Gonzo journalist a spirit in the sky
August 21, 2005
WOODY CREEK, Colo. – Hunter Stockton Thompson took his final trip Saturday.
The legendary author’s ash remains exploded out of a giant fist grasping a peyote button at 8:45 p.m. in a field outside his home on Owl Farm as Japanese drummers built their beat to a crescendo.
Blue and white fireworks erupted from either side of the 150-foot tower as the button changed from blue to green and back. Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” streamed out of the party.
Before the ceremony, two white spotlights appeared on a cloudy sky, and some of the estimated 100 impatient fans lined the road outside the heavily fortified compound. A few minutes later the song “Spirit in the Sky” sprang forth from the invitation-only funeral in the back yard.
Private security forces were dealing with attempted breaches from all sides of the property near the tower.
Mary Harris, owner of the Wood Creek Tavern where Hunter spent so much time before it was a tourist destination, said business throughout the day had not been much busier than a normal Saturday during high season. But she did allow that the crowd was different. Harris added that she was expecting the night to get crazier in the later hours.
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But it was apparent early in the afternoon that this was not an ordinary funeral. The media likely outnumbered fans, but it was hard to differentiate, as most of the media there were Thompson fans.
When a robot – yes, a robot – emblazoned with the gonzo fist-and-peyote emblem rolled down Upper River Road emitting “Singing in the Rain,” a crowd quickly engaged it. The 6-foot-tall machine answered random questions and moved via a guy in a van parked perhaps 100 yards from the tavern.
“I’m here to celebrate Hunter S. Thompson,” it said.
Asked its creator’s name and hometown, it answered simply, “Hotshot. I built myself.”
Hotshot had its limitations. With its eyes focused straight ahead, it did not notice an inquisitive boy until a reporter shouted that the child was talking to it. A sheriff’s deputy holding a cup of coffee politely asked the gathering crowd to get out of the street.
Contacted at the van, the man, who used what appeared to be a PlayStation 2 controller and a video screen to control Hotshot, refused to divulge his name.
The van’s license plate said the robotics expert hailed from Nevada. Asked quickly, before the van door was rudely slid shut, if the gonzo ethic and robots went together, he said, “Pretty much.”
For one fan, the trip to Woody Creek was much more personal.
Jeff Englehart of Grand Junction recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. Now an anti-war advocate, the veteran said that while serving he started a blog, http://www.ftssoldier.blogspot.com, that was dedicated to, among others, Thompson. Before Thompson killed himself Feb. 20, Englehart’s goal was to come to the tavern to meet the author and thank him. The writer’s death came before the soldier’s tour ended.
“It was sad, but he lived his life on his own terms,” he said. “We’re here to say goodbye to a friend, even though we never met him.”
Thompson fan Tex Squyers of Bellingham, Wash., said he was the first fan on the scene near Owl Farm. Hitchhiking down from the Sturgis motorcycle rally with a sign on his backpack that said “Goodbye Dr. Gonzo!” he said he came out of respect (he also mentioned he was staying for the Widespread Panic show later this month).
Squyers, like many others, was still holding out hope that he might be admitted. It was in vain. Security was heavy throughout the property.
Rick McKinney of Bisbee, Ariz., hiked 500 miles starting from Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. Hoping to raise awareness of drug addiction and suicide, he sported a 20-year-old gonzo tattoo.
He called Thompson a “big mentor.”
In the end, after the eruption of ashes and fireworks, the spotlights illuminated the gonzo fist on the low-hanging clouds.
– Chad Abraham can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org