Blogs by Kalikiano Kalei
The 'Governator' in Sun Valley
2/27/2008 12:57:49 PM
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In California, a state of mind more than a state of the Union, all things are more possible than they are anywhere else in America. Although I am a native, born in San Francisco in a flat directly over Mr. Coffee's (baseball great Joe DiMagio) Marina apartment, I have seen the state tip so far away from any vestige of reality that they might as well take the administrative and legislative responsibilities for running the state away from professional politicians and give them directly over to MGM Studios. Reality, for this reason among many, is deliberately omitted from the current edition of the Webster's California Collegiate Dictionary. Stay tuned as we follow the 'Governator' on a trip to Idaho's Sun Valley Resort.
THE GOVERNATOR IN SUN VALLEY!
Last winter, my boss, California’s Governor “Ahnuld” Schwartzenegger, had a skiing accident while vacationing with his wife Maria Shriver and their children, at Idaho’s Sun Valley Resort. The Guv apparently was schussing down one of the tough black diamond routes (‘Experts only’) on the top of Mt. Baldy, when he crossed a ski-pole with a ski-tip and fell, fracturing his femur seriously enough to warrant evacuation from the mountain by Sun Valley’s ‘Ski Patrol’ and a subsequent chopper medevac flight out to Boise, from whence he was flown to Los Angeles for surgery. Remember we’re dealing with a world-class movie star here; if it had been me, they would have simply dug a pit in the snow and buried me right there, without any further ado.
I have never been particularly impressed by Schwartenegger the movie idol and I admit I had some pretty serious reservations about his abilities when he came on board as the state‘s new governor a few years back. As was the case with ex-Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, Arnold’s ‘star power’ had as much (or more) to do with his election to the state’s top elected office as anything else, and we all saw what happened to Ventura (and Minnesota) when the realities of governing a complex state full of people finally overwhelmed his wrestler’s Neanderthal-size brain.
If you were born after 1970, you are probably uncertain as to exactly what ‘Sun Valley’ is, other than the fact that the news stories last year shared the fact that it is a fancy resort of some sort where you can ski. The real history behind Sun Valley is a fascinating one, though, although since most people under 40 today have such a complete lack of interest in anything smacking of history that the following will probably have as much meaning as a flea fart in a thunderstorm.
Fifty years ago Sun Valley Idaho was the swankiest, ritziest resort in the whole country, a place where the most popular Hollywood stars came in both summer and winter to ski, skate, and pose for the press, always surrounded by adoring hoards of fans, media, and photographers. Famous 'old timey' Hollywood celebrities like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and many, many others were regulars, most with vacation homes or condominiums in or near Sun Valley. After Ernest Hemingway discovered Sun valley he ended up writing a few novels there and finally bought his own fishing cabin on Big Wood River (more about that below). Sun Valley was, to sum it all up, 'the place' to vacation among the rich and famous of that era.
When I was a kid, my uncle, who was a physician near Twin Falls (in southern Idaho, near the Nevada border), had a cabin right there in Sun Valley at which I spent a lot of my vacation time. Since my mother was a school teacher who had every summer off, we’d leave California at the end of the school year in the old Chevrolet sedan and trek across the Nevada desert Jack Kerouac & Neal Cassidy style-—speeding through the white alkakai Humboldt Sink area (home of all land-speed record attempts, due to its smooth and seemingly endless flat salt flats), Lovelock, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Wells, and finally up into southern Idaho. My memories of these annual migrations could be fairly characterized by the fact that 1) it was usually always hot as hell, crossing the sun-baked Nevada desert in early June, and 2) it seemed as if the wheezing old Chevy might give up the ghost any moment without warning, way out there and miles from any human habitation. However, and I suppose it’s a testament to General Motors in some sort of sense, the car never did give out and each ‘Last Chance Gas Station’ we passed never really ever turned out to be that (since there was usually always another station at least a hundred miles further up that barren and endlessly empty road).
