Burial in the Sky

Illustration by Ralph Steadman
The doormat at the entrance to Owl Farm,

Hunter S. Thompson’s redoubt in Woody Creek, Colorado, reads “Come back with a warrant.” On August 20, six months to the day after Thompson killed himself with a .45-caliber pistol, friends and family came back to a field behind the modest ranch house he shared with his young second wife, Anita, a few miles down-valley from Aspen. They came to fulfill their old friend’s wish to have his ashes blasted from a cannon to settle across the streams and mountains he loved.

From the time the 300 or so guests assembled at Aspen’s Hotel Jerome, where many had been drinking for most of the afternoon, to be shuttled out to Owl Farm, security was extremely thorough. Cameras, cell phones and recording devices were banned. The narrow country roads that thread the canyon where Thompson lived were lined by county sheriffs and black-shirted private security. The Woody Creek Tavern, where he so often held court beneath the shaggy head of a stuffed buffalo, was jammed for the occasion with an assemblage of Thompson fans from around the country who’d flown, driven and hitchhiked to Woody Creek to share their loss.

One young bravo had a beautiful handmade guitar he wanted to present to Thompson’s longtime sidekick Johnny Depp (who underwrote the $2.5 million celebration) to thank him for inspiring him to break his drug addiction. Another, a 38-year-old Californian who’d just trekked over the Continental Divide, said he hoped to raise awareness of clinical depression and suicide. Two 26-year-olds had flown in from Wisconsin, and they’d been sleeping in their tuxedos for three days. A pretty young blond had Thompson’s symbol, a six-fingered fist holding a peyote button mounted on a dagger’s head emerging from the word gonzo, tattooed down the back of her neck — and it was stenciled on the hoods of trucks parked across the road from the bar.

Next door, the Woody Creek Store offered copies of his books alongside T-shirts, baseball caps, boxer shorts and thongs emblazoned with the symbol, which over the writer’s lifetime had come to represent a fun-loving macho brand of self-testing, an inflamed sense of outrage, a balls-to-the-wall commitment to expose the savage heart of the American nightmare, and a willingness to drop the pretense of anonymity and balance, the so-called “fourth wall,” to get at the truth. Ultimately, Thompson became his own best story.

At Thompson’s gate, dozens of fans waved homemade “Gonzo, R.I.P.” signs, hoping for a chance to get inside. The column of minivans with tinted windows navigated a fresh gravel road cut through a pasture, and deposited the guests at the foot of a set of stairs, leading up to a pavilion especially constructed for the occasion. Every piece of exposed plumbing on the 40 acres of land Thompson had paid $50,000 for in 1968 was riddled with dozens of rusting bullet holes.

Walking between banners with the gonzo emblem on one side and images from Thompson’s life — bare-chested and lean, tossing a football; pursing his lips, dressed in women’s clothes — the guests climbed a steep set of wooden stairs. Most were friends from around Aspen, interspersed with the famous: Bill Murray, Rob Reiner, Harry Dean Stanton, director Bob Rafelson, John Kerry, 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley, Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett and Thompson’s brilliant English artist-collaborator, Ralph Steadman.

At the top of the stairs, a color photo of Thompson was flanked by images of some of his favorite writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Coleridge, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway; and formally clad waiters held trays of mint juleps, the favorite drink in Thompson’s hometown of Louisville, whose customs he’d savaged in his first collaboration with Steadman, a revenge portrait of Louisville on Kentucky Derby day.

Inside, black velvet–draped furniture and chandeliers swathed in red velvet simultaneously evoked a frontier whorehouse and a funeral parlor. Images of Thompson, like Annie Leibovitz’s beautiful photograph of him knee-deep in snow, firing a bullet into his electric typewriter, lined three walls. The fourth side of the pavilion and its glass ceiling looked out on the gonzo monument, set against the red-rock canyon walls.

At 153 feet, the monument was taller than the Statue of Liberty (sans the base). Its stainless steel shaft, some 10 feet in diameter, was shrouded by a red tarpaulin that made it look like the world’s largest penis. The previous afternoon, workers in the basket of a huge crane attending to the penis’ head were almost sucked up in the wake of a paparazzi helicopter, prompting the FAA to issue a warning against unauthorized flying objects. At the base of the tower, beside a mountain of boulders 20 feet high that turned out, on closer inspection, to be painted Styrofoam, was parked Thompson’s famed Chevrolet Caprice, the Red Shark. Across the front seat were sprawled a pair of inflated sex dolls.

