Bought a Ticket; Took a Ride
A Journey to the Heart of Gonzo Country
Old Town looked deserted and decrepit; almost sinister in its emptiness. Despite the lack of cars and the dark doorsteps of businesses long since deserted for the evening, I knew Kaktus Kate’s would be open around the bend. Their crowd might not be boisterously active on the Friday after the Fourth of July in Cottonwood, Arizona, but there’s comfort to be had in a small gathering of self-righteous millennialectuals sipping IPAs and discussing unchangeable concepts of a democratic republic. I say “comforting” only in the sense one can drown them out with jukebox music more successfully than one finds themselves capable amongst slobbering drunks.
I wouldn’t need to waste my money in such pursuits though, because my thoughts seemed loud enough to conquer one, yet on top of that, a tub of Crown Royale on the rocks was the only instrument that seemed proper to squelch them both, simultaneously.
The most apparent difference between being aged 22 and 32 is declaration and consideration in their figuring out life’s many complexities, it would seem, but I suppose I- along with many others- have had our times of inner-monologue in moments of conundrum at any age. Just so happens, at their age and stirred with alcohol, these emerge as taunts, tantrums and intended jabs at anyone within ear-shot who dare contradict their assessments.
Two tables to my left on the patio of the only dive in Old Town, theirs were the powers that be and the monsters far beyond their control, but my own were focused silently and primarily on my coming flight to Detroit.
My thoughts these days more often consisted of adventure at every turn as it had since I was 17, though I had calmed down a great deal within that time. Fear of time had taken dictation of my actions, and that sort of fear is only swept from human-nature when they feel they’ve an abundance. Adventure still held strong in my heart and lungs, and that sort of consideration borrowed a cup of my sugar on the daily, and every so often you gotta stir that shit into your T, which in this case I suppose would stand for “time.”
When I could afford it, I’d cast off in any direction that made itself readily available to me, and I’d march forth with unmatched gusto and fearless ambition. Heaven strike me down should I ever become immobile in either will or reason, because staying put ain’t an option nor will it ever be, I’m afraid.
With age, for me, the concept of the struggle meant life wouldn’t get boring, and I was finally embracing that wisdom.
“I don’t care, man! See? I don’t even think about it! I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, white, negro or whatever...”
“I treat everyone the same!”
“And I... I appreciate you saying the “negro” term... the softer “n-word,” you know? And I can say that! I... I can say that because my brother-in-law...”
Here we go.
“Well, I’m not gonna be disrespectful about it, you know? How you... what you call a person... how you call a person...”
“How you tell a “negro” they’re...”
They were both as white as I am, mind you, and if either cared to discuss this at my coming destination, they’d find themselves beaten without mercy, and I say this offering praise to neither setting. Their differences were just astonishingly numerous.
I put my headphones on, instead, and decided to send “Chuggy” a text about his picking me up at the airport the following week. It’d be just around 6 AM that coming Saturday when my flight would land, and I’ll had witnessed the sun fall and rise within the matter of 5 hours.
It was these late flights that always knocked me for a loop and set me off on the wrong foot when visiting “home.” Where I’d depart at 11 PM from Phoenix, I’d land in Detroit just in time for breakfast within the span of 3 short hours.
Factor in the potential cocktails I’d had at the airport and on the plane, and I was left with little to no option but landing on both lack of sleep and obtaining a slight buzz in the process.
Breakfast in Toledo would handle the intoxication for the duration of the ride to Fremont, but once I was within Fremont, all bets were off. The appeal of seeing familiar faces at the multitude of dives that stretched from the West Side across State Street Bridge until as Far East as your feet could carry you was too great. To this day, the bartenders still knew my name, and by now, I’d even gone to high school with a few of them. The first drink at four such establishments would be on the house, no doubt, and by the time I woke late Sunday morning, church wouldn’t quite appeal to me and the evening prior- a brown-out of epic proportions. I’d be late at putting some road behind me, and money would likely be more scarce than I’d intended despite the tabs picked up in my favor.
I was not your casual drinker, and where alcohol usually slowed others down and slurred their speech, it enhanced my vocabulary and coursed like a jet engine through my veins, keeping me lively, animated, on my feet, and deceivingly coherent. It is for these reasons I abstained more often than not these days. If I were to keep from the buzz this time, I might alternate my entire journey in my favor. In terms of endurance, sobriety had proven time and again to be my true, loyal compadre. Caffeine and hydration were to be the tools of my success on this journey for my ultimate intended destination was Woody Creek Tavern outside of Aspen, Colorado.
This was Bat Country- the stomping ground of the very Beat Generation-era’d patriarch of Gonzo Journalism... the good Doctor... The outlaw of the literary world... the Protector from Swine... the Jefferson County Wailer... the Sultan of Sportswriting... the Father of The Colonel... the Kentuckian... the Cover of Rolling Stone... the King of Copacabana Beach... the man who’d crawled out from under the heels of Hell’s Angels through Fear and Loathing into the Bloody Rubble of a Doomed Generation- Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
If I wanted to keep the promise of that visitation alive, I’d have to be in the mood for the 21-hour drive it’d take to deliver me there, and even whilst in the establishment, limit my indulgence for the remaining 9-hour excursion back to Cottonwood, maintaining a condition prepped for work the following day should fortune smile upon this wretched sinner... and, indeed, it would have to.
