My interest in Hunter S. Thompson, in both the man and his writings, began a year ago last spring and has only solidified/intensified since I’ve studied him. My brother had recommended I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as I was at the time heavily into travel writing and first person journalism.
Since then, I’ve picked up his fifteen books, read three biographies, bought the two movies based on his life, and the recent biography. I’ve followed his death in articles, magazines, and media to the present. My personal collection and treasure hunt for all things Hunter S. Thompson have simply served as a library of research for my undergraduate thesis, which specifically looks to examine Thompson’s view of “the American Dream.”
Thompson, in my mind, used to be America’s greatest living writer before committing suicide last February 20th. A person whose take on journalism created a new genre and a different style of writing that we take for granted, but never existed before Thompson took a trip to the Kentucky Derby in 1970. What resulted from those four days of drunken debauchery at the races would later be described as “Gonzo Journalism,” a style in which the writer is an integral part of the story. The famous article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” is simply the compilation and publication of the notes Thompson took during the actual event. Faced with writer’s block at the eleventh hour, Thompson was forced to hand over his notes, figuring his career was over, when really it was just beginning.
Since the Derby article, Thomson went on to write his most notable books: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
My personal experience with the world of Hunter S. Thompson began during my class last semester with Adam Goodheart. A travel writing class for my creative writing minor, we were studying Thompson at the time I was proposing my thesis topic. Goodheart signed on as my thesis advisor, and suggested that I apply for the Comegys Bight Fellows Program. (http://starrcenter.washcoll.edu/cbf/) Having covered Thompson’s unique funeral plans, initially explained in a 1978 BBC Documentary, I wanted nothing more than to be there when his ashes were scattered from a 150 foot cannon on his property in Aspen, Colorado. The program, through the Starr Center for the American Experience, gives money to eligible students for an “in depth summer research project on a topic pertaining to American history or culture” and I thought there would be no topic more worthy than seeing my favorite author forever enter the “canon” of American literature.
My proposal was accepted and I received $1500 to pursue my dream. The trip almost came to a halt in June when the funeral was declared to be a private, invite-only event. At this point, Ted Widmer, a professor on the fellowship committee, exercised his previous connection with Douglas Brinkley, Thompson’s official historian. I was given the go ahead for my project and booked the weekend in Aspen.
The experience was invaluable as I was suddenly fully immersed in Thompson’s world, following his history throughout the town of Aspen. Surrounded by fellow Thompson enthusiasts at the Woody Creek Tavern (where Thompson himself was a regular, living only a few miles down the road) I was able to talk freely about our shared passion for the man and his writing. Many had traveled over a thousand miles to be there for the funeral, content to hike the hill to Owl Farm and stand outside the gates. I was in my element, able to connect with those locals who knew Thompson personally and those who felt like they knew him, having closely read everything they could by the late author. Sitting where Thompson once sat, drinking what he would have drank, I felt closer to the literary legend than I could have ever imagined.
Try as Douglas Brinkley could, I was unable to gain admittance to the innermost circle of the celebration of Thompson’s life, but was elated to simply be there for history as the moment had come to blast Thompson’s cremated remains over his property. The cannon, covered by a red cloth, stood 150 feet tall, not 100 yards away. I had front row seats to perhaps the most imaginative and amazing funeral plans in recent history. As a Japanese drum team counted down to the fireworks, Actor Johnny Depp (who funded the entire 2.2 million dollar operation, having grown close to Thompson during the filming of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998) raised his glass of champagne to Thompson’s memory.
The display was truly amazing as lights, sound, and fire filled the sky around a now unveiled double thumbed fist clutching a peyote button (Thompson’s original “Gonzo” Brand Logo) atop a sword on a 150 foot metallic column. The fifty of us outsiders stood in respectful silence and awe at the sight that was over as quickly as it began, leaving Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man” to be played at full volume over the valley. As spotlights illuminated the cannon, the crowd came together and sang along with the music. Everyone there was feeling a strong connection, having been privileged to the same experience, but affected in different ways. For me this was not only the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of, but “a fantastic universal sense” (as Thompson would put it) that this was the way he would have wanted it and he would have been right alongside me standing at the gates.
Leaving Aspen the next day, after going back to see the cannon in daylight, I found myself next to Douglas Brinkley for the same flight back. I volunteered to watch his bags while he went for drinks. It was then that the attendants in the airport demanded I board the plane and having procrastinated as long as possible I was forced to carry his bags out the door as Brinkley was running through security to catch up, and was naturally stopped by the metal detector. Outside, I stood out of trouble for Brinkley and his friend Jennifer, as they made their way to board the plan. As I handed him the bags, Jennifer, out of breath from rushing, said to me thankfully, “That was a real Thompsonian thing to have almost missed the flight out.”