It sounds like the beginning of a joke on a Laughy Taffy wrapper, right? Well it’s not. Ernest Hemingway and His Holiness the Dalai Lama really do have something in common. They have both been to the remote Wood River Valley, a small yet wealthy area in central Idaho.
What these two men did there, however, contrasts sharply. Hemingway had a house in Ketchum, a small town in the valley, which is where he put a shotgun to his head in 1961. The Dalai Lama, in 2005, visited Sun Valley, another small town, to “bring his message of compassion to Sun Valley during the anniversary of 9/11” (Idaho Mountain Express).
My wife and I planned for months to visit Ketchum, a three-hour drive from Rexburg, where we live. We wanted to visit Hemingway’s home and his grave. A few weeks ago, we finally got to go. We piled into our twenty-year-old car with two of our book-nerdy friends, and away we went.
The drive took us through some of the loneliest terrain I’ve ever seen: storm clouds, desert brush, the volcanic landscape known as Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, crumbling little towns, solitary birds of prey, and finally, as we neared our destination, trees. The dense green and the rain reminded our Oregonian friend of home.
Hemingway’s house is in the charge of the Nature Conservancy. It’s not open to the public, but we were led to believe we’d be able to catch a glimpse of it. It’s off the road somewhere, hidden among the trees, and there is no address listed online, only vague directions my wife pulled up on her phone. After driving in circles around town, eyes peeled, we parked and continued our search on foot. Still no luck. Finally, we abandoned our hopes of seeing his house and took off for his grave.
At the cemetery, we again followed clues we found online to find his grave. The four of us spread out, each hoping with a dash of immature competition to find his grave first. After a few minutes of wandering, we saw two large rectangular slabs of stone flat on the ground in a stand of trees that met the description of what we saw online. I ran, unashamed, so I could get there first.
The simplicity of the grave site was surprising — nothing ornate — just two large slabs, one for him and one for his wife. Hemingway’s grave was covered with loose change, mostly faded pennies. There were also some withered flowers and two glass beer bottles. Hemingway was known as a hard drinker, so I guess this is how his fans pay their respects — cash and beer. To me, it didn’t seem like the best way to honor one of the twentieth century’s best American writers.
We took pictures of the grave, took selfies next to the grave, and before we left, we decided it would be appropriate to each take a 2016 penny, a souvenir of the year we visited this historic place.
I’m not well versed in all of Hemingway’s writings. I’ve read several short stories and The Old Man and the Sea. I actually re-read The Old Man and the Sea in preparation for our trip to Ketchum. I’m impressed by that little book. It has a depth I hope one day to understand.
It was on our way back to Rexburg that we happened to stop at the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, and on its grounds lay the smaller Garden of Infinite Compassion. It was there that we discovered, to our surprise, that the Dalai Lama had visited the area.
The Garden of Infinite Compassion is a beautiful reminder of the Dalai Lama’s visit to the valley. It is a tranquil place with a winding path, lush greenery, a small waterfall, giant rocks, and the Serenity Pond, which has a pillar of quartz (imported from Brazil) rising from its center. Most important of all is the prayer wheel, an ornate cylinder containing the prayers of 2,000 monks. When you spin the prayer wheel, a small bell rings at the top, symbolizing these prayers ascending to the universe.
Now that I have been to the Wood River Valley, I also have something in common with Ernest Hemingway and the Dalai Lama. The trip was an adventure, one that allowed me to compare these two men. I hope I can incorporate the best of their worlds into my life. I want to hone my writing genius on par with Hemingway’s, but I’d rather live a life of compassion and peace, not one to be remembered with money and booze.