My Uncle Charlie had been an Army Surgeon in the North African campaign of World War Two, patching up and repairing the wounded Allied soldiers who had been injured chasing German Field Marshal Rommel’s Panzer Corps across the burning sands of Tripoli. When the war ended, Charlie mustered out as a Colonel and took his fairly reasonable discharge pay settlement to Sun Valley, where a friend helped him find a beautiful and somewhat isolated building site right on the Big Wood River, situated in the shadow of the Sun Valley area’s Mt. Baldy (actually located in the small hamlet of Ketchum, about two miles outside of Sun Valley). Taking weekends away from his Burley (Idaho) medical practice, he supervised the construction of a two story log cabin, built from some of the huge trees felled on the property. When the 'cabin' was finished, it was a magnificent place and it shared a boundary with the property of another local area doctor, who became a good friend. The 2000 square foot vacation home had a peripheral sleeping loft upstairs, with a large living room, kitchen, and two private bed rooms downstairs. Dominating the main room on the first floor was a huge walk-in stone fireplace with a hearth stretching about 8 feet on either side. The property had cost Charlie what was then a hefty sum ($8,000), due to its location on one of the finest trout rivers in that who area (Big Wood River), and aside from its sheltered isolation, you could literally step out the door and fly-fish for breakfast trout. While they didn't actually leap right into your frying pan, they sure as hell leaped out of the water for those artificial flies.
What Charlie didn’t know at the time he selected the property was the fact that Ernest Hemingway, perhaps one of the most famous writers of the last century, had a vacation home on the river, just south of the Warm Springs juncture (about a quarter mile north of Charlie’s place). This would later prove quite interesting, since each summer we would go out daily in hip-waders and walk up river, fishing the entire way. Invariably, at certain times of each summer, we’d run into a big, burly bearded man, also fly fishing, who was invariably in the company of several others. Once Uncle Charlie explained to me that this group of men consisted of Hemingway, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable—-all, I was told, big celebrities and Hollywood matinee idols, although that didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time (I was aware that Howdy Doody, Clarabelle, Captain Video, Hopparoun' Cassorary, and Roy Rogers were really BIG stars, however). Hemingway smiled broadly when we passed, grinned hugely, waved his cigar at us, and then returned his attention to the beautiful fighting Brown Trout and Rainbows that always seemed to be in abundance, there in Big Wood River's pools.
At any rate, I came to really love Sun Valley. In addition to summers spent there, each December we would take the Union Pacific train up from California to be with Uncle Charlie and my aunt, my grandmother, and my three first cousins, for two magical weeks of Christmas snow. These special visits were rather wonderful and since the cabin had these huge frontal glass windows, with spotlights aimed out towards the river, we’d sit there watching the beautiful spectacle of snow flakes falling through the beams of light with the sort of rapt attention people usually reserve for the movies or theatre. It was far better than any television program ever devised in later decades, to be sure. In the background Charlie would put on some LPs of George Gershwin music and turn the inside lights down low, letting the Christmas tree lights illuminate the place. I ultimately became so used to Gershwin’s ‘American in Paris’ that I could probably hum the entire thing from memory today, some 50 years later.
This was the time when the old wooden skis were being replaced by the first Head metal skis—-quite an innovation for its time. Everyone had a pair of the Head ‘Standards’ with the first Salomon safety bindings on them except me; I had to settle for a hand-me-down pair of the old wooden skis with ‘bear-trap’ bindings (not the safest thing in the world, of course), but then, I wasn’t much of a skier at the time, either. Sometimes we’d all get passes on the Mt. Baldy double-chairlift (at the time about seventy-five cents for a half-day ticket) and go up the mountain, stopping at the ‘Round House’, half way up, to thaw out, before schussing down the intermediate trails to the bottom.
Aside from the frequent Hemingway encounters, fishing Big Wood River, we’d frequently run into celebrities of the late 50s and early 60s period on Mt. Baldy. One winter, just before John Kennedy was assassinated, we were there in the Round House, taking a last-minute warming break, when the doors burst open and in came the entire Kennedy clan—John, Jaqueline, John-John, Caroline, Peter Lawford, Sammie Davis, Dean Martin, Sergeant and Eunice Shriver (with their little daughter Maria, now the Guv’s wife), Robert Kennedy and his wife and kids, and about 35 ‘ski instructors’, all dressed identically in bright red ski parkas. As we sat there (I was drinking hot cocoa), my friend nudged me and I look around to see little Caroline Kennedy in a pink ski outfit standing right behind me. With a very serious look, she asked me “Are you a Secret Service agent?” I was still in a bit of shock to be surrounded by all these well-known public figures, but I managed to nod my head to the side and mumble out a muffled “No!” At this, Caroline turned and pointed at a large group of the red ski-parka clad skiers and said “Well, all of them ARE!” I just about choked on the remaining dregs of my hot chocolate, of course. Still, recollected today, it was one of those rare and amusing moments one could never, ever forget. They all had a LOT of drinks (the Kennedy clan) and then whooped out to ski down the mountain, followed in hot and nervous pursuit by the legion of agents looking after them. What a rare moment that was!
