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On the Trail of Nabokov in the American West On his cross-country trips chasing butterflies and researching“Lolita,” the Russian-born novelist saw more of the United States than did Fitzgerald, Kerouac or Steinbeck.
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On the Trail of Nabokov
in the American West

On his cross-country trips chasing butterflies and researching
“Lolita,” the Russian-born novelist saw more of the
United States than did Fitzgerald, Kerouac or Steinbeck.

For the last 1 5 years my wife, Sarah, and I have driven every summer
with our golden retriever from New Jersey to the Northern Rockies. I
used to say that I felt like Humbert Humbert, the notoriously
unreliable narrator of “Lolita,” who made a similar trip, but instead
of traveling with a precocious preteen girl, I was traveling with a
wife and a dewy-eyed dog.

But then I learned that Vladimir Nabokov himself had done the same
thing. Nabokov wrote his disturbingly compelling classic, “Lolita,”
over the course of five breathless years, from 1948 to 1953, filling
5-by-7 cards with notes he took riding shotgun while his designated
driver, his wife, Véra, drove their black Oldsmobile from Ithaca,
N.Y., to Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

In other words, at the height of the Cold War, an expatriate Russian
novelist with the resonant name of Vladimir was roaming through the
reddest of red states, researching a book about a jaded aristocrat’s
sexual obsession with “nymphets” (a coinage the book put in the Oxford
English Dictionary). The wonder is that Nabokov survived at all.

Today we revere “Lolita” for Nabokov’s bold, multilayered subject
matter and his dazzling and allusive prose. But Nabokov’s most
enduring contribution may be his portrait of the brash, kitschy,
postwar America he observed on his cross-country journeys. Nabokov
never learned to drive, and so he estimated that between 1949 and 1959
Véra drove him 150,000 miles — almost all of them on the two-lane blue
highways that preceded the interstates.

Photo
Riverside Garage and Cabins. CreditJanie Osborne for The New York Times

Measured by the sheer number of miles covered, Nabokov is the most
American of authors. He saw more of the United States than did
Fitzgerald, Kerouac or Steinbeck, and what he saw was back-roads
America: personal, intimate, ticky-tack and yet undeniably authentic.
It took a Russian-born writer to awaken us to what Mark Twain knew:
America is not a place; it is a road.

Nabokov went west because he was chasing butterflies. He was a
passionate lepidopterist who wrote the definitive scholarly study of
the genus Lycaeides and had several species named after him, such as
Nabokov’s wood nymph. His travels over the years took him from the
Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon to Utah, Colorado and Oregon.
But one of the best places to find many different species of
butterflies congregating at one time was at nosebleed-high altitudes
along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. Along the way the shape of
the novel took root, and he started to take notes during his butterfly
hunts and write them up back in his motel rooms.

So why not follow the trail of Vladimir and Véra today? Like a
21st-century version of Humbert’s nemesis, Clare Quilty, who pursued
Humbert and Lolita across the country, I went west to chase Nabokov
chasing butterflies and to piece together the plot of his most popular
novel. It became a tale of three overlapping journeys: Humbert’s with
Lolita, Vladimir with Véra, and mine with Sarah and my retriever,
Mack.

The physical geographies of “Lolita” are still there — not only
Humbert’s “distant mountains,” “oatmeal hills” and “relentless peaks”
but also the daisy chain of Kumfy Kabins, Sunset Motels, Pine View
Courts, U-Beam Cottages and Skyline Courts where Humbert took the
captive Dolores Haze (Lolita’s given name). Among them are some of the
same motels where Vladimir and Véra checked in more than a
half-century ago.

We traveled the same basic route the Nabokovs did, leaving the East,
descending into Ohio and across the Midwest — or, as Humbert put it,
“We crossed Ohio, the three states beginning with ‘I’ and Nebraska —
ah, that first whiff of the West!” We stayed in motels, too, though
they lacked the cheesy allure of Humbert’s “countless motor courts
[proclaiming] their vacancy in neon lights, ready to accommodate
salesmen, escaped convicts, impotents, family groups, as well as the
most corrupt and vigorous couples.” Mack was no Lolita, either,
licking my hand affectionately, unlike the frequently disdainful
Lolita whose contempt only made Humbert more crazed in his obsession.

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Photo
The “World’s Largest Elkhorn Arch” in Afton, Wyo., near the Coral
Lodges motel, where the Nabokovs stayedCreditJanie Osborne for The New
York Times

I had assumed that the sight of a man of Humbertesque age carrying a
well-worn copy of “Lolita” might raise some eyebrows, but never once
during my pursuit of Nabokov did I find a single motel owner who had
heard of the writer or of “Lolita.”

