…I stayed for the summer—it’s a popular Ketchum adage used to describe what happened to many of us when we visited the Sun Valley area for the first time (and still find ourselves here decades later). It’s also a story that many mountain town denizens all over the world can relate to. It captures the often accidental process of finding a place, falling in love with it, and then figuring out how to stay there. No matter what first brought us and what continues to keep us in these mountain towns, the stories there are the stories of a culture.
We’d like to ask all of you to join us and take part in the ‘I came for the winter…’ storytelling project. All you have to do is tell us your story. What was it that brought you home to the mountains? Why did you stay?
Our towns are heavily populated by transplants—they fell in love with a place, an idea, and the promise of life in the mountains.
Nick Harman, the Audience Service Director at the Argyros Performing Arts Center in Ketchum, is the motivating force behind the ‘I came for the winter…’ project.
“I embarked on this project as a nostalgic look back at how I ended up 6,000 miles away from ‘home’,” Harman explains, “as well as a way of remembering one of my best friends with whom I moved here 25 years ago from London, who tragically died soon after we arrived.”
Storytelling is such an important part of passing on our history and culture, and perpetuating the way of life that originally attracted us to these towns. Good storytelling can give us perspective—a way of seeing where we are now and where we are heading as towns and as communities.
BigLife is proud to support the “I came for the winter…” project and will be publishing the written stories in our magazine as well as online. Spoken word stories are welcome as well, so hit the record button on your phone and spin a yarn. “If we get a good response,” Harman says, “I’d like to create a series of ‘I came for the winter…’ evenings, organized by decade so we can share our memories, stories, and pictures over a glass of wine or a beer!”
If you would like to participate or want to learn more about the ‘I came for the winter…’ project, please visit icameforthewinter.com or email email@example.com to stay in touch or submit your story. We can’t wait to hear from you.
Part I – “Road Trip to Ketchup”
In 1993, I drove into Sun Valley, Idaho, for the first time. It was actually Ketchum because we couldn’t find Sun Valley. It was 1 o’clock in the morning, Saturday, late in November, and my best friend Malcolm and I had just driven for 11 hours straight from Seattle.
We had been living in Seattle for a couple of months, having decided to take some time off after leaving university in London. Quite on a whim, one Saturday afternoon we decided to take a road trip to visit an ex-girlfriend of mine and good friend of Malcolm’s, Diana. We didn’t have a phone number or address for her—the entire Internet probably contained five pages at this point. But I had run into a friend of Diana’s several weeks prior, and after several drinks at a bar she mentioned that Diana had moved to a small town in Idaho called Ketchup!
The whole concept of a ‘road trip’ is quite foreign to someone from England. A five– or six-hour trip would take weeks of planning and definitely require an overnight stay. So, the idea of embarking on a spur-of-the-moment trip with no clear idea of a destination at 1pm—a trip that equated to driving the entire length of England—was just the kind of nonsensical challenge that Malcolm and I relished.
Close examination of a map, after we had already embarked on our journey I might add, revealed that the likely home of our friend Diana was a small town called Ketchum (not Ketchup), close to another place that her friend mentioned and that I remembered only because of how fantastic it sounded: Sun Valley. In England we don’t have places called Sun Valley, Magic Valley, or Jackpot, for that matter.
I will never forget the drive. Having only decided that afternoon to make the trip and with no Internet to offer a preview as to what we might expect to find, both Malcolm and I were giddy with expectation and excitement. The fact that Diana, whom we had not seen in three years, had no idea we were coming only heightened our level of anticipation.
Driving through the sparseness of the Southern Idaho high desert got us thinking that our once city–dwelling, vivacious, larger–than–life friend Diana had become either a recluse or maybe even a fugitive! I remember rolling through Bellevue and thinking that it was the stuff of western movies. We spent the rest of the drive speculating about what had happened to our friend and why she would want to live somewhere so remote.
Looking back on this night, I know now that an alternate narrative was beginning to play out in my head from the moment we started to descend Timmerman Hill, an area generally considered the “gateway” to the Sun Valley area. It’s a voice that has become a roar for over 20 years and it’s the voice that grounds me in this place.
