[For those of you new to Slice, let me introduce E-Rock. E-Rock is our roving reporter. While the rest of the Slice staff remains safe and warm in New York City, with easy access to some of the world's best pizza, we send E-Rock out to do our dirty deeds: eating at and reporting on pizzerias in other parts of the country—and the world—that might not have the greatest pies. Most of his missions end in disappointment, but he seems to cope by viewing these crazy assignments as being more about the journey than the destination. Hunter S. Thompson has long been E-Rock's idol and, it's fair to say, has had great influence on E-Rock's writing. At Slice HQ, we've often called E-Rock "the Hunter S. Thompson of pizza writing." So it was with great sadness that we heard the news of Hunter's suicide almost two weeks ago. I asked E-Rock if he might like to write a fitting tribute for these pages. After some thought, a little recollection, and a lot of Wild Turkey, here it is. Adam K., editor in chief]
A Rocky Mountain Downer Like No Other
"The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad."
Dennis Hopper, in Apocalypse Now
Hunter S. Thompson, 19372005; photograph from HST archives
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY E-ROCK .::. Last month I was in the home state of my recently deceased idol, Hunter S. Thompson. E-Rock wasn’'t there to see the Good DoctorI never had the pleasure of knowing him. I was in the mountains on other business. However, I wish I had made the journey to the Woody Creek Tavern, his favorite haunt, to possibly get one last drink in his presence.
E-Rock was lucky enough, however, to have had two encounters in the past with Mr. Thompson, once in Woody Creek, Colorado, the other in Lawrence, Kansas.
The first time I ran into Thompson was while driving across country from Las Vegas, fittingly enough, about 10 years ago. Some friends and I decided to take a detour to Woody Creek. We drove around the town, and finally found the Doctor's “fortified compound,” where we left a Smith & Wesson baseball cap and a bottle of whiskey near his front gate. I was too terrified to approach his home, known as the Owl Farm, the grounds of which were famous as home to roving packs of peacocks, Dobermans, random explosions, and heavy substance abuse.
Not quite satisfied with our visit, we headed to the Woody Creek Tavern (right), a small, shacklike bar. We pulled into the parking lot and knew right away that we were going to have a fucked-up experience: Parked out front was a red Chevy convertible, an early '70s model. It was a replica of the Red Shark, one of the vehicles Thompson rented and trashed during his masterpiece saga, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
I can'’t remember the exact circumstances anymore. For some reason, my buddy "Jackknife" went into the bar a full five minutes before E-Rock did. Maybe I was rearranging the luggage in the trunk. Who knows. Jackknife walked back out into the parking lot, stark white with a terrified look in his eye, like he had just watched one of his pet cats get raped and impaled in front of him.
“He'’s here,” Jackknife wheezed. “It'’s him.”
He was sitting at a corner table when we walked in with some guys who looked like Hell’s Angeltype bikers. E-Rock was petrified. We sat down at a table in the middle of the room, and I tried to eavesdrop on what Thompson was saying. Anyone who has heard him speak knows that he was terribly hard to understand. I think I comprehended the words “Las Vegas” at some point, but my memory could be deceiving me.
Then this guy, who was obviously drunk, walked up to Thompson's table and said, “Hey, Hunter. I was you for Halloween.”
The poor guy asked for his autograph, and one of the biker guys said, with a menacing tone, “Stay away. He doesn’t want to be bothered.”
The man eventually left, and later, so did Hunter and his posse. Eventually, we got ready to leave. Other people were settling up and going to the bathroom and what not, so E-Rock headed for the door. When I opened it, I was greeted by someone’s chest. E-Rock is about six feet tall, so this was surprising. I looked up, and it was him. Hunter looked down at me and muttered under his breath, “There’s goddamn Nazis crawling all over the place,” and walked back into the bar.
After we left, I think I had a panic attack for next 100 miles.
It was about two years later when I next met Hunter. One night in Lawrence, where I attended college, I got a call on a Sunday night, while my pal Reggie and I were discussing the finer points of religious tolerance.
“I’m at the Bottleneck,” said a friend on the horn, referring to a rock venue and bar downtown. “You’ve got to come down here.”
“I’m not going to the fucking Bottleneck,” I said, irritated about getting a call on a Sunday. “What is this all about?”
“Hunter Thompson is here.”
I told one of my roommates, who was involved in, shall we say, some illicit business enterprises. The roommate took a vial of liquid out of the freezer and some sugar cubes from one of our kitchen drawers. After dropping the liquid on the sugar, he said, “Give these to him. It’ll be a real ice breaker.”
I went to the Bottleneck with Reggie, and there was Hunter. Even though the legendary art-punk band Pere Ubu was playing that night, there was a crowd around Hunter. He was a magnetic force, and the band might as well not have been playing. Hunter was signing flyers, ticket stubs, and napkins while pounding on the bar and screaming.