Sun Valley itself was a fabulous place, with several large ice skating rinks, a theatre, streams and ponds with swans and geese swarming over them, several heated outdoor swimming pools that we could swim in during winter (sort of like huge Jacuzzis), and the nearby Dollar and Half-Dollar mountains for skiing right in Sun Valley itself. Nearby Ketchum, an ancient old mining town that had somehow survived after the local boom had ended, was by comparison a quaint and sleepy little cow-town hamlet, basking in the limelight of the far more glittery spectacle that Sun Valley was. Its key claim to fame was a huge geothermally heated swimming pool about a hundred feet long and fifty feet wide, called Easely's Bald Mountain Hot Springs Plunge. It had a 50 foot tall platform perched on a telephone pole over its edge for those daring enough to climb up to it and jump off. I managed to do this more than a few times, but it was slimy, scary as hell, and one slip could have been fatal; of course, as a small boy I had absolutely no sense of fear, like most kids. Still, it was definitely a thrill to jump 50 feet down from the platform into all that hot springs water, with its perpetually alge-green tinged sulfur water.
Times change, however, and over the years Sun Valley has been radically overhauled and updated in a effort (mostly unsuccessful) to keep pace with the times. Although it is now a bit dated, it has managed to retain a vestige of that timeless cachet of ‘old money’ style and elegance that is usually lacking elsewhere in more modern ‘themed’ American resorts. The whole Sun Valley concept (of an exclusive, year-round modern ski-resort) was later taken to Colorado and served as the inspirational model for the entire Aspen and Vail ski resort complexes, taking the concept and developing it into the massive cash-cow that today brings in hundred of thousands of dollars every day from skiers and vacationers who go there for winter (and summer) vacations.
The following is from a description of Sun Valley written by freelance writer Jennifer Reese and I include it here because it seems to perfectly capture the modern fin de sicle nature of the grand old ski resort that Sun Valley has always been:
“One evening during a recent visit to Sun Valley, I found myself at the Ram in a wood-grained plastic booth listening to the pianist perform "A Spoonful of Sugar" from the Mary Poppins film. There were no movie stars in sight, nor did it seem likely that one would soon appear. A waitress in a dirndl dress brought me trout and delicious deep-fried scones with a Matterhorn of whipped honey butter. The baked potato looked like an overstuffed midcentury vision of the good life. It was Saturday night and I was all alone in a sweetly dated restaurant that had once been very glamorous.
"And it made me wonder what Sun Valley, America's first great winter resort, stands for in a world where there are dozens of attractive places to spend a week in the snow. Aspen has surpassed Sun Valley as the glitzy wintering spot for the celebrity set; Park City has the big, artsy film festival; California's mountains are more convenient for the proletarian masses.
"Still, I find I have a soft spot for Sun Valley, the way I have a soft spot for elderly men who wear plaid sport coats to college football tailgaters. And it's not just the luminous history of the place. The countryside here is achingly beautiful, the kind of sage-strewn high desert landscape I love more than I do any other. The recreation possibilities are endless, with skiing and skating in winter and riding, hiking, biking, and bird-watching in summer. The resort itself is charming in a genteel, old-fashioned way. A few celebrities keep houses around here, and every summer the country' s media moguls, from Bill Gates to Oprah Winfrey, congregate for five days of schmoozing and golf. But it is very hard to imagine Leonardo DiCaprio arriving with his entourage; Kate Moss will not be attending the ice show. And if you ask me, that is not a bad thing.
"In 1935 Averell Harriman, the patrician chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, decided that what America needed was a fabulous destination ski resort in the West—-a New World St. Moritz to which Union Pacific would transport Pullman rail cars full of skiers. Harriman hired Count Felix Schaffgotsch, an old chamois-hunting buddy from Austria, to scout out suitable locations. The ideal spot would have plenty of sun and powder snow. And it would be far enough from big cities that people wouldn't just dash up for the day in their automobiles.
"Schaffgotsch made a thorough sweep of the West and reported that Colorado was too cold, Oregon too rainy; Jackson Hole was lovely, but the state of Wyoming couldn't guarantee open roads throughout winter. Just as Schaffgotsch was about to give up, someone persuaded him to pay a quick visit to the tiny old mining town of Ketchum, Idaho.
