Twenty miles north of Sun Valley, Idaho, the sun is slowly setting on the headwaters of the Big Wood River. On a little
beaver pond here, about a quarter mile east of nowhere on Highway 75, a trout rises to the shimmering surface. I gently flick my rod, whipping the fly out oh so lightly, 10 yards in front of it. Perfect, I think, as the ripples fan out across the dusky clouds, thick as oil paint, reflecting on the water. A Hemingway moment.
Then guide Ritchie Thurston breaks in: "C'mon, you turkey." He is speaking to the trout -- I think.
No, it's not just me against the elements out here. It's me, my husband and our wallet against the elements. Back in Sun Valley, we dropped almost half of Ritchie's fall tuition at Snug Fly Fishing for today's adventure -- which, at a little over $200, may say as much about tuition at the University of Idaho as it does the cost of roughing it.
But, of course, this is not just roughing it. This is roughing it in style, the reputation Sun Valley has traded on since it became the country's first European-style ski resort in 1936.
With a grand dining room, an outdoor heated pool and the world's first chairlifts, the Sun Valley Lodge began as the vision of Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad. After traveling in Europe, he became convinced that by planting a luxurious destination out West, he could turn the heavy snows from an operating liability into an asset, increasing passenger traffic from the East.
Harriman's instincts were on the money. From the moment of its lavish Christmastime opening, Sun Valley caught on as "society's newest winter playground," according to Life magazine, attracting everyone from the du Ponts and Vanderbilts to Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper.
As a summer playground, the resort received its first publicity in 1939, when Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway swaggered into town. Hemingway found the hunting and fishing so satisfactory that he returned the following year, finishing "For Whom the Bell Tolls" at the lodge.
By then, the faux-Tyrolean Sun Valley Inn had opened its doors, a perfect bookend to the faux-wood Lodge. While the lodge was constructed of poured cement, painted and textured to look like wood, the inn was fashioned to look like a set in Paramount's "I Met Him in Paris," starring Claudette Colbert.
Today, this peculiar pair is the centerpiece of the resort. Around it, a golf course has been added, along with duck ponds, tennis courts, an Olympic-size pool -- which really is Olympic-size -- a shopping mall connecting the inn to the lodge and, in 1972, Sun Valley's sister resort, Elkhorn.
Around all of that is what makes Sun Valley Sun Valley: the Pioneer Mountains just beyond the Sun Valley golf course; Baldy to the west, the best single ski mountain in the world, according to Jean-Claude Killy; and, just north of the village, the Boulders. It is this surrounding wilderness, the easy access to adventure from the easy elegance of the resort, that makes Sun Valley an American original.
The Big Wood River winds through the heart of Ketchum, the old mining town that defines Sun Valley's western boundary. Twenty miles upstream, Ritchie is squatting on the riverbank, eyes squinted to get a closer look at the bugs hovering over the creek. As unaffected and wholesome as you'd expect a boy to be who grew up fly fishing in a state of only 1 million human inhabitants, he's doing everything short of attaching the fish to our hooks.
The headwaters of the Big Wood are in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, the 756,000 acres that make up the geographic heart of Idaho. Beginning eight miles north of Ketchum, the area is bigger than Rhode Island, and includes the headwaters of four other major rivers and 1,000 lakes. Parts of four mountain ranges are here, and in the southeastern Sawtooths is Galena Stage Stop Corrals.
You don't have to be Marlin Perkins to see that they know a thing or two about adventure around here. For one thing, 40-degree temperatures and a mild frost are not uncommon at this altitude first thing on a summer morning. For another, our guides wake up to it in an unheated, unwired and unplumbed barn. No wonder they look so mean.
They emerge bowlegged and taciturn from their living quarters: There is Scott McGill, perhaps the only University of Kansas political science major in Idaho leading trail rides, and there is Gator, his tailless Catahoula cow hound.
As the cowboy and the cowhound set out for Titus Lake, more than three miles up in the mountains, four other pairs of horses and riders fall into line behind them, with Spuds and me bringing up the rear. Sitting back in my saddle, I settle into the lazy rhythms of the trail ride. Swaying side to side, moseying forward wordlessly, up and up we go, single file and nose to tail.
Just before we get to the lake, the path bursts onto an open, sage-covered hillside, and the mountain we've ascended under cover of blue spruce and pine reveals itself to us in a spectacular panorama. Even cowboy Scott, who must have seen this a thousand times, gives his reins a jerk, stops and pushes his hat back on his head. This is his kind of country -- the Marlboro kind -- and it is indescribably handsome, the Aspen daisies cascading down the slope, and the lodgepole pines, tall and straight as church spires, thrusting skyward on the mountain across from us. Farther east are the Boulders, and by twisting around in my saddle, I can see the Sawtooths, too, craggy and etched with snow.
In 1935, these mountains were one reason an Austrian count, Felix Schaffgotsch, selected the Wood River Valley as the site of Sun Valley. An accomplished skier who was in this country studying American banking methods, he was the one Harriman retained to find the perfect location for the new resort.