I paid my tab and left in a hurry to both dodge the regurgitated rhetoric from the patio as well as the curmudgeon working the bar who’d taken delight in flirting with every date I’d ever brought into the place. The wretched bastard would treat me with great impatience but serve any woman by my side with a wink and a smile. I had to hand it to him- he had balls.
I walked home with a buzz and feeling light on my feet, prepared for the undertaking that lie ahead. I was rarely capable of sleeping on a flight or even before one. That coming Friday, I was going to wake at 5 AM and there was a good possibility I wouldn’t get a wink until sometime around noon EST the next day, but even then was unlikely.
Within the following week, I learned of a museum exhibit in Thompson’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky set to open the very day of my departure at the Speed Art Museum.
For this occasion, their website read:
July 12 – November 10, 2019
Special Exhibition, South Building
As one of Kentucky’s most famous exports, especially in the world of modern investigative journalism, the Speed is uniquely positioned to present this exhibition highlighting the professional collaborations (and personal relationships) that Thompson enjoyed with the artists and photographers who were tasked with illustrating his work, and even more importantly, articulating his vision through visual means. (How redundant!)
Focusing on the years between 1964 and 1974 and covering the years between the publication of Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs through Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, the exhibition features the work of Ralph Steadman, Annie Leibovitz, Tom Benton, and Thompson’s own photography, along with original letters and other ephemera to tell the story of the writer’s artistic partnerships.
The exhibition coincides with GonzoFest, the literary and music festival honoring the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson. The 9th Annual GonzoFest is held on Saturday, July 20 at the Louisville Free Public Library. (Unfortunately, I’d be long gone by then.) In addition, Gonzo! The Illustrated Guide to Hunter S. Thompson is the third in a series of exhibitions celebrating Thompson in “A Year of Gonzo,” including Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective (University of Kentucky Art Museum) and Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff (Frazier History Museum).
Before I’d even left Arizona, fortune was casting its coy smile in my direction, and the lure was too glorious to ignore. I could be there that Sunday, but would a museum be open on the holiest of days?
I called ahead and left a message on their voicemail asking about photographs and hours and received a call back Friday afternoon just as I was finishing up with work. Not only would they be open, I learned when they got through, but admission was free on Sundays, so this would be an expense avoided which left me more for the road, and that suited me fine.
How strikingly curious it was that on Friday afternoon at the last job, I should spot a structural illustration of the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland which shared a name and was the basis for the hit by Jefferson Airplane- a personal favorite of Thompson’s- featured in the film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
I was late out of work, though, and didn’t cash my check until 3:30 PM, but I’d already told Biggie I’d be ready to depart by 4 to Phoenix. I still needed to pack a bag, shower, and change into fresh clothes, and I was more than happy to understand he was an infamous procrastinator which was sure to buy me a few extra and very precious minutes.
Biggie was a tall, large, handsome bastard with flowing, red hair. He was a 21st Century Wookiee; a gentle giant; a hippy at heart and a healer by trade. He’d volunteered to take me to the airport as he had already made plans to pick a friend up in Tucson that evening.
“Wanna pill?” he asked when he arrived forty minutes past 4.
“What kind of pill? I mean... yes,” I responded. Why not? I was, after all, avoiding alcohol to dodge weariness, as I’d mentioned, but abusing narcotics of any other variety would be the only way to cover a trip intended to honor the memory of Thompson.
Besides, even in my best attempts to hold a candle to his infamy in those regards, the daily routine he kept toward the end of his life would’ve made the likes of Keith Richards blush:
“3:00 p.m. rise
3:05 Chivas Regal with the morning papers, Dunhills
3:50 another glass of Chivas, Dunhill
4:05 first cup of coffee, Dunhill
4:16 orange juice, Dunhill
5:11 coffee, Dunhills
5:30 more ice in the Chivas
5:45 cocaine, etc., etc.
6:00 grass to take the edge off the day
7:05 Woody Creek Tavern for lunch-Heineken, two margaritas, coleslaw, a taco salad, a double order of fried onion rings, carrot cake, ice cream, a bean fritter, Dunhills, another Heineken, cocaine, and for the ride home, a snow cone (a glass of shredded ice over which is poured three or four jiggers of Chivas)
9:00 starts snorting cocaine seriously
10:00 drops acid
11:00 Chartreuse, cocaine, grass
11:30 cocaine, etc, etc.
12:00 midnight, Hunter S. Thompson is ready to write
12:05-6:00 a.m. Chartreuse, cocaine, grass, Chivas, coffee, Heineken, clove cigarettes, grapefruit, Dunhills, orange juice, gin, continuous pornographic movies.
