It was already dark when the plane touched down in Denver, Colorado. I emerged from the airport, pulling my jacket up over my ears. It looked like we had just arrived at some outpost on the dark side of the moon. The wind was aggressive, sweeping the snow in drifts across the parking lot. The city of Denver was off in the flat distance, nothing but a thin line of white lights, and beyond that, buried in the invisible expanse of the Rockies, was the final destination.
I make no secret that I am a fan of Hunter S. Thompson. I consider him one of the finest American humorists, right up there with Mark Twain, James Thurber and H. Allen Smith. For those unfamiliar he is the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels, as well as The Great Shark Hunt and other collections of letters, articles and stories. Coiner of the term “Gonzo Journalism,” he reported for Rolling Stone magazine in the sixties and seventies. He had to be a reporter in order to cover the only story he ever covered, namely, writing about the exploits of one Hunter S. Thompson, and in this manner he was both subject and recorder of subject. Hunter was a uniquely brave individual to take on being the reporter of himself because, by all accounts, it was a very dangerous job. What with his famed drug use, his constant wielding of guns and other dangerous weapons, his association with criminal and outlaw elements, his penchant for high-speed driving and his mammoth intake of booze, it was definitely a high-risk assignment. He hung in there, though, covering most major events in the latter half of the twentieth century and creating major events of his own when the ones he was looking for failed to materialize. The whole wild circus came to an end in February 2005 when he committed suicide at his longtime home in Woody Creek, Colorado, right outside of Aspen, effectively snuffing out the wild man and taking the eloquent reporter along with him.
I needed something substantive to herald in the new year. All the characters in the novel I had been working on had mutinied, running amok in my carefully crafted fiction, destroying the destinies that I had laid out for them. A friend of mine had a helpful suggestion.
“Take a few days and head on out to Woody Creek,” he said. “We’re coming up on ten years since Hunter died. You might encounter something useful out in the cathedral of the mountains. I bet you can find him.”
“He is pretty much gone,” I said. “They shot his cremated remains out of a hundred foot tower. He is sprinkled on the hills behind his property.”
“On some level, in some form, he is there. It might be a shadow, an inkling, a feeling, an intuition; but in the right light, in the right situation and with the right kind of eyes, you will spot him.”
Convinced, I headed west. The idea was to drop in at the J-Bar in the Hotel Jerome and then end up at the Woody Creek Tavern, both regular drinking haunts for the famed writer. With any luck something crazy would happen. I would be pulled into a seething cauldron of insanity from which I would barely escape, even though the mental trauma would linger for years, the raving bouts of terror would be somewhat unpredictable, and the shock therapy would eventually render me as helpless as a kitten. That was the best case scenario, though, and I promised myself I wouldn’t get my hopes up too much.
I took my time on the drive along I-70 west. The passes were open. It was warm for the season. I remained on the lookout for falling rocks, semi-trucks careening out of control, and escapees from the Denver Correctional Facility posing as hitchhikers (there were frequent road signs warning of each of these dangers). We stopped for the evening in Breckenridge, about halfway between Aspen and Denver, to meet up with some friends. We convened at a bar called “The Blue Stag” to soak up the unfettered mood of the wild west. It was a raucous and lively spittoon filled with people celebrating the “Ullr” festival. Ullr, (pronounced ooler) is the Norse god of winter revelry. Luckily I didn’t have to be an expert in the “Edda” to participate. All that was required of me was to put a pair of plastic viking horns on my head and drink flagon after flagon of “Avalanche” beer, pride of Colorado. There was an Ullr parade of sorts along Main Street that amounted to a series of flatbeds crammed with drunk ski freaks indiscriminately shouting in all directions. The taverns and saloons were teeming with young nomads drinking fireball with dogfish head chasers, whooping it up and praying for snow. These were the next generation of “snowballers,” privileged ski bums making the circuit from Vail to Snowmass, or from Aspen to Arapahoe Basin, or from Denver to Grand Junction, or from Telluride to wherever, believing and hoping that the manacled clutches of corporate slavery could not touch them at this high of an altitude, which was true enough as long as the money didn’t run out. A skier can outrun almost anything if the mountain is steep enough, except necessity and fate, the two powers wise enough to linger at the bottom of the hill, knowing inevitably that all things will come to them.
“The Blue Stag” was overrun with bleary revelers, twenty-somethings just out of college. In between rebel yells they announced lame epiphanies that served as a temporary and false panacea for whatever middling crisis of identity was haunting them. A few of them sensed my quiet wisdom and gravitated my way for some friendly chatter.
“My brother is into derivatives and my sister just got elected to the state assembly. Where does that leave me?” said the drunk girl.
“Go into pornography. At least you’ll be screwing people honestly,” I said.
