Hunter S. Thompson, the journalist who became poet laureate of a drug-fueled American counterculture, bid a noisy farewell to his friends and his farm Saturday night as his cremated ashes were blasted into a cloudy Colorado sky amid a massive fireworks display.
Six months to the day after the ailing and depressed author shot himself to death at the age of 67, about 350 friends -- from New York, from Hollywood and from working ranches down the road -- raised their drinks toward the modernistic tower that served as a cannon firing his last remains several hundred feet high.
The first red and blue fireworks fanned into the air just after sunset with an imposing boom that thundered down the valley of the Roaring Fork River.
The "blast rites," in a muddy field behind Thompson's cluttered farmhouse a dozen miles north of Aspen, followed a plan the writer had set forth years before his death. Actor Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in the 1998 film "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," organized the event and paid the bills -- something in excess of $2 million, according to Thompson's family.
"Hunter told us over and over that he was serious about firing his ashes into the sky," the author's son, Juan Thompson, said Saturday. "He kept saying this is not just one of his deranged ideas. He was serious on this one.
"He said we should hear his friends talking, hear ice clinking in whiskey glasses, and then this cannon blasts off. And that's the end of Hunter."
The end of Hunter S. Thompson turned into the biggest social event in years for Woody Creek, a rural community on the Roaring Fork River that was clearly the down-market end of greater Aspen when Thompson bought the 40-acre spread he called Owl Farm in 1968.
Thompson's old house, where he wrote and held forth for the neighbors in the kitchen, has changed little in the intervening decades, friends said. But rustic Woody Creek has been gentrified, a fact that angered the author. "Frankly, he was disgusted by all the trophy homes where there used to be forest," said Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis.
Accordingly, the "trophy home" owners were not invited to the wake Saturday night.
"Look, everybody wants to get into this party," said friend and neighbor Mike Cleverly, who did get in. "But the invitation list is tight. You'd have a better chance getting in to see George W. to complain about the war."
Among those present, family members said, were actors Sean Penn and Bill Murray, along with Depp and Ralph Steadman, the artist whose psychedelic sketches illustrated several of Thompson's books. Lyle Lovett and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were to perform.
Despite his self-spun image as a gun-toting, hard-drinking, drug-abusing anti-authoritarian, Thompson had ingratiated himself with the political and law-enforcement establishment here in mountainous Pitkin County.
That official support was evident in the complex arrangements surrounding the so-called "cannonization" in the back meadow of Owl Farm.
Braudis, the sheriff, said he had dispatched "a hell of a lot of deputies" to guard the grounds and "make sure that our private party stays private." Local fire officials approved the private fireworks show but dispatched a fire truck just in case. Federal Aviation Administration officials at Aspen Airport, three miles from the party, issued a warning that journalists would not be permitted to fly helicopters over the event, the Aspen Times reported.
County officials last week put out "a warning to everybody to put their skittish horses and puppies in the barn Saturday night," Cleverly said, "so they won't be spooked by the noise."
Hunter S. Thompson began his professional career as a reporter for the Middletown, N.Y., Record and then moved into freelancing. Amid the national turmoil of the Vietnam War years, he developed a manic first-person style -- he called it "gonzo journalism" -- that focused as much on drugs and alcohol as on the places and people he was covering.
"We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers," he wrote of an automobile trip in 1972. "And also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls."
Thompson conceded that much of his reporting was fictional, but his admirers said he used imaginative touches to get close to the truth. Former senator and presidential candidate George S. McGovern called Thompson's reports on the 1972 presidential campaign "inaccurate and irreverent and truthful."
In an interview with the BBC in 1978, Thompson first suggested that, instead of a funeral, he would like to say farewell to his friends at a party where his ashes would be shot from a cannon.
Within days of his suicide last February -- he had been sick for some time, his neighbors say, and was depressed that he needed a wheelchair to get around -- his 32-year-old widow, Anita, began talking to friends about making the writer's dream come true.
Working with Depp, the family hired an event planner in Hollywood and the Zambelli fireworks company to plan the sendoff.
The 153-foot tower, built around a rented industrial crane, is a series of silver cylinders topped with a dagger that is topped in turn by a model of the six-fingered red fist that Thompson and the illustrator Steadman used as the symbol of "gonzo." The fireworks were shot skyward through a hole in this raised fist.
Zambelli workers packed Thompson's ashes into each of the 34 shells to be launched in the fireworks display, with the first shell to be fired at sundown, scheduled for 8:31 p.m. Mountain time. The plan is that the author's ashes will then drift back over Owl Farm and into the surrounding White River National Forest.
Juan Thompson, 41, the author's only child, noted before Saturday's party that the event was designed according to Hunter Thompson's wishes -- but that Thompson himself would not have attended, given the choice.
"My father wouldn't have actually gone to anything like this," Juan Thompson said. "He would have set himself up in a corner, at a bar or in the kitchen, and let people come up to him one by one. He didn't like mob scenes. He didn't do big parties.
"Of course, my father understood the media and used the media to enhance the persona," the son went on. "But he was an intensely private person. He wouldn't want the media at his funeral -- even if we did fire a big cannon to say goodbye."
Hunter Thompson had told his son the ceremony was "not just one of his deranged ideas."