6:00 the hot tub-champagne, Dove Bars, fettuccine Alfredo
Source: Carroll, E. Jean (2011-10-04). Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson (Kindle Locations 196-221).
However, one must consider the source of this routine, and in this case, it’s E. Jean Carroll; an infamous exaggerator and bullshit con-artist. Her book turned out to be just about as much utter trash as she personifies, so it’s highly likely the list is blown out of proportion to the extreme.
The differences between Thompson and Carroll are many, but in blurring the lines between fiction and fact, Thompson at least maintained tact and believability.
I was early as all hell to Sky Harbor, and as soon as I was out of the car in the 110 degree heat despite evening setting in, I began cursing the bastards who’d dropped me off. Hell- it’d only been 100 in Cottonwood, and that’d been two short hours and a sunset ago.
The original plan had been to have dinner someplace, and maybe a cocktail or two in spite of my intentions to stay sober.
They’d been dashed, however, as Biggie had decided he’d rather make the entire trip a rapid to and fro.
We also picked my dear friend Scope up on the way at the Cottonwood Wal-Mart before leaving. Scope had settled into the backseat and announced, “Can we crack the windows, because I brought a bowl; packed and ready to go?” The last came out as a question when he fixed his eyes on Biggie for permission.
“Yeah,” Biggie responded, hesitantly. “Yeah, you guys can smoke in here- I’m not smoking- but wait until we’re on the 17, please.”
I could understand his reluctance, because should one be pulled over whilst smoking weed in the vehicle, there’s really no place else for that smell to go but straight up the cop’s nose. This places suspicion and intensity in a situation that has enough on both sides as it is. You can hide dilated pupils behind shades or even explain them away through some conjured eye-condition. You can even douse with mouthwash or chew gum should your breath have a hint of alcohol. However, despite the nose-blindness that sets in toward the aroma you’ve been basking in for twenty minutes with the windows rolled up, it’ll be the first thing the officer notices, and while suspicion isn’t exactly 3/4ths of the law, it always seems to prevail anyway.
Scope was also a tall bastard. I was sure of neither of their exact measurements, but they towered over me, and that was all that mattered. He had a crop of messy, blonde hair and dressed sort of like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo; very casual and laid-back. He’d even earned that nickname at work after he’d recently joined our crew.
For over the past year, I’d been a groundsman for a local arborist, and the work had chiseled me without effort. Since then, I’d become something of a gym-rat and nutritional-enthusiast despite the path my life had taken thus far.
I still smoked about a pack a day, but I’d even given considerable thought to retiring that awful, expensive habit. I knew my lungs would thank me, and I could probably even take up running again, but all in good time. When changing habits, it’s best to detach one at a time as to not overwhelm the body and mind. In my experience, total, cold-turkey betrayal of your learned routine always ended in devastating failure, so I began approaching the concept of healthy living like it was a caged animal who’d already gnawed halfway through the locks. Slow and steady wins the race, but unfortunately for all of us, the finish line is death, anyway. In the back of my mind lay a dormant fear of being struck by a car now that I’d turned my back on self-destruction. Nobody escapes the grim reaper, and my sense of ego would diminish that fact none, so I’d just have to look both ways before crossing the goddamn street.
As Thompson had said, “Pray to God, but row away from the rocks.”
I had sat in the heat amongst the tall cacti chain-smoking American Spirits before going through security. Once you’re passed them, there’d be no open sky to defile until after I’d landed, and I’d be damned if I’d tack four and a half hours on top of the three aboard the plane to Detroit before I could have another dose of nicotine.
The only real misfortune to dodging the terminal just before take-off was being deprived of the luxuries only offered sale around the gates. Before security, everything was pale, gray, and all business. I’d begun to doubt there were even drinking fountains until after I was trapped inside, and Phoenix was being a cruel, fickle bitch toward my growing thirst. The longer I sat and the more I smoked, a water and a cocktail sang their siren duet, and I was but a willing slave to their luring call.
Once inside terminal 3 with gate F2 just around the corner, a bar and grill called The Tavern presented itself to my immediate left and I hastily took a seat at the bar. Shockingly, water remained free, but the two whiskey sours I’d ordered soon ran my tab above $30, and just as hastily as I’d found my seat did I switch to beer.
I think it was Flogging Molly that counseled “switch to beer and you’ll be okay,” but in situations such as these, I was curious if they intended the message for my finances or mental state. Both were being depleted at a rate far greater than I’d planned, but there was little else to do in an airport but try to forget about tobacco. The seats that lined the large plate-glass windows in rows stretching the entire length of the terminal were far too uncomfortable to doze, and the stools circling the bar were no better, but I could numb my thoughts for a moment and inspire some semblance of fatigue for the flight home. This had been exactly what I’d tried to avoid.
