Hunter S Thompson was a total badass. No other description does him justice. Legendary gonzo journalist, notorious drunkard and author of cult psychedelic novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson took addled craziness to a stratospheric level.
He invented the sport of ‘shotgun golf’ — one player tees off as normal, the other tries to blast his opponent’s ball into oblivion; he accidently set fire to a yacht during the America’s Cup sailing event while hallucinating; and after travelling all the way to Zaire to cover Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ boxing match, sold his ticket and instead spent the time smoking grass in a hotel swimming pool. But of all the crazy things that Hunter did, one thing beats them all: in 1970, this fiend from Kentucky actually ran for the office of sheriff of Aspen, Colorado.
Thompson came within a whisker of representing the most glamorous resort on the planet — the playground of the rich and famous, where the average detached home costs $5.95m, a private plane lands every six minutes in peak season and the poshest lunch club costs $100,000 to join; and they still bill you for every plate.
Yet for those who know this little pocket of Colorado, this episode isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. For when the snow melts, and the glitterati have all disappeared, the locals take back their town, and things start to feel very different. In summer, the real Aspen comes alive: boots in the dirt, old hippies on the street, music in the air. That’s why Hunter moved here. That’s what he fought for. And that’s what I’d come to see.
In true Thompson style, I start off high — as high as I can get. I emerge from a cable-car at the summit of Aspen Mountain to find what I can only describe as a beach resort at 11,000ft. Spread out like deck chairs in front of ocean surf are yoga classes, groups playing volleyball and frisbee golf and others sprawled on sun loungers, soaking up views of the alpine wilderness.
I’m told the hiking up here is superb, so I stroll along a ridgeline, the sharp peaks rising all around me, wildflowers painting the meadows below in rainbows of purple, yellow and blue. Then I follow my ears to an outdoor terrace filled with people dancing, drinking and lounging in the sun: bluegrass, beers and barbecue on the roof of the Rockies — Hunter surely would’ve approved. It’s the kind of place you can linger in all day long.
But I have other plans. For years, the locals have been building shrines in the mountains — to friends, pets, rock stars, crushes… There’s even one to Hunter. Their locations are a closely guarded secret. Hunter’s shrine, I’m sad to learn, is currently off limits due to construction on the mountain. But there’s another that promises to be just as good.
Finding it involves spending the rest of the day bushwhacking through forest on steep paths leading down from the summit — but it’s worth the sweat. For in a clearing, hidden in the midst of the most expensive ski slope in the world, Jerry Garcia lives on: beads from one of his concerts, beer cans left like offerings at an altar, yellow frilly knickers draped around his photo, an acoustic guitar nailed to a tree.
I head back to the centre of Aspen. It feels like the Wild West, by Vogue: designer brasseries and boutiques, multi-million-dollar homes and a gorgeous pedestrianised main street filled with flowers and farmers’ markets, alongside 19th-century, Old West-style buildings left over from its mining town days.
The next day, during a tour of the town’s historical landmarks, I’m introduced to two of its most iconic buildings: the Wheeler Opera House — three stories of red brick wrapping around the block; and the Hotel Jerome, built in 1889, its original 38-star American flag still draped in the lobby. Walk the streets here and it’s easy to imagine what it was like in 1879 when the town was founded on a vein of silver 30 miles long: the dirt roads (downtown Aspen wasn’t paved until 1963); locomotives puffing out of town on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad; the ladies in their fine filigree. Aspen may be famous for its designer bling, but in summer you can feel the history ringing through the valley, like a pick chipping at stone.
Boom & bust
At the start of the 19th century, the Colorado Silver Boom ended and many mining towns became ghost towns. Although Aspen was spared the terminal decline of neighbouring Ashcroft, a half-century slump was just beginning — a period that came to be known as the ‘quiet years’; the mines closed, the population dwindled, an arsonist torched the opera house… But then something remarkable happened that led to a complete reversal of the town’s fortunes.
Rumour has it that when Elizabeth Paepcke arrived in 1939 she drove an old miner’s truck up Aspen Mountain, surveyed the rabble of dusty drunks and abandoned buildings beneath her and said: “If ever a place looked like Sleeping Beauty awaiting Prince Charming’s kiss, this is it.”
