It all started months before in a flurry of emails, late nights and strong drinks. I’d been working on the Outlaw Poet documentary: writing emails, driving from Evansville, IN to Louisville, KY, sending letters and tracking down leads on interviews about poet, performer, and king of the underground Ron Whitehead. On my list, and main concern: interview Anita Thompson, widow of journalist and professional wild man Hunter S. Thompson.
Ron had a lengthy friendship with Hunter, and is credited by several sources as giving HST a major boost in his second coming by bringing Billy-the-kid back to Louisville to be honored and given a key to his hometown, with the Hunter Thompson tribute in 1996 at Memorial Auditorium, Louisville, KY attended by: Johnny Depp, Douglas Brinkley, Warren Zevon, David Amram, Roxanne Pulitzer, Juan Thompson, Bob Braudis, and former mayor Harvey Sloane.
Ron also published several of Hunter’s pieces in broadside poster format with his publication White Fields Press.
After a strenuous hunt for money and months of hard work I had an invite to Owl Farm for an interview with Anita Thompson, a plane ticket to Denver, Colorado, a back pack full of clothes, a few hundred dollars in cash and a Sony HD video camera.
It was raining when I left Louisville, KY at 8:30am and after a 2 1/2 hour flight I set foot off the plane into mile-high madness, the Denver Int’l Airport, where people were jammed into every nook and cranny of the place sobbing for us to exit the plane so they could be next onto the tarmac.
Weird art hung in the corridors and after a long walk I found the train that would shoot me out to baggage claim. I met Ryan, the director of Photography for the interviews in Colorado, and we zoomed into downtown Denver.
After meeting some friends of Ryan’s we set out to eat, drink, and pick up a light kit and very expensive fluid head tripod. The sights, sounds and smells of Denver were amazing. The Rocky Mountains provided an impressive backdrop to the city and the weather was perfect, it was in the mid 60’s but the dry air made it feel like paradise.
I woke up the next morning at 5:30am to a colder Colorado; a slight rain fell, and I was buzzing with anticipation… I was 200 miles from Owl Farm and about to head up the Rocky Mountains to meet and interview Anita Thompson.
The drive started off nicely. We had bellies full of eggs, bacon and strong coffee. Ryan pointed out interesting sights and I jabbered on about tales of Hunter and the hermitage we we’re about to visit.
The mountains grew in the windshield; the rain began to slacken and snow fell as we climbed in elevation. We still had most of the drive in front of us, but signs weren’t good for a safe journey; large semi trucks began to pull off and put chains on their tires. The snow left a wet sheen on the road and I remember thinking it left a beautiful reflection of the snow capped mountains on the road.
I texted Anita that we were on our way, and that I would call when we reached the Woody Creek Tavern. Up and down the steep grade of the mountain we went at times praying for traction and bracing for impact…but it never came. Plenty of other hard chargin’ snow bunnies floored their SUV’s or all-wheel drive Subaru’s only to find the slick part of the road and end up towed to Vail or whatever slope town for their last day of winter fun.
I checked my phone for a signal around Glen Wood Springs and noticed a reply text from Anita, she was running a bit late, but to grab a bite to eat & drink and that she would be on her way soon.
The snow had pretty much stopped when we reach Woody Creek. The GPS lead us to the Tavern and we walked through the red wooden door to a few locals at the bar. The waitress told us we could sit wherever we wish, and I headed to my right, Hunter’s booth beneath the Thompson for Sheriff poster and decorated buffalo head.
I asked for a Molson but they didn’t have any so I settle for a Flying Dog Amber Lager, and we order the guacamole and chips. The waitress read off the specials and I decided on the bowl of Clam chowder and Ryan has the enchilada soup with large slices of avocado in the bowl and tortilla on the side to scoop chunks of chicken and cheese. The soup eats alright, but the beer goes down like water…I order two more. Ryan also drinks more and throughout the meal I text with Anita. The waitress asks if she can bring us the bill, but I send her back for one of their famous margaritas.
