By Craig Davis, CraigslegzTravels.com
ASPEN, COLO. — It wasn’t the desired outcome, though it can be viewed as the natural confluence of mountain karma that Doctor Gonzo ended up with the last laugh in the ill-fated reprise of the search for the secret shrine to Hunter S. Thompson.
The funny part is it didn’t occur to us until after we’d emerged from an hour-long ordeal in the deep woods at Aspen Colorado’s Snowmass ski resort, tongues virtually dragging in the snow, that we had in fact found it.
Not the one we were seeking — the official, unofficial collection of artifacts affixed to a tree and maintained over the past nine years by a group of his admirers. Rather, an accidental discovery perhaps more symbolic for the father of gonzo journalism.
The second failure in that quest was already assured, and our wayward trio was simply seeking an exit from the dense woods when we stumbled upon a sign nailed to a tree that only added to our discomfort: “Blasting area, keep out.”
Could there be clearer evidence of the spirit of a man whose love of gun play and explosives was legendary and whose parting shot was having his ashes blasted out of a canon?
At that moment all I felt was fear and loathing that I’d led us even farther astray in those woods than nine years before.
HST was a unique and fascinating character, and I became semi-obsessed with finding the tree shrine because cohort Wally Rutherford and I happened to be skiing at Snowmass the day it was established on Feb. 20, 2006, the first anniversary of the writer’s suicide.
The following day there was a newspaper account that a small gang of Thompson’s fans had gone into the woods near a popular run at Snowmass ski area and nailed laminated photos, news stories and other items pertinent to their idol to a tree.
Wally and I tried unsuccessfully to find the shrine later that week. That misadventure is recounted here.
Covert tributes to assorted famous personalities and entities are a tradition at the four ski areas surrounding Aspen. A local writer, David Wood, has documented about 75 of them in a book, “Sanctuaries in the Snow — The Shrines and Memorials of Aspen/Snowmass,” and on a website Aspensnowmassshrines.com.
Many are memorials to famous figures such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Dale Earnhardt Sr., John Denver, Jimi Hendrix and Liberace, as well as to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Jerry Garcia, the late Grateful Dead leader, is memorialized by a guitar bearing the lyrics to “Sugar Magnolia” fastened to a tree on Aspen Mountain.
But there are tributes to those still alive, such as Jimmy Buffett, as well as fan shrines to the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, bowling and golf.
Hidden gems in the woods
Many who ski the Aspen resorts are unaware of the shrines or never see them. They are hidden off of the main trails and require local knowledge to find. Even Wood gives only vague information about their locations.
The majority of these tributes are on Aspen Mountain. The Hunter S. Thompson shrine was placed at Snowmass off a ski run called Gunner’s View, for obvious reasons.
There is a video on YouTube that shows a group of snowboarders making their way through the trees to the shrine. Turns out we must have been close to it on our 2006 venture. We had entered the woods at the same landmark as the snowboarders, the remains of a log structure on a ridge to the left of the groomed corridor of the run.
That gave me confidence we’d find it this time. Along with Wally and my son Glenn, we chose an entry point slightly downhill from there at a well-worn opening in the trees and began following a path that others had taken, which looked promising.
Soon I’d wonder about who forged that trail and where they intended to go, and recall the famous HST declaration, “It never got weird enough for me.”
It got plenty weird enough for us when the trail narrowed to a single set of tracks through increasingly unpassable forest. The trees were closing in, and we were forced to removed our skis and slog through lightly packed snow varying from knee to hip deep as we sought a way out.
From that point on there were more tracks from animals than humans.
Stumbling across the warning about the blasting zone only confirmed how far astray we’d gone and heightened our anxiety to the degree that it didn’t occur to us to take a photo of the sign.
The alternative to the danger zone involved literally crawling up a steep slope, dragging our skis and poles. Ultimately it led us back to Gunner’s View ski run.
I’ve seen photos of the HST shrine showing some of the objects placed there with relevance to the author, including a golf shoe, a jeweled lizard and a bottle of Chivas Regal.
But what captures the essence of Hunter S. Thompson better than a blasting zone?
The smack-the-forehead moment came as our flustered troop dried out over lunch when it occurred to us, we should have snapped the picture of the sign.
But the greater regret was about losing an hour of skiing on my favorite ski resort out of more than 30 that we’ve visited in the western United States and Canada.
Can’t get enough Snowmass
Snowmass is massive and can keep you busy for days without seeming repetitious. Many of the runs are distinguished by rolling terrain and well-scattered pines. You can traverse the same run repeatedly and pick a different route through the trees and over the mini hills each time.
Gunner’s View happens to be one of the most pleasing and picturesque runs on a very scenic mountain. We made one more run down it that afternoon, and no, I wasn’t tempted to make another foray into the woods. I’ll leave the shrines to the locals on future visits to Aspen.
I did stop on the lower portion of the run to take a final look up and down the mountain before proceeding to the lift. As I stood there, two skiers popped out of the woods not far from where we had emerged earlier in the day.
I resisted the temptation to call out to them and say, “Hey, did you see the shrine?”
I’ve seen images of it. I’m over it. I’m not going back into those woods.
But as I watched them make their way down Gunner’s View, I wondered if that might be the chortle of a snow leopard I was hearing or merely the wind rustling through the pines.
More ski sojourns
Aspen is a bit out of the way, but the drive is scenic from Eagle, Colo. Visit the Road to Aspen photo gallery.