Thursday, February 20, 2020

“In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.”

On the third morning of my Big Trip, I was in Lamar, CO, a little town on the state line, after visiting Dodge City, KS. Nice little town, I thought, sort of reminded me of some of the small towns I’d seen already, from Mississippi to Oklahoma. Familiar, in other words. Plan was to swing through Pueblo and check out one of these dispensaries, and then go on to Denver for the night.

 As I was sitting in the car figuring out the route with my Hitchhiker’s Guide, it occurred to me that I was in the position to go visit Woody Creek. And though I hadn’t even thought of it until just that moment – or was even cognizant of the possibility – I realized that if I passed up that chance, I’d never forgive myself. Though not the type to be that into visiting “holy ground”, I just knew I’d always kick myself if I didn’t go look at it.

So, I re-routed my trip up into the Rockies, through Vail and Aspen, after visiting Pueblo and checking out a place called “Maggie’s Farm”. I mean, come on, that’s just too much. Again, though very lovely and quite possibly the cleanest city I’d ever seen, Pueblo looked and felt familiar. Once I got up in them mountains, though, the whole ball game changed.

 Vail and Aspen were different worlds. I don’t know if it’s the atmosphere, the mountain living or the ungodly amount of money on display, but they did not seem real. What also didn’t seem real was the roads. All around me people were screaming by while I white-knuckled it back down as slow as the legal limit allowed. Seriously, I moved so slow a school bus passed me during a fairly significant rain storm. I let them and do not feel ashamed.

I eventually made it to Woody Creek, and stopped outside the Woody Creek Tavern to pay my homage. I thought about going in, but I felt that would be a bit cliched and my nerves were too shaky for dealing with the public. It’s a nice looking little place, though. Sort of reminds me of some of the fishing taverns in Florida except not as run down and ratty.

 For those that don’t know, Woody Creek was where Hunter S. Thompson had hung his visor since the late ’70s. He called his “compound” the Owl Farm and once he became a public figure, he was able to do all his work out of his home, surrounded by his peacocks, his guns, his friends and the mountains. Some would say his writing fell after moving up in the mountains. Maybe they’re right, but the story isn’t just that simple. In any event, I don’t blame him. It’s beautiful country.

Fifteen years ago, February 20, 2005, Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. He’d recently had his hip replaced and was in constant pain. Plus, his notorious lifestyle was catching up to him in his 67th year. The same year, my grandfather committed suicide, for much the same reason. I don’t know if that means anything to anyone other than me, I just thought it fit.

“Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberish – a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate who has found a way to live out where the real winds blow – to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whisky, and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested…

Res ipsa loquitur. Let the good times roll.”

I’m not going to lie, I had no idea who Hunter Thompson was until I was in college, studying journalism at the University of Florida. I was doing a phone interview with some fella about a recently renovated Veterans Administration hospital. I introduced myself, Matt Thompson, and he said “Like the journalist?” He was kidding, of course, but I had no clue what he meant. So, I looked him up.

“Jesus Man! You don’t look for acid! Acid finds you when it thinks you’re ready.”

You have to understand, I grew up in rural Northeast Mississippi. Very conservative, very religious, very not much at all a place where drug-crazed Outlaw Journalists were held in high esteem. Hell, the reason I was trying to become a journalist had more to do with comic columnist Lewis Grizzard, and believe you me, that is indeed a lifetime ago.

“There are times, however, and this is one of them, when even being right feels wrong. What do you say, for instance, about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death?”

The first book I read of his was The Great Shark Hunt a 1979 collection of his writings from his early days rambling through South America on up to a very no-holds-barred interview with then-on-top Muhammad Ali. Fascinated with the way he approached journalism – and this was about the time I was being exposed to “literary journalism” like Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote – the next thing I tackled was Fear & Loathing On The Campaign Trail, ’72. Not only did it permanently color my perception of what Journalism is and foul any chance I had of being a straight reporter, it’s a book I go back to every presidential cycle if just to remind myself that there is no “normal” when it comes to electing a president.

