Angry counterculturalist, Kentucky gentleman
As the moon passed full this week, so did the life and soul of Hunter S. Thompson, and with them went his wit, his style, his passionate outrage and his sense of wounded justice.An awful lot has been written and said about his passing, and now it seems generally acknowledged that this was something he’d been planning for some time. So be it.
I’ve always been intrigued by one aspect of his life, an odd conflict that colored much of Hunter’s later years – the fact that he reveled in the notoriety granted to him by the strength of his abilities, even as he strove to keep the world at bay and out of his private affairs.He was forever huddling with a select crew of friends in what the fascinated world perceived as his fortress of solitude, an armed camp along Woody Creek Road, warded by the menacing aspect of twin metal buzzards on tall posts at the gate, and the prospect of being confronted at the door by a man carrying a formidable pistol. In fact, almost any time his name came up in conversation with valley folk who did not know him, guns would figure prominently in the discussion. And the talk often was colored at least by a healthy respect for his privacy or, from some, the kind of morally fortified disgust and fear that born-again Christians reserve for, say, a woman who aborts a child.Hunter inspired that kind of passion. His friends loved him, the vast majority of people didn’t understand him but showed him puzzled and halfhearted respect, and his detractors despised his style and his excesses, possibly out of a warped sense of jealousy.Of course, a lot of Hunter’s outward display of fierce partisan antagonism was mere show, since at his core he was a Kentucky gentleman who, despite occasional insanities and the ability to be a total jerk at times, would give the shirt off his back to a friend in need. He was unfailingly polite to women, even chivalrous in his demeanor.
This was a fact of Hunter that my wife, Anne, remarked on frequently after running into him one night in the alleyway between our mobile home and the Woody Creek Tavern, back in the early ’90s when we were living in the trailer park that surrounds the Tavern. He was parked in the short alley, awaiting delivery of some food, which he often did if the Tavern was too crowded for his taste. And although he had only met Anne a couple of times, at most, this famous, bristly and angry counterculturalist greeted her by name and chatted in the way that neighbors do.It was as a neighbor that I first truly got to know him, in fact. I had known of him for years, of course, starting in the early 1970s when I picked up a copy of “Hell’s Angels” in a public restroom at the University of Wisconsin, the paperback cover rudely ripped off for some reason. I knew he lived in the valley, had been amused by a profile of him in The Free Weekly newspaper in Glenwood Springs in the 1980s, by a young fan and reporter who got up the nerve to invade the compound at Owl Farm. And I had encountered him at meetings of the Woody Creek Caucus, in my capacity as an Aspen Times reporter covering the beat.We became friends over time, slowly at first because Hunter was cautious about journalists in his back yard. He was prone to strange outbursts and occasional mayhem, and some of us in the media tended to do our duty and report it to the public, which he didn’t often like. Such was the case when he accidentally winged his assistant, Debra, with a shotgun pellet while defending Owl Farm from the depredations of a marauding bear. I broke the story in The Aspen Times, and was out of favor at Owl Farm for a while because of it.But the friendship, hesitant and occasional though it was, endured through a decade or so. Hunter often came into town and called me from the Hotel Jerome, inviting me over to sit and chat while he nibbled at a half-dozen different dishes brought by sycophantic waiters nearly fumble-footed in their eagerness to serve the great Gonzo.
At caucus meetings, we would sometimes be on the same side of an issue under discussion, whether it was actor Don Johnson’s demand that his ranch foreman be allowed to vote in Caucus matters as Johnson’s proxy, a debate over whether to let Pitkin County pave the upper reaches of the Woody Creek Road, or any number other weighty questions of the day. And sometimes we would repair to that famous kitchen at Owl Farm after a meeting, for refreshments and conversation that could last far into the night about any topic that might burst through the open window of our frenetic minds.I had not seen Hunter for some time when I heard the news of his death that Sunday night. My move to Carbondale, to be editor of the town’s weekly paper, The Valley Journal, has been consuming enough to keep me downvalley and cut off contact with my upvalley circle of friends, Thompson included. But I still consider him my friend, and I believe he felt the same, despite the fact that something had shifted and we no longer interacted much. I grieve for his passing, though my tears are as much for the world that will miss one of its most consistent voices of conscience, as they are for the man who has left us behind. He wanted to go out as close to the top of his game as he could, I believe, and that is exactly what he did.Other considerations, conjectures and angry protestations at his last act – they’re our problem, not his.
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