My Life with (and without) Hunter S. Thompson


For me it all started in the spring of 2004 when I was a junior at Washington College and as a newly minted English major I was in the habit of sharing everything I was reading with my younger brother, then a senior at my old high school. At the time I was enamored with Tucker Max and had been pushing him on my brother when he came back to me with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, telling me, 'Thompson is like a seventies Tucker Max but with drugs instead of alcohol.'

And I took him at his word and spent a weekend with Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Las Vegas...

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...' And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'

As that first paragraph unraveled before my eyes, my life changed and a fierce literary passion took hold of me, to forever intertwine me with a man I'd never meet but come to know intimately.

I spent that summer reading everything I could get my hands on by Hunter S. Thompson and enjoying his writing on many levels. Sure it was entertaining, hyperbolic, wild, and crazy, but at its core it was solid good writing with a journalistic eye and a biting wit. And after I read the 1970 piece and first collaboration with Ralph Steadman, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, I could pinpoint exactly where journalism was turned on its head!

(via Gonzo.org)

Before Thompson you had no choice but to get your reading fix in the 'objective journalism' of the newspapers. The print was dry, boring, and tedious work - the CSPAN of reading. Then Thompson, locked into a tight deadline and a serious case of writer's block, tore out the very pages from his own notebook and submitted them for publication as is, and ho, ho, GONZO was born.

By writing such detailed and luscious notes as they happened, the writer becomes part of the story and takes the reader along for the ride. The difference between 'Gonzo' and 'objective' journalism was as groundbreaking as color and black/white television, or broadcast and cable programing! Without HST who knows what we'd be reading now! And that's what appealed to me greatly, his impact that directly influenced the world of writing, literature, and journalism that I had always been interested in.

That fall I wrote my first piece comparing the gonzo elements of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to what made the movie Garden State work.

I continued to read as much as I could, taking a class the next semester in which we discussed FALILV, and began to consider his work critically.

Then the night of February 20th 2005 my friend came to break the news that Thompson had killed himself. As fate would have it, I had my very first bottle of Wild Turkey whiskey on hand and after toasting to his life with his own words, Too weird to live; too rare to die, I poured out a shot for him myself.

Then I went to work, writing a news article for my weekly entertainment section in the school newspaper (The Elm) and then a tribute piece for the monthly features magazine (The Collegian).

Following the coverage and the plans to carry out Thompson's wish to be blasted from a Gonzo cannon, I drew up and presented a proposal to my school that I should attend the funeral that summer. It was accepted.

The factor in planning such a trip rests on the uncertainty of the date surrounding these events. The newspapers report “early summer” and an unveiling on “June 18th” so we have to assume that anytime after the eighteenth I must be prepared to leave at a moments notice. To be completely prepared I would request $100 to purchase the remainder of Thompson’s books and biographies. A round trip flight to Aspen from BWI costs between $600-$700 online, and hotels in the area average $200 for a night (minimum three night stay). Renting a car for the weekend would run between $200-300 including gas. And I estimate that I would need $200 to cover eating expenses for the whole weekend. So if I travel by plane, I would need $1900 (including the $100 for books).

I asked for $2000, they gave me $1500 and I did it for $1300. The funeral was August 20th, 2005. My press release upon return is here and my online photo album is here.

'Fear and Loathing is more than just a drug induced nightmare - it's great writing.' My quote in the Denver Times, Aug. 21st 2007

But that was just the beginning. I published an article for the Washington College Magazine recounting my trip. And then Five Magazine asked me if they could publish my article in their inaugural issue that fall and I said yes - and like that I was published in a real outside-of-college publication.

Peter W. Knox

Peter W. Knox ’06 (above) used his Comegys Bight Fellowship grant in the summer of 2005 to travel to the funeral of his literary hero, Hunter S. Thompson, whose ashes were fired from a 100-foot-tall, fist-shaped cannon in Woody Creek, Colo. Knox later published accounts of his adventure in several publications, including Five Magazine, and landed a job with a major New York publishing house after graduation from Washington College. For more on his experiences as a Comegys Bight Fellow, click here.

I then adapted my article for inclusion in the monthly college features magazine that October. And then I gave a presentation in the famous Washington College Literary House which was written about in the weekly newspaper here.

And now, in the era of YouTube, you can be there for the blast-off yourself:

To commemorate the bond I would forever have with Thompson and to display the impact he's had on my life I had a black and white Gonzo fist tattooed above my right ankle. I wrote about the tattooing experience here.

(my tattoo via Gonzo.org)

After the excitement of my coverage died down, I focused in on writing my thesis: A Savage Journey Into Hunter S. Thompson's American Dream. I believe it to be, at the time, one of the first true critical analyzes into the life and works of HST to be published. You can read a .pdf file of my thesis (90 pages) here.

Since graduating and moving to New York, I've taken advantage of every opportunity I've had to be a part of the post-HST world. I may have taken a puddle jumper with Douglas Brinkley the morning after Thompson's funeral, but there were many more players I had yet to meet.

I was present and asked a question at Ralph Steadman's reading from his new book. I met his widow, Anita Thompson, at the 2007 Books Expo America and presented her a signed copy of my thesis and collected writings on Thompson as well as showed her my tattoo. I reintroduced myself again when she gave a reading at an independent bookstore and had her sign yet another copy for me. For the 2006 Village Halloween Parade, I went as my favorite literary hero and was surprised to run into a few others dressed up as the Good Doctor as well!

And when Corey Seymour, responsible for the latest and greatest oral biography, Gonzo, gave a reading with Paul Scanlon and another RS intern around for the era of Thompson, I was there to introduce myself, ask another question and get another signed book. When his 'shotgun art' came to a gallery on the Upper East Side, I showed up in style. Heck, when they even showed a Wayne Ewing film in a the back of a bar in Brooklyn, I was there. And when Alex Gibney's documentary Gonzo played at the Lincoln Center theater in New York, I was there. I'll be there with every new manuscript published or documentary released. HST may be gone, but his legacy lives on and it's going to be a long time before everything has been released and published.

For pictures of all of these individuals, as well as from all my journeys, please click through to my public Facebook album.

Copyright © 2009 - 2010   Peter W. Knox