Years after he departed this Earth, Colorado's Woody Creek Tavern still carries the ghosts of Hunter S. Thompson, writes Mark Daffey.
The Woody Creek Tavern isn't like other bars around the glitzy Rocky Mountains township of Aspen. Leopard-print carpets match the curtains and seat covers. Carnival lights, mirrored balls and a flying pig hang from the pressed-metal ceiling. And the dated furniture is the sort you'd expect to find in a church hall.
Look past the Polaroids lining the walls, however, and there's every chance you'll begin to identify a pattern. Portraits of a bald-headed man with a long, often-bespectacled face appear numerous times. There's a photo of him reclining on a Harley Davidson motorbike with a cigarette in his mouth and tennis shoes on his feet. Another of him in golfing attire with a 60 Minutes correspondent. And a monochrome snapshot in meditative repose.
The man in question won't mean much to many who pop into this slightly eccentric watering hole in the Roaring Fork Valley, three bumps and a rumble from Aspen. But anyone versed in Gonzo journalism, the literary genre blurring fact and fiction where the writer is often inserted into the story, will recognise the man as Hunter S. Thompson – seminal author, political rabble-rouser, gun lover, chemical imbiber and long-time resident of Woody Creek.
That, more than anything else, is what sets this tavern apart from others in this affluent pocket of Colorado. It isn't the steer horns on the wall or the Keep It Weird barrel top further along. Nor is it the Christmas decorations still hanging long after the festivities have passed or the stuffed boar above the door outside. It's the fact that the Woody Creek Tavern was Thompson's local; from the time it opened in 1980 right up until the day he shot and killed himself in 2005 at age 67.
I'm seated in a stall in the far corner of the tavern, across from local historian Tom Egan. Ironically, Egan tells me this was one of Hunter's favourite booths. "He'd sit here or on that bar stool immediately inside the door, chain-smoking Dunhills through gold-tipped filters while he watched sports and drank a cocktail of beverages he'd have lined up in front of him."
Shrines to celebrities are scattered all over Aspen's mountains, and it's fair to suggest that the Woody Creek Tavern is a proxy shrine to its most celebrated patron. Apart from the pictures mentioned, there's a personalised vehicle licence plate reading 'URGONZO'. A framed print of a fist wrapped around a peyote flower symbolises Thompson's campaign tilt for County Sheriff in 1970, running on a platform legalising drugs, limiting development, ripping up streets with jackhammers and renaming Aspen 'Fat City' to "prevent greed heads, land rapers, and other human jackals from capitalising on the name 'Aspen'."
Nevertheless, references to Thompson aren't as obvious as I'd expected them to be. While the establishment readily acknowledges Thompson as a part of its history, it hasn't hung its hat on the fact. It's just a good old-fashioned bar serving American staples with a Mexican sway, where homegrown cowboys share the bar with ski bums from out of town.
"It's a step back in time," observes Egan.
Still, that doesn't stop the crowds – the "Hunter hunters," my waitress, Paula, calls them – from coming. Or the stories of his exploits from flowing.Thompson was once said to have ignited a smoke bomb inside, emptying the bar for 72 hours. He "autographed" books for fans by lining them up and firing a bullet through each copy. He'd also get friends to hit golf balls so he could shoot them like they were clay pigeons. And he once shot his secretary in the leg – accidently, of course.
"He was big on drinking and he was big on firearms too. What a combo, hey?" remarks Egan.
"I never saw him do any drugs," says Paula, "but he'd often have five drinks lined up along the bar. One would be a coffee. Then there'd be a Chivas Regal and a gin with cranberry, and whatever else. He'd have his food alongside them, which he usually didn't eat. He'd smother it in salt and pepper and let it go cold, then ask for it to be wrapped up so he could take it home."
Home was a hop, skip and stumble up the road at Owl Farm, the 42.5-acre ranch financed by royalties from Hell's Angels, his immersive account of a 12-month period hanging with the infamous motorcycle gang. Johnny Depp and Jack Nicholson are said to have been regular visitors, and his one-time assistant, Anita Bejmuk, who he married in 2003, still lives there.
It was also here that close friends paid their last respects at Thompson's funeral, when his ashes were blasted from a cannon as per his final wishes.
Mark Daffey travelled as a guest of Travelplan
Travelplan offers a range of Aspen Snowmass ski packages, including discounted accommodation, lifts and air fares. See TravelplanSki.com