Fear and loathing in Aspen

Going gonzo is a blast in this quaint town made infamous by its most off-the-wall resident, writes Lance Richardson.

'When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro," wrote Hunter S. Thompson. He also wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, staking weird as his specialty. In 1970, Thompson decided that things had become very weird in his adopted home of Aspen, Colorado - but not in a good way. He campaigned to have a friend elected mayor, failed, and then campaigned to have himself elected sheriff of Pitkin County.

The ticket was "Freak Power". Thompson proposed ripping up the footpaths, firing conservative officials and legalising drugs. He also wanted to change the name of Aspen to Fat City. "This would prevent greed heads, land rapers, and other human jackals from capitalising on the name 'Aspen'," he declared.

At heart, Thompson saw Aspen as a safe haven for hippies, freaks and unconventional souls; he rejected the idea it might become a massive resort driven by financial gain.

Today, Aspen remains small and quiet. You drive through streets that seem to have ceased evolving, like an old species sealed off from the world. But it would be interesting to hear what Thompson thought of the stereotype.

"The billionaires are pushing out the millionaires," one resident tells me shortly after I arrive. "If your G5 [jet] isn't already booked into the airport, you'll have to land it in Vail."

It isn't really like that, though - or not entirely. Aspen has cultural institutions, microbreweries, and even its own Ideas Festival. What local historian Tom Egan describes as "People Magazine Aspen" lasts for a few weeks about Christmas.

Thompson's fingerprints remain visible. His portrait hangs in the J-Bar, where waitresses offer wide-eyed recollections, "We'd say to each other, 'You manage those 12 tables and I'll manage him."'

Woody Creek Tavern has become legendary through association. When Egan takes me there one evening for fajitas, we step into a surreal tableau of pressed tin and old Polaroids, with plastic parrots hanging from the ceiling and leopard-print carpet.

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Thompson passed a great deal of time drinking in the corner. He once threw a smoke bomb into the bar, Egan says - or was it a stink bomb, or maybe a firecracker?

Everybody tells a slightly different story. Thompson went golfing with a correspondent from 60 Minutes, pulled a shotgun from his bag, and blew away the ball. He "signed" books by shooting them in a parking lot. He opened fire on a wild bear and wounded his secretary in the leg. How much is true? One thing, certainly: the man liked guns.

Visit the Gonzo Museum on Hyman Avenue and there are several self-portraits that Thompson "edited" with a shotgun and red paint.

Much of the collection in the Gonzo Museum covers political posters by Thomas Benton, Thompson's friend. But Thompson quickly becomes the main attraction.

There are old copies of Rolling Stone, which published Thompson's writing; "Thompson for Sheriff" posters; and The Aspen Wallpaper, a short-lived publication by Benton and Thompson, with lead stories such as, How Aspen Plans to Grow Gracefully on a Diet of Wildcat Stew and Sewer Water. The museum is a shaggy affair but also strange and mesmerising.

"When people come to Aspen now, they think of Fendi," says Daniel Watkins, who started the museum after discovering Benton's work and trawling through the attics of eccentric locals looking for more. "People don't know about Hunter S. Thompson and Aspen. Part of my aim was to turn people onto the rich history of the town, away from conspicuous consumption." Watkins lives in a forest cabin without water or electricity. He gestures towards his collection: "These guys were total badasses."

A documentary produced by the BBC in 1970 only adds to the legend. I watch High Noon in Aspen at the Aspen Historical Society, which is housed in an ornate Queen Anne building in the West End. Upstairs there's a worthy exhibition on the Ute Indians: Aspen has had many lives across the years. Yet the battle on screen for sheriff, pitting "rancher" against "ski-bum hedonist" (as the old guard phrased it), suggests a place more significant than its size or location would immediately suggest.

"It's the lifestyle that's at stake here," one young woman argues. "It's freedom."

If Thompson gets elected sheriff "we're going to have murders here", a conservative predicts to the camera.

There were no murders in 1970, or no political ones, because Thompson was beaten. The documentary shows him draped in a flag, wearing a wig and auguring the death of the American dream. Nevertheless, people in Aspen talk of a more positive outcome. Egan says Thompson's activism triggered a chain reaction that ultimately achieved his original goal: to protect the town from overdevelopment. "Greed heads" lost in the end. People woke up to the benefit of restricting growth to just 2 per cent a year. An affordable housing program, founded in the 1970s, ensures that non-billionaires can live here, too.

"Most of us came on the way to somewhere else, looking for the best life," Egan says. "Then we just stayed." He seems pleased that the main street has looked the same for 35 years. And the skiing is still good.

Thompson never touched skis. That doesn't stop me from finishing up at the neighbouring mountain of Snowmass, where a run called "Gunner's View" holds a marvellous secret. With the help of ski instructor Christopher Condon and a ranger with a snow mobile, I stumble through pine trees into a hidden clearing where there's a makeshift shrine to Thompson, cobbled together from photographs and newspaper clippings. The snow makes it seem ethereal.

A few weeks later, I receive a photo from Condon of downtown Aspen at night, fairy lights in trees, a fur coat displayed in a shop window. Carved in the snow is an enormous fist clenching a button of peyote, the hallucinogenic cactus. It's the symbol of Thompson's campaign.

I'm reminded of something Watkins told me at the museum: "History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes." Thompson shot himself several years ago, but in Aspen, Colorado, "freak power" survives another winter.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Aspen/Snowmass.

FAST FACTS

Getting there United Airlines has a fare to Aspen for about $1950 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Sydney passengers fly non-stop to Los Angeles (13hr 30min), then to Denver (2hr 21min) and then to Aspen (40min). Melbourne passengers pay about the same and transit in Sydney; see united.com. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Staying there The Little Nell offers elegant modern rooms conveniently at the base of Aspen Mountain. Rooms start at $US595 ($570) in winter. Check for deals, some of which include complimentary lift passes. See thelittlenell.com.

See + do Woody Creek Tavern can be accessed by car, or on foot or bicycle via the popular Rio Grande Trail. Some locals cycle there and taxi home (taxis have bike racks). Thompson lived nearby at Owl Farm. See woodycreektavern.com.

The Gonzo Museum is a temple to alternative political views and the strange art of Benton, Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman. Find the entrance next to Little Annie's restaurant. See gonzomuseum.com.

The Aspen Historical Society offers sterling exhibitions on local history, all displayed in a Queen Anne house built by Jerome Wheeler, who also built the Hotel Jerome downtown. See aspenhistorysociety.com.

Snowmass is a good mountain to find your ski legs, with a range of classes on offer. The Thompson shrine can be found on "Gunner's View", a blue run (intermediate). Finish with a cocktail at the terrific Nest bar at nearby Viceroy Snowmass.

More information aspensnowmass.com.

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