Chris Warren was busy making lattes for Cooke City’s summer hatch of tourists when a chance meeting with Tom Weaver proved fateful.

Weaver — over 6 feet tall, white-bearded and sporting a beret — mentioned that his dad, Chub, had been good friends with America’s most famous 20th century writer, Ernest Hemingway.

More interested in fishing and making a living than dead writers, Warren didn’t really care. Then the next summer Weaver brought him a dog-eared copy of “True at First Light,” a fictional memoir of African safaris published after Hemingway’s death.

Warren was surprised to read Hemingway’s comparison of an African village general store with the historic Cooke City General Store, standing just a few yards from his coffee shop. One general store sold spears, the author wrote, and the other carried obsolete calibers of bullets that it sold one or two at a time to hunters who needed a single shot to kill elk and deer for the winter larder.

Hemingway’s keen knowledge of Cooke City was striking and unexpected. That launched Warren onto a decade-long hunt to discover Hemingway’s connections to the wild country on the border of Yellowstone National Park and the influence it had on the famed author’s life and writing.

The results of Warren’s search have just been published in a new book, “Ernest Hemingway in the Yellowstone High Country” (Riverbend Publishing, $19.95).

“It’s been a real fun ride,” Warren, 47, said Saturday, speaking to an audience of Hemingway aficionados at This House of Books bookstore in downtown Billings.

Warren presented his first academic paper on Hemingway last summer in Paris at the Hemingway Society’s biennial conference. For a coffee-shop owner and sometime bartender from Cooke City, it was a surreal experience to be standing in the Eiffel Tower when the society’s president told him that the next conference would be held in summer 2020 in Wyoming and Montana.

Tons of books have been written analyzing everything about Hemingway, the author of “The Sun Also Rises” and winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize for literature for “The Old Man and the Sea.” Hemingway became just as famous for his larger-than-life image as a macho big-game hunter, deep-sea fisherman, hard drinker and womanizer — caricatured in Dos Equis commercials as the Most Interesting Man in the World.

But previous books have completely missed the key role that Hemingway’s time in the Yellowstone area played in shaping his life and literature.

“After a while it dawned on me that scholars had not made those connections,” Warren said. To literary scholars, largely based in the East, places like Montana, Wyoming and Idaho all mush together into one vague idea of the West. Many know about Hemingway’s final years and ultimate suicide in Ketchum, Idaho, but few are aware of his years in Yellowstone.

Warren said his research showed him a more sensitive side of Hemingway, who coped with tragedy, injury and a long fixation on suicide.

Hemingway first went to Wyoming in 1928. In 1930 he discovered the L-Bar-T Ranch near Cooke City. There, he spent five summers and falls until 1939, with his second wife Pauline and his three sons.

Hemingway would write, catch scads of trout, ride horses and hunt for black bear, grizzlies, elk, deer and bighorn sheep. He would tell stories around the campfire and teach his boys to ride. He survived a bad car crash near Billings that nearly cost him his writing and fishing arm.

Reading the Hemingway biographies, letters and novels, Warren found the Yellowstone experiences, both painful and inspiring, appearing again and again.

Most poignant of all is the scene in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” when the fictional hero Robert Jordan, who hails from Red Lodge, rides with his friend Chub to a high mountain lake and drops into the deep water the Smith & Wesson Civil War gun that his father used to commit suicide.

Tom Weaver told Warren his dad had said it happened in real life just as in the novel.

Warren said he benefited from the generosity of others who’d known Hemingway, like Dink Bruce, whose dad had been Hemingway’s driver and handyman for 40 years. He shared black-and-white photos of the writer in Yellowstone. Ralph Glidden, the former General Store owner, had also collected information on Hemingway.

Warren’s book includes a helpful map showing where Hemingway hunted, fished, drank and wrote in the Cooke City area. It lists of Hemingway’s writings and where Yellowstone experiences appear.

One of the most impressive chapters is Warren’s paper on the last story published in Hemingway’s lifetime, “A Man of the World,” a short story dismissed by critics as gruesome and not worthy of the great writer.

Warren argues that the story takes place in a thinly disguised Cooke City, in the Pilot and Index bars, and that the character Blindie, whose eyes were gouged out in a brutal fight, represents the ideal of a man who has been maimed by life but still doesn’t give up, keeps a sense of humor and remains “a man of the world.” In the wounded Blindie, Warren sees echoes of Hemingway himself.

Asked what he’s most proud of in the book, Warren said some of the academic research and analysis. “I didn’t know I had it in me,” he said, grinning.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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