Photo by Nick Hilden
Left: Photo by Kristi Blokhin/Shutterstock. Right: Photo by Nick Hilden
Welcome to Woody Creek, Colorado, where journalist Hunter S. Thompson conjured his 1971 opus, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
A dungeon, a tavern, and gunshot art: My gonzo pilgrimage to Hunter S. Thompson’s Colorado.
Woody Creek is the kind of place you blink and miss on your way to somewhere else—most likely Aspen, 15 minutes southeast on Colorado’s Highway 82. Little more than a clutch of houses and ranches smattered around a jag off the main road, you’d never guess that such an unassuming hamlet would be where, in the early 1970s, Hunter S. Thompson hammered out the kaleidoscopic ferocity of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
But sometimes it happens that way, perhaps for the same reason that the prophets of old went into the desert to drum up their visions. The fever dream of inspiration often cooks best under hermitlike conditions. Woody Creek certainly has that vibe, which is likely the very reason public figures such as John Oates (of “Hall &” fame), the Dons Henley and Johnson, Nancy Pelosi, and—most notoriously—Hunter S. Thompson have all sought its seclusion.
I’d been road-tripping up and down the West Coast for two months, finally bottoming out in Los Angeles before deciding to blast my way east across the sun-cooked flatlands of California, Nevada, and Utah, then into the foothills of the Rockies to visit Woody Creek. It was late 2021—also the 50th anniversary of the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—and I wanted to make my gonzo pilgrimage, for few had influenced my journalistic profession as wildly as Hunter Thompson. His eccentric approach to reporting drew me to the field at age 16, as he made the whole thing seem a lot more exciting than, say, the droll drawl of Walter Cronkite.
The route took me through Barstow, then Baker—two nowhere desert boondocks that are perhaps best known for their cursory mentions in Fear and Loathing. Then on past Vegas itself (the desolate outskirts of which boasted an alarming number of burning vehicles), out into the vast, empty expanses of Utah where the road cuts through a graveyard of ancient oceans. During this desert passage, I attempted to arrange a visit to Thompson’s longtime Woody Creek home, the Owl Farm. Through a roundabout series of messages, I was eventually given the email address of his widow, Anita, and sent a message begging an Owl Farm audience.
Thompson moved from San Francisco to Woody Creek in 1967 during his first marriage (Anita, his second wife, moved there in 2000 and married Hunter in 2003) and purchased the Owl Farm two years later with his earnings from his first book, Hell’s Angels. Back then the area was even less peopled than it is today—its entire population would have fit into a handful of Volkswagens—making it the ideal place to escape the cultural churn and burn of the 1960s.
“Most of us are living here,” Thompson wrote in his 1970 Rolling Stone piece, “The Battle of Aspen,” in which he narrated the local Freak Power political movement, “because we like the idea of being able to walk out our front doors and smile at what we see. On my own front porch I have a palm tree growing in a blue toilet bowl . . . and on occasion I like to wander outside, stark naked, and fire my .44 Magnum at various gongs I’ve mounted on the nearby hillside. I like to load up on mescaline and turn my amplifier up to 110 decibels for a taste of ‘White Rabbit’ while the sun comes up on the snow-peaks along the Continental Divide.”
It was in this uninhibited setting that Thompson wrote his opus Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a novel that not only perfectly captured the waning idealism and rising paranoia of its time but also changed the way writers could approach journalism ever since.
Leaning hard into the subjective element of reporting, Thompson exposed writers and readers to the possibility that perhaps the event being reported upon was less important than its higher, more existential implication. It didn’t matter who won some motorcycle race in Las Vegas. The Mint 400 and its garish setting were merely a vehicle through which to realize and examine something much more profound—that the American Dream, which had promised a big payout to us all, had somehow, in fact, made us poorer, both materially and spiritually. You may or may not agree with him, but there’s no denying that Thompson refused to bury the lede: Something was wrong in this country, and polite reporting simply wasn’t communicating it.
Thompson, as was his custom, said it loud.
Indeed, Thompson shook up the cultural landscape, expanding the boundaries of what was, and still is, acceptable in the arts, journalism, and politics. His mark was more than aesthetic—it was something deeper, for he understood that while we may read a story with our eyes, we feel it in our hearts and guts.
The drive from California to Colorado can be completed in one or two days of hard driving, but I drew it out to a meandering week. Anita hadn’t replied by the time I arrived in the town, so I parked in front of a roadside hovel called the Woody Creek Tavern, which had famously been terrorized by Hunter’s proximity and presence. It seemed as good a place as any to get the lay of the land.
The Woody Creek Tavern is a pleasantly dark dive illuminated by string lights and cluttered with memorabilia—much of which is gonzocentric in nature. I took a seat at the bar beside a pugnacious-looking man of perhaps 75 wearing a battered cowboy hat with an X drawn on the front in black ink. Before him was a Corona and a tumbler of whiskey. It was 11 in the morning. There was college football on the television, and every now and again the old man would mutter some good-natured encouragement or disparagement.
