I’m at a dive bar called Casino even though it’s not a casino at all, and I ask a girl I’ve just befriended to order me what the locals drink, so she gets me a Hamm’s beer with a lime. As I rummage for the required $2.50, an old cowboy tells the bartender to just put it on his tab. I say thank you and he tips his hat in my direction, then goes back to nursing his whiskey. He doesn’t expect me to engage in conversation, he doesn’t expect anything at all.
He bought my drink because it was a friendly thing to do. This is Sun Valley, Idaho, and it’s just that sort of place.
There’s a magic to ski towns in America. I grew up in the Lake Tahoe area, so I should know. It’s the mix of happy people on vacation and welcoming locals and the lights and snow that always make it feel like Christmas is just around the corner, even in March. This recipe for magic means mountain towns tend to be pretty similar, and tend to feel “discovered.” Most disconcerting, it means these towns increasingly cater to the mega-rich and their sprawling vacation homes.
But there’s something different about Sun Valley, Idaho. There are certainly famous residents and visitors alike, but it’s also a place where on the last day of the season everyone wears their vintage ski outfits on the mountain. A place where I’m told more than once “Come to Sun Valley for the winter, stay for the summer.” A place where people don’t brag about their aforementioned famous residents, but about their recent designation as the first International Dark Sky Reserve in the United States, only the 12th such designation in the world.
While we’re on the subject, here are a few other things locals boast about:
- Says the shuttle driver on the way into town from the airport: “You know what was invented here? The Hokey Pokey.” This is actually an intriguing story, full of greed and betrayal.
- Says any local you speak with for more than five minutes: “The first chairlift in the world was invented right here in Sun Valley.” Again, a pretty cool story, that took place in 1936 and has to do with bananas.
- Says the proprietor of every saloon and historic building, “We have a Hemingway connection, it’s a little murky, but…” (There’s lots of local lore about Ernest Hemingway, who both wrote and took his life in the town, but we’ll get to that.)
Point being: It’s easy to love a place like Sun Valley, Idaho. But first… I have to get over why I hate skiing.