As we pulled into Ketchum, I just remember that a big smile came over my face. I can’t really explain why. I didn’t try and analyze it at the time, either. And as Malcolm seemed to have this big grin on his face too, I just assumed that it was for the same reason, so I decided to leave it at that. The only other time this had happened, I was also with Malcolm. We were in Ko Phangan, Thailand, and had just finished the last slice of what our waiter had described as the “Special Pizza.” As the ingredients of this “special’” mushroom pizza were just starting to take effect, I looked over at Malcolm and he had this quizzical grin on his face that just said, “This is amazing, but we don’t need to talk about it.”
So, there we were in Ketchum with no contact information for Diana and no place to stay. We headed towards the only semblance of life that Main Street Ketchum seemed to have at 1am—the Circle K convenience store. As I got out of the car, my eyes were drawn to the sky. Malcolm was experiencing the same thing. Never had I seen a sky quite like it. Brilliant stars for as far as the eye could see. And the air, I had never tasted such crisp air before.
The lady behind the counter at Circle K looked like she had seen any number of ridiculous scenarios play out under her florescent lights. But here we were, two well-dressed men with strong English accents coming in at 1am to ask for directions to downtown Sun Valley… or, maybe you know who this girl is…
Ignoring our second question, she addressed the first one. It’s simple, she said. “It’s just one mile up Sun Valley Road, you can’t go wrong.” Well, we kept doing what the Circle K lady said over and over as we drove around and around for the next 30 minutes before deciding that we had just succumbed to a traditional local prank that everyone played on clueless foreigners entering their town in the middle of the night. How were we to know at the time that Sun Valley was essentially a hotel and a bunch of mansions and there was no town center or downtown.
After circling the Lodge several times, we decided to go in and ask reception for directions to Sun Valley. If you thought that we had made the Circle K lady’s night with our nonsense, then asking the gentleman behind the counter at the Lodge if he could direct us to Sun Valley signaled game, set, and match for him.
Thankfully, and very respectfully I might add, the gentleman politely and warmly grinned, as if to let us in on the joke, and said, “Why gentleman, you have arrived.” After clearing up the issue that there is not a downtown as such in Sun Valley and that Sun Valley really centers around the resort, we moved on to our next items of business.
The question of our financial eligibility to stay at the Lodge that night was a swift exchange: an inquiry of price from us, a rate from him, and an “I see” back from us. It was a short rally in a game that, again, clearly went to him.
Our next matter of business caught him off-guard at first, and then he completely blindsided us with his return. I pulled the dog-eared photo of Diana out of my pocket to present to him, my head half bowed in expectation of being rebuffed. What were the odds he would recognize Diana? What were the chances that he would know her? What were the chances that he would know where she lived, and above all, what were the chances that he would tell two strangers in the middle of the night instead of just calling the police?
What happened next was the first of a series of extraordinary events that would play out over the next two days, the combination of which would change the trajectory of our lives forever. “Oh, Diana!” he blurted out. “Love that girl! You’re friends of Diana? You should have said!” He took a closer look at the picture from 1989. “You want to know where she lives?” he continued, as he pulled out a map. We could not believe our eyes as he began to draw a route back from the Lodge through Ketchum to an area just out of town where he said there was an apartment complex called Parkside. “She lives right there—6B,” he said, making a circle on the map.
Fully believing this was another set–up, we thanked the gentleman and returned to the car. It was 2am by the time we arrived at the Parkside. The temptation of knocking on the door of apartment 6B was powerful but for the first time since we embarked on this adventure some 13 hours before, rational heads prevailed, and we slept in the car. Besides, what if this were a set–up?
What happened the next day set my life and Malcolm’s life on two unexpected paths that neither of us could have possibly predicted. Whilst for me, I will always see ‘destiny’ over ‘serendipity’ or ‘coincidence’ as the overarching reason for our impromptu road trip, for Malcolm, there will always be a blurred line in my mind between fate and fateful that will forever haunt me.
Part II – “About Last Night Nick…Thanks, Demi”.
Needless to say, neither of us got much sleep that night. A combination of cold, a complete lack of preparation for the possible eventuality of sleeping in the car and shire exhilaration easily prevailed over our exhaustion – any type of meaningful rest was out of the question.
