We spent a total of four days in Idaho’s Sun Valley, during the annual Trailing of the Sheep festival, and had a blast. Whether we were eating lamb, meeting ranchers, touring galleries and museums, or just enjoying the lovely weather, we kept busy and took a ton of photos. Sun Valley is certainly a photogenic little place.
Ernest Hemingway might have gained fame for his escapades in Spain, Cuba, Italy and Africa, but the final years of his life were spent in Idaho. He first came to the Sun Valley region in 1939, and was a frequent summer visitor for years before buying a house and settling down permanently in 1959. But he didn’t stay for long; on July 2, 1961, he shot himself in the head in his Ketchum home.
Like every American fascinated by foreign lands, I’ve read many of Hemingway’s novels, and considered myself fairly familiar with his life. But I had never known about his relationship with Idaho, nor the fact that he died here, until our visit to Sun Valley. When you think “Hemingway”, Idaho is certainly not the first place that springs to mind. But perhaps it should be. Hemingway loved it here; the nature, the skiing and the hunting all fit nicely into his concept of paradise.
Hemingway first arrived in Idaho on the invitation of Averell Harriman, who wanted to bring a bit of celebrity to his new ski resort. As a favored guest, Hemingway spent summers hunting and fishing, and throwing raucous parties in the Trail Creek Lodge with friends like Gary Cooper. He returned year after year, and during the troubled final years of his life, chose Ketchum as his home.
For a town of its size, being the resting place of America’s most famous novelist should be a huge deal, but classy Ketchum never overplays its hand. There’s a small memorial bust of Hemingway overlooking his beloved Trail Creek, and a couple pictures around town, but you could conceivably spend a week there without knowing that you’re in the same place that Hemingway lived and died. Even his grave in the town cemetery is an understated tribute. Just a flat plaque on the ground. When we visited, there was an old, weather-beaten copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls and a couple bottles of beer left on top of the grave in his memory.
When Sun Valley’s publicist Gene Van Guilder died in a hunting accident, Hemingway composed a eulogy about his friend’s appreciation for nature. But the verse was so lovely, and applied so well to Hemingway himself, that it’s been inscribed underneath his memorial bust at Trail Creek. It’s not hard to see what attracted the great man to Idaho, but let’s allow him to explain…
Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods
Leaves floating on the trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless skies
Now he will be a part of them forever
The day before the parade of sheep occupies downtown Ketchum, the nearby town of Hailey enjoys the focus of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. The Folklife Fair brings the traditional music of faraway lands into the Sun Valley, along with activities and food. And in a nearby field, the Championship Sheepdog Trials are held.
I had never before considered that sheepdogs might have their own competition, but why not? These animals are as highly trained in their profession as Michael Phelps is in swimming (though they don’t look as good in a Speedo). A competition to crown the very best sheepdog makes sense. We grabbed our binoculars and joined the surprisingly large crowd who had shown up on the sidelines.
At the end of a huge field, a group of five wild sheep is released. The competing dog is dispatched to retrieve them, in a very specific way. First he has to circle and approach the sheep slowly, “introducing” himself. Then, he has to wrangle the sheep through a couple fences and bring them to the other end of the field. His next task is to separate two sheep from the other three, and then get the whole flock into a cage. The dogs are amazing, especially considering that their trainers have to remain in one spot on the field, issuing commands only with a whistle.
The nearby Folklife Fair was just as entertaining. After gorging ourselves on lamb-burgers and lamb-gyros, we grabbed a seat for a series of performances from around the world. Polish Highlanders were followed by amazing Basque Dancers. There was a bagpipe-toting group of Scottish Highlanders and a Peruvian band rocking out to traditional songs. Stands in the fair were selling clothes made of wool, shearing sheep, and providing information about the shepherding life.
We also attended a “foodie fest” in Ketchum called For the Love of Lamb. Walking from restaurant to restaurant, we joined long lines and sampled dishes of lamb that ranged from the exotic to the familiar. The amount of lamb I consumed during our stay in Sun Valley was probably more than I’d eaten in my entire life combined. And it was all delicious. Lamb, veal, duckling… when you consider it, it’s startling how tasteful and tender baby meat is.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Along with the entire town of Ketchum, we were waiting on Main Street for a parade which was thirty minutes late. Just as I was starting to feel the first pangs of boredom: they were there. Thousands of sheep running, sprinting down the street, bleating and panicked and jumping over each other, trying to escape through the crowd, getting reined in by barking dogs, cheered on by screaming kids, and blessed with holy water by a courageous preacher standing his ground in the middle of the street. And then it was over.
The Trailing of the Sheep Festival has been held in Sun Valley every year since 1997 but its roots are far older than that. This has been sheep land since John Hailey first brought his flock here in the 1860s. Land of the Basques, who were emigrated here in droves to work as herders and never went back home.
The parade of sheep through the center of Ketchum was the culmination of the four-day festival; other events included a Sheep Dog Championship, a Folklife Fair, lamb cooking classes, lamb tastings, sheep photography classes, lectures about sheep, traditional dancing… and did I mention anything about admiring sheep or eating lamb? Because there was a lot of it. We participated in everything, but will focus first on the parade which marked the festival’s end.
Long before the Trailing of the Sheep became an official event and captured Ketchum’s heart, it was something of a nuisance. Festival or not, those sheep still came through town at the end of every summer on the way to their winter feeding grounds. But turning it into a celebration made all the difference in public opinion. Where homeowners once grumbled about trampled flowerbeds and streets smeared with sheep poop, now they cock their heads nostalgically to the side and congratulate each other on their shared heritage.
On their way into town for this year’s parade, the sheep had ended up on the wrong trail, delaying their appearance for about 30 minutes. So the rest of the parade walked very slowly through town — a group of girl scouts, then traditionally-dressed Peruvians, who have replaced the Basques as the region’s imported shepherds du jour. It would have been dull, if not for the parade’s Master of Ceremony, who kept the jokes coming at a rapid-fire pace, some of them hilariously off-color for such a community-oriented event. I mentioned to Jürgen that the MC must have been a stand-up before this gig, and a woman standing behind us confirmed that he was.
Eventually, the sheep found the right path and came storming through Ketchum. It was over almost before it began, but the brief minutes that they were running past us were exhilarating. Sheep are skittish by nature, and running through a relatively narrow corridor of people had them in full-on panic mode. A priest was standing in the center of the Wool Storm, blessing the terrified creatures with holy water.
Our day ended in a field just south of Ketchum, where the weary sheep were finally allowed to rest under the ever-watchful gaze of their Pyrenees guard dogs. They would sleep here before continuing their southward journey on the next day. Different groups began arriving to the field; a Basque Dancing troupe from Boise, Polish Sheep Herders from Chicago, the ranchers and their friends. It was a surreal end to a strange and wonderful festival.
We're Jürgen and Mike, from Germany and the USA. Born wanderers, we love learning about new cultures and have decided to see the world... slowly. Always being tourists might get lame, but eternal newcomers? We can live with that. So, our plan is to move to an interesting new city, once every three months. About 91 days.