Not One Goddamn Ash:

I held out my tongue when the cannon went off
and waited in vain for the dose of Gonzo that never came.

Well, there goes the Woody neighborhood.

Would the Doctor have been ashamed of me? Would he have sympathized? Like any good journalist, I followed a lead. From the first Apsen Times articles, I followed a lead from a lovely-sounding, good-hearted Aspen artist who told me her friend Daisy would probably just "take (me) by the arm and say 'you're my date' and take (me) right into Hunter's memorial.'" My heart, my intention, was in the right place. I had done all I could to mentally detach myself from expectation, but for the sake of the story, I had to ride it out.

I've already mentioned my Thursday "test" amidst the friends of this alleged Anita-best-friend. I passed that. I was patched through to the very real Owl Farm (I tested the phone number later on: see footnote below marked $@&%!!) and Emma, invite-aficionado, and put in my bid for approved attendance. Result: inconclusive. That night, Daisy had her father's birthday celebration to attend. Because I hadn't in fact "walked into Aspen" as intended, I had my car and so took it, gratefully, at Mach 5, back over the Divide to the humble and infinitely more comfortable surrounds of my AT amigo's crash pad in Leadville.

But then I showed up Friday late for some concert that seemed of great importance to Daisy. Daisy wasn't pissed, just a tad put out. Quite mellow actually, she sat out on her deck high above it all in a forest of aspen with friend Patty and said merely, "Did you bring wine?"

It's hard to predict the length of time it takes to make it over the Divide from Leadville to Aspen. You know, The Continental Divide, that ginormous tectonic rift tearing down from the Arctic Circle thru Canada, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico like the new scar roaring across the arm you tore open hitting the barbed wire fence on your dirt bike at 30 mph when you were 16? (Sorry if you can't relate to this, but I can. I hit just such a fence in Colorado once, and if it weren't for my arm and the handlebars stopping me, the barbs would have severed my head at the neck.)

Anyway, the Divide. The one I was hiking? Yeah, that one. Well, I'll tell you what. It took me a lot less time than it apparently takes most people to cross it in a car. In my little "RIP Luciano" BMW, after a month plodding & gimping largely-alone over hill and dale on a bad ankle cursing Big Stick and his pussy little heel injury and me walking, walking, forever walking for Jesus, for Hunter, for Luci, for pure obstinacy, well, I reacquainted myself with all the esoteric dials and buttons and controls in the BMW 535i, lowered the seat to the floor, pulled in tight to the wheel, and tore that fucking highway up like it was week-old taffy left hanging on the pull. Goddamn it was fun!

Thursday, anyway. I tore it up like that on Thursday. And more or less the same on Friday, but on Friday I hit a storm on Independence Pass that bordered on biblical, for mid-to-late August anyway. Hail, high winds, waterfall-like rains. But worse of all, the frikken snowplows in front of me blocking traffic. I made it to Aspen, where of course the weather was peachy, another day in Malibu. But then came the shitty carrot-dangle game, a kind of Thompson-tit-grabbing in the hot tub case in reverse. And it started with the "did you bring wine?" question and her look of horror that made me pull out the porter, the goddamn Gonzo porter, a whole case of it in my trunk.

[$@&%!! = Late that night, after being given the number by Daisy and told "You call. Show some initiative!" a statement which largely called into question Daisy's supposed 'best friend' status with Anita, but whatever, I called Hunter Thompson's very own personal home line. Daisy had said, "You'll have to listen to the machine which still has Hunter's message on it, but then talk after that and they'll answer." Well, for fuck's sake. Who wouldn't want to hear that message? So, after several Gonzo porters and one long hit off some kind of smokeless hookah that, smoke or no smoke, made me cough like a one-lunged emphysema victim, I called. I think I got Anita. Who else would have torn me a new asshole with such passion for "calling just to hear the outgoing message," as I admitted doing. It was she. And I tell you what, pretty as she is, I wouldn't want to bed that flustered rag any more than I would ever want to repeat the horrid bed-share with her so-called best friend that ensued shortly thereafter.]

