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  • Writer's pictureWayne Ewing

The Return to Las Vegas – Part 1

Updated: 6 days ago

We were on the edge of the desert somewhere near Palisade when the drug began to lose its grip.

I was following the 32 foot, white recreational vehicle in my Durango with a young, pale, tattooed vulture in the front seat beside me. This odd caravan that sped along the Colorado River as it wound its way out of the mountains was headed to Las Vegas for the June, 2003 premiere of my film Breakfast with Hunter.

“He’s asleep now,” reported Sam, the driver of the RV over the radio.

“Just keep going. As smoothly as possible,” I told Sam, feeling a sense of immense relief.

“We could use some gas,” Sam cautioned.

If we could just make the 100 miles to Green River, we’d be so far into Utah that the Beast could not demand that we return to Woody Creek as he had been since dawn.

“Just Keep Going,” I commanded, risking running out of gas rather than stopping and waking the infamous Dr. Hunter S. Thompson on his return to the city that brought him fame 33 years ago when he wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I had spent the last 18 years making my documentary about Hunter when I wasn’t on the road producing docs for the networks, shooting rock & roll concerts, or directing the dramatic series “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Breakfast with Hunter had been finished since the fall of 2002, and I had hoped to premiere at Sundance in 2003. Perhaps the programmers were smart enough to fear having Hunter as their guest in Park City, since we were not accepted. Nonetheless, one young man who screened the film – Trevor Groth, now the Sundance Director of Programming – called me up afterwards and asked if I would be interested in premiering in Las Vegas at a new festival he was programming called CineVegas.

The festival would be at the trendy Palms Hotel just built by George Maloof, then also the owner of the Sacramento Kings basketball team. Trevor insisted Hunter would be treated like royalty with his own suite and all expenses paid, including a travel allowance. But the allowance wouldn’t even cover half the cost of a jet round trip to Las Vegas. Thus, I rented the RV, which was turning out to be a much rockier ride than imagined. The idea was that since Hunter usually stayed up all night, we would head out at dawn when he normally would be taking a Halcion and going down. Given a full size bed in the back of a land yacht, I figured he would sleep all the way to Vegas. What a fool I was!

When I helped Hunter into the RV at 7:30am, he was quite excited about going on the road. Rather than occupying the banquette or lying down in the bedroom, he insisted on sitting down in the shotgun seat upfront next to the driver and began indulging himself. The driver, named Sam, was a “professional” who I chose since he had driven Hunter more than once before and knew what to expect.

It was a miracle that we were even embarking on this venture. Originally when Hunter agreed to return to Vegas for the premiere, he was scheduled for back surgery in late April, and the Doctors felt that he could be ready to travel in two months for the premiere in June. Then, he got a tooth infection which precluded the back surgery, which he then decided to postpone until after Vegas. I returned to Woody Creek in the first week of June from San Diego where I was shooting “Crime & Punishment” for NBC to check on his health and confirm we could make the trip. I remember him riding his exercise bike and swearing he would be fine. When I again returned two weeks later to take him back to Vegas, the back pain had become so intense that he could only move with massive doses of pain killers that sent him into a foul and unreasonable mood.

Now snorting down the road to Vegas in the RV, Hunter became increasingly alert and mindful of his pain. Only 15 minutes into the journey, he wanted to stop at Wendy’s in El Jebel, and Anita needed Dramamine, saying the motion of the RV was making her sick. Alas, at 8:00am Wendy’s was not open and the convenience store had no Dramamine. I promised to stop another 20 minutes down the road in Glenwood Springs, if they would just keep going after that. They agreed and we stopped in the little city which ironically is also the final resting place of another outlaw named Doc Holliday. Then, heading west along the Colorado River, pushing my own western legend like a herd of stubborn cattle, we only made it another 9 miles of our 600 mile journey when the RV began to pull off I-70 in New Castle.

“Why are you stopping?” I asked Sam impatiently over the radio.

“For pickles,” he replied flatly.

“There are pickles in the refrigerator,” said Eve, the young, tattooed, new “second assistant.” She had loaded the truck the night before and was now riding shotgun with me in the Durango . Hunter had insisted on traveling alone with Anita in the RV, which was fine by me.

“Always have your own wheels,” was one of Hunter’s dictums. I truly believed it that day on the way back to Vegas.

“Keep Going,” I barked over the radio. “There’re pickles in the fridge.”

The RV kept on trucking, but only for another 14 miles. The freeway pavement between Silt and Rifle was rough, and as we approached Rifle, the RV abruptly took the exit ramp. Sam would not respond to my calls on the radio. I followed the RV into a park along the Colorado River where it pulled onto the side of the road. After parking the Durango behind the RV, I went up and knocked on the door. Anita let me in looking sea sick and anxious.

Hunter was splayed out at the dining table in front of the picture window. The white death was strewn about the table. My gaze went from the table to the picture window as a Rifle City police car pulled up 10 yards away on the other side of the road and stopped to observe us. I thought to myself that I’d just as soon go to jail in Rifle rather than further down the road to Vegas with Hunter. The cop sat for a bit watching us through the window. Perhaps he sensed when our eyes met that I truly didn’t care what he did at that point. So the cop moved on and I was left to deal with Hunter.

“This is insane,” Hunter growled. “The ride is too rough. It’s killing me. I want to go home”

“You’ve just done the roughest part. It’s smooth sailing from here,” I assured him.

My mind was racing. The premiere of the film would be ruined if Hunter didn’t show up. I had to get him there, but the RV had been a bad choice. I should have subsidized a jet with my own money to avoid this nightmare. Clearly, a plane would be the only answer at this point, but where could I find one at 8:30am in Rifle, Colorado that would accept this unruly, drug-addled passenger? Then, I thought of my friend Chris who is a pilot with a Cessna 180 in DeBeque, just another 30 miles west on the way to Vegas. The 180 would be like a sports car in the sky compared to this rattling RV.