Like Humbert, and presumably Vladimir, we observed “that curious
roadside species, Hitchhiking Man, Homo pollux of science.” There are
fewer hitchhikers on the interstates these days — I saw only one east
of the Mississippi — but just as many roadside wonders. Like Humbert
and Lolita, we stopped in restaurants festooned with “EAT” signs and
sticky counters with sugar-drunk flies wobbling off them.

Humbert and Lolita toured “the crazy-quilt of forty-eight states” —
Bourbon Street, Carlsbad Caverns, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, fish
hatcheries, cliff dwellings and “thousands of Bear Creeks, Soda
Springs, and Painted Canyons.” My wife and I saw picturesque red barns
in Pennsylvania Dutch country, developments of Monopoly-style
bungalows, double-wides, casinos everywhere, Victorian farmhouses with
double-hung windows that look like Bette Davis eyes. Huge cell towers
looming like the alien creatures from the 1953 movie “War of the
Worlds,” out of scale with the environment of telephone poles and road
signs observed by Vladimir and Véra.

And the road signs! PASSIONS: COUPLES ADULT SUPERSTORE. GUN CONTROL
MEANS USING BOTH HANDS. Both Nabokov and Humbert would have been
alternatively appalled and delighted by these: COLLECTABLES SIN-A-BAR
CREEK, BADLAND’S REST STOP, DICK’S TOE SERVICE.

I asked Sarah if she thought that Dick had a foot fetish. She replied
that he more likely runs a service station. When Humbert and Lolita
made their trip, religious icons on the roadside were mostly confined
to the South. They saw a “replica of the Grotto of Lourdes in
Louisiana.” Today there are crosses everywhere — little white ones
memorializing highway fatalities, gigantic ones like the 198-foot
“World’s Largest Cross” at the intersection of I-70 and I-57 in
Effingham, Ill.

Photo
A cabin at Trail Creek Ranch in Wilson, Wyo.; the Nabokovs stayed at a
nearby ranch, which no longer exists, though one of its cabins was
moved to Trail Creek. CreditJanie Osborne for The New York Times

And what would Nabokov have made of this sign: IF YOU DIE TONIGHT
HEAVEN OR HELL? Followed by this one: GARY’S GUN SHOP.

As it happens, Véra Nabokov once packed a Browning .38 revolver in her
purse. When she applied for her license to carry one, she explained
primly that it was “for protection in traveling in isolated parts of
the country in the course of entomological research.” She wasn’t
kidding. Nabokov killed a large rattlesnake during their 1953 trip to
Portal, Ariz.

The state Nabokov returned to for the third time in 1952 was Wyoming.
I imagine that Vladimir and Véra approached the mountains cautiously
at night, cringing as trucks thundered past them “studded with colored
lights, like dreadful giant Christmas trees.” We knew the West had
begun when we began seeing not 80-pound hay bales in the fields but
the huge, rolled-up behemoths that only a tractor can lift.

Once in Wyoming, Vladimir and Véra stayed at the now-defunct Lazy “U”
Motel in Laramie, at the edge of the Medicine Bow Mountains in
southeastern Wyoming. Traveling with them was their Harvard-student
son, Dmitri, driving his new 1931 Model A Ford. From Laramie, the
family drove over the Snowy Range, passing “a remarkably
repulsive-looking willowbog, full of cowmerds and barbed wire” where
Vladimir immediately stopped to pursue butterflies. They eventually
arrived in Riverside, Wyo., a dusty hamlet with “one garage, two bars,
three motor courts and a few ranches, one mile from the ancient and
obsolete little town Encampment (unpaved streets, wooden sidewalks).”

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The type of piece that makes the Times a joy

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Makes me want to get back on my bike and pedal across the country again.

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If Nabokov was hunting butterflies, I set about hunting for trout in
the North Platte River, which flows through the same remote Saratoga
Valley. Our base was the A Bar A Ranch, an upscale guest ranch that
offers tennis, par-3 golf and massages along with the traditional
riding and fishing. The Nabokovs most likely checked into the
present-dayRiverside Garage and Cabins, on the banks of the Encampment
River. Each log cabin wears its name on a shingle: Cowboy, Sodbuster,
Wildcatter, Mountainman, Muleskinner.

Photo
Vladimir Nabokov made several journeys west to hunt for butterflies,
while taking notes for what would become his landmark novel,
“Lolita.”CreditCarl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty
Images

Nabokov, who spent July 4, 1952, in Riverside, must have made note of
the Independence Day festivities that day, which found a second life
in “Lolita” when the European Humbert is mystified by “some great
national celebration in town judging by the firecrackers, veritable
bombs, that exploded all the time.”

From Riverside, Vladimir and Véra took a day trip into the nearby
Sierra Madre mountains to hunt butterflies, taking an “abominable
local road” to the Continental Divide. Sixty-three years later, I
traveled up Wyoming State Highway 70 to the same pass with Justin
Howe, second-generation manager, with his wife, Lissa, of the A Bar A
Ranch. The highway goes through a checkerboard of timbers and lakes to
reach Battle Pass, a wide spot in the highway on the Continental
Divide at 9,955 feet. From there, Mr. Howe and I bounced over a dirt
Forest Service road in his truck to a pristine alpine lake where he
had camped as a boy with his parents.

On the way up to the pass, as Nabokov later described it in an article
forThe Lepidopterists’ News, he found the “best hunting grounds” in
Wyoming and captured a number of “curious” specimens of butterflies,
including the Speyeria egleis, that he later gave to collections at
Cornell, Harvard and the American Museum of Natural History.

The Nabokovs next drove north to the Wyoming town of Dubois
(pronounced Dew-BOYS), where they hunted for butterflies along the
gorgeous Wind River and stayed in a log-cabin unit at the then Red
Rock Motel, now doing business as the Longhorn Ranch Lodge and R.V.
Resort. Located under buttes on the Wind River, flecked with reds and
browns, the Longhorn pays enthusiastic homage to a Western aesthetic
by way of Hollywood. Attached to the office is a museum-shrine to
Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

We camped in a room outfitted in knotty pine and drove into Dubois for
dinner at the Cowboy Cafe, a stacked-log restaurant whose breakfast
specials include spicy elk served with two eggs, hash browns and
toast. On the way we found ourselves on a busy, motel-strewn street
called Ramshorn — the name Nabokov modified into Ramsdale, the name of
Lolita’s fictional hometown. In front of a filling station at one end
of town is a heroic 10-foot-tall polymer statue of a rabbit with
antlers, the mythological creature called a jackalope.

Continue reading the main story
Photo
Scene from the road near Dubois, Wyo., where the Nabokovs hunted for
butterflies along the Wind River.CreditJanie Osborne for The New York
Times

After Dubois, Vladimir and Véra went north over the dramaticTogwotee
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.”

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

Photo
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.” CreditJanie 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.

IF YOU GO

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.

Continue reading the main story
Photo
Tent at Black Powder Guest Ranch on Highway 189 between Hoback
Junction and Bondurant, Wyo., another of Nabokov’s butterfly hunting
grounds.CreditJanie Osborne for The New York Times

“Véra(Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov),” by Stacy Schiff (Modern Library,
2000).A portrait of the artist’s wife, showing how critical she was to
his success.

“The Annotated Lolita,” by Vladimir Nabokov, edited and annotated by
Alfred Appel Jr. (Vintage Books, 1991). The infinitely detailed
reference guide to Nabokov’s richly allusive novel.

Where to Stay

The Longhorn Ranch and R.V. Resort (5810 U.S. Highway 26, Dubois,
Wyo., thelonghornranch.com; from $89 to $109) is located under a red
sandstone bluff.

The Corral Lodges Motel (161 South Washington, Afton,
Wyo.,corrallodges.com; doubles, from $99), the first motel in Afton,
offers 15 log cabins.

11COMMENTS

Trail Creek Ranch (Wilson, Wyo.,trailcreekranch.com; from $180 to $385
per cabin, three-night minimum) is a working guest ranch near Teton
Pass with sweeping views of Jackson Hole.

A Bar A Ranch (820 A-Bar-A Road, Encampment, Wyo.,abararanch.com; $485
per person, includes meals and activities). A traditional guest ranch
where cowboys can include United States senators and celebrities like
Jimmy Fallon.

Landon Y. Jones, the former managing editor of People and Money
magazines, is the author of “William Clark and the Shaping of the
West.”

A version of this article appears in print on May 29, 2016, on page
TR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Heading West, Chasing
Nabokov. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

Continue reading the main story

RELATED COVERAGE

ROAD TRIP

A Rookie’s Road Trip Through Montana, Wyoming and Idaho JUNE 30, 2015

‘Nabokov in America,’ by Robert Roper

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