After some debate, we decided that 8.30am was the earliest that we could contemplate knocking on the door. Now that the reality of springing our surprise was merely a few hours away we decided to role play how the first few lines of dialogue might play out. It became quickly apparent that we could not construct one plausible script that wasn’t worthy of being titled, “completely insane”. This realization quickly led to an onset of panic, especially on my part. Malcolm’s role in this two-hander, seemed somewhat more forgiving. He was more the accomplice whereas I was likely to be viewed as the instigator by virtue of the fact that I was the one that had had a yearlong relationship with Diana. There were many ways this could play out with a less than ideal outcome. In my worst fear version of the events that could unfold she could think this was incredibly creepy and strange.
As Malcolm pretended to be Di and I rehearsed the many ways of delivering the now very much paired down script we had both agreed on which incidentally was simply “hi”; a light went on in the hall way of apartment 6B. In one instant, we had drastically deviated from the script that we thought we were back in control over. We both looked at our watches: 7.30am, crap.
This was all too much. A rush of adrenaline coursed through me. Screw it, I was going to take charge of this situation and rely on my gut instinct and my intuition for reading and reacting to her shocked look, and I was going to ad lib my way through potentially a few awkward seconds, how hard could that be.
I swung open the car door and marched towards the front door of apartment 6B. I gave it a confident yet understated knock and waited. As I looked over my shoulder to Malcolm who was still in the car, I was aware that the front door was opening. None of the scenarios we had run through helped for what I was now confronted with.
In front of me was a 6ft rugged looking man dressed in a pinkish robe. The robe color only served to delay the processing time for what I was looking at. My delay of speech prompted him to intervene and ask, “What’s going on?”. With no time to evaluate the merit or safety for that matter of different possible responses, my brain decided to say “Hi, I was looking for Di”. As the words exited my mouth, I was already wishing to recall them for fear he thought I might have said “Hi, I was looking to Die”.
The following conversation was awkward. No two ways about it. My only hope was that Diana surfaced fast to save me. Thankfully she did, and it was only then I might add that Malcolm unlocked the car door and came to join me on the porch. It was great to see Diana. She was completely shocked and thankfully in a good way. The guy in her pink robe was Allen, her boyfriend, and I have to say that all things considered, he was a really good sport not to have overreacted which in my opinion he was completely entitled to do.
Thankfully the feeling of abrupt intrusion to Diana and Allen’s Saturday morning softened and Allen’s initial groggy and perfectly justified suspicious reception gave way to a more quizzical and amused demeanor. We were a novelty act with a threat level of zero. I know this because while Diana immediately raced upstairs to get ready for a day of ‘showing off her town’, Allen announced that he was going back to bed.
The short walk into town was filled with this reunited trio exchanging recollections of our shared lives together back in Seattle three years prior. As we recounted a familiar list of well told favorite memories, Diana intermittently interjected with notable tidbits of information relevant to our surroundings.
In a short amount of time we were walking along main street and taking a right turn on 4th Street to get to our intended breakfast location: Java on Fourth. Everything we saw on our brief field trip into town was being mentally added to a list of topics for further discussion. From the stunning backdrop of Bald Mountain that overlooked the town to the curious looking, unassuming house-like pub called Grumpy’s that Di said was a Ketchum institution that we would be visiting later in the day.
As we neared our destination Di brought us up to speed on the local politics surrounding our breakfast spot. Java apparently burst on to the Ketchum coffee scene a few years prior, when a gentleman named Todd from San Diego rode in on his Harley, fell in love with the town and decided to put down roots. Evidentially this was not met with universal approval by the locals as this new addition to the coffee circuit threatened the status quo of the unchallenged ‘go to’ coffee shop of record: The Grinder.
Interpreting this tepid acceptance of something new from a faction of the community led Malcolm and I to an albeit temporary heightened state of being on guard for any signs of hostility from the natives and we ready to blot the copy book of this so far A+ review of our experience so far. The feeling that we might be met with resistance was fleeting and it quickly became apparent that Di was our all-access pass to fun and acceptance in a town that she appeared to be the unofficial mayor of. The two blocks leading to Java kicked off a series of introductions to people and dogs that tallied more people than we had met in Seattle in the last two months.
As we arrived at the café and started to ascend the three steps to the entrance of this charming little house turned social mecca, we were greeted by a tall welcoming man with long dark hair swept back into a ponytail and black heavy rimmed glasses named Todd. Todd, in the eyes of some was the villain that was bringing his city ways to this sleepy town, but along with his adorable dog Ray that was greeting everyone as they came in, I immediately started to feel that this character was an ally. After all we were two Londoners, just dropping in from Seattle.