During the meal I receive a text from Anita saying her friend had been in an accident, (we find out late the friend has been head butted by a horse, but was doing fine) and she would need to post pone, but asked we get together that evening. I told her that would be fine and she made arrangements to put us up in the Lime Light Lodge in downtown Aspen.
Fully quenched we leave Woody Creek for Aspen; Anita says there should be no problems when it comes to a check in time so we’re free to head straight to the Limelight Lodge. Traffic is sparse and we make great time getting into Aspen. We pull onto Main Street and the snow starts to fall again, and I’m blown away by how beautiful and small the city is.
We walk in and a perky British woman welcomes us, we check in and the reservation is under my name. We turn right from the counter and walk down to room 121 at the end of the hall.
The far wall upon entering the room is huge plate glass windows. The view is of Monarch St. and even though there are cars parked outside it’s still quite the view. We throw the equipment in the room and head back out and down the street to Carl’s Pharmacy a 3-block walk down South Monarch at the corner of Main Street.
I can’t help but think about Hunter walking these roads and doing his errands here…crossing back into the late 60′s of Aspen in my mind, is this corner the freaks could agree with now?
I want to see Tom Benton’s art gallery that is now run by DJ Watkins, never mind that I don’t know where it is and I’ve never been here before. We walk around for a bit before finding a sign that points to the Aspen Art Museum, it’s a large building next to a stream. The snow is piling up next to the bridge and I take a bite of fresh mountain snow scooped from the stone wall. It’s delicious and refreshing. Once we step inside and I can tell we’re in the wrong place. The young woman behind the counter shows us the art, a bizarre showing of some Dutch sculptor, and I’m not impressed. I want early Gonzo. We explain what we’re doingin Aspen and what art I’m looking for and the woman wishes us well, but has no idea where that might be.
In all the walking I’ve developed a thirst again. We head in the direction of the Hotel Jerome and the J-bar a favorite haunt of Hunter’s in the early years. Along the way we pass the tourist center, which is locked but they’ve nicely left some brochures outside. I look at the map and can find no mention of Thomas W. Benton.
We saunter past three large men dressed as cowboys guarding the door to the hotel and poke about the lobby. I look into a few conference rooms before being directed towards the J-bar which incidentally if we hadn’t been in such a frenzy we could have walked into from the street. It was time for Chivas and I informed the barman we would require doubles. The scotch went down smooth and the place lit up like a firecracker. Most of the bar was full and the tables along the walls were filled with guests of the hotel; fresh from their run down the slopes or a savage screw about the hotel sheets. They came to drink with their hair wet and balls dry.
We’d made plans through text messages to meet Anita for dinner in Aspen we stop at a local hippy boutique to procure a clean shirt and it was off to the room to freshen up…which really consisted of smoking cigars and lying about. We’d left Denver without any clothes, or toiletries. During our walk of the city we bought some basics to survive a night in Aspen.
Ryan and I went to the lounge and listened to a guitar player strum Neil Diamond and James Taylor tunes on his acoustic guitar. The modern mountain lodge mixed with guitar playing as snow fell outside, and it was a sight to take in; the snowflakes and raw-timber night. Anita called and let me know she was running late and we made plans to meet at the Wild Fig a Mediterranean restaurant known for their signature dish fish-in-a-bag, and one of the few places that serves vegan food.
The snow was still falling outside when we took to the streetlamp lit empty sidewalks to find the Wild Fig. It was a short walk from the hotel and had a certain small restaurant charm that welcomed us in from the street. Upon walking in we found a full dining room and decided to sit at the bar while we waited for Anita. I ordered a Maker’s Mark and Ginger Ale and tried to imagine Anita and Hunter sitting in the corner booth on a Friday night.
Anita walked in to the restaurant and I waived her over to where we were sitting and it was like meeting an old friend. We talked for a few minutes at the bar about the drive in and then decided to grab a now open table in the corner of the restaurant. Anita sat with her back to the wall and we talked and talked and talked. We talked about Ron Whitehead; the reason I was in Aspen to interview her and, how we would conduct the interview and basics of how I met Ron and found my way into making a documentary film about him.
