
If you use a little imagination and are willing to work," Jack told us, "you can still get all the hunting and fishing in the world out here. Right behind my house you can go 100 miles in one direction and only cross one improved road."
The key phrase in all that was "willing to work." The last thing Jack had told me by phone as I made my arrangements to visit Sun Valley was to be sure to be in shape before coming out, because we'd be doing some walking. (He'd said nothing about loading up on carbohydrates.) I'd bought new hunting boots for the occasion and, while pretending to inspect the dry, desolate ranchland through which we were driving, I listened in alarm to the squabble going on between the tongue of my left Wolverine and my entrapped instep. Forty-five minutes southwest of Hailey, we turned onto a gravel road that wound up a creek bed, and halfway up the valley we pulled over. Jack split us into two groups. He, Chuck, Lou and I crossed the creek bed there and worked up it. The others drove a mile farther and worked down. We hunted a steep, sagebrush-studded slope that was broken up by a series of aspen-filled draws, each flowing down the hillside like a river of gold. It was the first week in October, and the aspen leaves were at their peak, brilliant against hillsides so barren that Ernest Hemingway had compared them to brown velvet. Forest grouse often roost in those aspens, feeding on the juniper bushes and choke-cherry trees that grow among them and on the red ants that make their mounds among the sage.
We picked our way up the slope. The ground was coarse, crumbly lava, and the sagebrush made the hillside an obstacle course. It took half an hour to reach the first stand of aspen, in which a herd of cattle grazed. The air was cool and dry and thin.
The first draw produced no birds. Basil worked in close to Jack, the bell on the dog's collar ringing his whereabouts. We passed a tree laden with ripe chokecherries, and I tried one. "You'll probably find those kind of mealy-tasting," Jack said. The fruit was bitter and dry. "Grouse love 'em."
On we walked, down one hillside, through another stand of aspen, up the next. We worked through some wonderfully tangled cover, but saw no birds other than soaring hawks and a magpie. The scale of things was so immense that it was difficult to tell how far we'd hunted—the blister forming on my left instep gave me a rough idea—but by the end of the morning we could look back and see that the cattle in the first draw were now reduced to specks of brown on brown. Jack, who 17 years earlier had suffered a massive heart attack, set a steady and rapid pace. I asked him how his doctor viewed this sort of activity. "He said that if it hadn't killed me yet, I'd better keep doing it," he said. He called Basil off a pine squirrel which was chattering from a branch. "The birds have gone. It's been raining the past three days, and that must have moved them up to the high country."
We were supposed to meet the other group at the next draw, but Jack saw no point in prolonging the futility and headed down. Near the bottom of the slope we came across an abandoned homestead, the buildings fallen down, an old rusted stove lying on its side. An apple tree was growing there, laden with reddish-yellow fruit, ripe and unblemished. There must not have been an apple-maggot fly within 100 miles. The apples were cool, juicy and tart and, after the long, dry hike, as welcome as any grouse would have been. They were also easier to bag. After eating our limit, we walked back to the four-wheel-drive vehicles. The others hadn't seen any birds either. "Wasn't that amazing?" Fred said with a grin. 'They just disappeared. Let's get out of this valley."
In the afternoon we drove 40 miles to a ranch near Richfield, but it was more of the same, a lot of walking and no birds. The dogs did flush a dozen pheasant, but pheasant season wouldn't open for another three weeks. The dogs were bitter, eyeing us with disgust each time a cock flew away. As we walked back through the fields in the fading light, Jack told me about the book he was writing, The Misadventures of a Fly Fisherman, an autobiography of sorts. After that he wanted to do a game cookbook, and then maybe he'd get around to writing the novel he'd been saving. "I've got the plot and everything," he said, "but I can't sit down to write it because of my old man."
That needed no clarification. It was the straightforward statement of a man who had long since given up competing with the shadow of his father, and who is too fond of the old man's memory and proud of his achievements to be bitter about it. It was then, in the dusky quiet, that my meadowlark took flight, and I sent it soaring out of sight amidst a mood-shattering 20-gauge salute. Afterward Dave, shotgun broken, put a reassuring arm around my shoulder. "The girls always look better just before closing time," he said.