I ordered a burger and a beer from the bartender, and Pugnacious diverted his attention from the football and nodded a how-do, then drank back his whiskey. This person, I thought, must have known Thompson. He had the vibe.
I asked, “Have you been coming here long?”
“Yessir. Ever since I moved here in 1962.” He reached out a shaking hand. “I’m Michael. You must be passing through. I’d know you otherwise.”
I told him my name and said that I was a writer visiting town for an article about Hunter Thompson, and the man’s face fell into a distant, ghost-walked-over-his-grave kind of expression. He looked down at the bar and frowned, then looked up at me and smiled.
The fever dream of inspiration often cooks best under hermitlike conditions.
“Well,” he said. “I can say that he was a good friend. A good friend and a terrible neighbor. A pain in the ass. I had a rule: If you’re at my ranch and I see that shotgun come out, I’m gonna kick your ass. It scares my mules. He would jibber on and say, No, I would never do such a thing, but I knew he would. He was an asshole. We were political opposites and argued all the time. He was a pain in the ass. But he was a good friend and I miss him every day.”
My food arrived just as he finished this unheralded, breviloquent soliloquy—more of a eulogy, really—and the bartender snagged Michael’s attention with a question about football and another whiskey. I was scrawling down the aged cowboy’s words when the bartender addressed me.
“So you’re here about Thompson? You must be going to DJ’s gallery then?”
“Of course,” I lied, for I had never heard of the place but hold an intense aversion to exposing my ignorance. A character flaw, admittedly. That we can be cognizant of our weaknesses and attempt to wear them like strengths is one of the great contradictions to being human. Thompson—whose fame arose from the very wildness that destroyed him—probably would have sympathized.
In any case, Fat City Gallery (I learned via Google once the bartender had turned away) was located just down the road in Aspen—“Fat City” being the new name Thompson had suggested for the town during his surprisingly competitive 1970 run for sheriff. According to the candidate, this less-than-favorable epithet “would prevent greedheads, land-rapers, and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name ‘Aspen.’” It’s worth noting that Thompson lost to his conservative opponent by a mere 173 votes to 204.
It was while reading up on the gallery that I received an email from Anita Thompson. Her reply was polite in its decline of my request to visit. It was too last minute and she already had guests, so maybe I could come by later in the winter?
Well, that was that. The gallery closed at 1 p.m., so I decided that it was time to head over. Before leaving I shook Michael’s hand and thanked him for his story. His grip was steely. His eyes, glinting.
“Have a good trip,” he said. And he meant it.
On my way out of town I decided, screw it, I’d come this far. So I found the Owl Farm address via some quick internet magic. It was only a four-minute drive away.
Four minutes later as I crept my car past the foot of the driveway like some kind of weirdo,“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Dylan’s, not Guns & Roses’) popped up on my Spotify channel just as I caught sight of the house, which was hidden in a clutch of trees a short distance up its gravel driveway, the entrance of which bore signs warning to “KEEP OUT!” and “BEWARE of DOG.”
It was quite a moment. Tears flowed, I am not ashamed to admit. As I mentioned earlier, Thompson’s writing and eclectic approach to living had a profound impact on my own work and modus vivendi. Without him, it is doubtful that I would be the deviant screwball I am today. And the world would be the lesser for it.
Our culture needs freaks. Without mutants, evolution would stall and the natural progression would lurch to a halt. Humans have an instinctive appreciation for the unusual, which is why we adorn our lawns with statues of flamingos rather than sparrows. It’s no wonder Thompson kept peacocks, some of which supposedly still roam the grounds of the Owl Farm.
“We were political opposites and argued all the time. He was a pain in the ass. But he was a good friend and I miss him every day.”
Aspen did not seem like the sort of place I belonged. Too clean and too much money—so this was the Fat City Thompson had augured. Keep in mind that I’d been living out of my car for over two months at that point and things were getting pretty feral.
A banner in the heart of town welcomed visitors to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, and the streets were choked with Land Rovers and Lexuses on the hunt for parking. Sidewalks were thick with couples decked out in upper-middle-class to lower-upper-class uniforms (you know the type: unnecessarily top-dollar cargo shorts with polo shirts, Lululemon athleisurewear with Louis Vuitton bags, etc.) perusing shops housed in cookie-cutter buildings of red brick. This was decidedly not the arcadian Aspen that Thompson had hoped to create through his Freak Power movement. It is worth quoting his vision for the city at length:
“Our program, basically, was to drive the real estate goons completely out of the valley: to prevent the State Highway Department from bringing a four-lane highway into the town and, in fact, to ban all auto traffic from every downtown street. Turn them all into grassy malls where everybody, even freaks, could do whatever’s right. The cops would become trash collectors and maintenance men for a fleet of municipal bicycles, for anybody to use. No more huge, space-killing apartment buildings to block the view, from any downtown street, of anybody who might want to look up and see the mountains. No more land rapes, no more busts for ‘flute-playing’ or ‘blocking the sidewalk’ . . . f*ck the tourists, dead-end the highway, zone the greedheads out of existence, and in general create a town where people could live like human beings, instead of slaves to some bogus sense of Progress that is driving us all mad.”