“My dad said he’d cut off my inheritance if I didn’t join his law firm,” said a square-jawed young buck with a Sigma Chi sweatshirt.
“Warn him that your mother might be interested to know why one of the maids is always pregnant.”
“I’m a skilled beaver trapper and I’m here to trap some beaver,” slurred a guy who looked like a cross between Leif Erikson and Liberace. He was wearing a neon viking helmet and a full-length ermine coat. His beard was dyed green.
“I didn’t travel halfway across the country to be subjected to bad innuendo,” I said. “Fuck off.”
We left for Aspen early the next morning. I was a little let down by the scene the night before. Here I was on the edge of the continental divide searching for the wellspring of light and power and instead I had splashed through a few cold puddles of dim youth. I put on “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan and as I drove into Aspen I felt a vivid connection with whatever magnetic field had brought the righteous counterculture here in the mid sixties. I drove past the field with the open gazebo where Hunter used to play pickup games of football with his buddies. I drove past the Pitkin County courthouse where Hunter went on trial for reckless driving. Then I did a loop and found the bar in the Hotel Jerome.
Hunter Thompson committed suicide in late February. This was not entirely happenstance. It was the end of football season and Hunter, an avid football fan, always felt somewhat empty after the Superbowl wrapped another year of gridiron collisions, triumphs and defeats. So it wasn’t lost on me that when I arrived at the Hotel Jerome, it was for the division championships. I got a seat at the bar early as the Seahawks and Packers took to the field. Before I knew it the place was wall to wall. I made friends with Ryan the bartender early on, and my glass was never empty. It was clear from the beginning that the Packers were dominating the game, but all hell broke loose when some jokester with more money than Fort Knox started giving 4 to 1 against Green Bay. I could hear chairs screeching across the floor and glass shattering behind me as people ran to make book while the waitstaff scrambled to maintain some kind of order. Everyone was concentrating on the game, but I noticed a skinny fellow at the end of the bar crying into his beer.
“What’s his problem?”
“Cosmic dust,” said Ryan the bartender. “He is part of a team of astrophysicists studying radiation at the fringes of the galaxy. Forget football. He gambled big on finding the origin of the universe and he crapped out. What he thought was evidence of the big bang turned out to be interstellar dust.” Ryan poured a few beers and shook his head. “These theoretical scientists are the worst gamblers on earth. When they discovered the Higgs-Boson particle at the Cern a dozen of these guys lost their shirts. I hear it is the ultimate rush. Trapping chaos on a whole other level. He just lost a house in Wyoming and a condo in Telluride.”
I watched the man loosen his tie and sink his head into his hands. Poor guy. No longer concerned about the football game I left the bar and walked around town for the better part of the afternoon. By the time I arrived at the Woody Creek Tavern the Patriots were stomping the Colts. There were only five seats at the small bar. Tim the bartender was a pleasant and wizened fellow. The crowd seemed to be all locals. There were plenty of pictures of Hunter along the back bar and around the small dining room. This was where he would come to hang out every afternoon with his buddies, read from some of his books, or get in on whatever gambling was going around that day. I had a few margaritas and chatted with Tim the bartender about Herman Hesse and Sonny Barger, and although I don’t remember the specifics, we figured out that the Nobel Laureate and the leader of the Hell’s Angels had more in common than one might suspect.
“Buy that man a drink,” I heard shouted from a few seats away. I looked and there was the same scientist I had observed at the J-Bar, except that he looked like a changed man. No longer sunken and defeated, he looked like a man who had just been given the keys to the kingdom.
“Sorry to hear about your cosmic dust,” I said.
He waved it off. “I’m in the telescope business these days,” he said. “And I’ve just got a contract for two more of these monster lenses. We’re ramping up the magnification and then dropping them at the south pole in a year or two, and then I’ll retire.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing you only found dust,” I said.
“Who the hell do you think told them it was only dust,” he shot back. I’ll be damned, I thought. One man’s dust is another man’s gold mine, or in this case, one man’s dust is the same man’s gold mine. I bid goodnight to my new friends and walked outside. It was night as I walked across the street to my car. The sun had dropped behind the majestic towers of rock. It had been a rich day. A car went by me, and as the headlights swung past I turned and in a small ditch, which, as legend goes, is the remnant of a huge blast of lightning that rolled through the Woody Creek parking lot in the summer of 1982, I saw a creeping shadow, for a moment, the slender visage of a man wearing a dealer’s visor, smoking a cigarette through a long french filter, holding the silhouette of a leather briefcase filled with extremely dangerous narcotics and then it was gone, all gone, bathed in darkness before I could figure out what had caused the strange umbra.
Long live Gonzo.
More Alembics to come.