The Sun Valley Inn has a pond in front of it in which live mallards and, sometimes, geese. The ducks awakened me the next morning before dawn, and I lay there listening to their gabble. It made me think of a story I'd read about one of Ernest Hemingway's hunting experiences. In the fall of 1941, he and a group of Sun Valley celebrities—Gary Cooper, director Howard Hawks, Anna and John Boettiger (F.D.R.'s daughter and son-in-law)—were jump-shooting ducks with two of the resort's best Labradors. During a rest, John Boettiger laid his shotgun down without breaking it. When he picked it up, it discharged, mangling the hind foot of one of the Labs. Distraught, Boettiger suggested that any idiot who would do such a thing should be shot himself. An angry Hemingway agreed with him. The day, of course, was ruined.
A few mornings later Hemingway, who was staying in the nearby Sun Valley Lodge, was shaving when he heard geese honking in an adjacent pond. He went to see what was stirring them up, and saw two wild geese among the tame ones that lived there all year. Hemingway ran to the closet for his shotgun, threw open the French doors leading to his balcony and. from inside his room, fired a shot that felled one of the wild geese, which had taken flight when he opened the doors. Hemingway's third wife, Martha Gellhorn, rushed in to find him standing at the window in his pajamas, face still lathered. "Good God, Ernest," she said, "you didn't shoot John Boettiger, did you?"
On the second day, our hunting party was reduced to four. Jack, Lou, Fred and me, which made for a more workable number. We were going after sage grouse, a large, tweedy, brownish bird that I had always heard was inedible and too dim-witted to be hunted for sport. "I couldn't put a fork in its gravy," my uncle had once told me after eating one. Still, Arbona and Hemingway were determined to elevate the sage grouse to its rightful status. "I promise you, this bird is delicious," Fred assured us. "Bui you have to remove its craw as soon as you shoot it. That's the secret. The hunters who know this secret don't share it. That way no one else will hunt for sage grouse. Very simple."
We drove northwest out of Hailey that second morning toward the mountains known as the Lost River Range. "See that hillside over there?" Jack asked, pointing to a steep, rocky knoll on the far side of the pasture. "My old man used to organize and lead a charge of his cronies across there, trying to catch up with the Huns and chukars before they could run up the hill. None of the dogs were disciplined, and there'd be retrievers and people all over the place. He ran it like an army. It was really fun back then. He made everything fun." Jack paused. "Have you ever read the Carlos Baker biography of my father?" I nodded. "I'll tell you why I don't like it. Baker's got his facts right, but none of Papa's spirit was there. I got to the end of it and wondered, who was that sonuvabitch I just read about? Papa was a fantastic amount of fun to be with unless you were a phony, and then he made your life miserable."
The land kept changing before our eyes. We passed the Craters of the Moon National Park, a huge expanse of lava that Ernest Hemingway had called "Mr. Dante's Country." NASA used it to test its lunar vehicles. Eventually, we got into irrigated farm country and split up. Jack and I parked on an overgrown road on the edge of a potato field. We spent the morning hunting the perimeter with Basil, kicking up the huge grasshoppers that clacked in the parched grass and stepping over spuds that had been left in the furrows after the harvesting machine had gone through. Jack shot the only bird we saw, a dove that was a holdover from the huge September migration. It looked like a meadowlark to me. Basil also spooked several jackrabbits. Basil is a sucker for jackrabbits, and he would dash after them, only to be called back by a shock from his electronic signaling collar. The device, which Jack operates by remote control, emits three different "signals." The first is a warning in the form of a low buzz. The second, used only if the dog continues to disobey, is an electric shock that can be powerful enough to cause Basil to yelp. The third is a high-pitched whine designed to reassure when he's back on track, hunting up birds.
"It's the only thing that works if they chase rabbits," Jack explained. "One fellow suggested I tie a dead jackrabbit to Basil's collar and hunt him for a morning like that. The guy said the dog would get so sick of the smell and the weight of the rabbit around his neck that he'd never think of chasing one again. So I tried it. After a while Basil's head was dragging and all of the fur had rubbed off that rabbit so it looked like a naked baby hanging there. I couldn't stand the sight of it. So I took off the carcass and the first live rabbit that comes along, off Basil goes."
Some of the more famous, or infamous, hunts that Ernest Hemingway organized were for jackrabbits. One fall, in the town of Dietrich, Idaho, the Frieze farm was being overrun by jackrabbits until Hemingway, calling himself the General, directed a troop of beaters and gunners in driving the pests to an intersection of two irrigation canals. Jack was one of the gunners. "The rabbits could either double back through you, or swim the canal, which they didn't much care for." he said. "With 10 guns, we shot about 1,750 jackrabbits in one day. After something like that the farmer was happy as a bedbug to have you back to shoot some pheasants. It was incredible to see so many rabbits in one place, like the whole earth was moving in front of you." Jack grinned. "I'm not trying to be funny about the earth moving, either."