It took six years for the prince to arrive, but when Elizabeth finally did manage to drag her Chicago shipping magnet husband Walter to the Rockies, his ‘kiss’ indeed worked a charm. The pair envisioned turning Aspen into a kind of latter-day Athens, a centre for intellectual and spiritual development where the great leaders, artists and thinkers of the world would gather, away from the daily chatter of their busy lives. They called it: the ‘Aspen Idea’. At a time when the world was sprinting towards shopping malls and fast food, Aspen asked them to stop and dream up a better way.
That ethos still defines the town to this day. I take a stroll around the campus of the Aspen Institute. Set up in 1949, the think tank was a key part of Paepckes’ vision; intended as a place where artists, leaders, thinkers, and musicians could gather. The immaculate site on the edge of town is filled with modern art installations and Bauhaus architecture. I tiptoe through an exhibition of Da Vinci’s inventions, watch frescoes being painted on a ceiling and end up lying out on the grass as musicians from the renowned Aspen Music Festival and School rehearse; nothing but soft breeze and violins all around.
But the Institute’s just the tip of the iceberg. In summer, the Aspen Idea is the bedrock of the town. There are festivals just about every day of the week: The Food & Wine Classic, one of the best foodie festivals in America; The Aspen Ideas Festival, a week of seminars, panels and tutorials that attracts a host of global intellectuals (previous attendees have included Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama). Music on the air, art in the streets — in summer, the Aspen Idea blossoms like spring flowers after a long winter of snow. The Paepckes breathed money, life and creativity into the town. Intellectuals came, ski bums came, writers, artists, hippies — and, eventually, a certain Hunter S Thompson came too, fleeing from the Hell’s Angels, who’d beaten him up so badly he was hospitalised.
But why run for sheriff? To answer that, I hop on my bike and follow the Roaring Fork River eight miles from Aspen to the small town of Woody Creek, home of Hunter’s erstwhile local: the Woody Creek Tavern. Legend has it he’d show up a minute after closing time most nights, pull down the shutters and stay until the sun came up. Today, it’s filled with memorabilia from his life: photographs of him young, sultry and smoking; others showing him older, drunk and propping up the bar. The famous ‘Thompson for sheriff’ poster hangs in a corner: a double-thumbed fist holding a blue peyote flower.
I’ve come to meet Bob Braudis, once one of Hunter’s best friends. Standing 6’6” tall, with a mop of white hair and a swagger that could run John Wayne out of town, even now, in his 70s, his presence dominates the room. Bob worked for Hunter’s ‘Thompson for sheriff’ campaign and in 1986 managed what his friend had failed to achieve — filling the role himself for the next three decades, during which he was widely seen as one of the country’s most progressive law enforcement officers. Hunter called Bob a “righteous knight”; he was the only cop in America, he said, who could “speak Latin … and discuss Aristotle while making pat-down arrests”. I warm to him instantly.
“The establishment called us freaks,” Bob says, between mouthfuls of margarita and enchilada. “But Hunter used the word against them.” As the first glimmers of the glamorous, profitable business of Aspen were beginning to appear, he explains, the ‘greedheads’ — as Hunter referred to them — wanted rid of the riff-raff — the hippies, environmentalists and drifters — so the developers could move in. Hunter’s idea was to galvanise these disenfranchised, disorganised young people into a political movement that would take back the town. He called it Freak Power.
There was a funny side to all this, of course. Hunter shaved his head so he could refer to the incumbent Republican sheriff, Carrol D Whitmire, as “my long-haired opponent”. His campaign — headquartered in the bar of the Hotel Jerome — was fuelled by alcohol, and, er, other things, but always, as the man himself insisted, “in moderation”.
But there was a serious side too: Hunter’s campaign was founded on environmental activism, sustainable development and social justice. It was arguably ahead of its time. And it was very nearly successful. In the end, Hunter took the city of Aspen, but lost the rural counties, coming up fewer than 500 votes short. “We lost. We went skiing,” Bob tells me. “But we didn’t stay on the mountain forever. There’s DNA that goes from Hunter through me to the people who succeeded me. He redefined the democracy of this county.”
The next morning, I drive 10 miles out of town to one of the most beautiful places in all of North America, the Maroon Bells, a pair of 14,000ft peaks, whose jagged, pyramidal shapes are reflected in perfect mirror symmetry by the cobalt waters of Maroon Lake. As the sun slowly spills colour down from the high mountains, I walk two miles into that oil painting view, through Aspen groves and glacier moraines to Crater Lake. Sitting there, surrounded by the magnificence of the Rockies on all sides, I remember something Kitty Boone, vice president and executive director, public programs at the Aspen Institute, had told me the previous day about the Paepckes’ vision: “If you put people in this environment,” she said. “How could they not be humbled by the natural beauty around them?”