I finally got the guts to approach him after downing three strong drinks that normally would have floored me. It was after the buffet line around Hunter had ended dispersed. I sat by him and ordered the man a shot of Wild Turkey, his favorite drink for years, as documented in his 1970s articles. To my surprise, he downed it and said: “What the hell is that?”
E-Rock doesn’t remember many things about our conversation. We talked about why he was in town, and he said he was there to visit William S. Burroughs who, in the later years of his life, lived in Lawrence. I remember Rush Limbaugh on the muted TV behind the bar (“Oh, God,” Hunter said, shaking his head.) E-Rock asked him what Skinner, one of his most famous characters in his articles, was up to these days.
“Skinner!? Why, he’s staying at the Virginia Inn,” he said, referring to a nearby hotel.
Suddenly, Reggie staggered up to the bar (I had given him the sugarcubes before we left) and said, “Hello, Hunter. A gift from us.”
He put the wrapped-up candy in his jacket pocket and gave us a nice smile.
The rest is hazy. Was he screaming about lost LSD when he was dragged out of the bar? Did I talk to one of his handlers about how he needed coffee to “get it straight” or is that just part of my fragmented imagination? Was I even there?
E-Rock doesn’t mean for this to be a eulogy of any sort. These were just the experiences that I had in a man’s presence who’s no longer with us. I wish I could put it all in a nice package, like a lot of media people have, whether they loved or hated him, and say what the whole fucking thing “means." He was either “ a pioneer of New Journalism” or “not Hemingway.” Millions of people are experiencing the same loss, and none of that changes the way things are.
But I feel like things aren’t right anymore, not that they ever really were. For some reason, though, Hunter made me feel safe. Maybe it was the comfort of knowing that no matter how strange I could get, there would always be someone who was 20 times stranger and somehow still wildly successful. Or it could have been the remote possibility that there was this person who had broken some kind of genetic code, and no matter what happened, he would never be destroyed.
Either way, I don’t feel balanced. When I first heard the news, strolling around the East Village after watching the NBA All-Star game, Jackknife and I immediately went into a random bar and chugged some Wild Turkey. We got some slices at some place I can’t remember, and Jackknife kicked over a stool in rage.
“It’s alright,” I told the counterman. “He just found out, at the age of 32, that he was adopted.”
After leaving, I kicked a metal city trash can as hard as I could. I limp around now, even though my foot isn’t broken, like Snake Pliskind in Escape From New York, and, as I’m write this, Apocalypse Now blares from the television in the next room. It seems like an appropriate film, and its noise stops me from thinking about Thompson's suicide.
Oh, shit. The whole point of Slice is pizza. “Stay on message, dumbass,” I can hear my editor saying. “This isn’t a forum to talk about Hunter or any other crazy shit you want to go on about. Our readers expect pizza."
I was staying in Edwards, Colorado, at my mother’s, and she informed me that the best pizza in the Vail Valley is a place called Marko’s. We decided to order in because "Mom-Rock" was tired that evening. (The night before, we were drinking cognac and Maker's Mark and nearly burned down the kitchen down while searing tuna.)
My mom's partner and I drove down the mountain to a small strip mall where Marko’s is located. The pizzeria had a large, New York-ish, neon sign proclaiming its name. The place was crowdedit probably wouldn’t have been the friendliest place for Mom-Rock’s hangover.
The kids working behind the counter had the hippie thing going on, as you’ll find in most retail businesses in Colorado mountain towns. These are the people who happily live dirt poor in terribly overpriced resort towns just so they can scrape up enough money to get the ultimate snowboarding high and buy enough pot to rock steady. The guy at the register was likely on the run from the law; when I whipped out the Nikon to get a kitchen shot, he ducked under the register with a move straight out of You Got Served.
When we opened the pizza box back at the house, I was encouraged. We ordered a large basil-garlic pie, and the crust was very thin, New Yorkstyle. The stuff actually looked pretty good, compared to a lot of the stuff I'd had while on out-of-town Slice assignments.
With the first bite, however, the taste justified my low expectations. The cheese, sauce, and toppings weren’t bad, but it was all overshadowed by the crust that E-Rock had put his faith in. At first sight, it looked tasty, but the middle was like raw dough. They had obviously undercooked it. Could it be the altitude? Or was it just a bad night? The place seems to have potential, so I’m thinking it was the latter. But hell, maybe it’s hard to get an oven to fire at full throttle at 8,000 feet above sea level. Maybe it was the Rocky Mountain water. Of course, most people in those parts are probably happy that there’s a place that’s not Domino’s, or that it's not the joint called Kind Basil, where your choices have names like The Veg Out.
Besides the experience at Marko’s, E-Rock saw all sorts of weird shit on that trip: a deer getting clipped by a fast-moving car, a man who was likely dead, slumped over face-forward on an ATV, and slabs of marble that were more than 10,000 pounds each in a mining town named, not surprisingly, Marble. But if I had known that there was such little time left, E-Rock would have gone to the Woody Creek Tavern and said good-bye to Hunter, pizza be damned.