Apart from that, I didn’t even have to hear it to be reminded and further witness the nonsense a prominent news station was promoting every minute of the day to the masses. The subject had switched from white supremacy in an upcoming premier of a Disney film to Russian-collusion in the 2016 election, and continued to promote separation and present unconquerable disparities in nearly every walk of life. There was nothing more infuriating and hopeless than being reminded the frivolous & bought nature of journalism in the 21st century a mere 14 years after the self-inflicted demise of Hunter S. Thompson.
It was all senseless drivel being slung like dope from every corner of the nation, and its casters, editors, and “journalists,” like heroin-dealers, didn’t give a rat’s ass about the well-being of their consumers. At the end of the day, money spoke volumes more than any concept of moral fiber. They just wanted to see us squirm because discomfort is a cow that will be milked for eternity while repeatedly ejaculating into your eyeballs to blind you to the fact it is, in fact, a bull. Free-thinking is the red with which we are left but little practice.
The two cocktails and one beer put me right where I needed to be, and if I could avoid purchasing any drinks on the plane, it’d be just enough to sleep without utterly destroying my ambition toward the coming day.
Sleep came quickly enough, because only after screwing myself into the window-seat, trapped by two travel-companions to my left, did I realize I’d left my book in my carry-on which was tucked into the overhead bin and out of reach. It would do me no favors to ask these men to move again after having just squeezed by them.
Unfortunately, almost exactly halfway through the flight, I woke and desperately needed to urinate, but again, the men to my left deterred me. It didn’t help they’d both succumbed to sleep. I had nothing to do but stare at a screen I couldn’t hear.
When I asked the stewardess if she’d take cash for a pair of $2 headphones, she insisted they only accepted cards. I was too tired to argue, and what was another hour and a half?
After spotting I was watching a special on Aretha Franklin, the stewardess made her way back and handed me a headset. “You can’t just WATCH an Aretha Franklin special without sound, honey.”
I smiled and she returned one warmly, and so it was that though I didn’t catch as much sleep as I’d wanted, I was lured to a peaceful tranquility by means of that beautiful voice.
When taking our descent into Michigan, the captain made his announcements and mentioned the temperature was 65 degrees. Only then did it dawn on me that I hadn’t properly packed at all. Welcome home, aye comrade?
After buying a coffee and walking out toward the street for a cigarette, Chuggy blew his truck’s horn... the ole’ “shave & a haircut”... and it was like we’d never parted ways.
Chuggy was a big fella. He’d been my drinking buddy for years back when he was facing a divorce and I was splitting from a physically, mentally and verbally abusive relationship. We bantered all the way back to Fremont for breakfast at AM Korner Cafe to order our “usual”... he, a grilled cheese with tomato, and myself, a sausage and egg sandwich on ciabatta lightly doused with hot sauce.
We parted ways when he dropped me in front of my folks’ apartment building and we planned to meet up a bit later to see the old haunts and a few old friends.
Upon discovering my folks hadn’t woken yet, I took a stroll with my duffle bag slung around my torso, and I couldn’t believe I was back in my hometown.
The smell of blacktop, grime, and freshly cut grass... a church bell chiming once in the distance, slowly diminishing to an echo and then silence... light traffic, friendly faces... cool air... all the essence of home here and alive yet almost still untouchable like walking through a lucid dream.
I briefly stopped into a carry-out where I’d remembered they carried Flying Dog Ale; an alcoholic beverage inspired by Thompson with a label sporting the illustrations of Ralph Steadman himself. Sure enough, they still carried ‘em, so I bought a six-pack of Tropical Bitch Belgium IPA, and continued my aimless excursion.
When I’d circled a few blocks and re-familiarized myself with the town, I returned to my folks’ place to see they were still unresponsive to my subservient knock, and by that time Chuggy was already pulling up to the front, so I slung my duffle bag around my arm once more and climbed into the passenger seat.
“Al and Dustin’s, then?”
“Sounds good to me,” he said, putting the truck into drive and lurking forward down Croghan Street. We took a left down Front Street which had become a highly renovated and ever-improving downtown district of Fremont and took it past the Sugar Refinery up the hill to Port Clinton Road. Once around dead-man’s curve and a stretch further, we pulled into their driveway.
When we arrived, they both appeared to be just out of bed. They offered us coffee and weed, and while I accepted both, Chuggy maintained coffee and we sat around the living room catching up.
Then, we set the plan for the evening. Chuggy and I would press ahead so I could catch a shower at my folks’ and we could pick up ice and beer for the cooler. We loaded his truck with fold-up chairs and a canopy. Our destination was a bar that sat on the edge of town by the Sandusky River called Winestein’s. This had been the plan, after all, so I could avoid running about trying to see everyone at their respective homes, but the nap I thought I’d catch just wasn’t in the cards.
I’d learned a spot for the day would run me about $30, so we set up as early in the day as we could. Chuggy had brought his guitar and I’d borrowed one, and as we used to play as a duo for a fair price which was more often paid in cash, and shift-drinks, which would always run a tab far higher than, I’m sure, management had fore-reckoned, we began playing some of our old tunes and enjoying the shade.
