Writer Hunter S Thompson, the king of gonzo journalism, was not a
skier, so why did he choose to live in Aspen?
23 October 2010
Hunter S Thompson went skiing only once, even though he spent almost
four decades living up the road from some of the most highly rated
ski terrain on the planet. Tim Mooney, his old friend, grins as he
recounts the day. "Most of his friends skied, so they decided to take
him to the top of Aspen mountain and push him off. He made three
40mph crashes and never went back. He wouldn't have wanted it any
other way none of this 'go to Buttermilk [a beginners' resort
nearby] and learn' nonsense."
This was, after all, the man who once said: "At the top of the
mountain, we are all snow leopards."
It's almost six years since the king of gonzo journalism took his own
life at Owl Farm, his ranch at Woody Creek, seven miles from Aspen,
Colorado. I'm here to get some stories about Thompson and see how
much of the countercultural spirit he so embodied lives on among the
fur-clad A-listers. Mooney used to work behind the J-Bar at the Hotel
Jerome in the early 1970s. Aspen's oldest hotel, it was one of
Thompson's haunts, and its Victorian-style marble floors and tin roof remain.
"Every day Hunter would go to the post office and be at the J-Bar at
noon," says Mooney. "He divided his mail into three piles bills,
fan mail and periodicals. Then he'd order his food and drinks for the
whole day and line it up next to the piles. So for the first pile
he'd have eggs, bacon, coffee, toast and a Bloody Mary, then a
cheeseburger, fries and bottle of beer, and then pasta and a bottle
of red wine."
Mooney acted as a gatekeeper between Thompson and his fans. "All
kinds of people, like Jack Nicholson, and Jimmy Buffett the singer,
would come in and want to meet Hunter, and I'd go ask if he wanted to
The hotel pool often figured in their partying, and one night John
Belushi nearly drowned after Thompson threw him in, having first
duct-taped him to a sun-lounger, of course. In 1970 when Thompson ran
for town sheriff, the J-Bar was his campaign HQ. He almost won with a
manifesto that included legalising drugs (though he promised not to
take mescaline on duty), promoting environmental issues and renaming
Aspen "Fat City" to prevent "Greedheads, land-rapers and other human
jackals from capitalising on the name Aspen". He wanted to replace
the pavements with dirt, and one wonders what he would have made of
the modern-day heated sidewalks.
The Grand Ballroom at the Hotel Jerome was the setting for the first
of Thompson's two funerals. The second saw his ashes blasted from a
cannon, paid for by Johnny Depp, into the canyon behind his ranch.
His wife Anita still lives there and is to start hosting lectures in
the "war room", where Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
She doesn't welcome uninvited guests, although, unlike Thompson, she
is unlikely to warn them off with a shotgun.
Bob Braudis has been Aspen's sheriff since 1986, and he was a foot
soldier on Thompson's 1970 campaign. In his office, he has the iconic
Tom Benton "Thompson for sheriff" poster. I ask him what attracted
Thompson to Aspen. "In the late 1960s, Aspen was where intellectuals
came to drop out. Hunter liked that there was a high number of highly
educated people here people who could have been bankers and
lawyers, but dropped out and came here to be ski bums, as I did."
When I'd asked Mooney the same question, he'd said: "He knew the
Aspen Institute was here, and the physicist George Stranahan, the
Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House, all the things left over
from the silver mining era that gave a certain dignity to this
Colorado town. In Leadville or Breckenridge you could see the
heritage but once you got to Aspen you could smell the funkiness. He
smelled the greatness of this valley and saw that it was a garden
spot with beautiful weather and a rock'n'roll mentality."
How different Aspen is today it's one of the world's glitziest,
most expensive ski resorts. Last winter the average house price in
Aspen was $4.3m (£2.6m) and the place oozes so much wealth that it's
hard to find the idea of a lingering countercultural spirit
plausible, let alone visible. But if you look hard enough it's there:
just follow the locals.
You can find it at the Grateful Deli, where you can order a "magic
mushroom burger". And at the Poppies Bistro Cafe, where Thompson and
Anita often dined, and at the Explore bookshop and (excellent) veggie
restaurant, where she's still a regular. It's also at the Isis
Theatre, the Wheeler Opera House, Aspen Art Museum and the Aspen
And it's at the many well-tended shrines hidden in the woods around
the ski slopes. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jerry Garcia, the Beatles and
Jimi Hendrix are all honoured at Aspen mountain. Thompson's shrine at
Snowmass was created on 20 February 2006, exactly a year after his
death. It features a US flag, Tibetan prayer flags, Rolling Stone
magazine covers adorned with his face, a basket of his writings, and
a bottle of Chivas Regal, his favourite whisky.
I also found that spirit at Highlands mountain. It was the only
mountain in the area not originally under the umbrella of the Aspen
Ski Company, and so became the cheaper place for locals to ski. It
hasn't been independent since 1993 but it still has a different vibe
music pumps out from lift stations. The terrain suits intermediates
and experts, and the Highland Bowl is a firm favourite. Getting there
involves a 40-minute hike along a ridge before you drop into a steep bowl.
Finally, the best place to soak up some counterculture and pay homage
to Thompson is his former drinking den, the Woody Creek Tavern. A
short drive from Aspen down the windy roads where he used to race
motorbikes, it's next to a trailer park and couldn't be further
removed from the glamour of Aspen. The walls are like a scrapbook,
with thousands of photos and press clippings about local residents,
in particular Thompson. Our drinks order was ignored and we were
served the strongest margaritas we'd ever tasted. The locals were
happy to relate their Thompson stories, and the rounds came thick and
fast. The night ended, appropriately, in a blur.
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