Hunter S. Thompson's memorial service took place at his fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado, on August 20, just six months after the famed author picked up a gun and took his own life in his kitchen.
Thompson wrote more than 15 books in his lifetime and countless articles for Rolling Stone, ESPN.com, and newspapers across the country, from New York to San Francisco to Puerto Rico. His first published book was Hells Angels, a book that chronicled his time in San Francisco covering the notorious motorcycle gang's Oakland chapter. Thompson then wrote his most (in)famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a drug-addled account of the death of the American dream, is his account of an assignment he undertook to visit Las Vegas.
Thanks to Flying Dog Brewery in Denver for putting up a contest, where one fortunate soul and a guest won a Willy Wonka-style "golden ticket" to attend the funeral, which was closed to the public. From the 1,500 people who purchased a $95 bottle of the brewery's Gonzo Imperial Porter, that ticket found its way to me, inserted in Bottle No. 1,099 of the brew.
As part of the prize, my friend Mike Runsvold and I traveled to the heart of Gonzo territory with all of our expenses paid. Flying Dog treated us like VIPs, just as promised on the golden ticket. As soon as we arrived at the brewery, they fed and beered us up and gave us an excellent tour of the brewery. Then Chris Rippe, our guide for the strange journey, loaded up the Flying Dog Winnebago for the trip to Aspen with two cases of Gonzo Imperial Porter and two cases of assorted Flying Dog beers.
Booming bass drums and smaller drums sounded at a fever pitch as Mike and I arrived at the shooting range above Thompson's Woody Creek home. There was a temporary glass-roofed shelter the size of a barn, with the top of the 153-foot tower covered in red nylon tarps, all framed against red bluffs. We found ourselves in front of a 20-foot staircase painted with vertical stripes of green, white and red and bordered in front with a short gravel walkway with posters of the famous Gonzo fist and dagger logo on the front, backed with press photos from Thompson's paperback books.
As we neared the top of the staircase, a waitress held a tray of mint juleps for arriving guests, reminding me of Thompson's Kentucky Derby story: Thompson teamed up with Ralph Steadman for the article "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" for the failed Scanlan's Monthly (the publication that spawned the new journalism style coined "gonzo").
As we entered the glass building, I was amazed to find all the furnishings and walls draped in black and red velvet sheets and five chandeliers hung around a central circular bar. Mike and I walked toward the cannon, up another gravel walkway, and saw Thompson's convertible, a 1967 Caprice Classic with a 454 V-8 engine parked 50 feet away from the tower. At the base of the cannon, red rocks were stacked 20 feet high around the base. I set my julep on a large boulder near the tower and it almost fell over. I was startled to realize that all the rocks were fake.
The Japanese drum troupe played without interruption for two hours at thunderous volume, while family, friends and neighbors arrived at the memorial service. Among the guests arriving where many recognizable individuals, like Sen. John Kerry, actor Bill Murray and other highly visible folk.
Juan Thompson, Thompson's son, called for the crowd's attention. The drums silenced and he spoke for a short time about his father. He then introduced Anita, Thompson's wife for the past two years. Anita gave a teary reading of Samuel Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," Thompson's favorite poem. Everyone seemed gripped by her words, with the exception of an extremely strange fellow, who in the middle of the poem talked loudly about taking Thompson's convertible, the Red Shark. Nevertheless, Anita finished the poem and received empathetic applause.
Juan then introduced Ralph Steadman, the famed Gonzo artist, and informed him, "Five minutes, Ralph." Steadman then talked for 15 minutes in a thick mumbling British accent, with hilarious comments on adventures with Thompson. Steadman then read some of the correspondence with Hunter, like this letter from Thompson to Steadman:
"Ralph you miserable bastard. I'll never forgive you for those drawings you did of me. FUCK YOU! Yours in Anger, Hunter S. Thompson."
This received a great wave of laughter and applause.
Jonny Depp, who paid the $2.5 million for the extravagant send-off, then spoke briefly:
"Well I don't have much to say ... We're here to honor a great man ... This is for you, Hunter," he said, motioning with a broad sweep of his hand from the crowd to the massive red-cloaked cannon.
Many others spoke kindly of the self-described outlaw journalist, people like Ed Bradley and Jann Wenner, who started Rolling Stone.
George McGovern spoke fondly of Hunter, who followed him on the campaign trail of '72. He laughed at the back cover of Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail of 72, which showed Thompson shaking the hand of McGovern with a caption reading, "Here is George McGovern asking Hunter S. Thompson to accept the vice presidency."
Lyle Lovett played a song as flutes of champagne were distributed to the 300-person crowd. Bob Dylan's "Mister Tambourine Man" came over the speakers as the red nylon tarps were stripped from the cannon in 20 foot sections, revealing a massive chrome cylinder shaped like dagger and topped with a red double-thumbed fist clutching a neon color-changing peyote button. The song ended and a massive explosion of dozens of fireworks containing half of Thompson's ashes exploded in perfect unison to paint the sky with brilliant yellow starbursts. Wild cheers and screaming ensued as the sky darkened and Thompson's ashes settled into the valley that he called home for more than 30 years.