My parents were at the bar before long and many more friends joined us as the night progressed. An old squeeze brought me flowers and cuddled me for the remainder of the night. We drank frivolously and laughed without end. It was an old, familiar feeling I’d been without for longer than I’d care to conjure for any considerable length of time.
The night set in too quickly, and after many had come and gone, we piled into a truck and were delivered back to Al and Dustin’s home to retire for the evening... the first wink of sleep I’d gotten since the plane.
In the morning, Allison, Dustin and I returned to tear down camp and get breakfast. In a flash, I was saying “goodbye” to them and then my parents, and I was in my new car and driving down the road. “Blue on Black” started playing over the radio, and I wondered why I was leaving all the love and familiarity behind. I’d never been self-sufficient in Ohio. I’d rarely kept a job and I lived on the couches of friends. I’d known a love and security in the people I knew to such an extent that I never feared life or homelessness. I’d never feared consequences or over-indulgence in any pursuit. In Arizona, the struggle was real, and it kept me awake and on my toes. Life had changed so severely between residency of the two states, and while I knew Arizona was necessary and drove me to self-improvement, Ohio was so blissful and euphoric. It’d always be home, as much as I hated to admit that fact.
“Life is beautiful and living is pain.”
I kept my eyes on the clock and by the time I’d arrived in Louisville, I had about a half an hour to get into the museum before they’d lock their doors.
While the streets around campus were complicated to map, I found my way with little difficulty. Inside at the front desk, they wanted my zip code and I could see the surprise in the man’s expression when it revealed I’d come from so far southwest.
I walked through several galleries before I arrived at the Gonzo exhibit, and once inside, I was almost overwhelmed. Here, before my very eyes, were the real photos and the actual paint and canvases of art I’d only experienced in books and copied images online. In the flesh, as it were, I was gazing upon the blood, sweat and tears of labor. I was looking at a history I’d followed since my pursuits became my own outside of school. You wouldn’t find Thompson or Steadman in any curriculum before college, and as I’d never bothered with attending a university, this exploration had been mine and mine alone; a fascination that drove itself.
After the museum closed, I made a stop at Thompson’s childhood home. As I didn’t want to disturb the residents, I snapped a photo and hastily made my way back to my car. Just before I was about to squeeze behind the wheel, the neighbor immediately to the right of the home called out, “He’s watching you!”
“Thompson... he’s watching you.”
A smile broke across my face, and I saluted the neighbor with appreciation. He saluted back.
After a bite, I made haste to the state line.
As night fell around me in Missouri, driving had lost all appeal to me, and I pulled off on an exit that offered motels.
But first things first...
“Do you guys have... uhhh... Kentucky...”
“Kentucky... uhhh, Coffee Barrel... Cream?” I finally remembered. Hours stacked on hours of driving can numb the ole’ tinker, and my thoughts were scrambled.
“I’ve... I don’t think I’ve heard of it,” the cashier replied, leaning back and doing his best to pretend he was reading the labels of the beer from five aisles away.
“It’s fairly new,” I waved it away, “but I think I’ve spotted a proper alternative.”
For Thompson, I bought both a six-pack of Red Stripe for its San Juan origin and, also in honor of his first written-novel- though last published one- “The Rum Diary”- a shooter of Sailor Jerry rum. I quickly paid for my “groceries,” and drove to a small, unique motel in Marlborough called The Wayside.
The rooms were, in fact, small houses, rather; each its own unit with a connected garage, though I chose to park just outside of its door.
After I checked in, I was ready to collapse, and while the bed, stand, television and bathroom were all so regularly motel as any other, I was absolutely elated to be there, so naturally, I couldn’t sleep. I turned the television on and then shut it off quickly. I laid back on the bed and stared at the ceiling.
The last 48 hours had been absolutely scrambled madness. I choked down half a Red Stripe and left the rest to sit on the bedside. I never even bothered with the shooter of rum. Eventually, sleep just came to me.
In the morning, I caught breakfast at a diner down the street, ordered an omelette and loaded up on coffee for the long day of driving ahead. I could make Woody Creek Tavern by 11 PM, I’d assessed, but it wouldn’t seem right to arrive at night. I wanted to see the place in the daytime as to not miss a single detail.
Kansas. There is really nothing I want to say about Kansas apart from it took me about three and a half lifetimes to drive from its east to west edge. I stopped for gas and food at some point, but I was mostly in a daze, watching the hills rise and fall through my windshield. At times, the road seemed to disappear into the sky, and then it would fall into revealing another long road ahead running as far into the horizon as the ocean, just stretching on and on into an endlessly expanding landscape. At times, I was lost in the euphoric, hypnotizing grace of its flow, but mostly I was curious if this was hell. I got it into my head that I may have fallen asleep at the wheel in Missouri and careened off of the road, died on impact, and was thrust into a ceaseless hell of driving through fucking Kansas!
After crossing the border into Colorado, traffic had dropped into a single lane, the speed limit fell to 65 down from the 75 I’d grown so accustomed to, and a wild, heavy rain with strikes of lightning came crashing down all around me.
