By Shawn Parker
This episode holds a special place in my heart.
Ernest Hemingway has been my favorite author since my freshman year in high school (when he overtook J.R.R. Tolkien in my pantheon of legends). I have since read all of his novels, most of his short stories, and even letters he wrote to friends that contained his favorite recipes for drinks and pan-fried trout. When I was offered the opportunity to assist Sheridan College, the City of Sheridan, and Sheridan County on attracting a 2020 Hemingway Society event, I jumped at the challenge.
And then 2020 happened.
Lucky for us, the conference was not cancelled outright, but rather pushed to July 18-24, 2021. And with that delay came an opportunity for my office to showcase why exactly the Hemingway society chose Sheridan County as host for this prestigious event, why fans of Hemingway and American literature should consider visiting, and why the author himself came to Wyoming over and over again.
For me, this passage from A Farewell to Arms perfectly answers the question why:
“But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
And with this passage as our guide, we proudly present to you Death in the Mountains: Ernest Hemingway’s Wyoming.
Death on the Mountains alludes to Hemingway’s non-fiction book about Spanish bullfighting. The book is a remarkable exploration of the nature of fear and courage, which, put simply, could define any grand adventure in the Bighorn Mountains. To that end, our story is not about death being an end, but of the death of old things, and the beginning of new experiences. Of how the mountains change us, and of how Wyoming becomes a critical part of our selves.
THE WYO THEATER
Sheridan in the late 1920s was a rip-roaring place, and while Hemingway found some of the peace and quiet he so fervently desired at the Sheridan Inn, there were also many distractions to occupy a young man’s attention.
One of those distractions was the WYO Theater, known then as the Lotus. The Lotus was legendary in its time for its Vaudeville acts, but also for its showing of early motion pictures. The theater was lauded as Wyoming’s Wonder Picture Palace, given its state-of-the-art chops, and ability to show the most modern films and performances. The WYO, since its opening in 1923, has always been deeply tied to the cultural heart of Sheridan. In fact, when the first talkies were show in 1929, hundreds of people from all over Northern Wyoming flocked to Sheridan for the event. And in the mid-1930s, when Sheridan’s reputation as a dude ranching mecca reached its zenith, the Lotus was rebranded the “Western Theater for Western People.” A remodeling dressed the theater in massive log slabs, pine panels, huge western murals, buffalo heads, and Indian rugs. It’s really no surprise why Hemingway loved to visit this place, when it was charged with so much energy. Of course, little has changed – the WYO continues to host local events, galas, and festivals, like the world-famous WYO Film Festival.
THE MINT BAR
There were plenty of other distractions for young Ernest back in those early days. Remember that he visited during Prohibition, when booze flowed more freely than perhaps any other time in American history. One place he loved to imbibe was the Mint Bar, a watering hole that needs no introduction.
From its time as The Mint Cigar Company and Soda Shop with a speakeasy run in the back room during the sneaky times of Prohibition, to the multiple times horses stopped in for a drink, The Mint Bar has served as a backdrop for the personal legends of generations.
Hemingway famously loved his drink, but he was also a veracious carnivore. While in Wyoming, Hemingway served his friends a lunch of bear steaks: “The meat was rank and stringy, cooked middling rare, and eaten in the form of sandwiches made from sourdough pancakes spread with orange marmalade. But Ernest consumed his portion with evident gusto, chewing long and appreciatively, his black beard glossy with bear fat,” said a friend.
Spear-O’s association with Hemingway has brought much attention to the mountains over the years. This, wild place is as spectacular today as it was nearly a century ago. His intention upon visiting Spear-O in 1928 was to find a quiet place to “finish the damn book,” in reference to A Farewell to Arms (which was eventually completed in Wyoming).
But rather than go into detail on Hemingway’s time in Wyoming here, we encourage you to watch our special episode of The Backyard, and check out the resources we have included below. And we hope that you will consider joining us next year, when the Hemingway Society celebrates the legendary author’s life and times in Wyoming.
HOW TO GET THERE:
The WYO Theater and the Mint Bar are located on Main Street, in the heart of Downtown Sheridan. Folly Ranch, briefly mentioned in our episode, is located in the Bighorn National Forest, but is not open to the public. Please respect rights of the landowners and do not attempt to visit on your own. The Bozeman Stable Grillroom & Saloon is located in the heart of beautiful Big Horn, Wyoming, a short, scenic drive from downtown Sheridan.
Straight shot via Big Horn and Red Grade
For the impatient adventurer! 28 Miles – approx. 1 hour – high clearance vehicle recommended. Not for inexperienced mountain drivers.
Scenic route through Ranchester and Dayton
Easier, longer drive than Red Grade. Plenty to see on the way. Relax and enjoy the mountains. 72 Miles – approx. 3 hours, longer with a climb up Steamboat Point about 12 miles past Dayton. Exhilarating!
