Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Will Aspen’s Freak Power survive without Hunter?
November 17, 2011
ASPEN – Very late one Saturday night in 1969, a booze-filled Hunter S. Thompson called a man he hardly knew, attorney Joe Edwards, and informed him that he, Edwards, was going to run for mayor of Aspen. Edwards – chosen for his youth, his background in civil rights, perhaps his affection for bicycles, but definitely because, a year earlier, he had won a court injunction against the harassment of hippies by local police and magistrate Guido Meyer – submitted, and became the Freak Power candidate. The ensuing campaign was like nothing Aspen had seen: The freaks turned pro and launched a frenzied turn-out-the-hippie effort, fueled by drugs and a contempt for the right-wing establishment that had a lock on official Aspen. Shaggy “drug people,” as Thompson called them, armed with copies of the Colorado voting laws, watched over the polls to make sure fellow freaks were not prevented from voting – and in some cases, even to try to keep straight-looking citizens from casting their ballots (presumably not for Edwards).The episode became the subject of an article in the October 1, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone. The piece, which launched Thompson’s long affiliation with the magazine, was “The Battle of Aspen: Freak Power in the Rockies” – a title which might give readers some years down the line a wrong impression of the campaign. Edwards lost; Freak Power had not quite taken its place in City Hall. Beating Edwards was Eve Homeyer, who, though she campaigned on a platform of preserving open space and made a promise never to own a car, was a Nebraska-born, Mount Holyoke-educated widow who owned a clothes shop, and was nobody’s idea of a freak.Edwards lost, though, by just six votes, which Thompson and others affiliated with the Aspen Liberation Front – novelist Jim Salter, journalist Peggy Clifford, artist Tom Benton, photographer Bob Krueger – took as a sign of progress. Enough that Thompson opted to honor his promise that, whether Edwards won or lost, Thompson would run for sheriff of Pitkin County the following year. He campaigned on promises to turn paved streets back to grass, and legalize recreational drugs.Thompson – to his relief, it must be said – lost, in what could be seen as a step backwards for the local freak movement. The margin this time was 465 votes, and instead of Thompson, Pitkin County elected as its sheriff the incumbent Carol Whitmire, a classic model of the old-time, Western, straight-shooting lawman. Also dashed in the election was perhaps Thompson’s most radical vision for the community: changing the name of Aspen to Fat City, an anti-marketing move that he was sure would chase away land developers, as well as most of the tourists.Thompson’s attention turned to the national scene. For Rolling Stone, he wrote about the run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972; Muhammad Ali; Roxanne Pulitzer’s divorce trial in Palm Beach; the death of his detested Richard Nixon. The writing made him an iconic figure – hailed and imitated as a journalist, lampooned in the “Doonesbury” comic strip, even making an impact as a political insider. It was Thompson who persuaded Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner to endorse Bill Clinton’s first run for president. His presence in the broader scope endures; recent weeks have seen the release of “The Rum Diary,” an adaptation of the first book, and only novel, Thompson wrote, starring Johnny Depp as a journalist in Puerto Rico; and “Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson.”But Thompson would never venture into local politics again, not as a candidate. Nor would he make his backyard political scene the focus of his national writing; his later mentions of the Roaring Fork Valley in Rolling Stone would be in passing.••••So you could conclude that Thompson failed to leave his imprint on Aspen. He never became sheriff; Edwards didn’t become mayor. The streets remain paved; possession of drugs (marijuana largely excepted) remains illegal. Developers salivate over every empty scrap of land. We still call the place Aspen.But scrape away the fantasy stuff (stockades on the courthouse for greedy drug dealers?), poke just under the surface, and it’s not hard to hear Thompson, who killed himself in 2005, getting his last laughs. Pitkin County, whose Republican voters outnumbered Democrats two-to-one four decades ago (according to Thompson), now votes overwhelmingly Democratic. The preservationists have largely won the land-use war, which Thompson pegged as one of the most significant fronts in the battle between freaks and the establishment. Highway 82 is still a two-lane at the entrance to Aspen, an issue Thompson flagged in “The Battle of Aspen.” And while there is plenty about modern-day Aspen that would make Thompson spit blood, it’s a shame