Many Aspen locals have had their concentric circular encounters with the notorious Hunter S. Thompson. I first saw Hunter at Stapleton International Airport when I was a young teenager. My dad and I were flying back from Nantucket to Aspen, and the old Aspen Airways gate was directly across from the United Airlines flight from Hawaii. I’m guessing the year was 1979.
I was over at the soda vending machine — it was my favorite and I always looked forward to it. You put a quarter in, selected the flavor you wanted, and a plastic cup fell down into the clasp, crushed ice filled in, then flavored syrup, soda water and viola! I heard a ruckus over by the United gate and turned to see this lanky character getting off the plane with Bermuda shorts, a visor, cigarette holder, a Hawaiian shirt and a lei, with a big plastic lobster pinned to his shirt.
He sauntered onto the concourse and immediately called out to my dad. They chatted a while, and he was extremely animated and everyone was looking at him. No one knew exactly what to think. We were about halfway back to Aspen on the Aspen Airways flight and I asked my dad who that guy in the airport was. “That was Hunter” he said. “He’s a writer.”
I never thought much of the bizarre encounter until I reached high school and read the book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and then it all clicked. The drug-guzzling gonzo author lived right here in our midst, and I had come upon him.
Flash forward about 15 years and I’m at a ranch in Woody Creek with my kid at an afternoon party. There was a paddle tennis tournament that was about to start, but I couldn’t keep my eye off of a two-seater go-cart parked in front of the house. The keeper suggested I take my son for a ride in the thing so we hopped in and took off down the driveway.
About halfway down the gravel road, the damn thing died. I hopped out and started checking the engine and discovered it was out of gas. Just then I heard an unsettling sound. It was a car speeding up the driveway going way too fast, spitting gravel out from under its tires as it careened recklessly toward us.
I immediately grabbed the go-cart by the frame and yanked it off of the road down an embankment with my boy still strapped in as the car sped around the single-lane blind corner in a hell-bent power slide. Hunter never saw us and tore by in his huge red land-yacht known semi-affectionately as “the shark.”
Needless to say I was unimpressed. In retrospect, had the go-cart not run out of gas that day, in all likelihood it would’ve been wedged underneath the front of Hunter S. Thompson’s car with us still in it. I approached him minutes later up at the house and we had a considerable misunderstanding.
So when his over-hyped funeral took place in Woody Creek on Aug. 20, 2005, I felt obligated to crash it and I did — successfully. It took a while, but I eventually got in. My wingman did not. He landed his bike in a ditch up by the Community School trying to evade a rent-a-cop, and the bike got confiscated. After two attempts, I found myself walking right up the stairs into a raging party, only to be greeted by a host of old-Aspen icons who welcomed me by name with open arms.
The party was raging. Flying Dog Beer and powerful cocktails of every variety flowed like wine, and an old Aspen High School friend frantically approached me and grabbed my arm. By the looks of his eyes, he was “peaking,” as they say in the business. He explained to me that things were getting “hairy” for him, and we took a walk out back and got some fresh air.
It turns out that he had eaten a couple of the chocolate-covered peyote buttons that were being passed around on silver trays. I was unaware that’s what they were, and foolishly opted for the Jell-O shots. It’s one of my biggest regrets to this day. I really wanted to trip at that funeral. It was an out-of-character rookie mistake — had I only asked. Another attendee left the premises in the back of an ambulance after eating the chocolates.
The night was long and emotionally confusing. The funeral itself was controversial. I remember the DJ playing Bob Segar’s “Main Street” as the crowd milled about the party tent. Fire dancers performed outside. Couches, paintings, memorabilia, pictures and a bar were present in the well-decorated tent as all of his friends and family carried on into the morning hours. Out back at the base of the 150-foot-high double-thumbed fist statue sat my nemesis, “the shark,” to which I paid a humbling solo visit.
The best line of the evening was well within my own earshot, just outside the back of the tent. Someone asked “Am I getting any?” to which a deadpan reply answered “It looks like the pile’s going down …”
Whenever I see a T-shirt or a hat or a sticker with the Gonzo logo on it, or hear the name Hunter I just chuckle to myself. I’ve seen a lot of crazy shit, but that night was an all-timer. I rode my bike home at 6 a.m. swerving into an ethereal sunrise. My feelings about Hunter S. Thompson are mixed. Am I sorry I crashed a dead man’s funeral? Heck no. He would’ve been proud of me. Why did he kill himself? My theory is that he just couldn’t get high anymore.
To reach Lorenzo, email him at email@example.com.