Gonzo tripping

American dreams . . . downtown Las Vegas.
American dreams . . . downtown Las Vegas. 

In a rented convertible, Paul Willis follows Hunter S. Thompson to Vegas.

I'm somewhere near Barstow when the drugs start to kick in. I glance overhead but I can see no hordes of phantom bats swooping down in a hallucinatory fever.

Instead, just a surge of caffeine from the last swig of Americano and a pleasant numbness from the aspirin for a headache that has been bothering me since we left Los Angeles.

OK, so I know technically you're not supposed to drink liquids while driving but if you're on the trail of Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, you have to live a little on the edge.

What the hell! I put the bottle to my lips and pop another aspirin.

Thompson, who died nearly four years ago, would no doubt have preferred a hit of Mace in the eyes than suffer the ignominy of anything as insipid as headache tablets. The maverick journalist, who mythologised his own drug use with hilarious effect in his most famous work, was a man of extremes. Even in the manner of his death.

In February 2005 he was found shot through the head (judged suicide at the time) at his ranch in Colorado; his ashes were blasted from a cannon as per his final wishes.

Accompanied by my friend - a lifestyle consultant from Papua New Guinea - I have decided to pay a visit to his final resting place in the foothills of the Rockies.

The pilgrimage starts on the freeway from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, as we retrace the journey that begins Fear And Loathing when Thompson's alter ego, Raoul Duke, hallucinates a sky full of bats near the town of Barstow.

Getting out of LA has been intolerable. We're backed up on the freeway waiting to be released from the endless spread of the city. When we finally break clear of traffic at dusk we're sent on our way with a blood-red sunset blazing in the rear-view mirror of our rented white convertible.

Fear And Loathing is a fictionalised account of a real trip Thompson made to Vegas in the early 1970s accompanied by his Mexican lawyer, who morphs into the character of the drug-crazed Samoan attorney, Dr Gonzo. In the book, Gonzo and Duke embark on a shambolic quest to find the "American dream".

By the time we hit the desert city it is after midnight. Vegas emerges out of the darkness, a neon oasis, its skyline dominated by the huge warehouse-like hotel casinos that line the Strip.

These days the American dream is looking rather frayed around the edges in Sin City. The economic downturn that has hit the rest of the country is having an effect here, too.

At our motel and at diners in the downtown, staff tell us their takings are down.

"This place would be full normally but folks can't afford the gas to come out here," says Valente, a Mexican waiter at Denny's diner on Las Vegas Boulevard, gesturing to the rows of empty formica tables.

We stop at a cheap motel, the Econo Lodge on Las Vegas Boulevard. It has the dubious claim to fame that it played host to Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the Twin Towers attacks, on a wild weekend he spent with his co-conspirators in the months leading up to September 11, 2001.

Thompson described North Vegas as a "cheap shoddy limbo", the kind of place, he wrote, "where you go if you need to score smack before midnight with no references". Though the area still retains a definite air of seediness, it doesn't feel in any way overtly dangerous. And the faded neon of its strip clubs and all-night marriage chapels give it an authentic character closer in spirit to the Vegas of Thompson's book than the Strip, which for all its garish opulence is rather sterile.

From Vegas we drive nearly 1600 kilometres north-east through the desert of Nevada and Utah to Pitkin County, in the mountains of Colorado.

We stop for lunch at a Mexican taco restaurant in Green River, an old railroad town located in the parched wilderness of central Utah. It is eerily quiet, the main street just a few boarded-up stores, a garage and two restaurants. A beaten-up wooden shack near the freeway advertises "the best melons in America" for sale.

Pitkin County is where Thompson lived for most of his adult life in a ranch near Woody Creek, a sleepy hamlet a few kilometres down the valley from the ski resort of Aspen.

Thompson ran for sheriff in Pitkin County in 1970. Disillusioned with covering an election campaign that had brought Richard Nixon to power in 1968, he styled himself the "pro-hippie, anti-development" candidate, even shaving himself bald for a televised debate so he could refer to the opposition Republican candidate (who had a crew cut) as "my long-haired opponent".

He ran on a ticket he dubbed "Freak Power", saying he planned to mobilise the county's hardcore hippies and oddballs. It was only a last-minute face-saving deal between Democrats and Republicans that denied him victory.

Aspen today is awash with ski money, filled with boutique stores and high-end restaurants. On the main drag is the office of the Aspen Times, where the father of Gonzo once took out a full-page ad promoting his run for office.

John Colson, a reporter of two decades for the Aspen Times, says that in spite of the writer's best efforts to halt the developers, they won: "Money talks and bullshit walks. That's the sad reality here," he says.

To find the remnants of "Freak Power", you must leave smart Aspen and head down the valley, past forested hills to Woody Creek.

At the Woody Creek Tavern, a favourite haunt of the writer, the walls are adorned with his memorabilia: a signed photo of the front cover of the 20th anniversary edition of Rolling Stone magazine showing him reclining on the back of a Harley and polaroids of him in his trademark aviator sunglasses.

In the bar, everyone who knew Thompson has a story to tell: neighbours recall the intermittent sound of gunfire from the ranch and a nurse recalling how he was kicked out of the local hospital despite breaking his arm because he insisted on keeping a crate of beer and drugs under his bed.

"He was a true original and a patriot," says Steve, an old neighbour who lives a short distance from Owl Farm, Thompson's ranch.

It's dark when we leave and outside the air is misty cold around the street lamps. Into the lamplight a black flash of something appears for an instant. A bat. I pull my collar tight around my neck and brace myself for the worst.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Cathay Pacific flies to Los Angeles for $1350 with an aircraft change in Hong Kong, while Qantas flies non-stop for $2044 from Melbourne and $1944 from Sydney. V Australia flies non-stop from Sydney for $1820, while Melbourne passengers fly Virgin Blue to Sydney and pay $1620. The cheapest fare is with China Eastern for $1155 with an overnight stay in Shanghai (airline expense). (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney not including tax.) A one-way flight from Denver to LA costs $US90 ($134) on American Airlines. Australians now require approval to enter the US before departure. To register for this online go to https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Driving there

Starting in Los Angeles, the drive to Aspen covers 1448 kilometres. Taking Interstate 15, go north-east from LA through the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas, Nevada, then on to Utah where you pick up Interstate 70 east to Colorado. A car rental, for five days picking up at LA airport and dropping off in Denver, costs about $US110 a day; to upgrade to a convertible expect to pay an extra $US80 a day. (Kayak.com is the best price comparison website.)

Staying there Motel prices range from $US40 to $US70 a night but expect to pay more in Aspen.

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