Fear and Mourning in Woody Creek, Colorado

by M-Gillies

Hunter S. Thompson took his life at the age of 67 years at his home in Colorado.

“There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live and too rare to die.” ~ Hunter S. Thompson

Fuelled by drugs, anger, obscenity-laced prose and political tenacity, the doctor of Gonzo journalism, the harangued voice of a cynical observer in search of the American Dream; his infamy was built on the foundation of drug-devouring, gunslinging, acerbic cynicism. He is the “doctor”, a practitioner of transcending social barriers and diving head first into crisis. And while publicly he was recognized as being the subversive, drug-addled novelist known as Hunter S. Thompson, his true passion was in sports writing.

Since his youth in Louisville, Kentucky, Thompson developed an interest in literature. Always keen in honing his abilities as a gifted writer, he studied the classics of the time. From Fitzgerald to Hemingway, Thompson took to his typewriter transcribing the The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms in their entirety in order to discover each writer’s particular rhythm and flow.

And while Thompson has written linear novels, his most remembered voice was that of his sardonic style constantly attacking the status quo with a wild and breathless catching action as it was happening and cutting through the bullshit, fictionalizing here and there and making sense of it all later.

While his first novel The Hells Angels gave the first in-depth and detailed expos√à written from within the motorcycle club and further provided many police departments with a training manual on dealing with motorcycle clubs, it was his seminal work Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which had become the bible for the drug culture and rebellious youth that propelled Thompson from a straight laced journalist to the infamous icon he’s become known as today.

However, the legacy of Thompson wasn’t an easy one to create. For the man who was born in 1937, his life saw frequent run-ins with the law. Particularly, graduating from high school while serving a six-week sentence in jail for robbery. It was after this that Thompson was given the option of enlisting in the military or serving time in prison. So Thompson enlisted in the Air Force to study electronics before applying to become an aviator. However, he was rejected by the Air Force’s aviation-cadet program and transferred to Elgin Air Force Base where he landed his first professional writing job as sports editor of The Command Courier.

Despite having no experiences in the field of journalism, Thompson conned his way into the position saying, “The people who hired me didn’t bother to check too closely on my journalistic background, I’ve managed to keep them in safe ignorance for about a month now.”

Meanwhile, during his time as a sportswriter, Thompson kept a hectic schedule which saw him moonlighting at competing newspaper The Playground News anonymously. Even as he racked up numerous infractions of military protocol, he was often helped by a sergeant who saw Thompson’s potential, and by 1958 was given an early honorable discharge.

During this time, Thompson worked from newspaper to newspaper, living in near poverty as he continued to be fired from his jobs for insubordination and on one occasion for kicking in a vending machine that had cheated him and further arguing with the owner of a local restaurant who happened to advertise with the paper.

However, it was in 1960 that Thompson responded to a job opening in San Juan, Puerto Rico for a newspaper which folded soon after his arrival, giving him the inspiration for his novel The Rum Diary which wouldn’t be published until 1998.

In ’65, Thompson was offered an opportunity to write for The Nation – an expose piece about motorcycle gangs, particularly the Hells Angels, that had grown to become a highly feared gang accused of numerous criminal activities. A month after the May 17, 1965 publication of The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders article, Thompson was sought after by several publishers interested in the topic.

For the next year Thompson would find himself preparing for the new book, living in close quarters with the Hells Angels, many of whom would visit him at his apartment, much to the dismay of his wife and neighbors. From the beginning, Thompson was forward with the Hells Angels about his role as a journalist. Though the club was receiving much negative press by many media outlets, Thompson earned sincere participation with the members when he allowed early drafts of his article to be read to ensure his facts were straight.

In fact, Thompson had developed such a close friendship with the group, particularly club president Ralph “Sonny” Barger, that when Thompson was jokingly threatened with violence, he would point to a loaded double-barrelled shotgun hanging on his wall in which he would retort how he would, “croak two of them first.”

Soon though, Thompson’s relationship with the Hells Angels deteriorated after several members of the gang gave him a savage “stomping” over a remark he had made about one member known to beat his wife. “Only a punk beats his wife,” Thompson had said. It was only after a senior member of the club intervened that the beating stopped. But by then, Thompson had essentially ended his time with the Angels. Later, he would mention that those who participated in the beating had not been men with whom he had been closely associated.