As we entered the coffee shop, we passed an absolute dead ringer for Jamie Lee Curtis. I commented to Malcolm on the way in and he agreed. As we stood in line at the counter, we were met with a feast of the most deliciously smelling muffin varietals stacked in neat mountains behind a glass case that followed the counter to the register.
Todd had followed us inside and was giving us a personal tour of the menu. If this was our first time, then he insisted that our choice was set, “A Bowl of Soul and a raspberry sourdough cream muffin”. I had little idea of what he was talking about, but he had me at Bowl of Soul. It was at that point that the lady we had remarked on outside popped her head in the door and said “see ya Todd”. “See ya Jamie” Todd replied. I looked at Malcolm. He was already looking at me. Since neither of us knew how to compute the likely coincidence of this Jamie Lee Curtis looking lady actually being called Jamie, we looked to Di. She looked horrified and gave us the kind of look reserved for two children who were about to completely embarrass their mother. It was a quick shake of the head, a purse of the lips into the universally understood Sshh gesture and that was it. Her efforts were unable to arrest the variety of expressions that were now rapidly being exchanged across our faces and Malcolm and I both headed for the door partly to alleviate the embarrassment that she was clearly feeling and partly to verify the outrageous notion that we had just witnessed Jamie Lee Curtis having a coffee on the bench of this tiny little coffee shop in this sleepy little town.
This lady purporting to be Jamie Lee Curtis couldn’t have just lost her way and ended up in Ketchum because she knew Todd. What was she doing here? If we had exited Java two minutes prior, I would have been in time to ask her. I was not afraid of letting social etiquette get in the way of getting the facts I need to understand this perplexing mystery. Alas she was just getting into her car and drove off just as we reached the sidewalk. Just to round this strange encounter off, she was driving a very unremarkable old blue Volvo station wagon! What was wrong with this picture? Where was her fabulous sports car, a Porsche, a Mercedes, give me a BMW but a Volvo? We needed to head back inside for more answers.
On entering the now bustling coffee shop we could see that Di had managed to hold a central table for us in the middle of the café next to the fire. This was going to be the perfect vantage point for Malcolm and me to track anything further that was out of the norm. We were not going to be caught off guard again. As I squeezed my way to the table, we passed a variety of interesting looking characters, I was not able to draw any demographic or socioeconomic generalizations from the collective whole whatsoever. I felt like my meter for prejudging someone from appearance alone was in desperate need of recalibrating. The usual cues for making these often wildly inaccurate but nevertheless fun assumptions about someone were now coming at me in a language I was not able to understand. A very scruffy individual on my left with a very expensive looking watch, an extremely chic looking lady on my right in overalls and a pair of glasses the likes of which I had never seen before – round metal rimmed spectacles with a further tinted rim hinged to each side that were flung open like barn doors so that from the front view there were four aligned circles that spanned across her face.
I made it to the table and was instantly in sensory overload heaven as I caught combination whiffs of piping hot coffee and Mexican hot chocolate combined with a steaming, right out of the oven raspberry sour cream muffin. The fire was crackling, the aroma of sweet baking smells was intoxicating, healthy looking people having the liveliest of conversations all around me – Harley riding Todd had certainly created an ambience that lived up to the motto that appeared under his logo “wake up and live” and I for one was ready to start living.
Just as I was taking it all in, Todd approached the table next to us to begin the formalities of saying thank you and goodbye to the ‘spectacle lady’, a ritual I had already observed him perform with several of the other guests that happened to leave during our visit. As the spectacle lady got up and gathered her things, she threw her arms around Todd in a very familiar style hug normally reserved for family or extremely close friends. “Goodbye Todd” she said. And what came out of his mouth next, stopped both Malcolm and I mid sip on our Bowl of Soul. “Goodbye Demi” – now in the absence of the previous Jamie Lee Curtis incident five minutes prior we would have thought nothing of Todd’s friendly salutation to spectacle lady, but could it be that it was us that were in desperate need of her four-lens capabilities. Did my favorite 80’s movie star crush really just have breakfast right under my nose without me noticing!!! While I was prattling on about last night, was the star of one of my favorite 80’s movie’s “About Last Night” sitting right next to me sipping coffee!? Without knowing what the word meant at the time; were we being Punk’d?