So not 24 hours from Hunter's blastoff, I shared a bed with a very drunk alleged best friend of his widow for no good reason at all. It was a horror show. She alternately demanded I get into bed with her, then complained with "Eeuw!"s copious and loud that I stunk (latent hiker stink, I guess, even though I'd showered just hours ago). She then yanked me atop her with drunken aggressiveness and before I could even kiss her, thrust my head south. Apparently she could deal with my stink from that distance. Thanks to my own consumption of three or four Gonzo beers, plus the valium to cut the stress of all the media juggling, nothing else happened. (Nothing else could have happened.) Not that she would have remembered anyway, being as she was far beyond me in blood alcohol content. Later in the night, she'd wake me, alternately clutching me close then aggressively shoving me away. All in all, it was a rude night of demi-sleep, and I rose pre-dawn, unsuccessfully slipping out quietly yet triggering her whining complaints.

Now, lemme point something out. This was no ugly woman, and I didn't acquiesce to her demands to bed her JUST because of her alleged close friendship with Anita. "Sure, Rick," you're saying. But it's true. Daisy was all right. Even better ten years ago, or whenever the photo of the hot blonde on the wall was taken. And she was nice. And I'd been lonely in the woods too long, so was actually eager for a little snuggle, if nothing else. But she was useless as "Anita's best friend." Or she was just clueless, that particular brand of cluelessness belonging solely to the rich that blind them to what I'll call Maslow's lower-level needs and desires. She kept saying how many friends she suddenly had due to her proximity to the gig. And she'd add, stingingly, "And you never even met him, so you're out."

Meanwhile, my reporter friend Dan Bennett in north county San Diego was doing backflips for me, revising press releases and zapping them out all over the place. His efforts landed me a Thursday evening interview with Steve Lipsher of the Denver Post, a Friday follow-up story in the Aspen Times (again with reporter Naomi who was really pulling for me in terms of admission to the gig), a Saturday morning radio interview and then finally a noon press conference in downtown Aspen. You might say it was a busy time for me.

Unfortunately, the radio interview came Saturday at 6:20 a.m. After my night of non-sleep with Miss Sleeps-with-fists-n-kicks, I wasn't in the best form. But I positioned myself far out and away from the house on a yurt platform and sat staring at the peaceful aspens glowing with the new light of morning. I breathed. I waited. My cell phone rang. I told my story. It ended. I shut off the phone, retreated into the yurt and passed out.

The talk the night before had been about my driving Miss Daisy to the gig. This meant I was absolutely not getting in, as it was a purely drive up and drop-off setup at Owl Farm. No room for 400 cars. Saturday morning, the plans had changed. Apparently I'd proven sufficiently disappointing in bed (thank God!) that Miss "Jack Nicholson's my best friend" and "I made Ralph (Steadman) draw me that penis series special for me" had arranged another ride to the gig. I was off the hook. The ladies invited me to go for a hike or something, and I said thanks but I had a press conference in town.

And that was the last I saw of Daisy. My press conference consisted of me dressed in my full long-distance hiking regalia and sitting on a park bench watching and smiling at one of those fountains that spits water out of the ground at random to the delight of the kids standing over them. I had no public address system, no stage, not even a soapbox to stand on, and though I kept a keen eye out, I didn't see anyone vaguely reporter-like. I, however, despite the lack of a stage, stuck out like a sore thumb in my pack, trekking poles and hunter-orange MontBell rain jacket. For an hour I sat there, and no one came. Then just when I was about to abandon ship, two ladies approached. Yes, I'm the guy from the paper.

It turned out the son of one the women had nearly killed himself at age 14, but the parents, both in the medical profession, had caught it with anti-depressants and bingo, the kid was fine. After a very pleasant chat, I politely declined an invitation to dinner for later that evening and bid them adieu. While I was engaged with the ladies, a two-man camera crew walked past a little ways off. If they were looking for me, well, I'll never know now.

At that point I was hitting a real low. My job as preacher for the depressed was over. My hike, thanks to my unimproved ankle, was over. My bid for entry into Hunter's memorial: over. As I drove aimlessly out of town (unbeknownst to me the Beemer was taking me to the Woody Creek Tavern), I half considered driving halfway up the Divide and "over" the cliff. The switchback road up both sides of the Divide was all bordered by sheer drop-offs. Exciting to drive. Alluring in a morbid way.