As the Gonzo Monument Team put the finishing touches on what was described as the tallest man-made structure between Denver and Salt Lake City, copious amounts of champagne circulated. The afternoon turned dark, and spotlights illuminated the monument, which grew ever more prominent.

Her voice cracking, Anita Thompson welcomed guests and read Thompson’s favorite poem, Coleridge’s opium-drenched, interrupted vision, “Kubla Khan.” Jann Wenner called the man he’d often referred to as his comrade in arms, “Rolling Stone’s DNA.

Douglas Brinkley, the prolific historian and the executor of Thompson’s estate, explored the meaning of the send-off itself, suggesting that the evening’s guests had now themselves become part of the Thompson legend. Ralph Steadman, resplendent in an embroidered silk vest with a small stuffed peacock clipped to his lapel, read a letter from Thompson, who was attempting to borrow $50,000, which he guaranteed would be repaid within six months’ time.

Wherever he goes to speak, George McGovern told the crowd, people come up with copies of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 for him to autograph, and the old warrior, now 83, invariably signs his name on the title page right below Hunter Thompson’s. He too has become best known as a character in Thompson’s book. Noting the existence of a photograph of him and Thompson together that Thompson had captioned, “Presidential candidate George McGovern trying to convince Hunter Thompson to accept the Vice Presidential nomination,” McGovern admitted that Thompson might have been a better candidate than the tortured Missouri senator Tom Eagleton, whose refusal to inform McGovern of his history of nervous breakdowns doomed the campaign before it was three days old. One couldn’t help but ponder Thompson’s near-victory in his 1970 campaign for Pitkin County Sheriff on a platform of renaming Aspen “Fat City,” putting dishonest drug dealers in the stocks, replacing all the streets with grass and running all the developers out of town with a shotgun, and what it would have meant to the now phenomenally wealthy former mining town and to American letters if he’d actually won.

Laila Nabulsi, who produced Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,the movie in which Depp starred as Thompson, read another poem, Stephen Spender’s “I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great” — and then made way for Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis. A grizzly-bear-sized man — probably 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds — Braudis often had to protect Thompson from the laws the sheriff was sworn to enforce. Clearly, it was with a mixture of deep love and great relief that Braudis swore to keep Thompson’s secrets forever and said farewell: “Goodbye, motherfucker.”

It was left to Thompson’s son, Juan, to sum it up. What difference would all the fame and glory Hunter Thompson accrued as a writer make if his own son had not spoken well of him? Juan Thompson did his old man proud. He had no interest, he told the crowd, in “closure,” dismissing it as a “Dr. Phil word.” “I want to remember him. Missing him is a way of loving him. The King is dead. Long live the King.”

The sky had grown dark

and the clouds, threatening for hours, began to spit rain. A brief clip from a 1978 BBC documentary showed Thompson standing at almost the exact spot where his friends now stood fighting back tears, describing in precise detail the funeral he would have 27 years later. Three rows of taiko drummers thundered as the wrapping of the monument fell away, revealing a two-and-a-half-ton gonzo fist at the peak of the monument, and it began to glow and pulse in every color of the rainbow, visible for miles as Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 hit “Spirit in the Sky” (“When I lay me down to die, going up to that spirit in the sky”) spilled out of the sound system.

With a boom that could have shattered the eardrums of elk on the far side of the valley, 34 lines of fireworks screamed skyward, Thompson’s ashes boiled out of their container as milky smoke, Bob Dylan’s “Mister Tambourine Man” played and tears now freely mixed with the mist. At once thrilling and heartbreaking, there could not have been a more powerful evocation of the Buddhist idea of “one taste” — that joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness are all “one taste.”

But Thompson’s frenetic life left little time for sorrowful reflection. Inside the tent, the velvet had been pulled away, revealing the furniture from Thompson’s house set up like a half-dozen comfortable living rooms, coffee tables piled high with hundreds of copies of Thompson’s books, and boxes of Thompson’s favorite Dunhill cigarettes. The barkeepers began pouring endless rounds of nothing but Thompson’s high-end favorites, Wild Turkey, Chivas Regal and the like, wrapped in cocktail napkins emblazoned with the gonzo symbol or the reproductions of a warning note long affixed to Thompson’s leather-covered refrigerator door — “Never call 911. Never. This means you.” — as an army of waiters circulated an inexhaustible variety of shrimp cocktails and lamb chops. There is an old joke: “This is how God would have lived if he were rich.” As Jann Wenner pointed out, this was how Hunter Thompson would have lived if he were rich — which, on this night, he was.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >