Awake for days, I stumble through the Aspen airport in search of my rental car. My rollaway luggage has a lopsided wheel, which hobbles in tune with my staggering pace.
The lanyards around my neck fake press credentials to help me get inside a closed event swing to and fro like a metronome bouncing between camera and backpack. A wild-eyed man accosts me on the way to the rental counter, asking if I had arrived for the Hunter S. Thompson memorial event. I secretly hope to bullshit my way into the service, so I act like I know what's going on: "I just need directions to The Owl Farm."
Looking down at my laminated gonzo press badge, he fumbles for a pen and paper to give me directions.
He draws a map to the Woody Creek Tavern (one of Hunter's haunts) on a blank page and counsels me, "You'll never find the place without this," handing my notepad back, "so don't lose it!" I look down to a slim line weaving across the page through icons of bridges, mountains and rivers. Finally, at the end of the loopy scribbles rests a blue "X"marking Hunter's fortified compound: The Owl Farm.
Making my way to the tavern proves an enormous challenge to the uninformed, but being a stranger also has its advantages. Cruising down County Road 17, I pick up on the subtle nuances that stand testament that Hunter once lived here. The straightaways, like those in front of the Woody Creek Tavern and Woody Creek Store, don't just have speed humps. Scattered down Upper River Road are speed bumps, speed dips and speed ripples, no doubt installed after Suzuki sent Hunter a bike to test out (which resulted in the chapter "Speedism" in 2003's Kingdom of Fear).
All the signs for Woody Creek Tavern along County Road 17 and Smith Way are molested in one way or another. Some are pointing in the wrong direction, some are upside-down and the one between the Owl Farm and the tavern is riddled with bullet holes. I pull into the tavern and step out of the car too fast, noticing that I'm in the midst of an alcoholic haze. I have been awake for nearly 72 hours. I stagger up the road toward the bar and take note of a gray-haired man wearing a knit vest too gentlemanly an outfit for an American.
I follow the stout fellow into the tavern, trying desperately to get a glimpse of his face. The bar is packed, so he has to wait in line. I rattle off possible scenarios in my head as to how I should go about asking the man if he is who I think he is: Ralph Steadman, Hunter S. Thompson's longtime friend and the co-founder of gonzo journalism.
Too exhausted to think, I act on instinct and simply walk over and tap him on the shoulder. He spins around and I exclaim his name like I've known him for years. "Ralph? Ralph! How the hell are you?" I extend my hand in nervous anticipation.
Without a second of uncomfortable silence, he grasps my hand and shakes it vigorously. "Fantastic! And how are you?"
"Well, I'm fan-friggin'-tastic now!" I cup our handshake with my left hand and squeeze tightly. "You don't know me from Adam, but I feel like I've known you for years. I'm Issac, Issac Stolzenbach. And you're obviously Ralph Steadman. Man, is it great to meet you!"
"And it's great to meet you … Issac, was it? Are you in town for the festivities?"
"Yes, sir! This is the end of a four-year pilgrimage of sorts."
"Where are you hailing from?"
"Florida … Orlando, Florida. Would you mind if we talked for a bit? I have precisely one million questions for you."
"Not at all. Let me get some drinks." He then introduces me to his wife, Anna, and his bodyguard/friend/publicist, Joe. We take seats outside; I leave briefly to go to the car and grab my camera. I return and try to unobtrusively ask permission to snap a couple of photos; he's gracious and more than happy to participate. His wife takes a picture of Ralph and me as he reads my essay, "The Attack on Reason, Part I: Journalism." He uses my pen to grade and autograph my paper, then he honors my notepad with an illustration and a signature.
My conversation with Steadman leaves me with the impression that the blasting of Hunter's ashes is not the end of an era, but a beginning. He saw the "gonzo-ness" of the United States and pointed it out to Hunter while on their first assignment together, which resulted in the story "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," printed in Scanlan's Monthly in June 1970. Steadman's illustrations were the lead before the lead, gripping the audience and demanding their attention.
"I found Hunter to be a good friend, and a good working partner, and I worked with him for 35 years," he says. Then he pauses in acknowledgment of that fact.