he didn’t last long enough to see the pot shops sprout like weeds here; he would have loved seeing ads for marijuana on the front page of the local newspapers.Despite his early losses at the polls, Thompson didn’t have to wait long to see traction in the effort to beat back the old guard. Edwards lost his bid for mayor, but in 1976 Edwards, along with a fellow liberal attorney, Dwight Shellman, both won election as Pitkin County Commissioners. Also that year, Dick Kienast – who was Thompson’s pick to actually run the sheriff’s office, had Thompson won in 1970 – was elected sheriff; the department was so enlightened in its approach to law enforcement that it earned the nickname, Dick Dove & the Deputies of Love.Nineteen-seventy-six kicked off a long string of progressives being elected to local offices. Succeeding Kienast as sheriff was Bob Braudis, a physical hulk who saw his job as public safety rather than law enforcement, and was guided as much by the Bill of Rights as by the town code. “Peace is my product,” Braudis said. He was elected for a total of six terms, and was barely challenged.In “The Battle of Aspen,” Thompson approvingly referred to Edwards as a bike racer and a lawyer. Thompson couldn’t get Edwards into the mayor’s position, but Aspen’s current mayor, now in his second term, is Mick Ireland, another bike nut/lawyer with marked liberal leanings. It’s not hard to find the line connecting the Freak Power campaigns of 1969 and ’70 to Braudis’ 24-year run, Ireland’s tenure as mayor, and Aspen’s enduring status as a tolerant, community-minded place, adverse to rampant development.”I see a strong link to today, to individual’s quest for freedom in a free society,” said Braudis, who was succeeded last year by his undersheriff and longtime deputy Joe DiSalvo, in what was essentially a hand-off of humanitarian philosophy. “Hunter left behind a conscience for the upper Roaring Fork Valley. His thumbprint is all over it.”••••Why in the world would Thompson leave San Francisco in the late ’60s, a freak-friendly scene if ever there was one, to settle in a bastion of conservatism like the Roaring Fork Valley – specifically, Woody Creek’s Owl Farm, his home until he died? (It certainly wasn’t the skiing; if Thompson ever put on a pair of skis, there’s no evidence of it.)Part of the answer is that he was chased here. Thompson’s first book to be published was the unflattering, uncompromised “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.” After the book came out, in 1966, he recognized that the Bay Area, the Hell’s Angels’ main stomping grounds, wasn’t safe terrain.”Hunter was running from Hell’s Angels,” local journalist Jay Cowan, a Thompson confederate and employee who wrote the 2009 book “Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance,” said. “He didn’t like to say it, but he thought they were trying to kill him. And they well might have. Colorado seemed far enough from the beaten path.”But Thompson also recognized a swell of off-center, creative thinking in the area, one with little apparent connection to Aspen’s intellectual blooming a few decades earlier, under Walter Paepcke. This wave – represented by artist Herbie Balderson; bar owner Michael Solheim; Tom Benton, who would create the spectacular posters for Thompson’s campaign for sheriff; and physicist and educator (and later beer- and whiskey-maker) George Stranahan, who set Thompson up with land in Woody Creek. Thompson likely also admired the state of journalism in Aspen: Aspen Times publisher Bil Dunaway watched government meetings with a hawk’s eye, and Freddie Fisher was a provocative, entertaining presence in the letters to the editor section. “Hunter liked to say he first came here to hunt. Which may have been true; every Southern boy has a gun. But Hunter was the worst shot you’ve ever seen; he was not a hunter at all,” Cowan said. “What really attracted Hunter to begin with was the number of characters in town, and the kind of characters – bright people who were fairly progressive.”That culture in Aspen was small, but thanks to the broader flowering of the hippies, growing. Thompson saw that the movement needed a push to take over the positions of power. Cowan, who moved to Aspen as a teenager in 1967, was taken by this person who was taking on “the conservative ranchers and literal Nazis” who ran Aspen.”I started reading letters to the editor from this guy and went, ‘Who the hell is this?'” Cowan recalled. Putting Edwards on the 1969 ballot for mayor, a plot credited to Peggy Clifford and Jim Salter as well as Thompson, was a significant step forward from letters to the paper. “That was a watershed deal there,” Cowan said. “Anyone who didn’t live in the Roaring Fork Valley at the time can never appreciate what it was like. Hair of a certain length in 1969 would have been a reason for 20, 30 percent of the population to kill you, no questions asked. To have somebody like Joe step up and defend people charged with being indigent, loitering, was a big deal. Then having more people who were progressive step up, that was huge.””It scared the shit out of the Teutonic establishment,” Braudis, who moved to Aspen in 1969 (and who co-wrote “The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson”), said. “In their minds, there had been a clustering of freaks here, way too many freaks for a largely European and Texan establishment. They wanted all the rules, and only ones that benefited them.”