Chasing Hunter’s ghost on Aspen powder and through the woods

The shrine to Hunter Thompson is hidden among the pines off Gunner's View run on Snowmass Mountain.

The shrine to Hunter Thompson is hidden among the pines off Gunner’s View run on Snowmass Mountain.

These events took place in February, 2006

“At the top of the mountain, we are all snow leopards.

— Hunter S. Thompson

By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com

Sweating through three layers of clothing, temples throbbing from last night’s tequila, I set my skis in the classic snowplow V and skid to a halt.

Ahead, the trail is steeper and narrower, the trees closer together. Feeling the forest closing in, I turn and squint back up the hill where my friend Wally leans on his ski poles and stares at me with an expression that says, “You’re out of your mind, why am I following you?”

I’d seen that look many times through assorted escapades all the way back to high school. This detour through the woods on Snowmass Mountain, I know, is pushing the envelope, but there is no retreating now.

Turning back in the direction of gravity’s pull, I pause to ponder, what would the Good Doctor prescribe? What would Hunter do?

The answer comes in a rush with the wind through the pines, a voice deep and raucous — or perhaps it’s just the tequila talking:

“When the going gets weird, the weird take off their skis and vamoose.”

And that’s exactly what I do. I take them off and clump down the trail in my cumbersome boots like a long-lost moon walker, at times sinking into pockets of snow thigh deep. It is the safest way out of the forest and back to the adjacent groomed run. It is not, however, the last foray through the pines we will make this day in search of the mysterious gonzo shrine to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Of course not. These ski trips are way more than vacations, they are adventures. And the mere fact that we’ve never before gone off piste like this won’t deter us.

This has been off the rational course from the start. I’d never even skied until just before turning 49, when I ventured solo to Lake Tahoe, rented a pair of skis, hopped on the lift at Heavenly Mountain and worked my way onto the intermediate runs in three hours.

Born of mid-life crisis, skiing has become a most rewarding obsession. The year after Tahoe, I reconnected with Wally Rutherford, a high school buddy I’d lost track of for 20 years, at Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia. Since then we have ventured to more than 30 ski resorts in Colorado, Utah and the Canadian Rockies. Most of them can be found on Ski magazine’s annual list of the primo places to ski.

Gonzo_symbolBut the Great Snow Leopard that had been calling me out was Aspen.

It is more than the allure of the four mountain resorts within 30 minutes, all accessible on one lift ticket. It is the mystique of Hunter S. Thompson.

Long before I considered strapping on skis, before I became aware of Aspen as a playground of the rich and famous, it was the funky little town where in 1970 Thompson ran for sheriff on the “Freak Power” ticket, and narrowly lost. It was near his mountain hideaway of Owl Farm where he composed those off-the-wall narratives for Rolling Stone that cast journalism in a whole different light.

It was in an airport on the way to skiing in Utah that I learned of Thompson’s suicide in February 2005. It is fitting that our first day of skiing at Aspen is the anniversary of his final gonzo surprise. The feeling is reinforced by the occasional avalanche blast in the distance as we romp in six inches of fresh powder on Aspen Mountain.

he spirit of Hunter Thompson is alive in these hills . . . somewhere. We have no idea how elusive it would prove to be.

Town with split personality

Aspen has always been a confluence of contradictions and conflicting forces. From silver mining boom to bust in the late 1800s. From cultural and intellectual center to skiing mecca. From the push to develop to the pull to preserve. From a haven of misfits and free spirits, not unlike the Florida Keys, to a high-altitude outpost of the stars.

Aspen is a mecca for skiers with four resorts close to town.

Aspen is a mecca for skiers with four resorts close to town.

Even if you don’t recognize any celebs under all the layers of winter wraps, their presence can be felt as you approach the town on Highway 82 and pass tiny Pitkin County Airport, where executive jets are massed like so many SUVs around a modern shopping mall.

Wonder which one belongs to Costner? Could that one taxiing on the runway be Eisner heading off on business? Do Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell each have their own jet or can they be seen peering out of adjacent portals making faces at Ringo as they vie for takeoff?

And what about Jack? We’ll get to Nicholson later.

The artsy, quirky side of Aspen is just as evident. The Sunday we roll into town, X-artist Yutaka Sone directs the rolling of a pair of colorful, 8-foot-square dice down the same halfpipe at Buttermilk Mountain that was the site of the Winter X Games a few weeks before. The dice come up 4 and 2.

Space in the hotels and eateries can be as tough to find in July during the Aspen Music Festival as at the height of ski season. If you want mental stimulation, you can take in a lecture at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies or the Aspen Center for Physics, or if you want to give mind and body a rest you can catch a set of ol’ cowboy Dan at laidback McStorlie’s Pub.

Whether or not Aspen is the best ski destination in America, it is the priciest we have encountered. I wasn’t sure we could afford this trip until Google led me to the Tyrolean Lodge. At $170 a night for a surprisingly large room with two queen beds, a spare twin and a kitchenette, the Tyrolean is easily the best deal in Aspen.