Discussion of Ron quickly ran to Hunter and we discussed the Red Shark (Hunter’s 1971 red convertible), The Rum Diary movie with Johnny Depp and as of yet the still unpublished third and final volume of Gonzo letters. (It seems like it could be a long time before we finally see this book.) We also discussed the Totally Gonzo website and of its fine purveyor, Anita had this to say of him, “…The Irish Gonzo fan yes, we love him and the site!”
We also talked about Hunter’s archive. Where his writing will go and if there is anything in the works to be released. She said she would love to see the archive go to Columbia University, but there are other options. We talked about the archive being sent to the University of Louisville, and she was open to it, but wants to make clear that Hunter was so much more than a Kentucky writer, and I couldn’t agree more. I know wherever the writing lands it will be in good hands as long as Anita and Johnny are making the decisions. Anita talked about how the archive was originally at Owl Farm, Hunter had stacks of boxes in the War Room filled with writing and in the kitchen cabinets lying about the farm. After Hunter passed she made it a priority to find a safer place to store the boxes of writing and to protect it, and her, from anyone wanting to take them.
We talked about my life and work; and how Hunter led me to Journalism, but also the sad state of the media today. I told Anita that I’d grown up in Florida and that led us to talking about Hunter’s visit to Cuba, which you can read about in Kingdom of Fear.
We talked about my experience meeting President Obama, and exchanging mail with Ralph Steadman and Noam Chomsky. At one point in the dinner conversation I apologize for talking about Hunter most of the time and she replied that it was actually nice and a relief. She doesn’t get to talk about Hunter to some of her closest friends anymore; they’ve heard the tales and it’s nice to tell the stories again. We talk about the gonzo fist blast off and Anita admits it was a big joke, a last laugh for Hunter. Caveat Emptor. A kind of be careful what you ask for.
Anita picked up our tab compliments of the Gonzo Foundation and we made plans to meet at Owl Farm the next day to do the interview. Anita took out a postcard that came with the bill and drew a map to Owl Farm. Our golden ticket had been punched. She told us to pull on in the drive at 12pm the next day: Easter Sunday.
Ryan and I walked back to the hotel through big wet falling snow and that’s when the elevation and alcohol hit me. I’d been warned about drinking plenty of water at elevation and now at around 8,000 feet I was in trouble. I shuffled back to the lodge with a grin on my face and quickly passed out on the bed.
A few hours later I was up and drinking a bottle of water. After more stumbling about the streets of Aspen I again fell asleep and didn’t wake up until 5:00am the next morning. I decided to lay in bed until 6 and then shower and walk down to the pharmacy where I could pick up some Zantac for my always upset stomach. A condition of a man in the industry, ulcers.
I walked down to the pharmacy in a t-shirt as a light new snow fell. It felt amazing. The streets shimmered and I actually felt ok, I got to the pharmacy and they were closed until 9. So I walked back to the hotel and decided to try and eat. A big mistake. Normal breakfast fare was not being served. They had a smoked salmon on display and bagels and cereal. I grabbed for a bagel and OJ and made my way away from the crowd. After looking at the food it made my stomach turn and I ran for the lobby bathroom.
Around 11am I got a text from Anita that the interview would be pushed back a few hours to 1:30pm and that was ok for me, I had time to become a human again. I made my way back to the room and Ryan was starting to wake up. He was going to shower and walk down to the lobby for breakfast while I again walked to the pharmacy for Tums and acid reducer. Outside the pharmacy a line had formed of Aspenites & end of season skiers. I patiently waited and grabbed the junk and greedily opened the package just outside the door dry swallowing several of the acid reducers and chewing a half pack of Tums to get my head on straight. I was ready to attempt breakfast again.
