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My Life with Hemingway’s Ghost

It was by chance I found myself again sitting with the ghost of Ernest Hemingway last week.

After a beautiful day packrafting The Sturgeon River in the dead of winter, my friend Trevor suggested The Park City Grill. When you walk inside the restaurant you enter via the bar, a two-hundred-year-old masterpiece made from a single piece of wood, and behind the bar, the original glass. An iconic photo of Hemingway looks down on the second seat from the entrance where he sat.

I have chased Hemingway’s ghost around the world, sometimes intentionally, other times by an accidental meeting. This was another chance meeting.

Many of Hemingway’s short stories come from his time in Northern Michigan in Boyne City, Petoskey and Charlevoix. I discovered this many years ago while visiting Charlevoix when I just happened to read a short clip about the area. So it was not a big surprise to be in another Hemingway hangout.

I spent some my of childhood growing up in the same area as Hemingway in Oak Brook, Illinois. While every family has their drama, my family's was far from the deep cutting personalities of Hemingway's youth.

I encountered his ghost by accident in an old bar at a historic hotel in Kansas City where he took one of his first jobs. I sought him out in Key West with hundreds of other tourists as we walked through his home. I attempted to conjure up his spirit there in hopes it might possess me and somehow make me a great writer.

I found him at Café de Flor in Paris by accident as I was unfamiliar with his young adulthood in Paris. I returned to Paris a couple of years ago and walked to the countless addresses and places he mentioned in “A Moveable Feast” and sought him out. I hiked in the hills of Northern Spain and connected with his bravery. I wanted to impress his specter when I ran with the bulls in 2011 on the streets of Pamplona and successfully made it into the colosseum without a scratch. I laughed and drank with his ghost when my daughter and I ended our trip last summer to Paris in the Ritz Hotel.

I admire Hemingway. Not all of him, but the brash, driven, brave, unapologetic, tough man. If we can’t appreciate someone through their sins, we will be hard pressed to get close to anyone. His toxic masculinity, should not be the death blow to masculinity itself. The world needs tough, brave men. The world will fail without them.

Though a part of the Lost Generation, Hemingway gives us not just himself, but many admirable characters full of flaws. As Clancy Sigal writes in his book, “Hemingway Lives”, “Characters who are all one version or another of the 'code hero', men, and women, who share certain qualities – honor, courage, uncomplaining stoicism, dignity. You’ll find the code hero, male or female, young or old, in most of his stories.”

The last fifteen years of my life have included invoking some of his persona. Climbing Half Dome with my family, dodging falling ice and rocks with my daughter deep in the winter in the Narrows of Zion. Hiking in 120 degree heat with my wife in Death Valley. Swimming in the open ocean. Working in unique and sometimes dangerous places like Honduras and Nicaragua. Summit bagging fourteen thousand-foot peaks with friends in a plethora of weather environments. Hunting with our kids. Attending the great festivals of Europe and merging, if for a brief moment, into another culture.

Hemingway does live.

He gives us a map for adventure and he encourages millions to push forward. New Yorker writer Leonard Kriegel, who lost the use of his legs at eleven, wrote, “Hemingway saved my life. He taught me you can take from an injury to toughen yourself up and learn to survive as a man and as a human being.” (Hemingway Lives, Clancy Sigal)

It was in Wheaton, just outside of Hemingway’s birth city of Oak Brook, Illinois where I read “The Old Man and The Sea” for the first time as a pre-teen. This battle of man and fish on the open sea stirred my spirit. I longed for such a battle, such an adventure.

“Most people were heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after it has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too.”- Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

When I arrived in Pamplona, Spain with my family and friends and first put on the white clothes with the red sash and scarf I was a man focused on merging with history and with the characters in "The Sun Also Rises". On July 7th I would join with the thousands who had for countless years tempted fate with six bulls and six steers on the small cobble streets. I can still here the spirit of Hemingway warning me to not lose courage: to grab my nads and run like hell. It was one of the few moments in my life I refused to pray, for what business does God have in saving fools.

I'm in the upper left in front of the guy with the striped shirt

After the run, the celebration with those I loved brought that dangerous, but wonderful injection of feeling more alive.

“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” – Ernest Hemingway

As I approach fifty, I am much more content to sip a spirit with his ghost on a street corner in Paris than to take to Estafeta Street at 8am in Pamplona.

This summer I’ll make it to his final residence on the planet, Ketchum, Idaho. Once again on accident as it is just in the path of another adventure. I plan to visit his grave and maybe offer a thank you with smile to the mountains beyond Sun Valley where I’ll be hiking.

No, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe people leave things behind that we must all discern. Some more than others.

Ernest asks us to behave manly and to respond with courage to the ills of life. He invited us to enjoy the day as it comes to us. To seek out the fraternity of those who can make us better. He asks us to risk something in order to truly live.

Hemingway is dangerous if we leave truth in his hands. His generation was a part of destroying the absolutes and leaving little good in their place. His politics were off base. His womanizing repulsive. Of this we must be on our guard with Ernest. But there is enough adventure, dignity, honor, and courage in him and his characters to find hope and adventure.

"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self." - Ernest Hemingway

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