Thank God Diana snatched us away from our embarrassing body language and facial expressions. She grabbed both our collars, now she was addressing us not as badly-behaved children but as disobedient socially unadjusted dogs. She quickly schooled us on the host of celebrity residents of the valley and in no uncertain terms educated us in the social etiquette of adopting a nonchalant indifference to seeing anyone from the silver screen walking around town. I could see that any kind of rebuttal to this unwritten code of conduct I was being schooled in was going to be futile and with that, I put the napkin back in my pocket that I was going to have her sign that said: “About Last Night Nick…Thanks, Demi”.
Part III – “If we can find a job and an apartment in the next three hours, let’s stay”
To be continued…
Part III – Remembering Malcolm
Over the next few hours I felt myself falling under some kind of a spell. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time but as Di whisked us around town, Ketchum was beginning to wrap its arms around us with the kind of bear hug we had no chance of escaping from.
We followed Di on her daily errands, first stopping of at the Post office. Having received mail all my life through the letter box in the front door, this ‘new’ method of receiving communication was fraught with an endless amount of verbal communication to even get to the written communication hidden in the small metal box. Di must have been stopped five times enroute to the PO Box finish line, bringing this person up to date on that and that person up to date on this. With a town seemingly so small, it was a surprise to me that anything of any significance could have a chance of occurring before you bumped into that person again. Anyway, with everyone all caught up on everything, we left the Post Office and headed back into town.
It was sometime during this first morning that both Malcolm and I stated to feel like we had walked onto the set of Twin Peaks. We were both hooked on the show and we started to create plots around the various characters Di had been introducing us to. We had not discovered the murderer yet, but we were definitely on the lookout for suspects. And it wasn’t only Twin Peaks that was playing in the background; My Own Private Idaho had just come out the year before and the story line of two friends embarking on a journey of personal discovery was certainly not lost on us, both figuratively and literally since we were in Idaho after all.
After visiting Sun Valley Lodge, this time in daylight and Warm Springs Lodge, Di decided that it was high time for a beer. The next transformative stop was of course a staple for any newly inducted city transplant: Grumpy’s.
On entering this odd little house on the outskirts of town I am not sure who was in for the bigger surprise – us or the patrons. We definitely didn’t look like we were from Idaho and there seemed to be a collective pause as we entered. Fortunately, Di went in first and by association it felt like we were given a probationary rite of passage to the bar. Without any exchange of words, the bar tender threw a glance over at Di who reciprocated with a nod and a quick flash of three fingers. Before I had chance to enquire what had just taken place, three giant fishbowls on stalks, filled with beer, were slid in front of us.
My first instinct was to point at my watch and exclaim what time it was 11:30am! As I quickly scanned around the bar, I could see that this fact did not seem to present any kind of a problem or concern for anyone else and I concluded the prudent thing for me to do was keep my mouth shut. Many questions crossed my mind, why were there crushed beer cans all over the wall, why was this vibrant happy place called Grumpy’s and why was this bar full at 11.30am, did people not have to work in this town?
With so many questions and not enough answers a survival instinct kicked in that drew me to the back of the bar where I could see there was a snooker table. Having played snooker with my dad at home since I was able to balance on a custom box, to reach the table, I felt that I might be able to bond with the natives over a common interest. As it turns out it was pool, that I was less familiar with as it is not as common in England and not only that, I came to find out it was pool with some different rules than we have in England. But since snooker is to pool what chess is to checkers, I felt confident I could hold my own.
Looking back, attempting to bond over a seemingly harmless social game of pool was a big error in judgement on my part. A dual with any one of the natives who seemed to stack their quarters up on the side of the table with increasing vigor once I entered the scene was fraught with trip wires, especially since they appeared to be two or three goldfish bowls ahead of me.
First there was the language barrier. You wouldn’t think it was possible for two countries who spoke English to come up against so many variations of pronunciation and definition. And whilst instinctually to this day, I still find myself wanting to settle any disagreements on the subject with my American friends by saying “It’s called English for a reason”, thank God my self-preservation instincts on this particular day overrode my desire to say what was on my mind. And for the next hour I played pool with a ‘stick’ not a cue, I went to the ‘bathroom’ not the loo and I drank from a ‘schooner’ not a fishbowl.