I walked in the front door of the hotel and found Ryan in the lounge eating bagels and drinking coffee. I sat down next to him and munched on a piece of toast with a bit of peanut butter. I needed protein to take on the mountain once more. We checked out of the hotel and moved our camera and gear back into Ryan’s Subaru.
We made our way out of Aspen and back to the Woody Creek Tavern where we ordered lunch. I decided to double up on the water and order one of the tavern’s renowned cheeseburgers. It was massive. I ate a few bites and managed to hold it down. The rest was wrapped up for Anita’s German Shepard Athena. Anita called the tavern, by now my phone had died, and asked them to send us over to Owl Farm in 15 minutes.
It was time to drive the last few miles to Owl Farm. Hunter’s fortified compound.
We followed a twisting road up the mountain checking the route against the hand drawn map, and after making a wrong turn we quickly back tracked and found the house.
Two large iron vultures sat rusting atop their perch, we eased in the gates, the large do not enter signs filling up the rear view and I realized what a special moment I was living. We pulled past the cabin and stopped in front of the guest house. Anita pulled in behind us and got out of her car, she was holding several large bags of groceries, ice and drinks. Anita said Bob Braudis, Hunter’s long time friend and former Pitkin County Sheriff was coming over; as well as Hunter’s friend and art dealer and several other friends. The tribe was gathering for interview time.
We started to unpack the gear as Anita set up the ice, drinks and snacks in the kitchen. Hunter’s typewriter sat on the counter covered up and his stool sat empty draped in blankets. We check lighting in the kitchen and then look at the living room next to the fireplace and bookshelves and decide the best place for hot lighting and space is in the front living room.
Ryan and I set up the lights, camera and test the microphone and decide it looks good. Anita comes in and asks if we would like to see the rest of the house. She takes us downstairs and into the basement, we turn and enter the “war room,” a place where Hunter wrote some of his best books and articles. She points to the table where Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was written, and where until a few years ago his archives were stored. This room truly feels special, the whole house does, but the energy in the war room was truly alive.
We step back into the hall and she opens the door to “Johnny’s room”, a simple bed with a glass of water sits on a bed side table. “Johnny” being famous actor Johnny Depp who came to live with Hunter for a month while working on his role for the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
I notice hanging in the hallway is a well worn poster version of a poem that Ron Whitehead published and co-wrote with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the poem, “Never Give Up.”
Back upstairs and we’re hanging out in the kitchen and talking about Hunter, and I ask about the elk antlers Hunter stole from Ernest Hemingway’s Ketchum house in 1964. She says that it’s hanging in the garage and we can take a look after a bit, but that she plans on returning the antlers to Hemingway’s estate soon.
As we stand talking in the kitchen Bob Braudis and three others arrive at the house and we make introductions and I can’t help but notice these are some huge men. I talk with Bob a bit about who I am and what I’m trying to accomplish with the film on Ron and how it’s led me to the kitchen at Owl Farm. We continue talking and we realize that Bob has met and knows of Ron…a point I’ll dive into a little bit more in the film, but the basics are that Bob went (as Hunter’s security) with Hunter to Louisville, KY for the event Ron held in Hunter’s honor in 1996. (A lot of this event can be seen in the film Breakfast with Hunter.)
Bob starts telling stories about the Louisville trip and the telling is magical. He’s a fine story teller and a better interview. I ask him he wouldn’t mind being mic’d up and sitting down for an interview and he agrees. More stories are told and we wander back into the living room and set Bob down and we talk on camera for about 30 minutes, and the stories he tells are gold. I’m very excited about a lot of what’s talked about and will eventually make most of it public as add ons or extra’s to the Outlaw Poet documentary DVD.
We wrap up with Bob and change the camera angle a little bit…The guys have been sitting in semi circle behind the camera and to the sides of Bob, and have been doing their very best to contain their laughter during the funnier stories told by Bob and they take a moment to relax during the down time. Bob takes a seat next to me on the couch and I ask if they handle all the interviews this way. He says that since Hunter passed the only interviews they’ve granted and the only people allowed filming at the farm have been major Hollywood productions like Alex Gibney’s Gonzo. I’m taken back and honored. I’m funding this film out of my pocket and with help from truly great friends and fans. I feel on top of the world. I’ve made it. This is what I was meant to do. I’ve always known it, but this right here. In this moment is the pivotal turning point.
