The Day Hunter S. Thompson Came to Leadville
Note: There’s nothing like your first Halloween in Leadville. Here’s a memorable one, which is also one of Leadville Today’s #MostReadStories
The Day the Hunter S. Thompson Came to Leadville
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
The day started out different. It was Halloween 1990, and the series of costume parties from the night before, had me with a splitting headache and a hollowed belly. It was already mid-morning as I was taking in my second cup of coffee on the front porch, when the whirring of a mechanical bird interrupted my recovery.
Shading my eyes from the bright October sun, I looked up to quickly determine that it was not a Flight for Life helicopter. But then, who would be flying into North America’s Highest Airport today?
Ah, yes, I remembered, it was “Justice for Jessie” day. It was the day Hunter S. Thompson came to Leadville.
Like many journalists, Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” had whet my appetite for the crazy, carefree life on the road. Little did I know that I would soon be experiencing my own “Cigars and Margaritas,” but this time in Lead Vegas!
From time to time, Hunter would take up the cause of some under-privileged, under-paid soul who had found herself in trouble with the law. “Justice for Jessie” had become his most recent cause. That day, he was coming to Leadville as a character witness for a Pitkin County resident who got herself into some trouble while passing through Lake County on her way home to Aspen.
It all happened one summer day in 1990 when a hard-working housekeeper named Jesse had hitch-hiked her way home as far as the Kum and Go on Harrison Avenue. However, it wasn’t until her ride was long gone, that the damsel-in-distress realized that she had left her backpack in that car.
Her quick, albeit questionable, thinking prompted a call to the Lake County Sheriff, who was able to locate and stop the car that had just given her a ride, and retrieve Jessie’s backpack. A quick search of the backpack by deputies had revealed the owner’s identity, but also turned up some illegal paraphernalia and a small amount of marijuana.
The boys in blue returned to Kum & Go to reunite the pack with its rightful owner. Jesse cheerfully identified the bag as hers, and was then promptly arrested and charged with possession of an illegal substance.
Now the story probably would have ended there, but this particular woman was already on probation out of Pitkin County. By then, she had also managed to rally the support of famous Aspen resident (although he really lived down valley at Woody Creek) Hunter S. Thompson. This most recent “search and seizure” of a down-on-her-luck Aspen housekeeper only seemed to amplify the Gonzo Journalist’s social justice message. He had become increasingly concerned about a citizen’s rights when it came to law enforcement looking through your stuff without probable cause.
The “Justice for Jessie” case would be heard on Halloween, which only added to the media circus that had started to gather at the Lake County Courthouse on October 31, 1990. All of the gossip rags known for their sensational reporting wanted to hear what Hunter had to say. Now remember, this was 1990, way before smart phones and the onslaught of social media. In fact, in today’s world this may have been a very different story.
Before heading to the courthouse, I stopped in for another cup of coffee at The Golden Rose (now, the Chinese restaurant) to watch the circus unfold across the street, as everyone positioned themselves for a glimpse of the famous character witness.
Just then, a small parade of people whisked past the window I was sitting in front of and entered into the restaurant. It was the Gonzo Journalist himself, along with a small entourage, including an Aspen reporter. He boldly bellied up to the bar and called out, “Margaritas for everyone!” And pointing to me, added “A margarita for her too!” And so it began – “Cigars and Margaritas” in Lead Vegas!
For the next couple of hours, Hunter held his own court in that bar while his minions ran back and forth across to the courthouse, keeping him apprised of the case’s progress, waiting for his turn to take the stand.
Screw the court case, I thought. I’m drinking margaritas with Hunter S. Thompson and it’s not even noon! I smiled as I thought of all my colleagues across the street in a packed courthouse, waiting for some news tidbit, while I sat across the table from the Gonzo Journalist, wearing his hat and swilling Jose Cuervo. I was living the dream!
There are many things that stay with me from that day. First, there was his ability to consume tequila. It was nearly 3 p.m. by the time Hunter took the stand and I was floored at how coherent he seemed after drinking mucho margaritas. It was classic Hunter; he had lived up to that part of the legend. Quite honestly, I don’t know if I would have believed it, unless I saw it for myself.
Which leads me to my second impression, the guy was smart, very smart. To be part of his round-table, as the politics of the day were discussed, dissected and diluted over massive amounts of tequila was something I’ll never forget. And this was not your average corner bar conversation; this was world events and politics with a little Hollywood gossip from Aspen thrown in for good measure.
Eventually, Thompson took the stand as Jesse’s character witness. I followed along to see the legendary event, peaking through the small windows of the courtroom’s back doors. The place was packed with journalists, but I couldn’t hear a thing. I just stared in amazement, watching through those small windows, as he swung that unlit cigar about in the air, making his case.
After his testimony, the media circus moved across the street; word must have got out that Hunter was hanging out at The Golden Rose. The crowd started to grow. I was surprised at the number of locals who turned up, as they were generally unimpressed with the Aspen celebrities who often traveled through town en route to Indy Pass. But this was Hunter S.Thompson.
As the afternoon stretched into Happy Hour, the margaritas continued to flow. But the merriment came to a screeching halt with the arrival of Hunter’s pilot, who announced that if they didn’t leave right-this-minute, they would be spending the night in Leadville. Whoosh! They were gone. The party was over.
As I walked over to the table to fetch my jacket, I spied a notebook out of the corner of my eye. I quickly picked it up, looked around to see if anyone noticed, and slid it under my coat. Jackpot!
I could hardly contain my excitement as I sprinted home. I immediately sat down on my couch and began flipping through the notebook of Hunter S. Thompson! There were half-written essays, scribblings about the “Justice for Jessie” case, and notes regarding an upcoming trip to Hawaii. It was the latter that I found most interesting; the “grocery list” and budget for this vacation was something I had never seen the likes of and to this day, never have again.
My intent focus was interrupted by the whirring of Hunter’s helicopter. I went out to the front porch and watched as they flew over Mount Massive, into a glorious sunset on that last day of October 1990.
What a day, I thought! That Hunter was a pretty cool guy for helping Jesse out – the case was ruled in her favor that day. And I suppose it was that sentiment that prompted my next action. Perhaps, I too should do the right thing.
I put the notebook in a manila envelope, sealed it up tight, and wrote “Property of Hunter S. Thompson” on the outside. Then I put that envelope inside another envelope, and addressed it to the Aspen reporter who had given me her business card. I slapped enough stamps on it to ensure its journey home, and walked down to the post office.
I hesitated for a moment as I stood in the dark before the mailbox. Not only had the tequila buzz and ethical determination to return Hunter’s personal property begun to wear off, but I started to think about all the money I could make by selling it. Rolling Stone Magazine! The National Enquirer! There was some classic Hunter musings on those pages.
But justice prevailed again that day, as the envelope slid from my hands, down into the depths of that big, blue mailbox.
All that next week, Hunter stories reigned supreme, as people shared their moment with the Gonzo Journalist. But as the days passed, I began to wonder if the notebook had found its way to back to its owner. Then I got a call from the reporter at the Aspen paper; she had a message from Hunter.
It seems the Gonzo Journalist was pretty impressed by my gesture to return his private notebook, and had invited me to his New Year’s Eve party at his Woody Creek home. I was thrilled, and a bit scared. Knowing what a day of tequila-drinking in preparation for a court case was like, I could only imagine what a New Year’s Eve might bring.
But I’ll never know, because I never made it. A bad case of the flu left me down-for-the-count that New Year’s Eve. Besides, that’s definitely a story that nobody would have believed from just another journalist living In the ‘Ville!
Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin LLC, a digital media company located in Leadville, which publishes two online news websites: LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org