As soon as we pull up to the quaint three-story building at Main and First streets and see the giant eagle sculpture constructed of chrome car bumpers on the roof, I know we have the perfect home base for our quest.

The eagle is the handiwork of the late Lou Wille, who opened the lodge in 1970. From old black-and-white photos, including one showing Wille and his wife, Lynne, standing next to another large sculpture of a pig, the original proprietor was an intriguing character. Couldn’t help wondering whether he voted for Thompson for sheriff.

Where’s the Woody Creek?

Hunter Thompson shot himself in his kitchen just before 6 p.m. on Feb. 20, 2005. One year later, at about the same time, Wally and I are on Highway 82 looking for the canyon road leading to the Woody Creek Tavern where Thompson often ate, held court and raised a ruckus. We notice Woody Creek on a small sign by a turnoff so inconspicuous it can’t be right. A few miles later we get directions in a convenience store from a clerk with a heavy accent who directs us, I think, to an exit as unlikely as the first.

The Woody Creek Tavern was a favorite hangout of Hunter Thompson. It's quirky and fun, and the food is excellent too.

The Woody Creek Tavern was a favorite hangout of Hunter Thompson. It’s quirky and fun, and the food is excellent too.

We’re on a dark, narrow, winding road in a snow flurry, and Wally is giving me that raised-eyebrow look. Can this be the way to a legendary hangout?

Remember, we’re on the trail of HST. And when the going gets weird … we press on. Just as I’m getting flashes of spending the night stuck in a snow bank in the middle of nowhere there are lights ahead, and the famous Woody Creek Tavern appears like an oasis in a peyote vision. Boar’s head on the roof confirms it, this is the place.

The thing about Woody Creek, it isn’t really a town. No traffic light. No crossroads. Just two bumps and a dip in the road. Or is it two dips and a bump? There is a post office and a trailer park.

Due to our roundabout route on Upper River Road, the Woody Creek Store next to the tavern has closed and we miss out on a chance to pick up a copy of The Woody Creeker, a literary magazine co-edited by Thompson’s widow, Anita, which debuted that morning. We are able to get a table at the tavern without a wait, which is unusual.

If you’re on a pilgrimage to find the spirit of Hunter Thompson, you’ll get the strongest vibe at the tavern, “a place that takes pride in being a tad quirky.” That is reinforced by bizarre artifacts covering the walls, including a sailfish with a fake human leg sticking out of its mouth. There are plenty of Thompson photos and mementoes, notably a poster by artist Ralph Steadman commemorating the HST Memorial Blastoff when the author’s ashes were fired from a canon atop a 15-story tower on the sixth-month anniversary of his death.

It turns out the reason the tavern is packed at the dinner hour night after night has little to do with its association with HST or its colorful décor. No fear and loathing in the aroma wafting from the kitchen. The food is terrific.

The cilantro-spiced chicken dinner special is so tender and mouth-watering I forget to ask the waitress if the Stetson on the stuffed buffalo head in the corner may have belonged to Thompson. Or, perhaps, the lapse has more to do with the fresh-squeezed lime-juice margaritas that Rachel Ray called her “favorite margarita made on U.S. soil.”

As we are finishing a piece of key lime pie to rival any in Florida, a large group at a nearby table raises glasses for a toast. I reach for mine, thinking, to Hunter? Instead, a jolly fellow proclaims, “To a great powder day! That’s what we’re here for.”

Big names, petty grievances

A couple of blocks from the Tyrolean Lodge, two houses are at the center of a controversy that is the lead story in the local newspaper one morning. The boxy, green two-story on the left belongs to actor Jack Nicholson – “his guest house,” according to a resident of the street. Nicholson has lodged an objection with the city about his next-door neighbor’s plan to build a tunnel from his basement to a stairway leading to a new swimming pool, claiming it is in conflict with an environmentally sensitive area..

eagle-tyrolean-inn

The eagle atop the Tyrolean Lodge is the handiwork of the late Lou Wille, who opened the lodge in 1970.

The flap is a reminder that despite its high-profile and highfalutin inhabitants, Aspen is very much a small town.

(Note: Nicholson sold the 5,800-square-foot Victorian house in 2013 for $11 million, marked down $4 million from the initial asking price when he listed it the year before.)

“What’s remarkable is you’ve got all this money and all this intellectual power here. You have people come to discuss the world’s problems, and they can’t even get the snow plowed,” said David Trombetta, a long-time resident who recalls watching a motorcade bearing Margaret Thatcher and the first President Bush pass by on Main Street. “You should be able to build an ideal community here. It isn’t that. There’s a lot of petty politics.”

Trombetta glances out the window and smiles. “Still, you can walk outside and it’s a beautiful powder day. That’s what built this place. That’s the equalizer.”