When we rejoined Lou and Fred for lunch, two huge sage grouse lay craw-less beside their 4WD. "They look like airplanes trying to get off the ground." Lou said. We ate off the tailgate on civilized fare of freshly baked French bread, cold cuts and Foster's Lager, and Jack shared with us the secret that one of his father's favorite sandwiches was peanut butter and onion. A golden eagle soared nearby, scouring the hillside for chukar.
We'd driven about 10 miles after lunch when Fred, in the lead 4WD, pulled over to the side of the dirt farm road and stopped. Just ahead, in the long grass, we could see the profile of a sage grouse watching us nervously. It was the scout for an entire flock, and fortunately for us, George Armstrong Custer had taught this bird its trade. We crept out of the vehicles, retrieved our guns from the back and headed toward the flock, three abreast. Lou stayed behind to hold the dogs. The grouse were moving now, aware that something was up, but the scout hadn't given its warning cry. We were no more than 10 yards away when the first four flushed, each flying in a different direction. We knocked down three, and as I hurriedly reloaded, I could hear the remaining birds continue to flush in ones and twos, seconds apart, giving us ample time for another salvo. The sage grouse, clearly, isn't an intelligent bird. The dogs by this time had bolted from Lou, so that the prairie was boiling with activity—birds flying, birds falling, hunters filling the air with pellets, dogs retrieving. We shot five of the 12-bird flock. "Got to leave a few for seed," Jack said, deciding to stop one short of our limit rather than pursue the others. We were all aware of the irony: After trudging through difficult country for a day and a half without result, we'd finally found this peanut-brained quarry by spotting it from the 4WD.
Late that afternoon, as the others walked on, I took a seat on a bale of alfalfa hay to enjoy what Jack had casually referred to as Paradise Valley. There was a sheep wagon parked on the valley floor. As one's glance went upwards, the colors and terrain changed three times before one's line of sight reached the sky. The lowest slopes of the valley were sage-covered and broken by lava outcroppings 10 to 12 feet high. In the late afternoon shadows these outcroppings took on the shapes of spires, or buffalos or wagons. Above that the hills turned reddish-brown, and veins of aspen trickled down. One slope was flecked with white dots—a herd of sheep grazing in the sunlight. Finally, high above us, were the jagged white tips of the Lost River Range.
It's never a good idea to separate yourself from your party while hunting, and I would soon find out why. Up ahead, the others flushed two Huns. Hearing shots, I looked up to see one of them flying low along the hillside with Rickey, far behind, in pursuit. The bird went down, but before the setter could retrieve it, Fred had whistled him back, thinking that the bird wasn't hit.
I marked the spot and jogged up the hillside to retrieve the dead partridge. I had never seen one before and examined it before slipping it into my pocket. It was larger than a quail, with brownish-gray coloring, a rounded head and short tail feathers—altogether lacking in distinguishing characteristics. I started down the hillside toward the others, who were some 200 yards away, still hunting. They flushed another bird, and, to my annoyance, it chose the exact flight path of the Hun I'd just retrieved. The lava around me was suddenly dancing with buckshot. One pellet smacked against my thigh. I dived behind a shrub, squeezing off two shots at the Hun as it flew past, missing badly. This little bird was a different proposition from the jumbo-jet sage grouse. Turning my attention to my wound, I expected to find my pants leg awash in blood, but a thorough search—I went so far as to remove my pants—revealed only a tiny red welt. At 200 yards, a 20-gauge cartridge filled with number 7½ shot doesn't carry much mustard. Still, I determined it would be prudent to hurry back to the others, and after massaging my badge of stupidity, I ran down the hillside as conspicuously as possible, shouting and waving my arms.
Silver Creek is one of the West's most famous spring streams, a clear, cold confluence of a myriad of creeks that bubble to the surface some 35 miles south of Sun Valley. The stream bed is smooth, the trout smart and the natural food abundant. "The vegetation of Silver Creek is a miracle of nature," Fred was saying as we arrived the next day at the six-mile fly-fishing-only, catch-and-release section managed by The Nature Conservancy. "Silver Creek supports 1,500 fish per square mile of water, whereas a freestone river like the Beaver Kill back East supports about 100 fish per square mile. Within a half mile of where we are standing, there are probably 500 fish weighing over five pounds."