I chime in with what some of the locals had told me about Hunter's death. "See, that's why his suicide doesn't make sense to a lot of people. He had so much going on that some people think he didn't kill himself, and that there's some sort of conspiracy."
"He knew what he was doing," says Steadman.
"He knew what he was doing," says Joe the bodyguard. He pauses, adjusts his seat to lean forward and flick the ash off his American Spirit cigarette, and turns to Ralph. "You know what he said when he left? That this would be the last time we would see him."
Steadman confirms it. "Yeah; last October."
After arriving at my hotel room to collapse, I find out why the security is tight and the invitations slim. There are some heavy political guns poised to attend, like retired Sen. George McGovern and Sen. John Kerry, along with Johnny Depp, Bill Murray and a host of other high-profile breeders: actors, lawyers, politicians, etc.
I wake up around 4 p.m. and head back to the tavern to feed the beast breakfast. I meet a gaggle of artists, musicians and writers, all scribbling away, getting ready for Hunter's grand finale. After our fill of Chivas Regal and herbal tea at the Woody Creek Tavern, we struggle up the mountain to catch a better view of the monument a half-mile away. I gasp for air. "Anyone have an oxygen tank?"
My new acquaintance, Gabe, catches me pausing on my way up the hill to light another cigarette and scoffs, "Yeah, man, maybe if you'd stop smoking and get your ass on a treadmill you wouldn't have that problem."
"Smoking keeps me out of prison, so scratch that," I answer. "And as far as the treadmill, sorry, man, but it's sea level where I'm from; all I need is a little oxygen, y'know? O-x-y-g-e-n?! Not these tiny wisps at almost 8,000 feet!"
When we finally arrive at the 4-foot swath of level ground perched atop the mountain across from the tavern, my oxygen deprivation coupled with the sublime intensity of finally seeing the gonzo memorial statue brings me to the threshold of an asphyxiation orgasm; I light another cigarette from my last and try to regain composure. The group of 50 or so people fans, journalists and admirers of truth stand awestruck at the fantastic size of the phallic crimson cloak protruding from the mountainside backdrop.
I look down the row of tripods, motorcycle helmets and yellow-tinted aviator glasses and feel enlightened to be among the few, the proud, the weird. The air is a mix of cigarettes, cloves, herbal tea, fresh sage, dark beer and whiskey, all swirling together in the crisp mountain air.
We talk about the $2.5 million Johnny Depp paid for the monument party. One local laments, "I don't think Hunter would have approved of all these greedheads being the only ones invited." I agree with him but reiterate that it was the family's wish.
Hunter and Ralph first visualized the gonzo monument 2 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty back in a 1978 BBC documentary. The footage shows Hunter drawing in the second thumb of the gonzo-fist symbol because Ralph did not understand the obscure anatomy Hunter was talking about. Now the memorial is a 153-foot reality, the double-thumbed red fist clutching a green peyote button, perched on a dagger for the world to ponder. As the spotlights start to circle the monument, we discuss what it was about Hunter's work that brought us together from all corners of the United States. The consensus of the freelancers interviewing freelancers is that Hunter's writing spoke to us like a neighbor we'd known for years: not pulling any punches in telling it like it is; treating journalism as though it were synonymous with philosophy; searching for the big "T" in truth; writing like our democracy depends on reporting rather than advertising.
When Aspen Daily News staff writer David Frey asks me why I came all the way from Florida to attend an event I couldn't really attend, I reply something to the effect of, "Someone has to bear witness to the call to arms that fell on deaf ears. At the end of Fear & Loathing, Hunter spoke of that high watermark on the side of a mountain that measured the extent of progressive thinking in this country. It's like we almost made it. If there's any doubt how low we are from that marker now, just look at what we've got in the White House."
The interview is cut short by a portly, bearded man with a tattered bucket hat lumbering his way toward the microphone. He is stammering incoherently as spittle flies out from under his mustache in all directions; he's obviously enraged over my statement. I reach into my blazer for my Mace.