We re-adjust the lighting and get Anita seated for her interview portion, and she does a great job as an ambassador for Hunter. It’s hard for anyone to speak for someone else, and she does it easily and eloquently. She is truly someone who is in this for the long haul. As she’s said before, “One way or another, I will always be working for Hunter.”
The guys are growing impatient after enduring two long interviews and relax outside to smoke and carry on. Anita asks to turn the camera on me so that I can be interviewed by her in true gonzo cinema verite form. The interviewer becomes the subject. We talk on camera about objective journalism, the state of the media and how this film is my call step away from corporate journalism and jounrey into independent documentary films and TV.
We step outside after wrapping up the interview and set up two well worn kegs on the firing range. Across the kegs we lay two boards; Anita unrolls some heavy duty white paper and lays it across the boards…We’re about to make shotgun art.
There are nitroglycerin targets and several spray paint cans lying on the log shooting table and Anita expertly wraps tape around several (3) nitro targets securing them to the center of the can. She hands me the shotgun, Hunter’s Winchester 1300, a 12ga stainless steel marine defender with a lot of history. Just imagine who’s held this gun. Obviously Hunter, Johnny Depp, Keith Richards… lord if this gun could talk, the stories it would bellow.
I seat myself at the table and prepare to shoot. Ryan moves around me with the camera and Anita asks Ryan if he’s going to be standing in front of the gun. Ryan sheepishly acknowledges his careless position and angles behind me for a better shot of me & what will surely be a beast of an explosion.
I carefully aim, eyeing just where I want to lay the OO buck shot, and squeeze the trigger. Bang. A shot rings out and paint and the can fly across the Colorado sky. The peacocks squawk with delight and Anita explains that the peacocks think Hunter is home whenever they hear gun shots. The resulting paint and paper turn into a fine piece of gonzo shotgun art. (I actually hit the can a bit low and didn’t ignite all the nitroglycerine, but the result was a full piece of art with several buckshot holes…and not the scraps of burnt paper and paint.
Several elk come down the mountain and investigate the shooting and we call a moratorium while they are among us. It gives me a moment to ask where the monument was behind the house, and remark on the red rock in the mountain…which was a big draw for Hunter. The other guys take their turns wielding the shotgun after the elk clear out and we wrap up outside and head back in for more refreshments and small talk.
We hang out in the kitchen and Bob Dylan’s Tambourine Man fills the space that Hunter lived for over 30-years. At any moment it’s easy to imagine the man swaggering out of the back room, but we know in our heart he’s not ever going to step through that portal again, and it’s a bittersweet feeling. All we have are his words, vision and moments like these in his honor.
The party breaks up and we pack the car and ready for the long and dangerous drive down the mountain and back to Denver in a snow storm. Anita is worried and asks that we drive safely and hopes that we can get through the most dangerous parts in the remaining sunlight. We say our goodbyes in the kitchen, Anita at Hunter’s stool, winding a Tiffany clock that friend Bill Murray gave to Anita and Hunter as a wedding present. She says it needs to be wound everyday and that today is an important day to practice the ritual, it’s her wedding anniversary. Thompson explains that Owl Farm can be a lonely place to be without Hunter, but that there’s nowhere else she would rather be.
I’ll drive back to Denver and fly to Louisville soon knowing that my name was called for the honor roll. I’m profoundly grateful to all of those that made it possible to spend this time at Owl Farm, Woody Creek, Aspen and Denver it was a life affirming and life-changing experience. I will never be the same or forget.
Res Ipsa Loquitur. Let the good times roll.
Help us finish the film by donating here: http://www.indiegogo.com/Outlaw-Poet-a-documentary?a=59181&i=wdgi