Jack is modest about his record as Idaho's Fish and Game Commissioner, but one change that took place during his tenure pleased him greatly—a change of attitude. "Fish and Game had always thought in terms of yield," he said. "Everything was measured in creel censuses: how many trout got into the frying pan. During my term—and this was a slow, evolutionary process—people started to think in terms of quality fishing. Catching and releasing. So you reused a trout as many times as the poor little bugger could stand it. If you want fish for the frying pan the place to go is one of our reservoirs, which grow fish very, very fast."
Jack's first love has been fishing since his boarding school days, when his passion for wetting a line earned him the nickname Hemingtrout. When he parachuted into Occupied France during World War II, he did so with a fly rod in his pack. His father's Big Two-Hearted River stories are generally considered the finest on trout fishing ever written, but when it came to fly-fishing, Jack was always Ernest's better. "My father was a fine wet-fly fisherman," Jack said, "but he gave it up entirely when the Railway Express lost all his equipment one year as he was shipping it out here. Hundreds of old gut leaders with the flies pre-fastened to them, all his rods and reels. He could never have replaced some of that stuff. I think he figured it was a good time to stop anyway, because he was never going to catch as many fish as I did. It became my whole life, you see, and he was competitive that way."
Jack waded into Silver Creek at the near end of the backwater and tied on a size-16 callibeatis nymph imitation. The callibeatis is a swimming nymph, and the idea, as Fred explained to me as we circled to the other side of the pond, was to cast well ahead of the cruising rainbow, allow the nymph to sink, then, as the trout approached, to pop the nymph out of the sand and retrieve it as quickly and smoothly as possible. Through scuba observation Fred had discovered that when a foreign object came near a callibeatis nymph—a hand, a face mask, the mouth of a trout—the callibeatis began swimming like crazy. So it was quite important not to slow down the retrieve.
Fred waded in to demonstrate. On his second cast a large dark shadow veered off its course. This was trout fishing, bonefish style. "He's interested," Fred said, stripping in the line by a reverse hand-twist technique. "Come on, mister, come on. Yes." Twenty feet from Fred the trout took the fly and was hooked by a barely perceptible raise of the rod tip. The line climbed in the water until suddenly the surface was broken by a splash and a brilliantly colored tail. Fred played the fish gently—his leader was 1½-pound test—and brought him to his side in 10 minutes. The barbless hook came out easily as Fred moved the 4½-pound fish up and back in the water, allowing it to recover from the fight. "Now the best part," he said, releasing it. The trout swam away.
It had all seemed so easy. This was going to be like taking candy from a baby. Sure enough, on my first cast a cruising rainbow followed my fly. It checked out my retrieve and then swerved away. This happened two or three more times before word went out that a hacker was flailing at the west end of the backwater, and no more cruisers came within casting range. "Your retrieve's too jerky," Fred noted from his new spot, downstream. "One trout eats up to 300 callibeatis nymphs a day, so he knows exactly what he's looking for. Do you know the hand-twist retrieve?" He made a cast. "Hold it, I've got a customer. Yes, mister, yes. Oooh, yes." Again, a barely perceptible raise of the rod tip, and the fish was hooked. This one we never saw. The line began screeching off the reel. "Can you believe this?" Fred kept saying as the fish made its exit. Seventy-five yards away the creek turned, and when the trout reached that point, the leader broke. Fred grinned and reeled in the slack. "That mother was a U-boat."
I spent the next hour or so tying granny knots around my thumb while trying to master the reverse hand-twist retrieve. Once, with Fred coaching over my shoulder, a two-foot rainbow followed my nymph for 30 feet, until it was less than six feet from my rod tip. Unable to bear the tension, I struck. The line flew over my shoulder, and the fish bolted.
"What happened?" Fred asked me, bewildered.
"I couldn't stand it. How do you know when they've taken it?"
"You don't strike like that" he said, amazed. "Just lift the rod tip. And watch for the wink. When the trout opens his mouth to take the fly, there's a flash of white, like a wink."
