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Introduction For To Aspen And Back
Last updated March 2005
Peggy Clifford now writes for the Santa Monica Mirror. She recently wrote an article about HST's death called A Love Song for Hunter S. Thompson.
I first came to Aspen in 1960. I passed through several times and then one time I got stuck. I never intended to live here, and I still don't know why I do, except that I haven't found a better place yet. Actually, I don't live in Aspen. I've always made a point of not living in Aspen. I live in Woody Creek, fifteen miles from Aspen, which used to be a long way. Now it's closer, maybe too close. I view Aspen as some sort of experimental behavioral tank over the mountain.
But for a while I was very much involved in Aspen. It was different then, and the illusions we had about it were different, too. They were not the usual illusions. Aspen has always attracted people who think they can do whatever they want to do. The first post-World War II immigrants to Aspen were skiers from the Army's Tenth Mountain Division. They'd been stationed in Leadville, Colorado, were sent to Italy to fight, and came back to Aspen to live. There wasn't much there, but they were freaks. They didn't care about anything but skiing. Later, most of them turned into fascists.
For a while, Aspen people were so intent on doing their own thing that they didn't have time to bother other people. Now it's full of liberals. The psychic privacy we used to have is gone. There are people here now who are paid to bother other people. That's what Peggy Clifford writes about. She's described the rise and fall of our illusions as well as anyone could. She was right in the middle of it and what she writes is true. She was personally, emotionally and intellectually involved. It was a very high stakes game for her. And for me. Maybe for all of us.
Those old soldiers became rich merchants and they didn't want dirty hippies moving into Aspen and frightening away the big spenders. They began busting people in the streets. I'd come to Aspen to escape politics. Berkeley in the mid-'60s and my long, strange ride with the Hell's Angels had burned me out. But in the summers of 1967 and 1968 in Aspen, it was open season on hippies. My reaction was immediate, highly personal rage. I didn't want those bastards after me. I didn't want to be fined $300 for blocking the sidewalk. Peggy's reaction was more intellectual. She wasn't personally threatened. They weren't coming into her house with search warrants. She and I agreed that the bastards had gone too far and we decided to do something about it. She was idealistic. i was more pragmatic. I tend to be pragmatic about politics. They were after me, I thought. If they could bust one person on the street, they could bust me in my house. And that's how Peggy and I got involved in electing politicians. We did it over and over again. We won all the battles, but I think we lost the war.
There was never a time when I couldn't call Peggy at any hour of the day or night. She was not only here, she was in the middle of it. She was on the streets and every week she'd write about zoning or greedheads or who was lying and who wasn't. She was the intellectual conscience of the town, she was in the trenches and usually in the minority.
A lot of people were afraid of her. She says exactly what she thinks. She is an idealistic and very elegant lady who came out here and bought a bookstore and tried to live her life in as high a way and in as high a place as she could, but she fought the wars, too. She fought and honourable and intelligent battle.
Politics was very close to the bone in Aspen then. You could see it working and you could be a part of it. YOu could act, say wait a minute, I don't like that, and pick up the telephone and change things by threatening the mayor with a lawsuit or a beating, which wee did sometimes. We got more active, running campaigns. Then I ran for sheriff. We elected everyone we wanted to elect except me. We mastered all the techniques. We just never found the solution.
Peggy had worked as hard on my campaign as I had, maybe harder, but she told me one night that she hoped I wouldn't be elected, she hoped I'd lose. I knew she was right. Everyone else was saying hot damn, man, you're going to be sheriff. But she told me what a friend would tell you. It didn't change my mind. I was hoping I wouldn't win either. I was scared to death, but I couldn't say that to anyone, and Peggy was the only person who would say it to me.
Her view here is baleful. She's disillusioned. I feel about Aspen and politics and what we did the way I feel about the peacock eggs in the incubator in my porch. It was a useless expense and I knew the eggs wouldn't hatch, but I felt it was something I had to do. I finally pulled the plug on them after ninety-nine days. I don't feel a sense of failure when I look at the eggs. I did everything I could and they didn't hatch.
I didn't get into politics to be elected to anything, I got in as a dark backroom sinister influence. I thought of it as the politics of enlightened self-interest. If I'm going to live in a place, I don't want some kind of geek running it. And if I have to go head-to-head with the bastards, I will. Peggy really thought we could do it. I thought they were going to come after me and kill me if I won.
The thing that astounded me when I first saw Aspen was that we had somuch room here, more room than I'd ever seen anywhere. It was the best of all possible worlds. The skiers brought free enterprise and Walter Paepcke brought the aesthetics. It was the perfect mix. You could dance to the music of your own cash register and then go off to a concert while your daughter sat on a rock in the river listening to a famous painter talk about art. But Paepcke's ideal was impossible to live up to. He erected a set of pretensions that have overshadowed the town ever since. I saw politics as an art of self-defense. They were after me and they were going to take the meadow in front of my house and change it unless I fought with them. Like everyone else who's survived, I know that if you turn your back on the bastards, they'll cut you down.
