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Cigars, margaritas in Lead-Vegas

Kathy Bedelle

LEADVILLE – It started out as a weird day. It was Halloween 1990 and the series of costume parties from the night before left me with a splitting headache and a hollow belly. I was soaking up the sun on my front porch when the whirring of a mechanical bird interrupted my recovery. Looking up, shading my eyes from October’s bright blue skies, I was relieved it was not a Flight for Life, but also quickly reminded that it was a flight for somebody else’s life. It was Justice for Jesse Day. It was the day Hunter S. Thompson came to the Cloud City.As with many journalists, Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” had whet my appetite and desire to live the crazy, carefree life on the road, writing about my adventures. Little did I know that I would soon be experiencing my own cigars and margaritas in Lead-Vegas!From time to time, Hunter S. Thompson would take up the causes of some underprivileged, underpaid and under-the-thumb-of-justice person. Justice for Jesse had become his most recent cause. Hunter was coming to Leadville to be a character witness for a Pitkin County resident who found herself in trouble in Lake County while passing through on her way home to Aspen.One summer day, Jesse had hitched her way home as far as Leadville’s Kum and Go on Harrison Avenue. It wasn’t until her first ride was long gone toward Copper Mountain when the damsel in distress realized that she had left her backpack in their car. Quick thinking on her part resulted in a call to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, which was able to find and stop the car as it crested Fremont Pass and retrieve the backpack. A search of the backpack revealed the owner’s identity and also turned up illegal paraphernalia and a small amount of marijuana. The boys in blue returned to Kum and Go to reunite the pack with its rightful owner, and then charged her with possession of an illegal substance.Now the story probably would have ended there. But this particular woman was already on probation out of Pitkin County and had rallied the support of Hunter S. Thompson to help fight her battles. This search and seizure only amplified the gonzo journalist’s voice. The case would be heard on Halloween, which only added to the media circus that had started to gather at the Lake County Courthouse. The publications known for their reporting of sensations wanted to hear what Hunter had to say. The docket said the case would start at 1 p.m. Knowing that not much started on time in these parts, I lingered over a second cup of coffee at the Golden Rose (now, the Chinese restaurant) and watched the scurry going on across the street as everyone bevied for position and a glimpse of the famous character witness. I lucked out. Just as I swilled that last of my coffee, a small parade of people whisked past the window and the door swung open. Yes, the door swung open just like in the Wild West movies – and in walked the Gonzo Journalist himself. He bellied up to the bar. He had a small entourage with him and called out, “Margaritas for everyone!” And then he added, pointing to me, “Margaritas for her, too.” And so it began, cigars and margaritas in Lead-Vegas! We spent hours smoking cigars and drinking margaritas. From time to time someone from Hunter’s entourage would run across to the courthouse to see how far along the trial was and when Hunter needed to show up. Ha! I thought, they’re all over there waiting for some tidbit, some sound bite, some smidgen of his time, and I’m sitting here, wearing his hat and swilling Cuervo with the master. I am living every journalist’s dream! There are many things that stay with me from that afternoon – I’ll share a couple. First, I was amazed at his ability to consume tequila. I mean, it wasn’t until about 3:30 p.m. that he actually had to testify, and Hunter seemed pretty together for drinking pitcher after pitcher of margaritas. It seemed classic Hemingway. Which leads me to my second impression, the guy was very smart. I felt like I was a part of some roundtable discussion, as the politics of the day were discussed and dissected and diluted with massive amounts of tequila. Finally, Hunter S. Thompson took the stand in the Lake County Courthouse. I peaked in through the rear door windows. The place was packed, cameras rolling, flashes going off and there he was on the stand – as a character witness! He was very animated, his unlit cigar waving about in his hand, as he made his points about justice and laws regarding search and seizure. I couldn’t clearly make out what he was saying, but it didn’t matter. By then I felt like I had heard it all.After his testimony, the circus moved across the street. Word must have got out that Hunter was hanging out at The Golden Rose and the crowd started to grow. I was surprised at the number of unimpressed-with-celebrities locals who turned up, but this was Hunter S. Thompson. As the day stretched into happy hour, the margaritas continued to flow.The party finally came to a screeching halt with the arrival of Hunter’s pilot and his announcement that if they didn’t leave now (FAA regulates aircraft to be airborne by sunset from small airports), they would be spending the night in Leadville. Whoosh! They were gone. As I returned to get my jacket, I spied a notebook out of the corner of my eye. I quickly picked it up, looked around, and slid it under my jacket. Jackpot!I could hardly walk home fast enough. I sat down on my couch with the notebook and read it cover to cover. There were half-written essays, scribblings about the Justice for Jesse case, and notes of an upcoming trip to Hawaii.I was interrupted by the whirring of Hunter’s helicopter. I knew it was him. After all, Leadville does not have an afternoon flight pattern. As the sun set over the mountains, I watched Hunter’s helicopter head over Mount Massive, back to Aspen, back to Woody Creek. And I suppose it was that feeling (and some lingering Cuervo influence) that prompted my next action. I put the notebook in a manila envelope, sealed it up tight, wrote “Property of Hunter S. Thompson” on the outside, then put it inside another envelope and addressed it to the reporter from Aspen who was part of Hunter’s entourage, slapped enough stamps on it to ensure its journey, and walked it down to the mailbox. Did I hesitate for a moment as I stood in the dark before the post office mailbox? You bet I did! Not only had the tequila and determination to return his personal property begun to wear off, but I started to think about all the money I could make by selling it. I thought about my call to Rolling Stone magazine or the National Enquirer. There was some classic Hunter stuff on these pages. But my own sense of justice and what’s right prevailed, and the envelope slid from my hands down into the depths of the big blue box. That day stayed with me for awhile and the Hunter stories reigned supreme at the local bars until somebody else did something we could talk about. As the weeks passed, it seemed like just another story – a story I’d tell to people who would always ask, “Is that true? Did you really have his notebook? Why didn’t you keep it?” I started to wonder if the notebook found its way back to its owner until I got a call from the reporter at the Aspen newspaper. She had a message from Hunter. It seems the gonzo journalist was pretty impressed by my gesture to return his private notebook and had invited me to his New Year’s party at his Woody Creek home. Believe it or not, I never went. A bad flu left me down for the count that New Year’s. Besides, that’s definitely a story nobody would have believed.Kathy Bedell is a Leadville resident and substitute teacher. Vail, Colorado


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