I thought he was pulling my leg. Fred had told me a number of strange things already, and I'd stopped taking him at his word since early that morning when he described fishing for lunker brown trout in Alaska with flies tied to resemble swimming mice. When I expressed my skepticism about this at lunch time, Jack came to Fred's rescue by producing a mouse fly from his tackle box, complete with rawhide ears and tail and beady little eyes. He insisted that I take it as a keepsake.
Think wink, then, was the motto for the afternoon. Jack jumped a couple of rainbows and landed a 17-inch brook trout, but by late in the day I'd still not fielded a strike. Fred and I decided to move, and waded into the center of the backwater slough to cast to several large, cruising fish that had been out of range all day. "Three U-boats at two o'clock," Fred said in a predatory tone. "U-52, U-53 and U-55. Go ahead."
I cast ahead of them, let the nymph sink, then, when the trout were five feet away and closing, began my retrieve. The nymph popping out of the sand attracted the biggest trout's attention. "We've got a customer," Fred commentated. "Hold it, hold it, come on." We could see the rainbow's fins quivering out from its body, a sure sign of interest. It followed the fly for a few seconds, and then, from 20 feet away, I saw a brief but unmistakable wink. I struck. For one shining moment I felt the unyielding weight of a magnificent fish, a trout that Fred later estimated at 26 inches. The strike, influenced by adrenaline, was that of a bass or tarpon fisherman, a cruel jerk that could have penetrated iron scales. Instead, it merely broke the leader. We stood there, we two, staring at the water where my fish had been. "You really put the pork to that sonuvagun," Fred finally said with gentleness. "I'm worried you might have deboned him."
That evening Dorice Taylor, who for years had been the publicity director of Sun Valley, arranged for us to visit Ernest Hemingway's house, still owned by his fourth wife, Mary. It's a large concrete structure on the outskirts of Ketchum, situated on a storybook 17-acre parcel bordering the Big Wood River. The concrete had been stained, miraculously, to resemble rough-cut pine—in exactly the same manner as the Sun Valley Lodge had been. Hemingway bought the house for $50,000 in 1959. In the fall his local friends used to come over to shoot clay pigeons from the back terrace—Hemingway was a superior shot—and watch the Friday night fights on television. In the winter elk would come down by the river to graze.
The house is now in the care of a local wine steward known as Johnny One-Note. It hasn't changed much. The view has been altered by a few condominiums that have popped up beyond the river. There are a few family photos on the oak-paneled walls—not many—a bullfighting poster, some hunting trophies. Thumbing through one of the books on the living-room shelf, we discovered a postcard from Jack's mother. Hadley. to Mary Hemingway. It was dated July 21, 1967 and read in its entirety: "I remember this day." That would have been Ernest's 68th birthday.
Upstairs there are two bedrooms with magnificent views of the Pioneer Mountains; downstairs a modern kitchen, an informal living room and the back hallway in which Hemingway shot himself. The shotgun he used was later cut up with a blowtorch and buried in an undisclosed location to keep it out of the hands of souvenir hunters.
"He was really a gentle, kindly man with all of us." Mrs. Taylor said. "He gave the first draft of For Whom the Bell Tolls to his favorite hunting guide out here, Colonel Taylor Williams. He told him it might be worth something someday. That's who he's buried beside—Taylor Williams.
"The day after they found Ernest's body Mary held a press conference. But she wouldn't admit that he'd shot himself. It took her a year to admit that publicly. The living room was jammed with correspondents from all the major news services, and Mary explained how it had been an accident, and that Ernest had just picked up his favorite gun the same way she might pick up her favorite camera, and it went off. I remember how horrified Jack looked during all of that, because he didn't want it to be said that his father was ever careless with guns. Afterward Mary ran upstairs. I followed her, even though I didn't know her very well at the time, and when I came in she asked me: 'Did I get away with it?' And I said, 'Mary, you did just fine.' "
Our last morning we drove to the Taylor "Beartracks" Williams State Public Use Area to fish the Little Wood River for brown trout. It's a 480-acre parcel of desert outside Shoshone, some 50 miles south of Sun Valley, that Jack had donated to the state in 1978 with the stipulation that only fly-fishing be allowed. The river was black from the lava stone in its bed and high from the recent rains. A strong wind was blowing upstream. "Streamers are really the best way to fish these deep pools," Jack told me. "But I don't think it's as much fun as floating hoppers. You can start fishing hoppers about July, and they'll work right up into October, especially on a windy day like this."