The locals seemed to be amused by the way we spoke, and I was happy to humor them (yes there are two u’s in humor) with saying whatever words they wanted me to, however they wanted me to say them. They must not have had many visitors from England because whenever they would attempt to copy my accent, what they thought was a spot-on impersonation, never even came close to leaving the shores of Australia.
Whilst accents and vocabulary are amusing small talk conversation, the business of bar pool can be extremely serious, especially when local honor is threatened by two snooker playing foreign invaders. Taking on not one, but potentially a series (winner stays up) of local mountain men on their home turf was going to require the utmost care and diplomacy, skills that I felt disappearing with every schooner swig.
Anyone that plays a lot of pool knows they can size up their opponent from his or her first shot and after watching the grizzly bear that I found myself up against, miscue an easy stripe I realized I had the first game in the bag if I wanted. Fortunately, the bear realized he had consumed too much beer to take on even the most straightforward trigonometry calculation required to sink a straight ball into a pocket at close range. He was happy to quickly offer up this defense of his form and welcomed playing to the crowd with humor and drunkenness so as to deflect from the inevitable loss of the game.
I was keen to showcase my pool prowess, but this first game was not the time. I did however bank the eight from an acute angle to finish the game. I gave my chances of being able to pull off the shot about ten percent but as my opponent still had the majority of his balls on the table, I had nothing to lose. Maybe because I was so relaxed with just the right amount of beer or maybe it was just fluke, but the eight ball went in with such fast, clean precision, that many of the people next up, seemed to take note.
It was this next game that set the course for a potential disastrous outcome. I got the impression that this next character was somewhat of a top seeded, local favorite as he received a round of battle cries from the onlookers as he stepped up to break. He smashed the ball so hard if it had accidentally gone airborne and left the table it would have killed a man from 20 ft. The balls scattered in every direction and when the frenzy was over, I was able to calculate two stripes had gone down: game on!
By the time it was my turn, he was four stripes to the good and I was left with no logical shot to try and catch up. Now, what one does in this situation in snooker versus pool I came to find out differs in a very serious way that could have even more serious repercussions. In snooker a smart play would be to go into defensive mode and make a shot that would leave your opponent in a difficult position for his next shot and best of all cases it would leave him completely obscured from even being able to make contact with any of his balls.
It turns out that in the US to employ this kind of strategy would be akin to approaching your opponent and shouting directly into his face that his mother was a whore! I found this out the hard way. As I stood back from perhaps the deftest touch ever applied between a pool stick and a pool ball to quietly revel in the sticky predicament I had landed my opponent in, I noticed that every single onlooker seemed to have a look of disbelief on their face including Di who up until that moment was thoroughly enjoying the prospect being responsible for disrupting the ‘Grumpy’s pool order of things’ by bringing this yet to be fully recognized, English pool shark into the mix.
With every second that passed that my opponent remained expressionless, my situation became more and more grave. The words he finally chose to convey what he thought of what I had done will be forever imprinted on my brain: ‘WTF was that?’ It was blatantly apparent that I had committed an unthinkable act and thankfully I had not completely lost my ability to pull off a minor diplomatic miracle with a series of awkward attempts at an apology. My opponent, who incidentally was a fairly large rugged character, I surmised had two choices of response and after another considerably lengthy deliberation as to what to say next, he spoke. I have to say it has never felt so good to be called a “God damn Limey bastard”, especially when it’s delivered with a wry smile that gave me and anyone else that might have been compassionate to my plight (which was probably only Di and Malcolm) the permission to exhale a sigh of relief.
To this day I think I could have taken that guy, on the pool table that is, but I quickly determined that the prudent course of action would be to survive the game to almost the end and then bow out gracefully or ‘choke’ to use a term that I was unfamiliar with before moving here. We had intended to have lunch at Grumpy’s, I was intrigued to try the ‘foul burger’, but given my close call at the pool table the three of us decided we should make a quick exit before I got us into any more trouble.
With burgers on or mind, Di led the way back to town and showed us to Burger Haus. She said she had to get to work and asked us if it was OK if she left us to our own devices. I think the Grumpy’s incident was a cautionary tale for her to give us a wide berth for a while in case we took any further missteps that might damage her reputation.