Ahead, I could see blue just after the sinister line of grey clouds that darkened the skies around us. The cars in front of me sped up and slowed down, so I gave them space and maintained a moderate 50 at a tolerable distance.
As soon as traffic grew back into two lanes and despite the blinding rain, I made my regular 80 mph dash toward the blue skies ahead with visions of calm skies and dry roads.
When the clouds finally diminished above, two rainbows stretched across the sky and the real Colorado welcomed me warmly.
I made a stop for a cold coffee and an energy bar. I enjoyed them along with a cigarette and watched the sky. The clouds from before seemed to be following me, so I made haste to get further west.
After another stretch across flat lands, my day’s circumstantial destination was in my grasp.
The drive into Denver was a complete hellfire of speeding traffic and maddening lights. Cars sped up and slowed down, highways split, all light had been vanquished from the sky and replaced with construction trucks, police lights, reflective tape and glowing, flickering orange barrels. These were construed and blended by the heavily populated sets of lights that surrounded me on all sides, zipping and dashing in seemingly random directions, and my heart began racing to such an extreme in a way driving has rarely ever jolted me before. It was PAC-man on speed.
All I wanted to do was pull to the side of the road and search the nearest motel. When my GPS finally directed me off the highway, I was able to pull to the side of the road and make designs for my evening in.
The Primrose Motel was less than 3 miles away and a room would only be $60, which sounded fantastic. I just wanted to get off the road. The traffic in Denver was turbulent, rapid, and far too wild for my tastes. On top of that, the steering in my car began to seize up, so before I could even check into a room anywhere, I’d have to slow my heart rate, find a gas station, and purchase some power steering fluid.
Luckily, the first spot I pulled up to had a universal power steering fluid (apart from Honda for God knows why) and it worked like a charm. The dread that filled me upon considering the possibility of a flat tire or broken tie rod was immense, but luckily for this last stretch of journey, the great magnet was being kind.
I wanted to start pinching pennies, so the $60 a night stay brought me some peace of mind, and just as I was on my way to check in, I had a gut-feeling that I should check out the reviews before diving in.
Gut-feelings don’t come to me often, and I can’t say I heed them much when they do.
Reading the review filled me with dread, and immediately the journey stopped being fun. I felt alone, cold, and the additional stress ran like battery-acid through my veins.
I wanted to call off going to Woody Creek and just aim for home. I missed familiarity and the road was beginning to cave in out from under me. I was losing confidence in my ability to hold it together, and the foot-traffic about the city only stood to run my imagination in every direction.
I didn’t feel safe at all.
Get a grip, you bastard! What would Thompson do?
His book titles often started with the words “Fear” and “Loathing,” did they not?
His wisdom is quoted, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
So, it was time to strap in and see this wild, fucked exodus until the end, wherever and whenever that would be.
Marijuana was legal in this state, was it not? And it’s been known to calm the nerves, isn’t that right?
Of this recreational stimulant, he told Omnibus, “Right now I think it's in my interest - and ours, perhaps. And maybe in the interest of the greater good for me to smoke a joint and calm down. It's been demonstrably proven that temper tantrums are not the best way to do interviews. And probably my life will be easier - and yours too - if I smoke a joint."
Ottie had lived in Colorado a while back and for quite some time, so I shot him a text asking for specifics on what one might do to procure said medicine, and he let me know there was nothing to it.
I called the closest Motel 6 to my vicinity and asked about pricing. It’d be roughly $30 more, but none of the reviews made mention of dead corpses being dragged about their hallways, so I booked the damn thing and made my way to a dispensary.
The people running the joint were extremely friendly and they could see I was wired with anxiety.
“What can we do for you?”
“Put me at ease, god dammit! I feel like I’m about to lose my shit! This town is giving me the fear!”
“We have a deal going right now for two joints for only $18,” came her empathetic reply.
“Let’s do it- yes; put me down for two!”
“Sativa or Indica?”
“Whichever one will lower my blood pressure and suck my beating heart back up through my anus, please.”
“We’ll try one of each, shall we?”
“Ma’am- I’ll take your word for it.”
I turned to leave, but quickly turned back and asked, “Should I hide them in the trunk? What should happen if I’m pulled over?”
“It’s recreational, sweetheart. Get to where you’re going and light it up! Feel better!”
“Right. Thank you, darling,” I said, and made my leave.
Quickly through the brutal traffic, I was at the motel in no time at all, grabbed the 6-pack of Red Stripe from the trunk, my duffel bag, and my shaving kit, and nearly ran to my room. After placing everything down on the table and tucking the key into my pocket, I walked out into a dark corner of the parking lot to relieve the demons of the day.
God help me... I’m still deciding whether or not to do Woody Creek tomorrow, but a good night of sleep should make that decision for me by morning.
Hunter did say, after all, “Anything that gets your blood racing is probably worth doing.”
Right-e-o, man... right-e-o.”