For more detailed driving instructions to Spear-O, visit www.spearowigwam.com
ENJOY NATURAL PLACES RESPONSIBILITY
Sheridan County Travel & Tourism, the Wyoming Office of Tourism, the US Forest Service, Sheridan County, and all our local communities hope you have a wonderful experience when you explore Wyoming. We want to encourage you to WY Responsibly, and wish to share these great tips. For more information, please visit https://travelwyoming.com/wy-responsibly
Wyoming’s wide-open spaces make for epic camping and hiking. But before you set out, here are a few things to know.
Avoid overcrowding: Outdoor recreation is more popular than ever right now, causing overcrowding in some of Wyoming’s most beautiful areas. So what do you do if you show up to a trail and the parking lot is packed? Instead of joining the crowd, know what other options are around. Be ready to seek different trails and lesser-known experiences. We have dozens of suggestions on our website.
Keep it clean: Almost half of Wyoming’s 98,000 square miles is publicly owned, including many undeveloped areas that have no bathrooms or garbage facilities. It is up to all of us to do our part in keeping these spaces clean. Take all trash with you when you leave, don’t burn glass and metal in your campfire and bury human waste at least 100 feet from water sources.
Be fire aware: Help prevent human-caused fires by following basic best practices. Respect fire bans in place, choose a campsite with a pre-existing fire ring whenever possible and never leave your fire unattended. Make sure you have plenty of water available to put out your fire; you’ll need to completely extinguish it at night and before you leave camp. And remember, there are strict guidelines on fires in the Cloud Peak Wilderness.
Stick to the trails: Ride, hike or drive only on designated trails to help reduce impacts and protect wildlife. Planning to do some off-roading? The state of Wyoming requires a permit to use trails and roads that are part of Wyoming’s State ORV program. You can find more information on trail etiquette in Wyoming here.
Respect Local History: Tread lightly and take only photographs with you when you leave. You will find ancient historic and ceremonial sites, Indian Wars Battle Sites, and many other iconic locations on your travels our here. Sites like the Medicine Wheel are still in use by native peoples; pictograph and rock art sites are extremely fragile, and should not be touched, defaced, or otherwise disturbed. We appreciate all of the wonderful folks who come to Wyoming to explore responsibly.
Note that professional filming is not allowed within the Cloud Peak Wilderness, and therefore, all the filming for The Backyard takes place outside of the wilderness boundary, in the Bighorn National Forest. Please remember to practice good leave no trace principals, and leave the wilderness, as well as the forest, in the same condition you found it, so that those who come next may experience it the same way you did.
Click here for more information on wilderness regulations via the US Forest Service.
WHEN TO GO:
Sheridan County is a bustling community year-round, with many events, activities and attractions operating 12 months of the year. Spear-O is currently open seasonally (with plans to open longer in the future); please call ahead when you are considering a vacation in the Bighorns.
If you are interested in experiencing the Hemingway Society’s Hemingway in Wyoming and Montana Conference, July 18-24, 2021, please sign up for information at www.hemingwaysociety.org
There are several excellent Hemingway in Wyoming resources available. WYO History’s outstanding website is packed full of information, anecdotes, photos, and much more. Please click here to explore.
Sheridan Fulmer Public Library:
The Wyoming Room in the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library at 335 W. Alger Street, Sheridan, Wyo. was created in 1986. In 1994, the library expanded its facility by 3,400 square feet to house extensive historical collections. Researchers and other library patrons can browse through books, genealogical sources, maps, audio and film recordings, obituaries, and other items. The Wyoming Room is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (307) 674-8585, visit the library’s website at https://www.sheridanwyolibrary.org/location-hours/
Travel Storys GPS:
We highly recommend “Hemingway Highways – Sheridan” presented by the WY Humanities Council at www.travelstorys.com This interactive tour is a window into author Ernest Hemingway’s special connection to Wyoming. Visit the hotels and ranches he stayed at, the wildernesses he fished and hunted in, and the bars and speakeasies he frequented. Narrated by Mariel Hemingway.
We recommend Ken Keffer’s Hiking Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, an outstanding guide to area hikes. We also recommend the National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps. Both are available from local bookshops, outfitters, and outdoor shops in Sheridan County.
Consider gearing up at one of our local shops or outfitters to keep Sheridan County’s outdoor industry thriving. Local outposts include Rocky Mountain Discount Sports, The Sports Stop, Sportsman’s Warehouse, Shipton’s, Tractor Supply Co., and Big Horn Trading.
WHERE TO STAY:
Sheridan County has accommodations of every type to suit your Wyoming adventure dreams. Check out our online directory for information on hotels, motels, guest ranches, camp sites, RV parks, and more.
For our full album of photos from this trip, visit our archive here.
For all of our short films, videos, and other film-related content, follow us on YouTube by clicking here.
STAY SAFE AND HEALTHY:
At this time, there are no health and safety restrictions related to COVID-19 along this route. But please note that some retailers, businesses, and attractions in Sheridan have implemented mask requirements (those that do offer masks for guests at the entrance). Observe Forest Service regulations when exploring the Bighorn National Forest. Bars and restaurants currently have limited seating indoors. Click here for up-to-date COVID-19 information and resources.