As we entered Burger Haus, I had noticed that Malcolm started to have this cheeky, mischievous grin on his face. I had seen this look many times before and could usually predict what had elicited it, but on this occasion I was unclear. As he had not participated in any of the pool games at Grumpy’s he had managed to consume considerably more beer than I had and given the predicament I had put us all in with my pool antics, you could hardly blame him for trying to calm his nerves in a schooner. But what was his grinning all about?
The Burger Haus was definitely a local favorite. Great burgers, fries and shakes at reasonable prices. Malcolm and I had contemplated walking thru the drive thru as we had never experienced one before. We decided against it, but that didn’t stop us watching how it worked it for a good ten minutes. What was curious about the drive thru at Burger Haus, that we simply could not figure out, was that the drive thru window was on the South side of the building causing anyone that went through it to have lean completely across the passenger seat to make any kind of contact with the person at the drive thru window. Since a lot of the Burger Haus clientele had clearly consumed a lot of Burger Haus food, this made the business of handing over money and receiving food at full stretch quite the spectator sport.
We settled into a booth in the corner of the restaurant and paused for a moment to take in the feast before us. These were real American burgers brimming with juicy goodness. The fries were accompanied with a side of some delicious pinkish concoction called ‘fry sauce’, and to drink, we followed suit with the previous three customers in line before us; chocolate shake. Ordering a chocolate milk shake to accompany a burger in England would be incomprehensible, but we were in America now and ‘when in Rome’…!
The previous diners at our table had left a couple of newspapers behind, the Mountain Express. As we tucked into our lunch both Malcolm and I relaxed into reading about what was going on in the town. Malcolm was leafing through the pages with some purpose and as he neared the back section of the newspaper the cheeky grin returned. It did not take me long to catch on and I started to flick through the pages with the same kind of eagerness to get to the back section: the Classifieds. Without verbally communicating to each other we both started to hover our index fingers over the print, scanning the words back and forth, up and down.
Strangely enough, without knowing it we were dividing and conquering with the utmost efficiency. I was scouring the Help Wanted section and Malcolm was speed reading the For Rent section. We both completed our search almost simultaneously with our index fingers firmly planted on the page so as to book mark our find. I looked over to Malcolm and he had clearly got his finger on a different part of the newspaper than I had. I motioned to him to go first, curious as to what he had discovered. He read from the newspaper with a nervous excitement: “Studio apartment, West Ketchum, close to River Run – $350 / month”. I laughed; since he went first, I realized before he did that with both of our respective finds we had taken care of the basics to survival; food and shelter. Barely skipping a beat, I read out my find; “Come join our team. Fast paced, friendly environment. Contact the Burger Haus”.
We both looked at each other, trying to get a read on the level of seriousness we were both giving this ridiculous notion. I could see that Malcolm’s grin had been replaced with a look of true and considered contemplation. Quick to reciprocate and always ready to throw down the gauntlet of a challenge I looked at my watch (2pm) and I heard myself say “If we can find a job and an apartment in the next three hours, let’s stay”. The funny thing was though, was that as absurd as the idea sounded in some respects, it didn’t shock me. It many ways it felt like a natural, albeit impulsive reaction to the kind of effects this town was having on us from the moment we arrived.
We quickly moved through the absurdity of the proposal and got down to business. Greg, the Burger Haus owner was making his rounds, bussing tables and chatting to customers. When he came around to us, we enquired about the positions he had available. It turned out he was only looking for one server. This did not deter us and with the same passion and tenacity I had brought to bear on any interview situation that I could think of, I was able to persuade Greg that having two strings to his bow was better than one and that if he gave us this chance we would not let him down.
I think Greg was extremely confused by the whole exchange. As recent graduates of Greenwich University, London with BA Honors degrees in Business Studies, it felt extremely surreal to us too. It reminded me of the scene from “Coming to America” where Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall apply to work at the McDowell’s fast food joint. But surreal as it was, it was quickly reality; Greg handed over some forms to us to complete and told us that training would start the next day. I think listing Di as our one and only reference had a lot do with Greg’s otherwise leap of faith decision.
With one hurdle down and only one remaining, the reality of what might happen began to set in, but could we really secure an apartment in a couple of hours? Surely the effortlessness of securing employment could not be replicated as easily when it came to a place to live.
