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.
It’s very early in the morning and I’m at breakfast but I want to be in bed. The bed is so ridiculously comfortable in my room at the Sun Valley Inn that getting out of it hurts my heart. Also, I drank too much last night, which hurts my head.
I always tend to drink too much on the first night of an adventure. I’m excited as a puppy on a trip to the beach that I do things I never do, like try every beer on the tasting flight at the Inn’s Village Station restaurant WHILE drinking a whiskey. This compounded weirdly into insomnia, and I watched an Elizabeth Taylor marathon on TV until the wee hours of the morning.
Point being: Two hours of sleep is not enough to face skiing for the first time in seven years. But time keeps ticking and my itinerary is locked in. I get up. The restaurant where I’m supposed to have breakfast is named “Gretchen’s” after Gretchen Fraser, the first American woman to win a gold medal in Alpine Skiing at the Olympics.
I try to use this for motivation. It doesn’t work.
A short while later and I’m fumbling with my gloves, poles, sunglasses, skis, and helmet. Too much stuff is needed for this sport! And it’s impossible to look cool in a helmet. I also don’t like how you get all sweaty when you’re bundled up, then get chilly on the lift, then get hot again on the run, then chilly, etc, etc.
Now I’m on the chairlift and despite my curmudgeon-ness, I can’t help but marvel at the view. It really is something to be outside and active on a crisp winter day. As I take my first run, I’m pleasantly surprised to find it comes right back to me. The funny thing is I’m actually quite good at skiing. As a kid in Tahoe, I was the only girl on a race team called The Shredders.
But that was before The Accident.
When I get to the bottom of the hill, I remember another reason I gave up on skiing: It’s so repetitive. You go up, then down. Up, then down. My ski club in high school was great because I was with all my friends and we’d just go off into the trees and do dumb tricks and pour purloined bottles of Aftershock onto snow then eat it like slushies. But just going up and down the ski run? Boring.
I’m reaching for complaints, I know. The actual ski spot in Sun Valley — Bald Mountain — is excellent. The consistent pitch, lack of lift lines, and the variety of terrain make it one of the best in America. The view doesn’t suck either, and I consider myself a view snob, being from Lake Tahoe and all.
I take a few more runs, then decide I’ve earned the best part about skiing: Hanging at the lodge. Especially because Bald Mountain has a great lodge, if you’re into history and being comfy cozy (my personal sweet spots). It’s called The Roundhouse, situated at 7,700 feet at the top of the Roundhouse Express gondola. It was built in 1939 and is, as the name reveals, round. It’s also perfectly charming inside, and while there I consume winter things like a hot toddy and fondue.
I love playing in winter. Now that I live in Los Angeles, my soul needs seasonal immersions or I start to feel weird. I film a little video of how awkward it is to walk in ski boots (no one has looked cool in them ever), and head back down the hill. It was an anti-climactic return to skiing. And I’m fine with that, considering my history. (This is what writers call “teasing out the conflict” and “building anticipation.”)
I head back to Sun Valley Inn to explore the property — originally constructed in 1936 as America’s first destination ski resort. I love that it’s still independently owned, and even more so once I hear that Carol Holding, now in her 90’s, resort owner for the last 37 years with her late husband Earl, greets every guest in person at the annual Christmas party. You can feel that personal difference in every corner of the property. It’s like you’re in someone’s grand home, not at a hotel.
The whole place was recently renovated, making way for more spacious bathrooms and upgraded amenities. In a smart move, they left the exterior unchanged. Which means the building looks the same as when The Kennedys, Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, and other luminaries visited.
Then, of course, there’s Hemingway, who finished For Whom The Bell Tolls at the Lodge. When I pass Papa’s room, 206, I brush my hand across the doorknob. Literary success by osmosis? It could work.
Next, I explore the bowling alley at the inn, one of the oldest in the northwest. There’s also foosball and pool, and I’m getting excited. My next stop is to get a drink at the super-chic Ram Bar above the game center, I realize another reason why I stopped skiing: In my early 20s, I wanted to do things like shoot pool and drink beer on the weekends, not get up at dawn to be cold. However, my leg muscles are burning in a pleasant way after the day on the mountain, and at the last second I wonder if I should maybe skip the cocktail.
Should I start working out in earnest and stop boozing? Ultimately, I decide to ponder this over more drinks, bread, rabbit stew (what Hemingway always ordered), and a caramel pot de crème at the historic Ram restaurant, one of the nicest dinner experiences (complete with a live piano player) I’ve ever had.
Two bites in and I’m back in suspended Christmas time. This excuses my drinking. At faux Christmas, over-indulgence is allowed.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
When I wake up it’s snowing. A lot. I roll into downtown Ketchum to check out the Gold Mine, the famed thrift store where vintage ski treasures can be found. All proceeds benefit the community library, so of course I have to buy something. I choose a glam green onesie with a ridiculous matching hat.
I want to try cross-country skiing but it’s snowing too hard, so I opt for lunch at the Sun Valley Club instead — the inn’s Nordic Center by winter, Golf Club by summer. There’s something extremely special about sipping hot soup by a fireplace while watching the snow fall outside. I don’t think I can get any more relaxed – until I do, by getting a massage at the Spa at Sun Valley. I rarely feel like I “deserve” a massage but I’m so sore from skiing that I allow myself to melt into it.
After the massage, I noodle about in the steam room and outdoor pool, which has that great look when hot water turns to steam, rising into cold air. I try to take a selfie and promptly drop my phone into the pool. Startled, I scream when the phone splashes into the water. The other people in the pool look at me strangely, especially when I shout with relief once I remember the new iPhones are waterproof.
