WOODY CREEK - I was warned that I would be an outsider here, and that I wouldn't do myself any favors by asking around about Hunter S. Thompson.
One of the first people I meet is Tex. Tex what? Just Tex. "That's it," he says in a deep, grainy murmur. He's messing with stuff in a messy shed in the overgrown trailer park at the heart of this community, which seems much farther than 10 miles from Aspen.
No fancy condos here. No upscale restaurants. No pricey boutiques. Just trailers, a wooden post office, a wooden firehouse and, of course, Woody Creek Tavern, famous as a former haunt of a former resident: Thompson, the crazed father of gonzo journalism who captivated the nation with his drug-fueled prose until one day in February 2005, when he had a breakfast of Jell-O and gin and shot himself in the head.
I ask Tex about Thompson. He cocks an eyebrow and keeps his crooked mouth closed, appearing with his wiry, white hair to be straight out of a drawing by Ralph Steadman, the author's illustrator and sidekick who also appreciated the despicable and deranged.
Tex seems annoyed. Obviously he knew Thompson. Anyone who's been in town as long as him - 45 years - knew Thompson. And like almost every longtime resident, Tex won't talk about him. They abide by an unwritten rule: What happened with Thompson stayed with Thompson, with the ashes shot from a cannon. (The funeral he requested at his Owl Farm in Woody Creek was put on by friend and actor Johnny Depp.)
What locals will talk about is Aspen. But Tex doesn't need to say a word. He cocks his eyebrow higher, drops his frown lower, and toward the resort town across the countryside he hoists a middle finger.
Disdain for the Fat City
Much has been written about Woody Creek, especially the tavern and what it represents. Visiting writers portray it as the anti-Aspen of which Thompson would be proud. To the bartenders and barflies, such dispatches are simply invitations for more acid-tripping customers to come commune with the holy, hallucinogenic ghost.
Thompson raged against the establishment to the east. He campaigned in 1969 for a mayoral candidate he deemed a nonconformist, "an honest freak." A Rolling Stone article titled "The Battle of Aspen" detailed what would be an unsuccessful run by hippie-adoring Joe Edwards.
Inspired and infuriated, Thompson the next year ran for Pitkin County sheriff. His proposals included renaming Aspen as Fat City. "This would prevent greedheads, land-rapers and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name 'Aspen,'" he reasoned.
Hunting and fishing should be for residents only, Thompson said, lest the fish and animals be lost to "these blood-thirsty geeks ... swarming in here each autumn to shoot everything they see."
His campaign symbol - a fist clutching peyote - is on a poster at Woody Creek Tavern, along with a couple of pictures showing a cigarette-smoking Thompson lost in thought. But those can be missed on the walls covered with countless Polaroids of people, of everyone and anyone. The tavern hardly announces itself the former haunt of Thompson.
I flip through the menu, which provides a history of the tavern going back to 1980, when Aspen "was eagerly going in one direction" while "[t]he Tavern was busy being the Tavern." It addresses the typical customer question about celebrities: "As far as we are concerned, you are a celebrity to us!"
Between tending other tables, 20-year tavern waitress Mo Ferrer stops by to share a few memories of Thompson.
"He would order over the phone usually," she says. "He'd order three beverages: coffee, sometimes Chivas, sometimes Tanqueray." Also a salad and/or steak enchiladas, which his peacocks preferred.
But enough about Thompson. Mo moves on to Woody Creek itself, where she says most folks find blue-collar work - "building houses for the rich and shameless," interrupts a man at the bar who identifies himself as Mark. "I did that for years. Now I drive a truck. Don't have to talk to nobody."
Where the lowlifes come
Mike Lucero, who fled to Woody Creek from Aspen long ago, also drives a truck. The name of his company is Ute City Trucking.
"That's what Aspen used to be called, you know, Ute City," he says, talking a bit about the Native American tribe that once dominated this valley as he drives me to Thompson's old farm. Mike is doing this for a visitor a second time this week.
I'd met him at the tavern, where he was drinking with Cliff Little, one of the respected Woody Creatures. Cliff, also a volunteer at the fire department, has the honorary badge that designates him a Creature and "security enforcement officer."
Cliff laughs at that. "A bunch of bull, right?" Nonetheless, he takes seriously his self-appointed task outside the tavern: stopping drivers from parking in the spot reserved for horses.
As for other trouble at the tavern, Cliff and Mike recall a former Aspen mayor visiting. They don't give the name, saying only that he did a lot to grow cycling in town and that, well, he was a mayor of modern-day Aspen. "Nobody even said hi to him!" Mike says.
There are worse intruders, he says as we continue uphill in his '92 Jeep. A well-to-do-looking guy walked in recently, Mike recalls, with a posse of well-to-do-looking guys.
"This guy goes, 'This is where all the lowlifes come,'" Mike says. "Yeah, I don't know. I think he was trying to impress them or something."
Woody Creek doesn't mean to impress, just as it doesn't mean to be the hometown of a legendary writer. It just is, and now it gets people like me asking to see Owl Farm, still home to Thompson's widow. It has become the kind of tourist draw that the man would surely hate.
Mike parks the Jeep a distance from the driveway, which disappears into blue spruce. A metal buzzard is posted with numerous signs: PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO TRESPASSING. KEEP OUT.
We head back to the tavern, where I eat a plain cheeseburger and study a picture on the wall. In a frame, the silhouetted figure before a blood-red sun looks like an old western undertaker, with a long coat, thick mustache and a shovel. "GREED" reads the gravestone beside him.
Mo is busy when I stop her to ask what that's about. "You know," she says, "there's not necessarily a story behind everything here."