In a surreal scene from the Chicago Auto Show of 1969, Chevrolet executive John Z. DeLorean welcomes on stage the recently-retired Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy and a nascent running back from the University of Southern California named O.J. Simpson. More surreal still, at the side of the stage, Hunter S. Thompson, still two years from finishing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, has been employed to document the event.
That the US motor giant should choose to put the poster boy of Alpine skiing on a platform alongside the Next Big Thing in American football was of a significance not lost on the godfather of gonzo journalism. ‘Skiing is no longer an esoteric sport for the idle rich,’ wrote Thompson, ‘but a fantastically popular new winter status-game for anyone who can afford $500 for equipment. Five years ago the figure would have been three times that… but now, with the advent of snow-making machines, even Chattanooga is a “ski-town.”’
Idaho’s Sun Valley, America’s first ski resort – where, incidentally, Thompson’s idol Ernest Hemingway completed For Whom the Bell Tolls – might have opened in 1936, but it was Killy – ‘a “swinging Frenchman” with the style of a jet-set maverick and the mind of a Paris bartender’ – that provided skiing with a sellable face, doing for the sport what Arnold Palmer had done for golf the decade before. Economic prosperity, and a mushrooming middle class, would do the rest, turning a splattering of ex-mining towns in the American Midwest into star-spangled-banner versions of Verbier and St. Moritz.
Thompson, the most famous resident of what would become America’s most famous ski resort, famously couldn’t ski. When the Aspen local ran for town sheriff in 1970, he did so with a manifesto that promised to legalise drugs – although he promised not to take mescaline while on duty – promote environmentalism and rename Aspen ‘Fat City’ to prevent ‘greedheads, land-rapers and other human jackals from capitalising on the name Aspen’. He wanted to smash up the pavements and replace them with dirt.
Thompson never made sheriff. In 2005, in accordance with his will, his ashes were shot out of a canon on his Colorado ranch in a $3million ceremony paid for by Johnny Depp. The pavements in Aspen are now electrically heated. It’s still possible to find wild, mountain-town America, just not in Aspen – in places like Telluride (p120), Breckenridge (p122) and Crested Butte (p124).
All you gotta to do is buy the ticket and take the ride.