Dinner that night is at Trail Creek Cabin, a charming cottage described as being “best accessed by sleigh.” I imagine if I lived in Ketchum, I’d need dozens of ski sweaters to wear in heavy rotation so I could be adorable enough to fit in with all the adorable-ness here. I also imagine I’d get very fat. The food everywhere is hearty and delicious, the type of holiday feast you have once a year.
As always, it’s pointed out that Hemingway frequented this place. He drank at the bar and might have even used the cabin for… hunting? The story is murky. I don’t have much time to investigate, because tonight is the opening party for the Sun Valley Film Festival, Sundance’s cooler kid sister.
After partying with all the famous, beautiful people, I wind up back in my hotel room and the insomnia sets in. I return to the Elizabeth Taylor marathon. They’re showing The Last Time I Saw Paris, an MGM classic from 1954 “With the all-star cast of the year bringing you the most wonderful performances of their careers!” says the trailer I find online. That’s good enough for me, so I keep watching.
It’s early in the morning and I’m skiing again. This time I’m at Dollar Mountain, Sun Valley’s second ski area, this one smaller and known for its “Terrain that Teaches” program and flow-style park. It’s a nice mountain and like Baldy, there are no lines anywhere.
I distract myself on the chairlift by thinking about Aspen, another ski town. I’ve heard Aspen mentioned on my trip a few times, in a derisive way. A hotel founded in Aspen recently opened a second location in Ketchum. “Aspen finally got their grasp here,” a shuttle driver grumbled as we passed by it. In a gift shop, I saw a woman hold up a gold lamé jacket to her husband and he laughed and said “You’re right, it’s very Aspen.” I’ve never been to Aspen so I don’t really get it, but I think it has something to do with the flashiness there. It’s a place where you can spot foreign royals on the mountain. Whereas in Sun Valley, as a shuttle driver told me, people have “quiet money.”
The reason I’m distracting myself thinking about Aspen is because the chairlift makes me nervous. Very nervous. And now I will tell you about The Accident (a title which isn’t part of the Elizabeth Taylor marathon, but sounds like it could be).
Lake Tahoe. I’m 7 years-old, the same era when I was on The Shredders race team, as I mentioned before. I’m going to a race and it’s snowing, the lift operator puts me on alone. This is nothing new. They all know me. But on this day, the snows makes the chair slippery, and I struggle to get firmly planted on the seat as the chairlift whooshes up into the air. This particular lift ascends directly up the mountain, gaining elevation quickly.
At around 60 feet, I start to lose my grasp on the chair. At 70 feet, I slip off the chair but manage to grab hold of the bar. Luckily, I’m in view of the lift operators and they stop the chair and run out with a net. I dangle for three minutes, but it feels like three years. They yell up at me with a loudspeaker to fall into the net they’re holding out. I refuse. I’m terrified to let go, terrified to stay. I start to lose my grip on the bar.
With no other option, I let go, and fall fall fall down. The net catches me, but the impact still knocks the wind out of me. They rush me to the hospital, and miraculously I am unharmed, save for a few rope burns on my back from the net. My race team gives me an honorary gold medal. I remember every second of it like it was yesterday.
The Accident left me with vertigo and fear of heights so severe I can barely stand on a ladder without having a panic attack. But I still skied after that, I’d just keep my eyes shut on the lift and get through it. It wasn’t until years later that I officially “quit.” Maybe my mind wants to spin it into a dramatic tale of why I quit skiing, blame The Accident when really I just lost interest.
Or maybe my interests just shifted. For example, rather than skiing, I’d prefer to dive into why the Konditorei restaurant back at the Inn was recently named a 3-star certified “green restaurant,” making it the first restaurant to receive this designation at a ski resort and second in the state of Idaho. It’s also at the Konditorei, during their “Coffee Talk” series, where I learn that Sun Valley has one of the most efficient and environmentally friendly snowmaking systems in North America.
I love these pieces of minutiae. And, the truth is, trauma or no, I probably love them more than skiing.
The rest of my time in Ketchum is well spent at the Sun Valley Film Festival. This is where my interests shifted after skiing and sports –- to film, writing, the arts. The interest was always there, actually, but with age we give ourselves permission to be who really are. I make new friends and forge connections. I feel more at home in the town than I probably ever will again on a ski slope.
On the last night in my hotel room, Elizabeth Taylor is starring in Zee and Co. from 1972, and it’s dreadful. I can hear her agents telling her to do something edgy, to stay relevant. The movie is about an architect (Michael Caine) and his erratic wife (Taylor) fighting and having affairs and being terrible to each other. Her hair is cut into a frizzy mullet, and in every scene, like even when she’s in bed and in the hospital, she wears blue eyeshadow from lid to eyebrow. The editing is cheesy, the score is awful –- the movie is bad.
Maybe I’m reaching, but I think there’s a connection to be found here. I’m glad I quit skiing when I did, didn’t drag it out like the end of a classic movie marathon. It was something I was once good at once, but I’m satisfied reveling in my memories, when nothing was better than my sister and I snuggled between my parents on the lift — life extending only so far as the next hot cocoa, my mom glamorous in her ski outfit, all of us smelling like sunscreen, and my dad rubbing my hands to keep them warm.
Sun Valley helped me get past memories of The Accident and reminded me why I love ski towns… even though, as an adult with new interests, I could take or leave the actual skiing.