For six disappointing weeks the count reconnoitered in the Sierra Nevadas, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and the Teton Range in Wyoming. Then he took one last look in Idaho, at an area around the small mining town of Ketchum. Sure enough, he found what he was looking for in the Wood River Valley: wide-open slopes, sunny blue skies and dry powder snow, all shielded from the cold west winds by the Smokies and the Sawtooths.
"Among the many attractive spots I have visited," he wired Harriman, "this combines more delightful features than any place I have seen in the U.S., Switzerland, or Austria for a winter sports resorts."
In late May or early June, the mountains become the wellspring of the mighty Idaho rivers as the white snow turns into whitewater. Chief among them is the Salmon, dubbed "River of No Return" by Lewis and Clark when their attempt to navigate it came to an impasse.
As we set out to explore the headwaters of the upper main Salmon almost 200 years later, instead of Lewis and Clark, we get Taul Paul.
"T-A-U-L P-A-U-L," he spells it out at the Sunbeam store, the Salmon River outpost for Two-M River Outfitters, 70 miles north of Sun Valley. Spindly, bearded and wearing leather sandals with more hitchings than a saddle, he is here by way of Zermatt, Switzerland, he tells us, where he was a ski instructor -- by way of Southern California, where he was a surfer. For some reason, this information has the same effect on me as the pricey boutiques back in Ketchum being called Silverado and El Dorado, or hearing Ketchum's motto for the first time: "A real town for real people." You almost have to doubt it.
We put our canoe in at Elk Creek, just downstream from the store. Before my husband and I can get situated on our ice chests, Taul Paul is narrating and navigating our rubber raft faster than the 3-mile-per-hour current can carry us downstream.
When we drift into Indian Ripples, a 50-yard-wide section of the river where salmon spawn, Taul Paul delivers such a riveting account of the autumn mating ritual -- the female salmon scooping up sand here, the male salmon fertilizing there, and the whole river nose to nose, fin to fin, chockablock with hundreds of thousands of salmon -- that I'm sure I'm hearing the first-hand account.
Guideless and for free, my friend Jane and I strike out for the Hemingway Memorial one morning. From Sun Valley, it is a couple of miles east on Trail Creek Road, and following the level, paved trail, we make good time. So good, in fact, that once we see the stone memorial to Hemingway's death here in 1961, we decide to keep going.
The fact that Jane's map reduces Sun Valley and the surrounding 50-mile area to a few bold purple and black lines and one or two landmarks does not concern us yet.
Several miles later, it does. When we are trying to find where the trail crosses the creek and circles back to the resort along a golf cart path, we realize Jane's map ignores topography and scale almost entirely.
("People get lost all the time," the sheriff will tell us almost eight hours later, when we are returning to Sun Valley in his back seat. "Eventually you come out somewhere.")
In search of Fairways Road, we come out on a mountain -- one that has never been named -- about nine miles west of town near Long Gulch. The farther up we go, the narrower the little dirt trail we are following becomes, and we notice the trees are thinning, too.
Then Jane says, "Look, a dead sheep."
"Sheep Flock Road?" I venture, turning our little map around and around in the palm of my hand, trying to match the dead animal up with a landmark.
Farther up are skulls.
"Smaller than human," Jane pronounces, and there is mild rejoicing. But among the few words our taciturn cowboy guide had uttered were "western diamondbacks," "black bear" and "mountain lion," and I pick up a big stick.
The summit is another hour away, and I leave Jane under a giant fir tree, out of the sweltering midday heat, to reach it. It is a humbling journey in shorts and sneakers, switching back and forth through the shin-scratching sage and wild mint, but I continue up.
What I find are more mountains, wave after wave rolling into the valley, far, far away. Smuggled there in miniature, like toy towns in a train set, are Elkhorn, Sun Valley and Ketchum. Turning around, the mountain I have scaled drops away so suddenly that I experience vertigo. Straight across, one snow-covered peak soars above the rest into the blue windless sky. Just me against the elements, at last.
My kingdom for a guide.
If you go . . .
Where to stay: Elkhorn is a 3,000-acre resort that includes award-winning 18-hole golf course, tennis facilities, dining and entertainment. Rates $78 to $378. Condos available. Telephone: (800) 635-9356.
The Sun Valley Inn and Lodge is a 4,000-acre resort, including duck ponds, Olympic-size pool, heated pools, shopping village, tennis, golf, dining and entertainment. Rates $75 to $240. Telephone: (800) 635-8261.
Among bed and breakfasts, the Idaho Country Inn offers 10 "theme" rooms reflecting the history of the state and featuring an impressive view of Baldy. Rates $115 to $145; telephone (208) 726-1019. The River Street Inn, overlooking Trail Creek, features Japanese soaking tubs and is close to shops and restaurants. Rates $110 to $150; telephone (208) 726- 3611.
For more information on lodging and rentals, call Sun Valley Area Reservations at (800) 635-1076, or the Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce at (800) 634-3347.
Galena Stage Stop Corrals: $50 per adult for full day riding, lunch included; $35 half-day. Telephone (208) 622-9305.
Snug Fly Fishing: Variety of packages offered. Telephone (208) 622-9305.
Two-M River Outfitters: $60 per adult for full day, with lunch; $45 half-day. Discounts for groups of eight or more. Telephone (208) 726-8844.