"It was perfect. It boasted 'more delightful features than any other place I have seen in the U.S., Switzerland, or Austria for a winter sports center,' Schaffgotsch wrote Harriman. Ketchum sat at the narrow end of a long, pretty valley of ranches and mining shacks. It was sheltered on three sides by mountains, protecting it from bitter winter winds. And the slopes of those mountains were largely treeless and skiable. Union Pacific promptly purchased 4,300 acres at $10 an acre, and broke ground on a lodge just northeast of Ketchum in May of 1936.
"It was an enormous gamble. Harriman hired one of the world's great publicists, Steve Hannagan, to find a way to market the idea of ski vacations in central Idaho. Hannagan was famous for having 'created' Miami Beach by plastering the Northeast with images of tropical sun, golden sand, and bathing beauties. He quickly came up with the name 'Sun Valley' and early ads for the resort featured a tanned and handsome young man on skis, shirtless and mopping his brow. Hannagan nixed Harriman's plans for a modest 50-room inn. Who would even pay attention? He envisioned a splashy deluxe resort to which they would coax headline-grabbing celebrities.
"Meanwhile, a Union Pacific engineer designed the world's first chairlift—to make its debut on Sun Valley's slopes—basing his plans on the chains he'd seen hauling bananas off ships in New Orleans. The $1.5 million Sun Valley Lodge was finished by December 1936. At the opening, some 300 guests, including Claudette Colbert, David Selznick, and Joan Bennett, sipped manhattans and supped on ‘brioche au caviare and ananas surprise’ in the dining room of the brand-new resort in the middle of nowhere. Madeleine Carroll and Errol Flynn showed up a few days later. Hannagan's scheme had been brilliant; Sun Valley was an instant hit.
"This year marks the resort's 62nd skiing season (it closed for two years during World War II, when it was used as a ski-troop training area for what would become America’s answer to the German ‘Gebirgsjager’ mountain troops, the US Army’s elite 10th Mountain Division) and Sun Valley still regularly ranks near the top of Ski Magazine's poll of top winter destinations. Respondents cite the balmy weather, meticulously groomed slopes, absence of crowds, and gracious accommodations. Picabo Street, the 1998 Olympic gold medalist in super giant slalom, has called Sun Valley the best skiing in the world. Street's biased, of course; she's an Idaho native who learned to ski at Sun Valley. But people do come from all over the world to ski Baldy, a massive, humpy mountain with wide, generous slopes, 78 runs, and 18 lifts. Atop Baldy (9,105 feet), the view is panoramic. You gaze upon Sun Valley as if you were looking straight down at a small-scale topographic map. It is not for the faint of heart.
"In addition to Baldy, Sun Valley—-which is currently owned by the Little America Hotels and Resorts—-consists of a sprawl of vaguely alpine restaurants, duck ponds, lawns, and shops, where you can buy everything from a jawbreaker to a $275 cashmere baby dress. At the heart of this pleasant pedestrian village—-cars are left in lots at the perimeter—-there is the massive old lodge. It appears to be made of timber, but is actually reinforced concrete artfully dyed brown and textured to resemble wood. Inside, there are fires crackling in marble fireplaces, 143 plush rooms, two restaurants (one pricey, one moderate), and the Duchin Lounge, a dark and moody bar where the venerable Joe Fos Trio has been performing live jazz for two decades. The walls of the Lodge are decorated with hundreds of black-and-white photographs of all the celebrities who have vacationed here, from Lucille Ball to Leonard Bernstein.
"Behind the lodge, a broad terrace overlooks one of the resort's most impressive features: a year-round skating rink where you can take lessons or catch a show featuring Tara Lipinski or Brian Boitano or Nancy Kerrigan. There are two beautiful glass-walled outdoor pools, heated to 102 degrees in the winter; there is a bowling alley, a small movie theater, a gun club, and a superb 18-hole championship golf course. There are 18 tennis courts. Just about everything you would want on a short, sybaritic vacation can be found somewhere on the grounds of the Sun Valley Resort.
"But the resort itself holds but a small part of this region's appeal. And winter is not the only time to visit. In the spring Sun Valley is blanketed with wildflowers—lupine, yarrow, sego lilies. There's world-class fly fishing on the Salmon River, and white-water rafting. You can ride the chairlift to the top of Baldy in the middle of summer, have a picnic, and walk down. Or you can hurtle back down on a rented mountain bike. There are horseback riding trips through the dry, quiet hills, and miles of hiking trails.