My thirst for adventure and witnessing the thing done proper was fully rejuvenated upon my waking at 8 AM.
I wasn’t precisely enthusiastic about jumping out of bed, but I was determined to see Woody Creek Tavern and at least get the feel of the area Thompson had spent a majority of his life, and where he ended it on his own terms.
His ending- completely detached from my own convictions, but nobody asked for those- was too familiar to disregard entirely. He was growing old, and asking a wild spirit to be limited by an aging, misbehaving body, he’d known the peak had maybe passed. He was a bystander to a world that had spun out of control, and yet had to witness it all from the sidelines, and even from his eagle-eye view of the world, it still never got crazy enough.
Instant gratification is a killer of men, but no gratification will devour the soul, and when you’re left with any empty shell- a mass of meat and bones taking up space just living and breathing; marking time- the hope for a better tomorrow might be the only thing that keeps you placing one foot in front of the other. Who knows when it will happen in my life- that savage, unforgivable day where you know your wildest, most epic moments and feelings would only ever again me memories? And what would I do with that knowledge?
I fear it’s like any change in our lives- we swallow the knot and press on, I guess. Thompson’s knot must’ve just choked him, and I fear if I’m not, at least, with someone I love when my time to grow old should rear its ugly head, the knot will also be more than I can bear.
I’ve listened to a man cry in a VFW about getting old, saying, “I didn’t think it was going to be this hard.”
That scared the piss out of me. I didn’t want to be catching a buzz in some American Legion pissing & moaning to a youngster about how much life sucked when ya get old, quite frankly. Nor do I want to break a hip every time I choke on a stale cigarette.
I suppose I think about it quite often, but my whole point to bringing it up is we should’ve seen the signs and produced a bionic body for Hunter that would stomp into many lives for generations to come.
I suppose, in all honesty, his words did so well enough on their own. I was certainly a willing casualty to his song of doom.
Over the Rockies for my first time, I took in the sights and their majesty, even snapping pictures when traffic was at a fair distance, which was rare. I nervously chewed sunflower seeds and spit them out the window as we all tried our best to both navigate traffic and see as much of our surroundings as we could.
Once over the Rockies, I knew Woody Creek Tavern was within my grasps. Despite the fact I hadn’t much craved a drink throughout the course of my excursion, visiting the joint was my focal intention; to see, hear, and witness the second home of my beloved hero, Hunter S. Thompson.
The urge to use the facilities hit me as I inched closer to Woody Creek. I stopped for some shades and a piss once safely on the other side. Traffic had spaced out some and I felt more inclined to make, what had become a rapid journey, an accordingly, leisurely trip to my destination.
I finally paid mind to the tire that seemed to wiggle my entire car like it would shoot a tire loose any moment. I thought alignment- by now, I knew the power-steering pump needed replacing- I just wanted enough to get me by... just long enough to see me through. I’d been living my life- for so long- far-sighted... this was the time for ride or die; a little spit and glue.
The road is a toxic love-affair. The moments of bliss are terribly sweet, but few and far-between. You’ll beg for the comfort of home whilst- in my case- pondering just where that may be.
All that’s certain on the road is the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
The rest is sprinkled bullshit- distractions that rule our lives with an iron fist of which we take notice time and again, but a mess of nonsense in terms of destination, because unlike life, you’re certain of where you’re intending to go on the road.
However, the crippling anxiety of destination is what sets us back, I’m afraid. Or at least it was at one time. I suppose slipping into adulthood is realizing the balance between living in the moment and living for the future. If you’re anything like me, dear reader, it’s been a battle between both extremes for a decade too long, and destination can become such a burden on the concept of living in the moment.
This was why, less than six months later, I found myself reading through the journey again, but with eyes burdened by quarantine and familiar surroundings. Where my destination had been my prison had become, yet I smile at the thought of having been there.
As Thompson had said, “Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.”
When I pulled up to a parking spot on the other side of the street from Woody Creek Tavern, I first noticed the plethora of bicyclists lining the street as far as the eye could see. It was a time before masks and social distancing. People were greeting each other warmly, smiling, and even crowded together in a line that led to the entrance of the Tavern.
I knew what I needed to do. More than anything, I wanted to sit at the bar, order a hamburger- as plain as one they might serve in “Rum Diary” in Al’s Backyard- and a shot of Wild Turkey to pay homage to the good Doctor.
Just inside the door to the left is where I was seated at the bar with the bartender himself tending to my choices.
The walls were lined with photographs and Polaroids of various patrons throughout the years, and I was careful to peer in closely at as many as I could. The Thompson references were fewer than I’d have originally guessed, but it was a pleasant surprise in knowing they’d kept their own style as an establishment rather than cashing in off the name of its most beloved veterans.
The burger and the shot ran me anywhere near $20 and I was happy to pay it and make room for the next adamant, wayfaring fan or hungry local. I’d gotten a good look at the place and raised my glass in a silent prayer to Hunter Thompson; “It hasn’t gotten weird enough for me either, yet.”
