I only met Hunter S. Thompson once when either of us was sober. I was waiting to stand trial for crimes against the State of Colorado, County of Pitkin and City of Aspen. Don’t worry though (not that you are worrying) — the crimes were not actually mine. They were those of my compadre-de-los-moñtanas, a friend we’ll just call “Bob.”
I had memorized his identity details, and tried to look three inches taller in order to attend a court date on his behalf. He had used all of his allowable absences from the Colorado Rocky Mountain School for skiing, a few fall climbing road trips and the obligatory late returns from all-night parties at Penny Hot Springs. I was an underage dishwasher at the Merry Go Round restaurant at Aspen Highlands, less than a year out of high school. George only let me work part time — so the only real question (and it was serious) was if I would miss out on some ski days while serving another man’s time in the Pitkin County Jail. (The charges seemed to carry a possibility of three days in the can.)
We did not feel that the situation merited the involvement of any faculty, staff or other authorities. Why trouble them with the inconvenience and paperwork of kicking Bob out of school? And if they did boot him, then what? He would have to move in to our unfurnished, dirt-carpeted, basement potato-bin-slash-apartment in Carbondale. We already shared every inch of the floor with the sleeping bags of everyone who shared our mountain-loving lifestyle and a lot of skis.
So, I cleaned up as best I could and drove the treacherous old road to Aspen to stand in for Bob’s trial and sentencing. I guess such things can seem complicated from the outside. Down inside that great machinery of youth, however, morality is just that. This was a simple choice because it was a moral one. We were too young to cloud those waters with questions of personal convenience and comfort.
We had been climbing, skiing and working ranches together for a few years already. Bob had saved my ass from the very real perils of the old-school sharp end any number of times. I could face a bit of jail time in his name so he didn’t get kicked out of high school. It was not nearly as dangerous as so many of the worst troubles we had been in together. It certainly did not seem like the big deal my (attorney) wife made it out to be 25 years later when I accidentally mentioned this incident in passing.
This was Aspen, after all. The food and bedding in the Pitkin County Jail was legendary. It was sure to be an improvement from the aforementioned grungy Carbondale apartment. We even already shared home with a brain-twisted homosexual drifter, artist and obvious future serial killer (whom we recruited to pay a majority of the rent). Could a jail in downtown Aspen be worse?
I was to stand Bob’s trial and sentencing date for a clearly unfounded traffic accident rap. It would have been nothing, another slip-and-slide smash-up on a patch of black ice in the high mountains, but the incident had involved the daughter and the wife of the Snowmass police chief, and Bob already had a few prior point subtractions. I fully expected to serve three days in the basement jail in Aspen while pretending to be my almost-entirely-innocent friend. It was a tense hearing for me, but, after some lecturing, the judge let both Bob and I go free with fines and warnings.
There was one other outsider in the courtroom. A guy hunched up in the corner behind me as I waited my turn to face the bar. I was too nervous to look back much, but clearly this was also a person experienced in the lost art of projecting invisibility from the back of the class. When I was released, I turned to leave the Pitkin County Court, wanting to explode with nervous delinquent larceny. I saw that the guy in the corner was none other than Hunter S. Thompson. He seemed to be observing court — as a reporter or writer might — just hanging around waiting for a good story. He stared shamelessly and then from his troll-like bundling, a writing implement stabbed up and kind of saluted me.
I would have killed for the chance to talk to the skulking bald giant and share my story. By that time in my life, I had moved past Faulkner and Hemingway and Steinbeck and Camus and plowed through Thompson’s renegade words like a herd of buffalo through a snow bank. I revered his writing style, and I had some serious questions for him (of a literary nature, of course).
Here was the Master, the one person who would understand and possibly respect my story, if told properly. Yet, the circumstance required me to walk past, silently. Of all people, on all days, of all stories, I could not share this one with Hunter S. Thompson! I savored the irony while I carefully stepped out into the heart-warming embrace of the biggest whiteout snowstorm of that historical powder season. I had not before then, and have not since, felt as perfectly free as I did when I disappeared into the storm from the view of the Pitkin County Courthouse behind me.
Now look, I hate to be one of those annoying guys who writes all about “Me” and my special connection to the mountains. These things always get old very early in the paragraphs. Ninety-percent of these stories end up in the compost pile of mountain writers who only want to broadcast their “localism” to the world, without a hint of unique voice. So I apologize for taking your time.
Let’s just leave it at this: When I was 17 or 18 years old, in 1984, I made turns at Aspen Highlands every day the lifts ran. I almost missed a few days, due to the wild and dangerous roads, a spot of illness, one or two bad parties and, in one case, I almost missed a ski day because I was tempted to wait for a chance to talk with Hunter S. Thompson outside the Pitkin County Jail, which I had just escaped from while pretending to be someone else.
The thing is, the guy didn’t look like he skied much, and the sky was dropping clean white powder by the truckload at noon. I stood grinning madly, right in the middle of the main street through Aspen, for a several long beautiful minutes. I could feel Bob’s court order and suspended jail sentence icing up in one pocket and my Highlands ski pass burning a hole the other. All I could do was laugh openly at myself and speak the mountain lover’s mantra into the teeth of the storm: “’Cause if you’re gonna go … ”
Andy Dannerbeck is a 45-year-old ex-cowboy, ex-Republican, ex-Democrat, ex-boatman, ex-climber, ex-business owner, ex-husband, ex-student, ex-rigger, ex-poet, ex-guide and exile in general. A husband, a father and a child of the mountains, who is most recently found scribbling gibberish such as this in the whiskey-soaked shadows of the No Name Saloon, Park City, Utah.