Like a lot of people, I saw the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas before I learned it was a book, and before I knew there were plenty more penned by the guy many consider the father of alternative journalism.
Hunter S. Thompson changed my definition of cool.
I don't remember Thompson ever writing anything about San Diego, except once, when he said something about this being a place where child molesters get the death penalty.
I once thought I saw him, when I stayed just north of where he lived in Colorado; I could have sworn he drove by me as I walked in the street. When you hear and know and read about a person-especially one like Thompson-but never actually see him, he becomes almost fictional. I planned to see Thompson speak in July at the Aspen Ideas Festival. I guess watching 34 mortar rounds fired into the sky was kind of like seeing Hunter Thompson speak.
Last Saturday, exactly six months after he killed himself, Thompson, per his apparent wish, had his ashes blown into the air by a 153-foot cannon erected on his Owl Farm property, just outside Aspen. The cannon was in the form of the Gonzo fist, an image he used when he ran for local sheriff on the Freak Power ticket. Last Thursday I flew from San Diego to Denver and drove to Woody Creek to catch Thompson's last hurrah.
A star-studded, invitation-only guest list kept fans outside. Private security outnumbered the folks trying to get a view, who were made to stand on the other side of the street behind a set of cones.
It wasn't something the self-proclaimed King of Fun would have liked, I thought.
"This is not what he wanted," James Harris of Georgia told me. "It's cool to be here, but this is the opposite of gonzo journalism."
Four college-age kids from Kansas City handed me a bottle of Wild Turkey-a Thompson favorite-and agreed it was "sad that it's a private affair."
Sen. John Kerry and actor Bill Murray were among the attendees; had they read as much Thompson as I had?
Prior to the send-off, folks from as far away as New York City hung out at the Woody Creek Tavern, Thompson's former watering hole. Some had come with ulterior motives, like the group from a Denver guitar shop, there to try to present Johnny Depp with a guitar they had made for him. Attached to the back of the instrument was a feature-length screenplay they had written with Depp in mind.
Depp, by the way, reportedly paid for the cannon and the party, setting him back about $2.5 million.
The scene at the tavern was relaxed-with the Good Doctor now gone, who was going to set off smoke bombs or shoot blanks at the bartender?
A local electrician told of the time he was hired to install a light fixture over a stove in Thompson's home. "They said I had to come either when he was away or when he was sleeping. I put the light in, and when I had just one more screw to go, the assistant comes running in. "You have to go now,' she tells me. "He's getting up early and I can't be responsible for your safety!'"
Around 6 p.m., we at the tavern dispersed for a view of the cannon.
Not everyone there was a fan. Marty, a rancher wearing Wrangler jeans, a plaid shirt, a big belt buckle and a cowboy hat-a Thompson neighbor for 40 years-said he'd never read a Thompson book. "He wasn't my favorite neighbor. He'd come down to the tavern in the morning, read his mail, have three shots of whiskey and then be gooned out the rest of the day."
Still, Marty and a few friends gathered on his property to watch the blast-off.
As night fell, distaste for the heavy security became too much for the small crowd standing across the street. "Hunter, this is fucked!" they briefly chanted.
A subsequent drumbeat coming from the party hushed the fans, and the red veils that had covered the tall cannon for the last week were pulled off. The peyote button in the fist lit up, and, with a great boom, Thompson's ashes were shot into the air as red, white, blue and green fireworks followed.
Immediately after the blast, a recording of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" played from the party. Gunshots could be heard in the hills nearby.
The next afternoon at the Woody Creek Tavern, Jimmy Ibbotson struggled through a hangover as he ate breakfast, washed down with a beer and Bloody Mary. Ibbotson, a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who made local news days earlier when he fired his shotgun at a photographer trying to get a good picture of the cannon, had played with his band at the Thompson affair."They said I didn't suck. Other than that, I don't remember much."