Little did I know we’d all be facing a weirdness far beyond our collective experience of the world as a whole.
Times change; ain’t no one doubting that.
I drove back down the road and took the high road that had originally veered up and to the left on my way in.
At the end of the driveway and forbidden to advance any further, I threw the car in park and stood.
There was silence and nothing else. I’d hoped to hear the call of a distant peacock or even a shotgun blast or exploding propane tank, but it was silence, and suddenly surreal.
The man, the myth, the legend; the writer; the scholar; the father of Gonzo journalism had raised hell in these parts, and no Tom-foolery on my part, or any of ours for that matter, would stand in comparison or even a testament to the madness he’d conjured out here in a time ago not as distant as it’d once seemed.
After a few moments, I turned the car around and headed back toward the bridge, parking once more and descending down the left side of the bridge over some rocks to perch next to the Creek itself.
Once squatted by the edge, I pulled a preroll I’d bought out of Denver from my jacket pocket and proceeded to light it, inhaling large quantities but careful not to disrupt the silence with my coughs.
I wanted to take a token to mark the occasion. I knew Thompson had to have stood, sat, or even laid here at some point during his wild times in Woody Creek either on his way to or from the Tavern. I wanted something I could touch and feel if I ever wanted to feel the energy of that creek again; the memory of being there.
I reached into the water and pulled out a rock; perfectly round and indented by years of unrelenting nature. I let it sit in the palm of my hand for a moment before tucking it away and tapping out the cherry of my joint.
I climbed back to the car and made haste for the next and final leg of my journey home.
As I pulled away from Woody Creek, advancing down the main road and taking in as much imagery as I could, I realized my car had developed a serious limp when I slowed for a red light. What had started as a minor tremor in the steering-wheel on the first leg of my journey had, over the past two days, advanced into a serious sway even at low speeds.
There was no ignoring it any further. Immediately, I peeled my eyes for any auto-mechanic in the vicinity and pulled off the very moment one presented itself.
What had slightly plagued me only wound up taking a little over an hour to fix, and I didn’t mind waiting in the slightest. This would give the Wild Turkey I’d shot at the Tavern some time to settle and render itself undetectable should the Bastards start closing in with their sinister booze-detecting gadgets and “ah-ha; gotcha” mentalities.
My front right tire needed to be replaced entirely, as I’d suspected, but the bad news was they’d found a leak. My power-steering was shot and would need surgery at my earliest convenience, and while I couldn’t spring for it just then, I knew it’d need doctoring when I was back in Arizona and had disposable income to throw its way. Until then, I just needed to man-handle it on sharp turns and pray the wheels wouldn’t lock up halfway through.
My remaining funds not only had to see me through the edge of Colorado and across the corner of Utah, but also through Tuba City and a long stretch of empty desert to Flagstaff; a little over an 8-hour non-stop drive down 160.
It’d take grit; true grit. And we all know what Thompson said about that, and it was these words that followed me from Aspen, CO to Cottonwood, AZ:
“But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country-but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.”
Indeed, we were, good doctor; indeed, we were.
Out there in the expansive desert with nothing but my thoughts and the setting sun to keep me company, I sought meaning in my stops along the way. They weren’t necessarily vital in any terms of advancing my footing in life, and God knows I’d spent a vast chunk of my 20s pursuing adventures that’d never be written and living moments that would seemingly never really matter in the grand scheme of things, but they had certainly happened and had been recorded in the great book of my life all the same. Along the way, hadn’t I picked up some lessons? In various situations, couldn’t I blame that “feeling in the pit of my stomach” on experience rather than some naturally-occurring sense of magnetisms steering me randomly from left to right?
What did the doctor say again?
“All energy flows according to the whims of the great Magnet. What a fool I was to defy him.”
So, perhaps, it was a combination of the two; experience and a watchful deity of sorts that had, together, navigated me down this road throughout the course of my life. And while I’d felt they’d failed me at times; had they really?
Wasn’t I, after all, cruising across some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes and given the opportunity to see my hero’s childhood home; physical photos he’d taken himself; original art-pieces by his astonishingly talented illustrator, Ralph Steadman; the Tavern he and Johnny Depp had had their first, fateful acquaintance; and breathed the air of the farm he’d lived his final moments before the whistling torpedo had scooped him off to his next fascinating adventure in the sky?
Defy the great magnet? How the hell could I?
He’d seen me through, I realized, and it was somewhere between Kayenta and Tonalea the fear of living that weighed on my back all my life had lifted and scurried away in absolute recoil. It knew it could do nothing but menace, and that knowledge fled it to some other destination to leave me wildly but peacefully unburdened.
I knew the man who’d pulled the car out of Fremont, OH because I’d lived with him all my life, but the one returning to Cottonwood was a strange, new beast entirely; one, mind you, that couldn’t and wouldn’t be tamed.
And with that realization, Hunter spoke to me again- that Spirit in the Sky- with his unmatched wisdom:
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming...
“Wow ! What a Ride !”