The frothy-mouthed man introduces himself as Ciggy just before erupting into a fit of rage. "A call to arms? More like a cathartic stain on my life. I'm a veteran who fought for this country …" he pauses as if he were trying to say a hundred things at once. "I can no longer remain silent." He pushes his blue-tinted glasses toward his heavy brow, sliding them up his sweaty, aquiline nose. "If it takes breaking objectivity in my writing, then so be it. I'm not going to stand around and watch my country get duct-taped spread-eagle into stirrups and ass-raped by corporations namely, the six corporations who control over 76 percent of everything we read in magazines, see on TV and hear on the radio. It is time for independent journalists to start taking their work seriously! It is time for …"
An onlooker shouts, and I catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. The tarp of the gonzo-fist monument begins to split from top to bottom, green neon piercing the crimson shroud as it falls to the ground. The peyote button at the center of the double-thumbed fist pulsates from green to blue and back. A pack of rabid journalists finally falls silent as they anticipate the blast. Heartbeats pounding in unison shake sweaty fingers on shutter buttons; the narrow stone path atop our mountain seems to writhe beneath our feet. The spotlights are converging upon the fist. "Here it comes!" someone shouts, followed by a cacophony of hoots and hollers. I prepare my camera.
One onlooker, Laurie, 42, from Boulder, who told an NPR microphone earlier that she had developed a special relationship with Hunter … after he killed himself, says, "He did it on my birthday, so I almost feel blessed … invigorated with his spirit." She clutches her hands at the wrists behind her back and manipulates her feet as she speaks. "He really documented my life, y'know? This truly marks the end of an era."
I've heard this remark one too many times over the weekend, and I let the Chivas Regal loosen my lips. "This in no way marks an end of anything, my dear." I draw a cigarette and lighter from my breast pocket and light up. "Hunter left us with a blueprint of how journalism should be. Forget about being objective it's too late for that just be upfront with your audience. Don't be a whore and pass advertising off as journalism, like that knucklehead who took $240,000 to promote Bush's No Child Left Behind agenda."
A brief silence falls hard after my words and then the sky erupts with 30 pyrotechnic rockets shooting from the fist, each containing a portion of Hunter's cremated ashes. A true American spectacle explodes before us, splitting the low clouds wide open. The spotlights part ways from the monument and blazon the gonzo symbol on the clouds. The concussion follows seconds later, making the inebriated among us stagger, barely able to keep ourselves from falling over the edge.
As our hearts settle on the fact that Hunter's remains have now been returned to the cycle of life, I note to the crowd that the winds are blowing to the northeast: right toward us. Someone screams, "Breathe deeply! I hear we can get high off of his ashes!" A man with a Captain America motorcycle helmet rocks back and forth, chewing on his tongue. He thrusts his beer into the air, splashing it around. "Hunter, we fuckin' love you, man!"
Laurie from Boulder starts fanning at her hair like bats are attacking her. "Eww! I don't want Hunter in my hair!" She dances in place just before jetting off down the mountain. Ciggy spits out a huge gulp of his vodka tonic. "Fool woman! Get back here and be blessed in the ashes of a martyr for truth!"
On the way back to my hotel, I wonder to myself: What is gonzo journalism and why is it important to Americans? The style consists of the simple execution of the journalist's five Ws; find a talented illustrator so your articles will get noticed and top it off with some indulgence in the four hallmarks of Tom Wolfe's The New Journalism (1973). Bring your audience along with you on your journey by using descriptive scene transition, pepper the essay with dialogue to bring the readers closer, report observations about political economy to show your audience where you are coming from and illuminate your subjects' status in life, and manipulate various points of view because you can use that to tell the world what you really think.
The importance of gonzo journalism to Americans is more complicated. The lines between advertising and journalism have never been more blurred. The half-bright primate president likes things scripted, so he gathers a group of smiling, chatty folks who can read and tell him what a good job he is doing. But people don't have time to fact-check everything they see. It is up to the independent journalists to expose what our government wishes to keep in darkness, making journalism synonymous with philosophy. We must rise to the occasion and shed light on darkness.
To paraphrase Bill Moyers, news is what people want to keep hidden, and everything else is publicity.