"A five-minute walk from Sun Valley takes you into Ketchum, with its rowdy saloons, trendy boutiques, and Western-style restaurants serving improperly enormous steaks. There's a Starbucks in the 19th-century general store (boooo!), and a funky bookstore called Iconoclast, where you can buy old first edition novels. Galleries with the work of Western artists abound.
"People who live around Ketchum have begun complaining that condominiums and congestion are overtaking their peaceful and rustic community. But by most standards, the area is pastoral; houses haven't even started to crawl up the hills, which are full of antelope, foxes, badgers, and bears.
"And then there are the birds. In 1996, Poo Wright-Pulliam looked out the window of her Ketchum-area house and spotted an unusual black-crowned songbird with a yellow brow. She spent hours trying to identify it, and eventually concluded it was a Siberian accentor. No one believed her; Siberian accentors generally divide their time between Siberia and China. But an ornithologist from Idaho State University confirmed that it was indeed a somewhat lost Siberian accentor. Some 1,200 bird fanatics traveled from Sweden and Florida and New Jersey to see it. Some of them were surprised to learn they were but a short drive away from the famous Sun Valley resort. A lot of them then also went looking for the magnificent and rare gyrfalcon that is known to winter at Sun Valley.
"One brisk fall morning I took a walk with Wright-Pulliam, who now leads bird-watching tours, in the Silver Creek Preserve south of Sun Valley. The trout here grow to eight pounds or more and hover obesely under the bridges; a moose or two sometimes wanders through. Covering 20 feet of path took almost an hour, as Wright-Pulliam stopped to listen to every twitter coming from the dense willow brush. In two hours we identified 15 different birds at Silver Creek. On the drive back we identified 15 more, making abrupt stops to peer through binoculars.
"Hemingway was a frequent visitor to Silver Creek, though he preferred hunting ducks to watching them. In 1939, he was wooed to Sun Valley by the publicity-hungry resort, and he liked the place so much he stayed for three months. After that first autumn, he came back between sojourns in Cuba and Europe and Key West, writing most of 'For Whom the Bells Toll' in Room 206 of the lodge. Eventually he built his own home outside Ketchum, which is where he died in 1961.
"Hemingway is interesting because he didn't come to Sun Valley for any of the usual reasons—-the skiing, the skating, the celebrity social scene. He came for Idaho. He came for the hills and cottonwoods and trout and sky. Of the countryside around Sun Valley he once told a friend, 'You'd have to come from a test tube and think like a machine to not engrave all of this in your head so that you never lose it,' the Great Man is known to have uttered about Sun Valley."
One final footnote to this story concerns Ernest Hemingway. He took his life with a shotgun in his home on Big Wood River on 2 July 1961. At the time, my mother and I were staying at Charlie’s cabin, about a mile downriver from the Hemingway cabin. In the early hours of the morning on that day, Charlie and I were on the river, fishing for trout about half a mile upstream from Charlie’s place. Suddenly we heard a muffled boom break the early morning silence, from further up the river. We didn’t know it at the time, but that was the shotgun blast that ended Hemingway’s life. Later that morning the news circulated rapidly around Ketchum about Hemingway’s suicide and since Ketchum was a very insular but gregarious community, very few things could be kept secret for long there.
Hemingway was buried in a simple grave just outside of Ketchum, since he loved the area so much, and I well recall visiting the site every now and then. What was puzzling was the fact that his grave seemed to sink a couple of inches each week, as if it were settling in on itself. This weird phenomenon was shortly explained by the fact that hundreds of people were visiting the grave and taking dirt samples from it as souvenirs, such was the huge reputation ‘Papa’ Hemingway had among people who had read his books. One fellow was even taking spadefuls of dirt and selling small amounts in bottles to tourists for $15! They soon put a stop to that by building a metal picket fence around the site and thereafter the grave was no longer disturbed by gawkers and visitors.
I still go up to Sun Valley now and then, since it is very much a part of my childhood that I recall with great fondness. This week, the Guv and his family also returned there, since Maria Shriver was, after all, part of that great, extended Kennedy family that we ran into in the Round House on Mt. Baldy, those many years ago! It’s a shame that he broke his femur last year, but it must have been a hell of a fall, since the thigh bone is normally one of the strongest in the entire body and even having lost a bit of his former body-building strength at the age of 59, Schwartzenegger must have taken a tremendous blow to sustain the injury he ended up with up there on Mt. Baldy.(Either that or the Gov has body-builder's osteoporosis--perhaps due to his prior use of steroids?).
At any rate, that’s one of my claims to fame, folks, and this all makes a very timely moment to tell this story here.
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