Well, the four-lane highway had come long before my arrival, and with it exactly the sort of real estate exploitation Thompson had feared and loathed. Eventually I found parking on the edge of town in front of a rundown apartment building where I expect that the actual working people of Aspen live, then made my way to the gallery, arriving just as it was closing.
The room was empty except for a somewhat tired-looking fellow in his mid-30s who was boxing up a stack of framed pictures. On the wall behind him were several posters and other iconographies from Thompson’s run for sheriff—among them the notorious Freak Power emblem of a double-thumbed fist holding a peyote button, as well as a paint-spattered, autographed photo of the author dated 1978 and bearing the phrase Yesterday’s weirdness is tomorrow’s reason why. I asked the tired-looking man if he ran the gallery, and as he stammered out a less than intelligible response, another guy wearing sunglasses and a white Panama hat emerged from a storage room in the back. This was Daniel Joseph “DJ” Watkins, proprietor of Fat City Gallery and director of a documentary on Thompson’s brief political career, Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb.
After an introduction and delivery of my journalistic bona fides, DJ took me on a tour. While his enthusiasm for the material was clear, his explanations of each piece were noticeably less so. Finally, after garbling through something or other about Thompson’s run for office, he fell silent and removed his sunglasses to rub his eyes.
“We had a party here last night and everybody ate a bunch of mushrooms,” he explained. “I’m pretty wiped out. Still coming down, probably. It was a long night.”
The other man snorted a laugh. “A very long night.”
DJ nodded. “I might as well take you upstairs. That’s where the really cool stuff is.”
Intriguing. And truthful, for on the walls in the apartment in which he lived, DJ had displayed a series of art pieces created by Thompson. Deemed “gunshot art,” these were photos of Nixon, Elvis, even Thompson himself, as well as various press materials for Thompson’s books and films (including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), each of which had been applied to plywood then shot through with rounds of various calibers. Many were mussed with splashes of paint and bore the signatures of both Thompson and, for some reason, William S. Burroughs.
By the time we returned to Fat City Gallery, most everything in it had been packed—it turned out the gallery was closing for the season. Apparently it was more of a pop-up where DJ occasionally showed Thompson’s work and held events to support local artists.
Now he eyed me with a mischievous grin and announced to a few of his colleagues who had come in and were hanging around the place: “We’ll be right back—I’m gonna take him to the Dungeon.”
For most people, an invitation to an unexpected, unexplained dungeon by some random drugged-up stranger is grounds for refusal. But as a Journalist, it is my sworn duty to go where the story beckons. So without hesitation I followed DJ through the bustling streets of Aspen to a nondescript door in one of the many identical red brick buildings, down a staircase, and into the basement. Here he unlocked another door and ushered me into a dark room.
When DJ flipped on the lights, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking at. There were a few couches, and the walls were decorated with looming propaganda portraits that appeared to be straight out of the USSR. But for the most part, the room was organized around a desk that was strewn with and surrounded by liquor bottles, magazines and papers, strange memorabilia, American flags, an old-fashioned fire extinguisher, lamps, photos, books, newspaper clippings, a green poker visor, and a goddamned enormous IBM typewriter in crimson red. As I gazed at all this disparate, manifold stuff, however, it began to coalesce into something recognizable. This—it seemed—was the chaotic kitchen where Hunter Thompson had once worked.
Our culture needs freaks. Without mutants, evolution would stall and the natural progression would lurch to a halt.
It started out, DJ explained with a triumphant smile, as an art installation some dude had constructed. DJ had purchased the entire thing, transported it to the basement, then added to it various personal effects of Thompson’s that he had collected over the years. It was—all in all—an exceedingly weird scene, not to mention a tremendously quixotic undertaking. How delightful.
DJ invited me to sit at the typewriter. I did so, and he handed me a pair of funky sunglasses that may or may not have once belonged to Thompson (I don’t think it really mattered at that point) then proceeded to take photos of my gonzotic pantomime as I typed away and we giggled like children.
I don’t know if the greedheads won or lost, or if Thompson was even playing the same game as the greedheads and their ilk. He definitely played by a different set of rules. What I can report with certainty is that there are still freaks in Aspen, and there are still pugnacious cowboys drinking whiskey at 11 a.m. in Woody Creek.
As I pulled out of town along that four-lane highway Thompson fought hard to prevent, I felt a curious rush of optimism.
That there are still strange people doing strange things—quixotic, unnecessary, whimsical things—hidden in the basements of our nation’s wealthiest towns and cities gives me hope for this big, clumsy galoot of a country.
Yesterday’s weirdness is tomorrow’s reason why indeed.
>>Next: A Very Big Little Country
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