••••At the center of “The Rum Diary,” which was written in the early ’60s but not published till 1998, is real estate development in Puerto Rico. Braudis’ favorite line in the movie likens land development to a “piss puddle of greed spreading throughout the world.”Braudis says that Thompson was “a prophet – sort of,” who could see what Aspen would become if the approach to land use wasn’t radically changed. “Our program … was to drive the real estate goons completely out of the valley. … No more huge, space-killing apartment buildings to block the view. … No more land rapes … zone the greedheads out of existence, and in general create a town where people could live like human beings,” Thompson wrote in 1970’s “The Battle of Aspen.” Thompson could hardly claim total victory here, but Aspen is often noted as a model of slow growth and small-scale development. It isn’t Vail.After the early ’70s, Thompson’s influence on local politics became more behind-the-scenes. He offered advice on peace-keeping to Braudis (which, the former sheriff says, he ignored as often as he took. “He was a true paranoid,” Braudis said. “He was a firm believer in all conspiracy theories. I spent a lot of time talking him out of his delusions of oppression.”) He chimed in with letters to the editor.But in 1995, the world threatened a serious intrusion on Thompson’s seclusion, in the form of ballot proposals to expand the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. Thompson met the threat of bigger, louder planes flying over Woody Creek with a campaign – centered on the line, “There is some shit we will not eat” – that was part a matter of personal interest, but that also fit in with his vision for the community. The initiative was defeated.”We would have had cruise-ship tourism here,” Braudis said. “We’d have had 737s come in every 10 minutes, dumping off hundreds of people. It would have been the mega-model of tourism – Hunter’s worst nightmare.”••••Thompson’s impact on the Aspen area might be getting harder to see. Braudis says the number of “pilgrims” heading to the Woody Creek Tavern, a regular Thompson hangout, is in decline. But there is still a poster from the 1970 sheriff’s race in a prominent spot in the J-Bar.For a writer whose lasting reputation is grounded in being outrageous and unpredictable, Thompson’s legacy here is strangely ordinary and subtle. A land-use code isn’t the sexiest mark to leave. But the cultural landscape we see as ordinary – open debate on public matters, short on violence, tolerant – is probably a lot different than it would have been had Thompson opted to take cover from the Hell’s Angels in Telluride, or back in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.DJ Watkins, a 28-year-old who moved here three years ago, wasn’t drawn to Aspen because it was the place Thompson had lived. But he sees himself as the beneficiary of what Thompson instilled.”Aspen has an allure for certain types of people,” Watkins said. “It’s a pretty free, open place, where you can express yourself, be who you want to be. People expect that and appreciate it here.”Watkins is building on Thompson’s freak legacy in his chosen way of life: “I like to think of myself as living a gonzo life, a not necessarily normal existence – not going to school, working for myself, doing what I want to do,” he said. The fact that Watkins was riding in a white Cadillac while speaking was not an homage to Thompson, who was fond of white Cadillacs. Rather, it was a cosmic coincidence, a gift from Watkins’ grandfather. But Watkins is also engaging in more intentional forms of tribute. Last year he authored “Thomas W. Benton: artist/activist,” which catalogues Benton’s posters, captures the political happenings of Aspen in the late ’60s and early ’70s – and unavoidably includes a whole lot of Thompson. Watkins is currently exploring opening a local museum with the tentative name, the Gonzo Museum.The Gonzo Museum isn’t meant to enshrine Thompson alone, but to focus on Aspen politics of four decades ago, Freak Power, the art that went with it. On a clear day, the connections between what Thompson and his fellow freaks did back then, and what Aspen is today, should be visible.”If you like what you see here, you have to give credit to the activists, the artists,” Braudis said. “What you see here today is largely a product of what those activists did in the late ’60s.”email@example.com