Fishing the largest hopper in my box, one that was 1½ inches long, I immediately got action from 10- to 12-inch browns, catching three and jumping at least that many before they wiggled free. The rushing of the water and the wind ripping through the desert flora—sage, bitterbrush and some kind of blooming yellow thistle—was an energizing change from the stillness of Silver Creek. At one point a huge sandhill crane came beating downriver, barely moving against the wind, its long neck tucked in as it passed within 50 feet of me. I was waiting for the gulp of a jumbo brown like the six-pounder I had seen on Jack's wall and was just about to try my newly acquired mouse fly when Jack came to tell me it was time for lunch. "Hard to leave, isn't it?" he said. "But we've got to keep moving. I've got special dispensation from the home front to stay out late tonight and shoot some Huns."
A half hour later we were bouncing along a rutted farm road heading toward Fred's favorite spot along the Richfield Canal. We weren't going after Huns yet; this was a place for jump-shooting ducks, something we'd been looking forward to all week. Ahead, a car was parked. We recognized it. It belonged to Cyndi Wright, Fred's girl friend, who at breakfast that morning had fed us steaming hot apple pie before we headed out the door. At Fred's behest, she'd scouted the canal earlier in the week but had returned with five ducks—three green-winged teal and two mallard. Now, not knowing our plans for the day, she'd come there again. We crept carefully along the canal, hoping that we would catch up with her, but at the second bend we found a telltale mess of feathers surrounded by smallish footprints. We decided to go back. Frowning, Jack grumbled, "When I was in the Army and you sent out a scout, he was under strict orders not to fire on the enemy. You can't trust anybody these days."
Jack continued to grumble about scouts and huntresses and armed women in general until we arrived at the ranch where we'd be looking for Huns. Fred got out to ask the rancher's permission to hunt, and while we were waiting, two greyhounds trotted over. The rancher, we later learned, kept them to chase down coyotes. The terrain was different now, the hills more rounded, the soil less rocky. Rather than sagebrush, it was covered by cheatgrass, the delicate-looking pale grass that was brought to this country in the 1870s by European immigrants who used it for thatch. It had thrived in the barren land of central and southern Idaho, and Hungarian partridge (also transplanted into this region, in the '50s) fed on and lived in it.
We parked a short ways up the road. Our dogs ran eagerly into the field as we were taking out our guns, and not a hundred feet from the 4WD, Rickey suddenly froze on point. There was no mistaking it—the setter's nose was into the wind, its tail arced, left foreleg cocked, its body perfectly still. We climbed hurriedly through the barbed wire and moved towards him, fanning out across the field. When we were 25 yards away a covey of Huns flushed into the wind, which slowed their escape. I shot twice, hitting two. Fred knocked down another and was just squeezing off a shot at my second bird when it crumpled. Jack had been blocked of a shot.
We had fine shooting for the next hour. The birds were more skittish now, flushing earlier, so that the shots became longer and more difficult. Jack knocked down one Hun on a 40-yard passing shot, and Fred hit two others. With six birds in hand, we decided to finish out the day back at the farm pond, hoping to find some ducks.
When we got to the pond two duck hunters were already there, setting out their decoys, so we gave them a wide berth and hunted our way back toward the 4WD. There was about an hour of daylight left. The dogs were covering a lot of territory but could chase up no more birds, which seemed all right. You wanted to leave some for seed. It was just sunset when we returned to the 4WD, and the sky had turned red and orange and purple and lots of other colors I don't know the names of. Jack handed out the Foster's, and as we drank, we watched the sky over the desert. The dogs collapsed in the cheatgrass. "My father lived in a time when, if you didn't like a place anymore, there was always another place you could move to that was unspoiled," Jack said.
"You can't do that now. You have to make a stand somewhere. That's why conservation issues are so important. In general we're getting better hunting and fishing than he ever got out here, but we have to work a helluva lot harder to get it."
A flock of ducks flew across the darkening sky, heading toward the pond. We waited to see if there would be shots, but the flock circled once and headed off. The two hunters had been pulling their decoys.
We talked and drank and watched the colors fade over the hills. It's the best time of day, really, and we all felt it. It was the hour Van Guilder had told Ernest Hemingway how much he loved the fall. The air became chilly, and we loaded up the dogs. Then, eerily, the evening's first coyote howled from a distant hill. It's one of the most beautiful and mournful sounds in nature, and we stopped and listened for a long while, but the coyote went unanswered.