But no, suddenly I found myself parked across from the Woody Creek Tavern. I had no plan. I knew I couldn't sit there and drink all day. One, I was already depressed and didn't need drink. And two, the place would be crawling with sheriffs later, making even a couple of beers dangerous. I could make some phone calls, I thought. Call Kate and Justin and Mary and everyone else I needed to catch up with. But no. My Nextel phone had coverage in Aspen. But just ten miles down the road in Woody Creek, no signal. So I wandered onto the patio section. A very pleasant waitress bade me make myself at home, and I bought a Budweiser I didn't want.

But then things started to change. I looked around me and realized I was surrounded by people JUST LIKE ME. Here were the die hards, the hard core fans and students of Gonzo Journalism, and most had traveled FAR to get here. That I know, no one had walked 500 miles, but most had driven that much if not more. Or flown even further. And a lot of them, I soon realized, were journalists. Not your typical reporters, but the kind of scruffy grunge gonzo "hired geeks" of which Hunter had been THE ONE. I realized they were journalists because they began approaching me, saying, "Hey, you're the guy who walked" and off it went. I don't know how many times I repeated my story, but it helped to be recognized for what I'd done and to drive home my message that "the stigma is the killer" a few more times before night fell and the Doctor went soaring skyward for the last time.

A lovely girl named Stevie just appeared out of nowhere and plopped down beside me at some point in the afternoon. The connection between us was instantaneous, and I am most grateful to have had her there beside me for the duration. Anna and Danny from Brooklyn also just sort of materialized and suddenly we were a foursome. Danny is a photographer and was there to shoot the gig for a couple of mags or papers back east, the names of which escape me now. I hope he emails me. The bit of Mexican in him made me think of Oscar Acosta, and both he and Anna were just cool as could be and made me feel, together with cutie Stevie from Minnesota, like we were all family somehow.

The guy with the Easy Rider flag helmet and dark goggles that you probably saw in paper's everywhere (AP photo) was right there among us, as were the two dudes in the tuxedos who'd flown and drove from godknowswhere, a four-day trip during which they'd worn the tuxedos religiously in some odd nod to the Gonzo ethic.

At some point Danny tapped me on the shoulder and invited me inside the restaurant to share a monster pile of nachos with he and Anna and Stevie, a kind gesture which probably gave me much-needed fuel to make it through the night, fuel I would have failed to procure on my own. For some reason since leaving the trail a week ago, I'd been forgetting to eat, fasting almost. In the frenzy to grab some last minute media attention to the cause, to catch up on my writing and to hang with my friends in Leadville, I'd drank aplenty but eaten less than half a dozen meals in seven days. Already skinny from hiking, I dropped to 162 this week.

Was it sadness? Am I sad?

Hearing me tell my tale of my bungled and embarrassing efforts to get into the gig, Stevie called me on my negativity. She said something to the effect, "Here you are! You've done this amazing thing, walked all that way, all these people celebrating and congratulating you, and you're miserable." She was right. And her words snapped me right out of it. Not that I wasn't having fun, too, but I was down, and I guess it showed. Then I chuckled, remembering a bit of wisdom imparted by my Navy commander & AT thruhiker buddy Frank, and I shared it with Stevie. Frank had said, "If they don't let you in after all you've done, they're assholes. Now, Rick, I ask you, do you want to party with assholes?" Pure, simple wisdom.

So I put on a happy face, which wasn't hard to do in a place where my mentor had spent countless happy hours, making mischief and leaving his mark all over the walls, the doors, the ceiling. The Woody Creek Tavern is a lot like my art car Duke. It's wall to wall snapshots and bumper stickers and toys and snippets of its history. What it has that Duke doesn't are autographed and unsigned shots of all the stars who frequent it, a good percentage of them Thompson-related. And Steadman art, lots of it. When I sat on one of the only half a dozen barstools, I thought, Hunter sat here. When I took a piss in the men's room and washed my hands, I looked into a mirror that had many times reflected the face of my mentor. I would never meet him. He was gone. And none of this proximity to his life stuff meant jack shit. Or did it?