And then it hits me. People don’t come to Aspen for the glamour; the glamour comes to Aspen to be part of this view. This town isn’t really about celebrities and thousand-dollar lunches; that’s just its winter gig. The real Aspen — the Aspen of the Old West, of the Paepckes, of the locals that live here today — is as far removed from that glitz and glamour as these mountains are from the sea. That’s what Hunter was fighting for.
In the foothills near Woody Creek, you’ll find Owl Farm, the ranch where Hunter lived with his second wife, Anita, until his death. She has plans to turn the home into a museum — and it’s a tantalising prospect. I want to see his collection of handwritten notes; the typewriter where he did his work; the basement where he partied; the cars he exploded; the kitchen where he’d start his day at 3pm with beers and eggs.
But that’s for another day. And if I can’t yet visit Hunter’s home, I decide, I’ll do something better — immerse myself in his spirit, and go full gonzo. For the rest of my trip, I’d become the story — in true Hunter style, I’d throw everything I had at Aspen, like a proper badass, and see how it reacted. Gonzo journalism at its purest. But I’d need — how shall I put this — props. So I purchase a mind-bending brownie (this is Colorado, the home of legal marijuana, after all), a six-pack of beer and a bright white cowboy hat. Then I head to the rodeo. What could possibly go wrong?
Throughout summer, Snowmass, Aspen’s neighbouring resort, shakes off the snow and shows its true colours with an authentic weekly rodeo. It’s the real deal: bull riding, team roping, cowgirls galloping around with the American flag. There’s even something called mutton bustin’, where they sit actual toddlers on the back of sheep and then set them loose to see how long they can hold on for. But it’s all too much for this psychedelically vulnerable rodeo virgin. Giggle fits quickly ensue.
Next up: something else I hadn’t encountered before — chicken poop bingo. And yes, it’s exactly as it sounds. A well-fed chicken waddles around on a numbered grid until nature takes its course. I put five bucks on 77, and wait. But, for what seems like hours, nothing happens. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the beautiful little bird wanders over to the middle of the cage, stops above my square, and does her stuff. I go crazy: here I am, in an oversize cowboy hat, $154 richer, imagining I’m being winked at by a magical chicken. I’m sure Hunter would’ve approved.
On my way back into town, brownie now in full swing, I hear music drifting through the park and follow it to the Aspen Institute campus, to find a concert happening in the auditorium. I sneak in and am instantly mesmerised. The music is like fireworks. The orchestra sways like a single organism, each note and movement somehow part of a larger whole, like a flock of swallows, like sawgrass dancing on the wind.
Suddenly, a violinist steps forward and plays the most staggering solo I’ve ever heard: five minutes of pure passion, rising in intensity with every note as sweat drips from his chin. When it finally stops, I can’t control myself and erupt into furious applause. Except there’s a problem. No one else is clapping. It wasn’t the end, just a short break in the music. A thousand eyes stare at me. Paranoia grips my stomach. Then I start to feel sick. Really sick. Is this really happening? Am I actually going to throw up in the middle of a concerto? While stinking of chicken poo?
Hunter probably would’ve toughed it out, but not me. I run out the door and down the street to the only place I know I’ll be safe: the Hotel Jerome’s J-Bar — if there’s anywhere in Aspen you can be this addled, surely, it’s Hunter’s former campaign headquarters. I sit on his bar stool, put $154 on the table and eat as much chocolate and as many French fries as I can stuff in my mouth. It turns out I’m not a badass.
I suppose it takes a certain kind of person to live this way. It’s a real commitment. Hunter S Thompson could do it — which is why so many people miss him. He may have brought with him a singular brand of chaos, but he was a catalyst for change. He waged war against Nixon; railed against the Vietnam War and altered the entire direction of this town in one audacious campaign. What would he have made of America today? Well, at his best, Hunter held up a mirror to the grotesque, providing a reflection to all that was corrupt and broken. Let’s just say I’m sure he’d find plenty to work with.
Hunter’s legacy will always be most keenly felt in Aspen. And I can’t think of a more worthy recipient. I take another bite of brownie and howl at the streets, just another freak in an old mining town, the echoes of the Aspen Idea still glittering to this day, like silver pulled fresh from the snow.
Published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)