Aspen’s notorious traffic congestion, which has produced much debate but no solution, is much in evidence. But give credit to the Aspen Skiing Company, they make it easy for visitors to get to and from their four resorts with an efficient fleet of free shuttle buses. The best feature about staying at the Tyrolean is there’s a bus stop at your doorstep

In search of the shrine

Having conquered Aspen Mountain, where the ski boom began after World War II, we head the next morning to Snowmass, which true to its name is so massive it will take two days to do it justice. It is here that we discover aptly named Sheer Bliss, a meandering intermediate ski run through widely spaced pines over a soft blanket of fresh snow. On a windless morning, with sunlight reflecting off fluffy snow falling from a solitary cloud, the sensation is that of being inside a giant snow globe.

The morning is so idyllic — so not gonzo — that when we stop for lunch at the Ullhof restaurant, it is a surprise to see above the bar a poster with the distinctive red, double-thumbed fist atop a dagger clutching a peyote button and bearing the Thompson epitaph: “It never got weird enough for me.”

It isn’t until later that we learn we have spent the day on the wrong side of the mountain. Returning to Aspen we discover a hilarious account in The Aspen Times about the shrine to HST that a group of locals assembled the previous morning amid the pines and aspens next to a Snowmass run with the fitting name of Gunner’s View. According to the news story, laminated photos and articles and artifacts such as a lizard adorned with multicolored jewels were hung from tree branches. Thompson’s widow reportedly donated some items and she was quoted as saying, “I think it’d be great to have a spot to go and smoke a joint and read something about Hunter, think about him.”

That article would serve as our treasure map. The site was described as “hidden, but not too concealed.” We would find it, I was quite sure. But as in many Thompson tales, the mission is a mirage. Personal interests come first. We have two more mountains to ski before we can return to Snowmass.

Both are reflective of their names. Buttermilk, despite being the venue for the X Games, is smooth and mild, ideal for kids and novices. Aspen Highlands is steep and thrilling. Both prove enjoyable, but the spirit of HST beckons from Snowmass.

Legend in the woods

The memory of Thompson does invoke mixed feelings. A letter-to-the-editor in the local paper labels his suicide cowardly and decries his advocacy of drugs and alcohol use. Be assured, HST was no role model.

Aspen Highlands is one of four resorts that can be skied near the town in central Colorado.

Aspen Highlands is one of four resorts that can be skied near the town in central Colorado.

On the chairlift after our first unsuccessful search for the shrine, we tell Stan Karr about our quest. A resident of the area for more than 30 years, Karr once played on a softball team managed by Thompson.

“Hunter would yell at the other team. He’d get them ticked off and they’d beat the hell out of us. We’d go, ‘Jeez, Hunter, don’t do that.’ He was a s— disturber.

“He used to have a golf tournament he called the Polish Open. Hunter would come with a shotgun in his golf bag. You’d have to drink a shot at every hole. It was wild.”

Karr wishes us luck in our quest for the shrine and we choose another path into the forest to the left of Gunner’s View as the news story directed. Earlier we’d focused on an area near a picnic table that was marked on the trail map by an icon that resembled a typewriter. I thought it was an omen.

We are getting the hang of skiing among the trees, but the forest is a labyrinth of skier tracks and false trails. With hope fading, I hail a ski instructor who appears as a Pied Piper with bunny ears on his hat and five young students in tow. This is the first he’s heard about the shrine.

The students are curious. He explains that Thompson was a famous author who died and describes what we are seeking.

One girl speaks up: “Oh, my sister found it with her teacher yesterday.”

“Did she say where it was?”

“Somewhere in the forest.”

And so it remains, a mystery in the pines.

Gonzo and gone

Departing Aspen, we make another detour to Woody Creek and finally get inside the store adjacent to the tavern in a 1940s log cabin. This is official HST headquarters. Here you can buy a T-shirt with the gonzo symbol or one of Thompson’s books. You can have coffee, a pastry and get your picture taken in a 1957 photo booth.

Unfortunately, they are sold out of the debut issue of The Woody Creeker. Also absent is store owner George Stranahan, a friend of Thompson’s and one of the leaders of the Woody Creek Caucus, which the previous day approved a resolution in opposition to the Patriot Act.

Driving back to the highway on the portion of the canyon road we bypassed on our first visit, I lament that HST has been giving us the slip all week. At that moment a song rarely aired on commercial radio begins to play. It’s Warren Zevon singing “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” a bonafide gonzo anthem.

Suddenly it becomes clear. You don’t have to find the shrine to feel the spirit. In these mountains, we are all snow leopards.

A lasting tribute

Update, 2015: The shrine to Hunter Thompson remains a fixture in the woods off Gunner’s View on Snowmass mountain nine years after it was established as a tribute to the gonzo journalist on the first anniversary of his death.

An email from one of the creators, posted on the website Aspensnowmassshrines.com, explained:

“We update the shrine every winter on Presidents’ Day, with or without Press. We also hike to the shrine in the summer for a campout on August 20, the anniversary of the day Hunter’s ashes were shot from the cannon. We also maintain the shrine during the ski season, keeping up with the deterioration from Nature, and making sure the Chivas is topped up.”

My hope is to finally view it on an upcoming return to Aspen.

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