The media had been churning out Anita & Johnny's message of fear & loathing for weeks and weeks. The message: STAY AWAY YOU GODDAMN FREAKS! The once-public celebration had gone from open sky to cramped elevator to narrow stove-pipe and finally, predictably, to a private affair tighter than an iced sphincter. It was ludicrous and a howling insult to the legend it claimed to represent. Sure, Hunter would have totally dug the giant "gun" built and fired off in his honor. But the army of black-shirted rent-a-cops stationed every 50 yards for a frikken mile from Owl Farm down the road to the tavern? Ludicrous. The orange cones and the No Stopping signs, okay. That I could understand. But then there was that one cop or rent-a-cop or sheriff or whatever he was that stopped the four of us as we left the tavern and began our march up the road to get as close we could to the cannon. Almost friendly-like he asked, "You guys leaving your cars here and walking up the road?" We said we were. "Well, plan on them not being here when you get back. In half an hour we're gonna tow any car that's not patronizing the restaurant." I didn't bother correcting his grammar on that one, but did say, as did Danny, that we'd been patronizing the tavern for hours.

Fear tactics. They'd been paving the way for the mucky-mucks from Hollywood for weeks, and by the size of the crowd that actually braved the walk up the road and stationed themselves dead across the street from the entrance to Owl Farm, I'd say they succeeded. Mostly. We were about fifty strong by dark. Fifty. Fifty members of the unwashed masses and, amazingly, most of them/us journalists. Word is they didn't let any media in. But the shot on the front page of the BBC website was a shot from behind the cannon. Go figure. A better shot, I thought, from what I've seen so far, was taken by Paul from the Aspen Times, the same guy who took the gansta-esque portrait of me that appeared in the follow-up article.

We had a blast, we fifty just outside the gates. We had the best seats in the house with the fist just a football field away. I'm willing to bet we had a far better time, a more genuine gonzo experience, than anyone on the inside. Stevie and I jumped around like happy pogo sticks, feeding off one another's excitement. And to my amazement, damn-near everybody present knew me as the guy who'd walked the walked. Stevie reminded me again of my good fortune. "See! You're a celebrity! You did it, you made it!" This prompted more on-the-spot interviews, and the little beam of limelight felt good and deserved. It felt like when this night was over I could go home with a sense of mission accomplished.

When the spotlights from the base of the fist cannon projected four batman-signal-like fists against the low-lying clouds, we laughed and cheered like giddy children. Amazingly, I got signal (one bar!) on Stevie's phone and was thus able to fulfill a promise to my cousin to include him, audibly anyway. Our little crowd sang "Mr. Tambourine Man" along with the music coming from Owl Farm as the ashes floated back to Earth, the fist glowing green and red, and it was perfect. It was where Hunter would have been, where he probably was in spirit. Out on the street with the freaks.

Denver defense lawyer Hal Haddon, a friend of Thompson's, said it well in this quote from the Post: "He (Thompson) would get somewhere near it and go to a bar and write it from there. It's the kind of event that Hunter would have loved to cover but probably never would have attended." After what I saw from across the street and experiencing it there with all the really cool so-called riffraff, I'm ashamed I ever even tried to weasel my way into the gig.

Not a word of my 30-minute phone interview with Steve Lipsher made it into the Post's final piece on the event, "Going, Going, Gonzo." Pity. After being totally ignored by the "big media," The Post was my last hope for hitting a big audience with my message, to say nothing of having my "hail to the chief" in there with all the rest. It was insulting, really. A guy who made the monumental effort of flying in Friday night to Denver from Los Angeles, renting a car and driving 200 miles to Woody Creek "without gaining access to the official festivities" warranted mention. My hike and insights into Thompson's work, death, and the epidemic of suicide in America, did not.

Fuck it. I did something. And doing something is generally better than doing nothing.

I wanted lovely Stevie to take me and our undeniably strong connective energy home with her to her place in nearby Basalt. But she was on the rebound and didn't think it wise. She wanted to though. Which was nice.

So I steered the Beemer east instead, back through Aspen and up over the Divide. I'd had so little to drink and the beers had been spaced over several hours, so I felt confident in driving. But that little mushroom stem somebody had given me around sunset was still worming around in my brain at 11:30, just enough that I decided it best to pull off into the forest up on the Divide and pitch my tent, call it a night. It was a full moon, after all, a stunning night, and with my plans to beat a retreat to Arizona in a day or two, it would likely be (and was) my last night camping on the Continental Divide.

Goodnight, Doctor. Thanks for twenty years of inspiration and the determination to keep on banging out the words, the world beyond my door be damned.

-Rick McKinney
August 22, 2005