At dusk Saturday, about 350 friends and relatives of Hunter S. Thompson stood outside and stared into an inky sky, drinking, waiting. In front of them loomed a massive monument in the shape of the late writer’s icon -- a dagger topped by a “gonzo” fist -- roughly 2 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.
Thompson loved explosions. He adored guns, the boom, kickback, the smell of powder and metal; and also the kind of explosions that arose from his typewriter, such as his classic book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which sent shockwaves through the written world and helped drive a revolutionary brand of participatory journalism.
So it seemed fitting that a monument to Thompson should double as a cannon, spewing forth fireworks and a series of 34 exploding shells containing his ashes, and that the ashes should drift and settle across Owl Farm, Thomson’s beloved ranch in Woody Creek. They did, at 8:45 p.m.
The revelry was at Thomson’s behest, said Anita Thompson, his widow.
“He said many times he wanted to be shot out of a cannon,” she said. “The most important thing to Hunter was that we celebrate his life, get together in a beautiful gathering.”
The ceremony came six months to the day after the ailing 67-year-old Thompson shot himself in his kitchen at Owl Farm.
Actor Johnny Depp, who befriended Thompson when he portrayed the writer in the 1998 film based on “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” picked up most of the tab for the party. Other actors and Thompson pals attending the send-off included Bill Murray and Sean Penn.
The night kicked off at 6 p.m. with guests being shuttled up the mountain and run through a dense security checkpoint aimed at keeping out looky-loos and the media, which were distinctly not invited.
“There are a lot of people trying to get in,” said chief of security David Meeker from Specialized Protective Services in Aspen. Fifty to 100 guards patrolled the perimeter of Owl Farm, Meeker said. “For this size of event, this is by far the most manpower I’ve ever used.”
At the nearby Woody Creek Tavern, a favorite haunt of Thompson’s, many of the uninvited but interested gathered to witness in some way the explosion that would disperse Thompson into the nighttime. As the bursts of red, white and blue sparkles spread upward in the distance, many broke into cheers.
It lasted for about a minute, which disappointed some.
“It’s not as impressive as it was built up to be,” said Gabe Johnson, 35, a marketer for a technology firm who made the trek from Seattle. “But the trip was still worthwhile. Hunter stood for a lifestyle that’s disappearing now because people take themselves too seriously. That’s why I came.”
Before the fireworks, the guests at Owl Farm were served food and drink in a tented bar area on a platform decked out with the kind of furniture and memorabilia that Thompson preferred.
There were stuffed peacocks, a platinum blond wig hanging from a metal gong, a picnic table, blowup dolls -- “In case anyone feels lonely,” said Matt Mosely, spokesman for the Thompson family -- a black refrigerator and plenty of mostly brown-colored, well-broken-in furniture.
“I call it late lounge era,” Mosely said. “Comfortable, cozy, nice but not elegant.”
Anita Thompson said she included “portraits of Hunter with all his favorite writers, like Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Steinbeck.”
Later, those in attendance said eulogies were offered by Anita Thompson, Depp and others including journalist Ed Bradley and Thompson’s son, Juan Thompson.
And then, leading the way to the final blastoff, the guests heard music on an outdoor stage by Lyle Lovett and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with renditions of the Thompson favorites, “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”
It was ironic that journalists were barred from attending, noted George Tobia, Thompson’s lawyer and friend. The writer spent his career leapfrogging over barricades and barriers. “If something were to keep Hunter out, he’d come swooping in over the mountains,” Tobia said.
Driven by sympathy for the ticketless, Anita Thompson announced early in the day that she would personally deliver a videotape of the launch to a local tavern later that night. “I feel terrible that we couldn’t allow everyone in here,” she said.
Mike Runsvold and Brian Harvey of Boise, Idaho, were perhaps the only invitees who had never met Thompson. They found a “golden ticket” -- think “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” -- hidden inside a boxed bottle of Gonzo Imperial Porter. Flying Dog Brewery of Denver produced the beer as a tribute to Thompson, and the ticket allowed entry for two.
“I had been planning on riding my motorcycle over here this summer and meeting Hunter,” Harvey said Saturday afternoon, grinning over beers at the Hotel Jerome bar in Aspen. Nearby, longtime Thompson illustrator and gonzo compatriot Ralph Steadman sat drinking and chatting with Murray.
In the days and hours leading up to the service, the Hotel Jerome served as the Aspen hangout for journalists and Thompson pals -- often the same people. Writing about Thompson in his absence called for a certain backward restraint, some journalists noted.
Getting drunk was accepted behavior; acting like an uptight strait-laced journalist was not. As a Thompson friend informed a young reporter who walked into the hotel bar with notepad in hand: “Put the pad away; don’t approach people like that. Now’s the time to have a drink and hang out.”
Depp and Anita Thompson and others began planning the event soon after Thompson’s death. The monument was built in a Los Angeles shop and trucked to Woody Creek in pieces, Mosely said. Thompson’s ashes were inserted into explosive shells by the Zambelli Fireworks company in New Castle, Pa., and the shells were returned via armored truck.
But Saturday night’s celebration was about more than Thompson’s legendary excesses, said his son Juan Thompson, who was standing outside the Jerome hours before the memorial.
“Most people know Hunter as a drug fiend and a wild man,” he said. “That image obscured things that were more important about him. He’s really an idealist. He had faith that things could be changed for the better.”