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Michael Cleverly: Cleverly or Not

Michael Cleverly
Aspen Times Weekly

Hunter S. Thompson would have been 71 years old on July 18. It’s been a few years since he left us, but his legend continues to grow. For those who knew him well, our memories of him haven’t yet begun to fade.

Hunter has already gone down in history, and by its nature, history is mostly written by people who were not there to observe it. Here in the Roaring Fork Valley we’re fortunate to still have people who Hunter called friend, and who have clear memories (some more clear than others) and firsthand stories to share.

Here’s one that Frank Todaro told me about the good old days up in Lenado.

Lenado is about seven miles upstream from Owl Farm, where Hunter lived. The curvy road that takes you there is dirt with sheer cliffs rising on one side and precipitous drop-offs on the other. Lenado is a quasi-ghost town. I say “quasi” because some of the ghosts there still have pulses.

Born as a mining town high and remote, the center of the small community was the Flogus sawmill. It had a government contract to harvest timber and it provided beams for the mines. Local builders down in Aspen could get rough-cut dimensional lumber milled to order until the contract ran out and the operation closed in 1975. The meadows, hillsides and woods around the mill were, and are, dotted with small cabins, some decaying back into the earth and some occupied to this day. Back in the ’60s, when ski bums and counterculture types began to migrate to Aspen, few if any of the cabins had running water or electricity; Hunter Thompson landed down the road in Woody Creek at about the same time.

People like Frank Todaro who were drawn to Lenado were less interested in Aspen glamour than they were in the notion of living a natural life high in the Rockies. Other types who gravitated there sought anonymity; they knew what they had done before Lenado. There was a “no last names” rule, if on a rare occasion you would run into someone from Lenado in an Aspen saloon. Under the radar was a lifestyle etched in stone, people pretty much just moved into the cabins and squatted; there was rarely anyone to pay rent to.

Two of Todaro’s fellow residents of Lenado were James Madl and his buddy Lumberjack, who we called Lumber. Most folks thought “Lumber” was a nickname for his nickname; I always believed it was a reference to his IQ. Like most residents of Lenado, Jim and Lumber were pretty tough customers; they liked Lenado because it was hard to find them there.

Clearly Hunter Thompson was a kindred spirit to the good folk of that little community and if someone took up residence there not already knowing who Hunter was, they soon found out. Back then Aspen was still just a small ski town, Woody Creek a satellite of ranchland and Lenado a flyspeck, where almost everyone was on a first-name basis.

One night Madl and Lumber were returning to Lenado after closing down the Aspen bars. About halfway between Owl Farm and home they spotted Hunter’s red shark on the side of the road. The vehicle wasn’t just sitting there, it was bouncing and lurching as if it was alive. The lads suspected that sex was afoot. They figured that Hunter must have encountered a sweet young thing somewhere, and spirited her off to the middle of nowhere for a tryst, as wife Sandy was probably at home. Clearly it was time for some Lenado humor.

The guys ditched their lights, shut the engine off and coasted to a silent stop. They slid out of their car as quietly as possible and crept up to the shark. In unison they let out blood-curdling shrieks while pounding on the hood and trunk with their fists. The response from the interior was predictable. After whatever time it took to “put everything away,” Hunter emerged from the shark. One of the boys described him as being white as a ghost, the other said beet-red. It was pitch black; I doubt if either could tell.

Even though he was seething, Hunter must have been relieved that he was facing two Lenado crazies, something he understood and could identify with, so he played it cool. It was Sandy in the shark with him, he said. They had been sitting at home kind of bored and decided to add a little spice, as if every substance known to man and medicine in the middle drawer of the kitchen counter didn’t have sufficient “spice” potential. It was, however, the very sort of advice that TV advice-givers give to old married couples: Spice things up a bit. So there they were.

All the while that Hunter was edifying the lads he was inching toward the rear of the shark. Then with one lightning-fast move he popped the trunk and had a shotgun in his hand. At this point he stopped playing it cool and unleashed his full verbal wrath. The boys hightailed it on up to Lenado.

Now Madl and Lumber were comfortable with guns, but in their minds, when guns were to be pointed, it was Madl and Lumber who should do the pointing. They were pissed off that they let Hunter get the drop on them. At their cabin they loaded up with .357 Magnum pistols, a deer rifle and a shotgun.

The shark was gone by the time they got back to the point in the road that the incident had occurred, so they kept on driving all the way to Owl Farm. They got to the front door and proceeded pounding and hollering. Hunter appeared in the door with his shotgun.

So there stood Madl and Lumber pointing their .357s at Hunter, and Hunter pointing his shotgun at them, no one sober, everyone ticked off. It was a moment at which everything could have gone very wrong and someone could have gotten killed. There was a long, pregnant silence and finally Madl said, “Hey Hunter, got anything to drink?” Hunter looked at him and said, “Well, uh, sure.” He put the shotgun down and went back into the kitchen, re-emerging with a bottle of tequila.

The three sat on Hunter’s deck finishing off the bottle, instead of one another, till dawn.


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