“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here – not under any byline of mine or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

At the time, for whatever reason, I was hanging around a lot of ex-bikers. All of them were my dad’s age or older, mostly pretty laid back, but there was always this underlying menace that told me to keep my mouth shut and just be friendly. Sort of like dealing with the full-on rednecks back home. So, Hell’s Angels: The Strange And Terrible Saga Of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was next. Though most of the cats I ran with weren’t Hell’s Angels, the vibe around them suddenly made a whole lot more sense.

“A man who has blown all his options can’t afford the luxury of changing his ways. He has to capitalize on whatever he has left and he can’t afford to admit – no matter how often he’s reminded of it – that every day of his life takes his farther and farther down a blind alley…”

Finally came his most famous work, Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, and honestly, it took a few readings to warm up to it. I do highly recommend it, if only because it’s an incredibly quick and easy read. The movie really doesn’t do it justice and for all the madness within, there’s a heartbreaking sense of loss in his tale of the Death of The American Dream or, more specifically, the hope and promise of the ’60s.

And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Since then, I’ve become a devotee of Hunter Thompson in a number of ways. His prose definitely influences mine – which is probably pretty obvious – but I also get a lot from how he approached the world and life. He embraced living and did things his way, no matter how hard life made it for him. Read his books of letters, The Proud Highway and Fear & Loathing In America, the journey to Gonzo Immortality was a long and often unprofitable one.

“The Law changes and I don’t. How I stand vis-a-vis the law at any given moment depends on the law. The law can change from state to state, from nation to nation, from city to city.”

One of my professors – who’s written a couple books on Thompson – was of the opinion HST’s career came to a head when Nixon, his bete noire, resigned. There’s something to that, and his anger and rage at Nixon’s re-election in the face of a fractured, impotent Democratic Party, well… let’s just say it resonates for someone who lived through Bush Junior and is dealing with a post-Trump world. His last book Kingdom Of Fear explored these similarities between Vietnam and Iraq, and how the government was not doing what it should for the people that trust it.

“We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world, a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts.”

I think that’s what I take most from Hunter Thompson, that disappointment that we’re still dealing with greedy warmongers and selfish Bible-thumpers instead of taking care of each other and making it so we can all have a good time. Sure, I’ve experimented with mind-expanding drugs partly because of him, though I never have cared for booze or coke like he did. But what really mattered to me was that he wrote like he thought we could do better and his prickliness was because we weren’t.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!'”

 I’ve dealt with what they call suicidal ideation since I was a teenager, and coming up on my 45th year, I have probably what is a different view of taking one’s own life than most folks. Sure, when it’s young person who’s feeling lost and alone in a far too cruel world, it’s a heartbreaking tragedy, regardless of whether they were someone close or not. There is so much ahead and so many places you can go that are simply better than the now. Sometimes you have to just hang in and keep on pushing.

But, like with my grandfather’s 30-year suffering of skin cancer and emphysema, to where just staying alive was almost more than he could bare, I can appreciate why Hunter S. Thompson did what he did. Sort of. He said his goodbyes to his son and wife before he checked out, and made his decision to leave when he wished to and before it got as bad as it could have gotten. I’m not recommending it to anyone, that’s not my place. I’m just saying I understand.

I admit, it might be strange to remember the day someone died – if that’s what I’m doing – rather than the day they were born, but it does make sense. You’ll hear people say we “need” Dr. Thompson in this day of rampant criminality in the White House that makes Nixon look like a schoolboy in detention, but I don’t agree. I don’t think he’d see it that way, either. What we need is someone to be this era’s HST, someone to stomp the Terra and poke the eyes of the Screwheads in the name of the Doomed.

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

Either way, thanks, Doc. Thanks for the fun books and the clever words and the wild philosophy and the inspiration to live my life how I want to live it, whether I succeed or fail. In the end, that’s what I’ve taken from being a fan of Hunter S. Thompson (no relation) for over 25 years. It’s your life, friends and neighbors, no one’s going to live it but you. Might as well have a little fun.

Selah.

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