Five years ago Hunter S. Thompson was reported dead, having apparently shot himself in the head. Enough time has elapsed that HST has evaporated from popular culture and local history. So, I wondered what would he would have to say about how things are turning out in Colorado politics and elsewhere. Perhaps I found an answer to my question in a blog I wrote in 2007:
On February 20, 2005 journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson, who unleashed the concept of "gonzo journalism" in books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, fatally shot himself in the head at his Woody Creek home near Aspen, Colorado.
I'm still thinking Hunter would have wanted a better exit. Despite the problems he was having with age and his health, he was still a dramatist.
I am writing this memorial long after most scribes have penned their versions of HST's demise. I moved in a different circle in Aspen, a town of 3,500 during the summer and 35,000 during the winter. He was famous. I was not. After our Aspen days he grew to journalistic fame and became a pop icon.
Fresh out of J-school in 1970, I was a callow, timid newspaperman. My first job was to cover Aspen for a newspaper the local conservatives had funded. The purpose of the community organ was to counter Hunter Thompson's influence after his well-publicized run for Sheriff of Pitkin County earlier that summer. My job was to sell ads, take photos, write articles, deliver newspapers and do what was necessary to project Aspen as tourist Mecca with a heart of gold.
Aspen politics, pre-Hunter Thompson, had never been more orderly. It was a town where if you were the father of a teen-aged girl you wouldn't worry that she would come back from vacation with anything worse than sunburn. Henry John Deutsche Jr. was the poster boy in town, singing wholesome folk songs to fresh-faced kids around campfires.
Occasionally, a third rate-lounge singer from Vegas would come to town and croon show tunes for summer tourists in a circus tent pitched near the gazebo. European tourists showed up with tennis rackets, wearing fur on the hottest days. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band backed up Steve Martin on banjo in a pub. A touring band called the Eagles would play for beer in seedy labyrinthine dens. The only famous writer in Aspen at the time was Leon Uris (Exodus).
Guys arrived in old pickups with their Husky mixed breed in the back barking. Girls drove from Boston on their way to Berkeley in VW vans full of dope. Some just hung out while others sold real estate in the summer and ski lift passes in the winter. Most people never settled. They just carried their lives in boxes for all the places they would be moving to and from, the rootless, restless and in-betweens. For those who wintered and summered it was a privilege to actually own ZG license plates because you knew you were at the right moment in history.
By 1970, the town was split down the middle between the "greedheads" and the "hippies." There was little middle ground in a town of misplaced characters who watched local politics like most regular people watched sports.
The Aspen Times, our rival community paper, had supported Hunter Thompson and other left-leaning candidates who very nearly pitched the land-owning, right-leaning merchants on their lederhosen. The Times ran smart social commentaries and pithy political diatribes about class war in Aspen. What we wrote about was hard to determine because the ink ran so badly it was hard to tell where we stood on issues. Compared to the Times we looked like the poor country cousins who rode into town on a melon truck. Our paper was called Aspen Today. When it became apparent our editor favored the greedheads we called our paper the "Aspen Toady."
I read the Times to find out what was really going on in town. This meant being in touch with what Hunter Thompson was doing or saying. As the Roaring Fork Valley's most celebrated politician, he made the news and didn't have to write about it. Back then, few of us imagined he'd become the writer he did and that his books would become treasured totems.
By 1972, Hunter Thompson had left local politics for the national campaign trails, which would make him famous. Occasionally he would come back to Woody Creek, which was his Muse, an unrelenting and ambitious god who gave him the privilege of remaking journalism in his own image. Here, he was living the script we wished we had written for ourselves. From here, his life would always be a sprawling, epic and tormented grasp of what eluded the rest of us.
Jack Kerouac said we'd run out of road in America in the 50s, but HST would take us the extra mile in the 70s. Not merely a bright and shining lie to the American myth, HST rode a comet further into the darkness of the next several decades. By 2005 we were minted and coined as dross. He had become a truculent man at Owl Farm, luckless Hunter S. Thompson, who, at the end of his life, succeeded in becoming a cartoon but failed at becoming a brand.
Today, workers in Aspen are bused into town like apartheid workers or third-class Irish in steerage. The town has been divided into dozens of gated "green zones" separating the super-rich from the under-class. The former grocery store is a fur coat shop. Pitkin County is a red county in a red state where it is safe ground for a beleaguered president who makes Richard Nixon look like a splendid guy in a cheap suit.
The worst possible fear Hunter Thompson could have devised for "Fat City" in 1970 had become manifest in 2005. More than once he must have looked out from the Owl Farm and shouted: "We are fucked - utterly fucked!"
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