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Finding New, Remembering Old in Sun Valley

Vacation Memories

April 07, 1985|RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

SUN VALLEY, Ida. — They say you can't go back and recapture those elusive memories of your youth, and I suppose, as a general premise, that is true, but not entirely.

I had worked here early in the 1950s, a college student and cowboy who spent summers guiding and teaching horseback riding to earn my tuition. The Union Pacific Railroad still owned this famous old resort where Papa Hemingway wrote and movie stars came to play.

This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel section.

This winter, after having been away more than 30 years, I came back with my wife to ski, to seek out some of my old haunts and chase some of those memories.

The place has changed, of course, but even surrounded by acres of those condominiums that seem to grow wild in the once picturesque meadows, it is possible to see the old Sun Valley, the one that opened nearly 50 years ago.

Then it was the nation's first destination ski resort, a glittering gathering place for the rich and the famous, tucked away in this remote valley between the Pioneer Range and the Sawtooth Mountains, northeast of Boise. Winter and summer, the famous people came here to play, stars such as Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert skied, ice skated, rode horseback or hunted and fished in streams.

The Sun Valley Lodge and the Challenger Inn are still here, although the latter has had its name changed and the former has become just another hotel, a nice place to stay, but still a notch below what the Union Pacific's W. Averell Harriman had in mind when he built it back in 1936.

Bustling Resort

Dollar Mountain is still Dollar Mountain, where beginning skiers can feel like experts, and the gold rush town of Ketchum, a mile down the road, has grown from a rustic village in the Wood River Valley to a bustling resort town, albeit one that is less hectic and more orderly than Mammoth Lakes or some of the other big-time ski resorts.

When I worked here Sun Valley's dining rooms and cocktail lounges were classy places and Ketchum was a bumptious little Western burg, a sheep-ranching town with a dozen noisy saloons full of slot machines and grass widows waiting out their six-week divorces.

Flying into Hailey Airport recently and driving by taxi the 12 miles to Sun Valley, it soon became obvious that time has not stopped; subdivisions and condo projects are all up and down the Wood River Valley and as the taxi approached Ketchum's outskirts you can see a traffic light and new buildings, a shopping center and motels.

Real estate offerings include an "estate quality" house in Riverwood for $725,000; "the only Wildflower Cottage" condo left on the market, at $625,000; or a four-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot house at the base of Dollar Mountain for only $630,000.

Some things never change, like Bald Mountain. Known simply as "Baldy" and standing 9,150 feet tall, it is still one of the best-kept, most skiable mountains around, for any class of skier. From the top you can look down into Ketchum and Sun Valley far below or see out across the majestic Sawtooth Mountains on the skyline.

Much has changed, and not all of it is a pleasant surprise to someone who comes looking for the old Sun Valley, the one that operated here before pencil pushers began looking at the profit and loss columns and decided that Harriman's posh resort should begin to make money. That decision was made in the mid-1950s, when the resort's staffing ratio was still three to one, three employees for every guest.

Hitting the Trail

Back then, when someone like radio personality Arthur Godfrey wanted to go horseback riding at dawn and have breakfast at Trail Creek Lodge, well, by golly, we rolled out early, saddled the horses and hit the trail. When Hemingway wanted to shoot skeet or grouse, or Clark Gable wanted to ski, all they had to do was say the word.

One summer a banker and his family from Salt Lake rented a suite in "the valley" for six weeks and he commuted on weekends. His children took daily riding lessons, learned to ice skate, play tennis and golf. At the end of their stay he came around, handing out $100 tips to the kids' favorite instructors.

It was the first time I'd seen Ben Franklin's portrait up close.

Harriman had built the place to attract rail passengers and "the valley" became a delightful three-day train ride from New York's Grand Central Station. Important guests were met at the station by horse-drawn stages or sleighs, depending on the season. Others rode the bus.

The resort was staffed by famous Austrian ski teachers, European chefs and hotel staff. There were two outdoor heated swimming pools, an ice rink, dog teams for winter sleigh rides, horses for riding in the summer, a golf course, skeet range, and at the resort's back door, a whole forest wilderness for those who wanted more room.

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