On the Trail of Nabokov in the American West

After Dubois, Vladimir and Véra went north over the dramatic Togwotee Pass, overlooking Jackson Hole, which Humbert must have had in mind when he described “heart and sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone” of the high mountain West. They wound up in Jackson Hole and eventually Star Valley and what Nabokov called the “altogether enchanting little town” of Afton, Wyo., a place with 2,500 people and many more elk and trout.

The motel the Nabokovs stayed in, the Corral Lodges, is still there in the center of town. Built in the 1940s, the Corral Lodges is a semicircle of 15 single-unit log cabins huddled around a log office that used to be a gas station. In “Lolita,” it turns up as any one of the log hideaways with “glossily browned” pine logs that remind the 13-year-old Dolores Haze “of fried-chicken bones.”

Checking in, I resisted the urge to register under a Nabokovian anagram of my own name, as Humbert and Quilty might have done. Still, I could look straight out my cabin window at the view Humbert saw: “the mysterious outlines of tablelike hills, and then red bluffs ink-blotted with junipers, and then a mountain range, dun grading into blue, and blue into dream.”

On their journey west, Humbert and Lolita had gone sightseeing in a cave advertising the “world’s largest stalagmite.” Right down the street from the Corral Lodges we saw the “World’s Largest Elkhorn Arch,” a triumphant gateway spanning the four-lane main street built entirely of more than 3,000 antlers shed every year by bull elk.

Nabokov hunted for his beloved butterflies in the nearby mountain tributaries of the Salt River, including “the world’s largest intermitting spring” on Swift Creek. The logs that had been used to build the Corral Lodges were floated down Swift Creek to be handcrafted in the distinctive “Swedish cope” style of cutting corners and chinking. Something about the Rocky Mountain West reminded Nabokov of his youth in Russia. “Some part of me must have been born in Colorado,” he wrote to the critic Edmund Wilson, “for I am constantly recognizing things with a delicious pang.”


The very popular Huevos Rancheros at Nora’s Fish Creek Inn in Wilson, Wyo.

Janie Osborne for The New York Times

The Nabokovs made their return trip through Jackson Hole, where Dmitri would vacation with the Harvard Mountaineering Club. In 1951, they had stayed at the Teton Pass Ranch, a few miles west of tiny Wilson, Wyo. It no longer exists, but one of its cabins has been moved to the nearby Trail Creek Ranch, founded in 1946 by Betty Woolsey, captain of the first American women’s ski team. A working ranch, it offers weekly cabin rentals and deep-powder skiing. An added bonus a few miles away is Nora’s Fish Creek Inn, built in the 1930s, a popular hangout with locals like the celebrity lawyer Gerry Spence.

Our final stop on the Nabokov Trail in Wyoming was the Battle Mountain Ranch on the Hoback River, southeast of Jackson. A working guest ranch when Véra and Vladimir visited on their butterfly quest, it has since moved downriver and is now the Broken Arrow Ranch, home of the nonprofit City Kids Wilderness Project. Every summer it hosts a camp for inner-city children and teenagers from Washington, D.C. During the off-season, the cabins are rented out to help cover the costs of the camp. It seems fitting that the guest ranch where Nabokov stayed while writing “Lolita” is now operating as a resource for disadvantaged children.

A year after his 1952 trip across Wyoming, Nabokov finished the “great and coily thing” that had haunted him for a half-century. Concerned about a negative reaction, he had tried at least twice to burn the cards on which he had written the manuscript. Each time, Véra rescued them from the fire. Rejected in the United States, “Lolita” was first published in 1955 in England, where the London Sunday Express called it “sheer unrestrained pornography.” But the novelist Graham Greene praised it, rescuing it from the critical flames.

It was published in France and then, to a tumultuous reception, in the United States in 1958. It became an instant No. 1 New York Times best-seller, and the movie rights were grabbed up by Stanley Kubrick for $150,000. It has been in print ever since, and today Nabokov’s reputation has never been higher, with new books published about him every year, most recently Robert Roper’s insightful biography, “Nabokov in America.

Reader, please allow me to give Mr. Humbert Humbert the last word. On the final pages of the novel, Humbert finds himself back in the Rocky Mountain West. In a scene Nabokov himself anticipated in a letter written in 1951 to Edmund Wilson, Humbert walks to a cliff on the edge of a mountain where he rhapsodically and perhaps ruefully reports hearing “a melodious unity of sounds rising like a vapor from a small mining town that lay at my feet, in a fold of the valley … all these sounds were of one nature, that no other sounds but these came from the streets of the transparent town, with the women at home and the men away. Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at play …”


Riverside Garage and Cabins in Riverside, Wyo., which Nabokov described as a town of “one garage, two bars, three motor courts and a few ranches.”

Janie Osborne for The New York Times

That was exactly what my wife and I heard as we drove out of the Broken Arrow Ranch on the Hoback River. The happy melody of children at play.


What to Read

In recent years authors and academics have been pursuing Nabokov with the same monomania that Ahab chased whales and lepidopterists chase butterflies.

“Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita,” by Robert Roper (Bloomsbury, 2015). This critical biography traces the writer from Ithaca, N.Y., to Cambridge, Mass., and the High Mountain West, showing how Nabokov used closely observed details to invent a new way of experiencing America.

Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years,” by Brian Boyd (Princeton, 1991). The second and final volume of the definitive biography of Nabokov chronicles the years from his arrival in the United States in 1940 through his self-exile to Switzerland in 1959 and death in 1977.

“Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius,” by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates (Zoland Books, 1999). Everything you wanted to know about the significant scientific achievements of Nabokov, including his pioneering classification of a diverse group of butterflies known as the Latin American blues.

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