Drinking in bars overflowing with spirits

His local: photos of Hunter S. Thompson adorn the Woody Creek Tavern.
His local: photos of Hunter S. Thompson adorn the Woody Creek Tavern. Photo: Getty Images

There's a bar in Madrid that's honest, if nothing else. Set near the Plaza Mayor, in prime tourist territory, it's making no attempt to claim the fame that most other drinking establishments around it cling to.

"Hemingway never drank here," the sign out the front states. It makes you chuckle. Every other bar in that area seems to want to claim some sort of connection with the writer who's almost as famous for his drinking as he was for his prose.

But not that one. Hemingway might have allegedly sipped sherry in every establishment within a two-kilometre radius of Plaza Mayor - and you'll find a similar story in cities such as Havana and Paris - but he never drank there.

Still, you can't blame travellers for wanting to find Hemingway's haunts. There's good reason why they'd want to drink in the same places their hero would have enjoyed a drink. It's like wanting to see a Shakespearean play at the Globe, or have coffee in the restaurant from Seinfeld. It's following in the footsteps of greatness.

And that's what most of the people are doing tonight at the Woody Creek Tavern, Colorado.

Think about great writers who made even greater drinkers and Hemingway comes to mind. Another name that crops up, however, is Thompson. Hunter S. Thompson: a man so mired in the drug- and alcohol-soaked worlds he reported on that he became his own perfect subject.

Hemingway was partial to a cosy Madrileno bar, but Thompson loved this country pub set deep in the Rocky Mountains.

The Woody Creek Tavern doesn't need a sign on a door to claim "Hunter S. Thompson drank here" because anyone who's anyone around these parts already knows he drank here. Pretty much every night.

You could spot him here alone, or maybe with his wife, propped up at the bar on the end closest to the door and the TV that would inevitably be set to sport channel ESPN. From that spot he'd drink his way through the place, sometimes working, sometimes talking, usually arguing with a waitress, with one eye always fixed on the big game.

From the time he moved to Aspen, Colorado, in the '60s to the time of his death by suicide in 2005, Thompson, journalistic pioneer and famed inebriate, would drink at the Woody Creek Tavern.

His spirit lingers. Posters on the walls, tacked up among the hundreds of Polaroid photos of regular punters, announce Thompson's run for county sheriff in 1970. He lost that race, eventually, but locals still gleefully tell of the author shaving his head so he could refer to his crew-cutted conservative challenger as "my long-haired opponent".

The Woody Creek Tavern isn't wild, not in the fear-and-loathing way you might expect of a Hunter S. Thompson haunt. It's just a regular little joint about half an hour out of Aspen, the mountain town that, during Thompson's time, became as much a haven for the creative and the liberal as it has now become for the rich and the famous.

It's a neighbourhood hangout but it's not the kind of place people will stop and stare as a stranger walks through the door. The bearded, flannel-shirted Woody Creek locals are pretty used to the sight of bearded, flannel-shirted skiers and snowboarders dropping in to drink beer and eat enchiladas in the place Hunter S. Thompson pretty much called home.

It's packed tonight, every plastic seat taken and standing room only at the bar. Eventually we secure a table in the dining area and wait until a waitress comes around to take our order.

"You ever serve Hunter?" asks one of the diners of the harried waitress. She blows air through her teeth. "Oh yeah. Hunter and me had a few issues."

It seems most of the wait staff had a few issues with Hunter, the most famous of which was when the writer threw a smoke bomb into the tavern in an attempt to clear out the large crowds. He was banned briefly, and forced to write a note of apology, which for a long time was displayed behind the bar.

It's no longer here, and neither is Thompson, but that doesn't stop the conversations about him.

Was he friendly? "To some people." Did he drink a lot? "Some nights." Did he carry a gun? "Not usually."

The wait staff make him sound like a formidable customer, fierce and intelligent and usually drunk. Probably someone Hemingway would have liked to share a drink with.

The writer travelled as a guest of Aspen/Snowmass Tourism.

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