As cell phones weren’t a thing back then, we had to reply on a landline to make the all-important call on the apartment. Not wanting to shock Di any further with our latest plan we ruled out asking to borrow her pone and instead asked the only person we knew in the town, Greg. Asking your new boss to borrow his phone to make a call to see if you can secure a place to live was less than ideal. I think he realized the moment he hired us that things were not going to be entirely conventional when it came to us and he chose to go with the flow and come along for the ride.
The gentleman that answered the phone sounded very faint and far away. We asked him if we could see the apartment and he explained that he was on a fishing trip, up at his cabin and miles away. Assuming this was the end of the line for us, I thanked him for his time and went through the formalities of ending the call. “But wait” he said, “the place is open, feel free to check it out”. Did he really just invite us to go over to his apartment and help ourselves? Yes, he did. To someone from London this was very bizarre but in light of the way things were beginning to just figure themselves out, I quickly scribbled down the address on a napkin and we headed out.
The apartment was basic to say the least, but we didn’t care. The apartment was minute, but we didn’t care. The apartment only had one bed and it was curiously a waterbed – again we didn’t care. We ran back to Burger Haus and excitedly asked Greg if we could borrow his phone again. Greg had clearly brought the rest of the staff up to speed with our situation and what we were trying to pull off. It felt like a weird episode of the Amazing Race and by now our new co-workers were hanging on to the next potential plot twist.
Still slightly out of breath, I called the landlord back. I seemed to catch him off-guard too, as I told him we loved the place and would like to rent it. Under any normal circumstances what would follow would be a usual back and forth of apartment application, reference checks, lease, and finally payment. But as we were beginning to find out, these were anything but normal circumstances and outcomes, and what we were going to need to have happen for our us to be able to pull off this ridiculous challenge we had set for ourselves was going to have to be nothing short of extraordinary.
Sometimes when you need extraordinary, you get extraordinary. I asked the landlord what would be the very earliest that we could move in as we were really in need of somewhere soon (little did he realize that soon meant now). “Is this afternoon soon enough” he said. “But you are on vacation” I replied. “Doesn’t mean you can’t move does it? Put a check under the door mat and I’ll have a buddy of mine sing by later and pick it up”.
This was now just beyond comprehension and I really started to entertain the idea that the whole thing was some kind of set up to test our will. But every part of it was real and as our new work colleagues all raised their hands to receive what were very uncoordinated and limply executed high fives from Malcolm and I (we don’t have high fives in England), we started to take stock of what just happened, adrenaline coursing through our veins.
Needless to say, we delivered Di’s second shock of the day with all the brimming over excitement of two excited teenagers. She was on shift at Smokey Mountain Pizza which was probably just as well since work environment etiquette prevented her from sharing her true thoughts on the matter with us. All that she could muster was “We’re going to talk about this when I get off” and like two admonished children we skulked out of the restaurant until we were sufficiently out of her site before screaming at the top of our voices and giving each other the most perfectly coordinated, synchronized, double handed high five ever delivered.
For any of you that made it this far, that is my story. I would love to hear from anyone that would like to share their own story. Unless you were born here, we all have circumstances and paths that led us here. And whilst those paths are all different, what we all have in common is the magic we experienced when we got here. I would love to stich all these stories together for a reading at The Argyros titled “I came for the winter…”, so please e-mail me if you are interested.
Recounting my story has been a very emotional and cathartic experience, something I wish I had done many years ago because it has reconnected me with the very powerful life changing decision that I made to move here (Thank you Di) and more importantly it has reconnected me to the memory of one of my very best friends, Malcolm. Very early on in writing this story I realized that I was not only writing my “I came to for the winter” story but I was also paying tribute to my dear friend Malcolm.
Devastatingly, one year after we moved to Ketchum, Malcolm took his own life. To this day I am no clearer to understanding the reasons why. It left an enormous and seemingly unfillable hole in my life and it has taken me years to come to terms with what happened. It rocked my very foundation and challenged my resolve and desire to stay here. But stay here I did.
Twenty-two years later and I live two streets from where Malcolm and I used to live, Rember St – or Remember St as I like to call it. Despite what happened, I take comfort from the fact that I live so close to where I said goodbye to my friend. I can see his grin now as he reflects on the journey we started together and that I have continued on, for more than twenty-five years.
Malcolm, I know how much you loved Sun Valley. I feel your presence and your shine every day.