“I want to go to a bar,” Hunter moaned.

“I know a really cool, cowboy bar just down the road in DeBeque,“ I offered. “Let’s go have a drink in DeBeque. We’ll find friends there.”

Reluctantly, Hunter agreed, and the caravan headed west once again. I figured if I could just keep going west, eventually we would be too far to turn back home. I tried to reach Chris the pilot on my cell with no luck. Then, our fortune turned even worse when we pulled up in front of the bar in DeBeque and it was closed. The residents of this small cow town obviously did not share our need for alcohol at 9:30am. But, then Sam the driver truly earned his money at this turning point in the trip.

“I want to go to a Mexican bar,” pleaded Hunter.

“I know just where one is in Grand Junction, only a few miles down the road. They have great Margaritas,” declared Sam.

“Margaritas would be good,” growled the Beast.

Hunter allowed me to guide him into the bedroom, slumped into the bed and pleaded with Anita to lie down and hold him. She agreed. Moving forward through the cheap land yacht, I told Sam to go slow and easy.

“That’s right. Maybe he’ll fall asleep. Otherwise I really do know a great Mexican restaurant in Grand Junction,” he said with a grin.

“Don’t tell him that again unless you absolutely have to,” I ordered and headed for my car and the pale, white vulture in the front seat.

The radios continued to work well from RV to car as we rolled through DeBeque Canyon on the Colorado where years before immense amounts of weed grew on an island in the river. Sam radioed that all was “very quiet in the back.”

I began to calculate fuel consumption. A gas stop might wake the Beast, but to run out would be unthinkable. I decided to err on the side of caution and stop in Fruita, Colorado rather than pushing another 100 miles to Green River, Utah. In Fruita, nothing stirred in the back of the air-conditioned RV. We gassed up quickly and moved on into Utah. Never before in my life had I wanted to be in Utah so desperately. Now I knew, and Sam and Eve did too, that there was no turning back.

Moving into the land of the Mormon State Police, I tried to explain to the young girl in the shotgun seat my philosophy about the proud highway. Never act afraid. Never act paranoid. Always pass the personality test and everything will be all right. But, I couldn’t help but notice that I was chain smoking as my eyes constantly shifted between watching the land yacht in front and the road behind.

Onward through the San Rafael Swell, then Richfield where all the cops gather for lunch, and Hunter and Anita still do not awake. I start to tell my life story to the girl who is beginning to look like less of a vampire, and get a bit of hers in return. We seem to be bonding strangely, like fellow hostages.

Soon after the turn south onto I-15, I noticed that Sam was getting a bit more aggressive with the RV. The road was much smoother now and Sam seemed, like me, to be determined to get as close to Vegas and as far from Woody Creek as possible before the Beast awoke. Eve was driving my Durango, and I was feverishly working my cell phone, trying to iron out Hunter’s mobility issues with Andrew Weinberger of CineVegas for the “Icons” seminar with Hunter, Grace Slick and Dennis Hopper at the Venetian, the art gallery opening at the Aladdin, and the premiere at the Palms. Essentially, Hunter could not walk more than a few steps unaided. Andrea suggested a Segway, swearing her 87 year old grandmother could ride one. I doubted Hunter had the necessary sense of balance, and nixed the stand up scooter.

I looked up to see Sam assertively pass one 40 foot truck and then pull into the saddle behind another one. Just as the RV disappeared between the two trucks there was an EXPLOSION. My head snapped back and I dropped the cell phone as a wave of white plastic shrapnel blew around the truck in front of us and hit my Durango.

“They’re dead,” I thought. “I’ve killed them. Hunter, Anita, Sam all gone.”

Perhaps the propane tank had exploded, or the generator, or they had somehow been sandwiched and crushed between the two trucks. But then, just as quickly as the explosion, the truck in front of us abruptly pulled off the road, revealing the RV still intact and rolling down the road.

“What the fuck happened?” I asked Eve.

“I have no idea. But, they must be awake now,” replied the vulture.

Since the RV seemed to be all right, we just keep going and pulled off on the next exit into the USA Truck Stop. Miraculously, THEY NEVER WOKE UP. Neither Hunter, nor Anita. I was far too sick from nervous exhaustion to eat, so I guarded the land yacht, while Eve and Sam got fast Mexican food. I watched a black hooker in a brief halter top, expensive tits, and cut-off jeans work the truckers. As the RV sucked gas from the pump there was a loud, annoying sound coming from above. The air conditioner on top of the RV seemed to be SCREAMING AT A VERY HIGH PITCH. Afraid that the noise would wake Hunter, I stepped back for a better view and saw that the white plastic housing for the air conditioner was missing causing its loud noise to reverberate off of the canopy over the gas pumps. It dawned on my weary brain that the plastic housing had blown off, and causing the shrapnel and a near heart attack for me. Sam & Eve returned with their tacos, and we were on the road again.

Hunter and Anita made it all the way to Vegas before they woke up on cue when I instructed Sam to start turning the music up a bit at a time. I hoped they would see an enchanting vista outside the bedroom window on their honeymoon trip and Hunter’s triumphant return to Las Vegas.

Just to prove we really got there here’s some rare video of the party after the premiere. In attendance: Benicio del Toro, Daryl Hannah, Christine Aguilera, Dennis Hopper & Hunter S. Thompson ( hiding in the shadows ). Video of the premiere and Q & A afterward to come next week with Part 2 as well.

To Be Continued Copyright 2013 by Wayne Ewing

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