The Day Hunter S. Thompson Came to Leadville
The day started out different. It was Halloween 1990 and the series of costume parties from the night before, left me with a splitting headache and a hollow belly. It was a late-start Wednesday on my schedule, and I was taking in one more cup of coffee, soaking up the sun on my front porch, when the whirring of a mechanical bird interrupted my recovery.
Looking up, shading my eyes from the brilliant sun against October’s bright blue skies, I quickly determined it was not a Flight for Life helicopter. But then, who would be coming to our fine town, especially by air?
I sat upright, remembering it was “Justice for Jessie” day. It was the day Hunter S. Thompson came to the Cloud City.
Like many young journalists, Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” had whet my appetite for the crazy, carefree life on the road, writing about adventures. Little did I know that I would soon be experiencing my own “Cigars and Margaritas” in Lead-Vegas!
From time to time, Hunter S. Thompson would take up the causes of some under-privileged, under-paid, and under-the-thumb of justice person. “Justice for Jessie” had become his most recent cause, and he was coming to Leadville be a character witness for a Pitken County resident who found herself in trouble while passing through Lake County on her way home to Aspen.
One summer day, Jesse had hitched her way home as far as the Kum and Go on Harrison Avenue. But it wasn’t until her ride was long gone, that the damsel-in-distress realized that she had left her backpack in their car.
Quick, albeit questionable, thinking on her part, resulted in a call to the Lake County Sheriff Department, who was able to locate and stop the car, and retrieve Jessie’s backpack. A quick search of the backpack by deputies revealed the owner’s identify, and also turned up illegal paraphernalia and a small amount of marijuana.
The boys in blue returned to Kum & Go to reunite the pack with its rightful owner, which she cheerfully identified as hers, and then was promptly charged with possession of an illegal substance.
Now the story probably would have ended there, but this particular woman was already on probation out of Pitken County and had rallied the support of Hunter S. Thompson to help fight her battles. This most recent “search and seizure” of a down-on-her-luck Aspen housekeeper only seemed to amplify the gonzo journalist’s cause.
The “Justice for Jessie” case would be heard on Halloween, which only added to the media circus that started to gather at the Lake County Courthouse. The publications known for their sensational reporting wanted to hear what Hunter had to say. Now remember, it was 1990, so it was way before the borage of smart phones with cameras and the onslaught of social media’s immediate tweeting or posting. In fact, in today’s world this may have been a very different story.
Regardless, the court docket for Wednesday, Oct. 31 said the case would start at 1 p.m. Knowing that not much started on time in these parts, I lingered over another cup of coffee at the Golden Rose (now, the Chinese restaurant) and watched the scurry going on across the street, as everyone bevied for position and a glimpse of the famous character witness.
Just as I swilled that last of my coffee, a small parade of people whisked past the window and the door swung open. Yes, the door swung open just like in the Wild West movies – and in walked the Gonzo Journalist himself; he bellied up to the empty bar and called out, “Margaritas for everyone!”
Then he added, pointing to me sitting at a nearby table, “A margarita for her too” And so it began – “Cigars and Margaritas” in Lead-Vegas!
Hunter set up camp in the restaurant, as his minions would run back and forth to the courthouse, keeping him apprised of the cases’s progress, waiting for his turn to take the stand.
“Screw the court case,” I thought. “I’m drinking margaritas with Hunter, and it’s not even noon.”
The rest of the journalists were across the street in a packed courthouse, waiting for some tidbit, some sound bite. I was sitting across the table from the Gonzo Journalists, wearing his hat and swilling Cuervo. I was living every journalist’s dream!
There are many things that stay with me from that day; I’ll share a couple. First, I was amazed at his ability to consume tequila. I mean, it wasn’t until about 3:30 that he actually had to testify and he seemed pretty together for drinking pitcher after pitcher of margaritas. It was classic Hunter S. Thompson; but honestly I don’t know if I would have believed it, unless I saw it.
Which leads me to my second impression, the guy was very smart. I felt like I was part of some high-level, roundtable discussion, as the politics of the day were discussed, dissected and diluted over massive amounts of tequila.
Eventually, Thompson took the stand. I went over to witness the legendary event, peaking through the small windows of the courtroom back doors. The place was packed with journalists and there he was on the stand – as a character witness! I couldn’t hear a thing he said, I just stared in amazement, watching through those small windows, as he swung that unlit cigar from his hand, pontificating about the case.
After his testimony, the media circus moved across the street; word must have got out that Hunter was hanging out at The Golden Rose and the crowd started to grow. I was surprised at the number of generally, unimpressed-with-celebrities locals who turned up. But this was Hunter S.Thompson. As the day stretch into Happy Hour, the margaritas continued to flow.
The party finally came to a screeching halt with the arrival of Hunter’s pilot, who announced that if they didn’t leave now (FAA regulated aircrafts to be airborne by sunset from small airports with no runway lights), that they would be spending the night in Leadville.
Whoosh! They were gone. The party was over.
But as I walked back to “our” table to get my jacket, I spied a notebook out of the corner of my eye. I quickly picked it up, looked around, and slid it under my coat. Jackpot!
I couldn’t walk home fast enough. I sat down on my couch and began flipping through Hunter’s notebook. There were half written essays, scribbling about the “Justice for Jessie” case, and notes on an upcoming trip to Hawaii. It was the latter that I found most interesting; the “grocery list” and budget for this Hawaiian vacation was something I could only aspire to.
That fantasy was interrupted by the whirring of Hunter’s helicopter; I knew it was him, after all Leadville does not have an afternoon flight pattern. As the sun set over the mountains, I watched Hunter’s helicopter head over Mount Massive, back to Aspen, back to Woody Creek.
What a day, I thought! And I suppose it was that feeling that prompted my next action. I put the notebook in a manila envelope, sealed it up tight, wrote “Property of Hunter S. Thompson” on the outside, then put it inside another envelope and addressed it to the Aspen reporter who was part of Hunter’s entourage, and had given me her business card at some point in the day. I then slapped enough stamps on it to ensure its journey, and walked it down to the post office.
Did I hesitate for a moment as I stood in the dark before the mailbox? You bet I did! Not only had the tequila, and ethical determination to return his personal property, begun to fade, but I started to think about all the money I could make by selling it. I thought about my call to Rolling Stone Magazine or the National Enquirer. There was some classic Hunter on these pages.
But justice prevailed again that day, and the envelope slid from my hands down into the depths of the big blue box.
That day stayed with me for a while and the Hunter stories reigned supreme at the local bars, until somebody else did something we could talk about. As the weeks passed, it seemed like just another story; I story I’d tell to people, would always ask, “Is that true? Did you really have his notebook? Why didn’t you keep it?”
I started to wonder if the notebook found its way to back to its owner, until I got a call from the reporter at the Aspen newspaper; she had a message from Hunter.
It seems the Gonzo Journalist was pretty impressed by my gesture to return his private notebook, and had invited me to his New Year’s party at his Woody Creek home. Quite honestly, I was thrilled, and a bit scared. After knowing what a day of tequila-drinking in preparation for a court case was like, I could only imagine what a New Year’s Eve with Hunter might bring.
Believe it or not, I never went. A bad case of the flu left me down-for-the-count that New Year’s. Besides, that’s definitely a story that nobody would have believed!