For the next three years, Thompson settled in what he called his “fortified compound” named “Owl Farm” in Woody Creek, Colorado. He wrote for newspapers and sat in with publishers discussing future novels. He travelled to the Kentucky Derby where he and long-time friend, artist Ralph Steadman provided readers with the vicious, yet hilarious depiction of the Sourthern sporting classic in The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.

However, it wasn’t until Thompson was thrown into the midst of violence during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 that he developed a life-long addiction to politics. Thompson returned to his Woody Creek home a changed man, but one with a mission. It was at this time that Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County as part of a group of citizens running for local offices on the “Freak Power” ticket, garnering support from the “freaks”, “heads”, “hippies” and “dropouts” from the surrounding area.

Disgusted by the candidates representing the town, and noticing low voter turnouts from previous elections within the range of 18-25%, Thompson set out in announcing a 29 year-old hippie bike-racer named Joe Edwards for mayoral candidate. With only three weeks to organize the mayoral race, Thompson shaved his head in order to call his opposition his “long-haired opponent.”

With polls showing in his favor, Thompson made his way to Rolling Stone magazine with a six-pack of beer in hand and declared to the editor and co-founder Jann Wenner that he was on the verge of becoming elected the next sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and how he would like to write about the Freak Power movement in an article known as The Battle of Aspen.

However, Thompson would later remark how the article mobilized his opposition. What was once a three-way race, had quickly become a two-way race as the Democrats cannibalized their own candidate, withdrawing him from the election in order to consolidate the anti-Thompson votes.

Even though Edwards had lost by one vote, Thompson recalled, “we scared the living shit out of the Aspen Power Structure.”

Upon his meeting with Wenner, Thompson soon became a frequent contributor with Rolling Stone magazine and in 1971, a two-part series was printed for the newsstands dubbed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.

Written as a roman a clef, using the pseudonym Raoul Duke and rooted in autobiographical incidents from Thompson’s misadventures in Las Vegas with attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas initially saw positive feedback. However, when Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was published as a novel, it did not sell very well.

For the next two decades, Thompson continued contributing work to Rolling Stone, Playboy and numerous newspapers, as well as novelizing collections of his essays, letters and anecdotes in a 4-volume series called The Gonzo Papers. During the 80s, Thompson’s strained relationship with Rolling Stone and his failed marriage saw him becoming more reclusive as he retreated to his compound, rejecting assignments or refusing to complete them.

It wasn’t until 1998, that Thompson saw a resurgence in his popularity. With the cinematic adaption of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas starring Johnny Depp as the titular alter ego to Thompson, his work soon found an introduction to a new generation of readers. With the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson’s long lost novel The Rum Diary was published along with the first two volumes of his collected letters, which many critics greeted with acclaim.

While his career began with him writing about sports, so had his career ended. Beginning in 2000, Thompson began writing a weekly column entitled Hey Rube for ESPN.com up until his death on February 20, 2005, when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Six months later close friend Depp organized a private ceremony for Thompson, which saw the construction of a 153 foot tower (designed by Thompson in the mid-70s) in the shape of a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button. It had long been Thompson’s intention to be fired into the sky from atop a cannon.

Depp said of the ceremony, “All I’m doing is trying to make sure his last wish comes true. I just want to send my pal out the way he wants to go out.”

On August 20, 2005, an estimated 280 people attended the funeral, with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn, John Cussack former U.S. Senator George McGovern and U.S. Senator John Kerry.

After publsihing an oral history of Thompson with the book Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson Wenner said of his longtime friend, “Hunter lived a great life of genius, talent, and righteousness.”

Currently, Thompson’s iconic status has been the source of numerous characters in popular culture, from Uncle Duke Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury to the fictional cartoon character Hunter Gathers in the Adult Swim animated series The Venture Bros.

While Tom Wolfe cites Thompson as the greatest American comic writer of the 20th century, Depp has recently portrayed Thompson’s alter ego Paul Kemp in the cinematic adaption of The Rum Diary.

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” ~ Hunter S. Thompson, July 18, 1937, February 20, 2005

Read more:

Hunter S. Thompson | Biography.com

Gonzo: Life-Hunter S. Thompson | amazon.ca

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