Nearly every writer has dreamed of a brush with famed Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. That includes me. But after he committed suicide in his Woody Creek home in 2005, I assumed that chance had passed.
I wasn’t entirely correct.
If you’re not already familiar with Thompson’s work and life, he was known for extremism in both. Ever-fueled by drink and drugs, he was a pioneer of boundary-breaking “New Journalism,” writing boots-on-the-ground personal narratives that busted through the fourth wall like nothing that had come before. In terms of his alcohol (and other) consumption, he out-Hemingway-ed Hemingway: biographer E. Jean Carroll chronicled one day’s intake, starting at 3 p.m. with “Chivas Regal with the morning papers,” followed by Chartreuse and massive amounts of cocaine, grass, Heineken and cigarettes, concluding at 6 a.m. with “—in the hot tub—champagne, Dove Bars, fettuccine alfredo.”
Heading to the posh ski playground that is Aspen, I certainly wasn’t expecting a Thompson encounter. It takes an hours-long drive up along thin, winding mountain roads to reach the cash-rich, oxygen-poor mecca. Once there, it’s hard to imagine that Thompson ever lived nearby. There’s the Prada shop, the resort hotels that offer room service menus for dogs, the sparkling windows teasing impossibly precious baubles. The (legal in Colorado) marijuana storefront hints that Thompson might have found solace here somewhere, but it’s not sufficiently gritty; the walls are Crest-strip white and the polite ski-bum clerk suggests THC-laced gummy bears.
But just a few miles over, flanked by humbler farmland, is the counterculture community that is Woody Creek. This is where Thompson famously ran for sheriff on the “Freak Power” ticket in 1970; his platform included decriminalization of drugs and re-naming Aspen “Fat City.” (Both have since come to pass, sort of.) The locals call themselves “Woody Creatures.”
Woody Creek Tavern is here, where Thompson drank, hung out and occasionally tended bar in a wig, just for kicks. (Carroll lists Thompson’s lunch order here, taken at 7 p.m.: it includes two Heinekens, two Margaritas, Dunhills, cocaine and “for the ride home, a snow cone”—a glass of shredded ice over which three or four jiggers of Chivas were poured.) It looks like a dive you could find in any number of semi-rural towns, cluttered with strings of all-year-round multi-colored Christmas lights and hundreds of Polaroid photos stapled to the wall, including one of Thompson with his arm around a stoned-looking dog.
This town also is home to Woody Creek Distillers, best known for its “farm-to-flask” potato vodka—which was almost named “Fat City Vodka,” confides WCD co-owner Mark Kleckner, as he shows me around the distillery.
We settle in at the long wooden bar in front of the distillery operations to do a little tasting, and I have to ask: As a longtime Woody Creature, surely he’d had a run-in with Thompson?
“As a matter of fact, Hunter’s back fence shares a line with one of our potato fields,” Kleckner explains, as he uncaps a bottle of vodka, setting a pour in front of me. About six months after his death, he continues, actor Johnny Depp, a close friend of Thompson’s, carried out one of the writer’s final wishes: From Thompson’s back yard, he set off a cannon, firing Thompson’s ashes far and wide. Naturally, some of those ashes settled down right over that potato field.
“We joke that those potatoes were fertilized by Hunter S. Thompson,” Kleckner finishes. And those potatoes were made into Woody Creek vodka? I inquire, eyeing the glass now in my hand.
What’s a Thompson junkie to do with a glass of Gonzo vodka? No swirling, sniffing or contemplative sipping will do. I lift my glass in a silent expletive-laced salute to Thompson, and without further hesitation, slug that sucker right down.