The greedheads work eight days a week. The trouble is that the greedheads, the real estate developers and the people who want to buy and sell quick and move on work harder than I do. I'm a writer. I'm a lazy person. Peggy's that way, too. We can't work eight days a week and fight those bastards. We don't get paid for it. They do. It's in their interest to grind up the valley and sell it for gravel, but it is not in my interest. They're merchants. I've never made a fucking nickel off this valley, and neither has Peggy. We were here for different reasons.
Peggy's moved to Philadelphia. I think she felt it was time for her to move on, but she also got caught in the economic crunch. I could be next. I have 122 acres. I have a fortress, but it could be taken away from me through zoning or taxes, by an act of politicians, politicians I elected. These monsters are zoning me out of existence now. Still winning the battle, still losing the war.
We had the idea that you should be able to live the way you wanted to and in the highest way you could imagine, but some people wanted to keep it the way it was and some people wanted to grind it up and sell it for gravel. There was always a degree of madness in what we did. We used radio then the way politicians use television now. Nobody had ever used the radio politically before in Aspen. We scared the piss out of people. Peggy wrote some of the best ads I've ever seen in any political campaign. Massive, long, intelligent political screeds. She doesn't talk about that much here. She alludes to it. She uses "we" a lot. But she was involved seven nights a week, sometimes all night.
I don't much like politics here anymore. Now you fight unknown persons, human X factors, computer programmers. But I can still sit here and see the mountains with the sun coming up over them because when it was necessary we went out and made enemies and worked nine days a week. We did that. God didn't do that, or the est-ers. By the end of the sixties, Aspen had become a valley of the idle rich, a valley of victims. It's prey to any kind of bullshit now. It's a monument to the relentless masochism of the idle rich. Maybe the party's over here now, but the cops didn't break it up, the people did. As the new money poured in, the party began to get rancid. For Werner Erhard, and the other new gurus, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. But the ethic of everything's okay, we're all okay and everything's perfect, just didn't mix with the fuck you, get off my land and don't put the God damn highway down here, we don't like ethic. It's passive as opposed to active. The activist ethic was overwhelmed. The sharp edge that we'd brought to it was dull.
There are many pillars of salt along the highway now. The highway from Aspen is Glenwood Springs is lined with pillars of salt. It was an individual utopia, now it's a corporate utopia. Peggy's talking about that., I think.
As a writer, what I appreciate most in this book is the clarity and validity of Peggy's descriptions of people and times and places. You almost had to be there to know how good the writing is. She was always the chronicler of reality in town. When she was doing the column, she knew what was happening and she knows what's happening now. She ties Aspen's fate to America. She knows what's happening in America too. But as a politician, a combatant, what interests me is that she concluded that all our best efforts in politics came to nothing. Sometimes, I believe that. I believed that when I finished the book.
One of my most intense memories of Peggy goes back to the night Bobby Kennedy was shot, and tonight Vernon Jordan was shot. Twelve years later, almost to the day. It never ends, the bastards never sleep. Vernon Jordan, head of one of the most conservative black organizations, is shot in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Ronald Reagan is going to be our next president. In that context, you can't say Aspen has failed. I look out here and see the same mountains and the same fields I've seen for ten years. I had to fight savagely to protect them, but they're still there, no matter how precarious my hold on them is, so maybe we haven't failed. But you sure as hell can't say we've succeeded. Of course, you can't create a valley for the rich and then expect to live in peace with them. The rich are monsters.
This book was not an assignment, not some scholarly treatise. It is an act of passion. Peggy was in the trenches. She's the ultimate authority. She wrote one of the most intelligent columns in the history of American Journalism. Her collected columns on Aspen would be a real saga, a million words or more. No one did what she did. Nobody else wrote with the consistency, the genuine love for the valley that she did. Other people might have felt it, but she said it. Other people wrote gossip columns. And she wasn't sitting in some upstairs window at the Aspen Historical Society watching it from a distance, she was right down there in the thick of it.
On a Wednesday night in November, 1960, it was snowing, and I showed up on Peggy's doorstep. A total stranger, a freak from Kentucky with a pile of trash on top of a car that had to be deliver to some decorator in Aspen. I thought Peggy would be horrified. I had no place to go, no money, and I couldn't even leave town until I got the money from the decorator. Peggy fed me, gave me a place to sleep, money for the train when the decorator quibbled, and a ride to the train in Glenwood Springs. here came a vagrant through town, a Neal Cassady kind of freak, traveling with a giant doberman and a monster crate that was heavy and made to be a home for the dog on the train, if we ever got on the train, and she took care of everything.
If she ran a salon, as people said, first in her bookstore, later in her house, that's the kind of salon she ran, a refuge for the right people, meaning, in most people's eyes, the wrong people. She was and is a very discriminating lady.
Hunter S. Thompson
Woody Creek, Colorado,
May 29, 1980