The Final Days at Owl Farm

Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005

DOUGLAS BRINKLEYPosted Mar 10, 2005 12:00 AM

"When my life is over, it'll be like a puff of smoke/How long must I suffer, Lord, how long must I be provoked?
Satan will give you a little taste, then he'll move in with rapid speed/Lord, keep my blind side covered and see that I don't bleed."
Bob Dylan, "Trouble in Mind"

Back in 1964, when Hunter S. Thompson was freelancing for the National Observer, he made a pilgrimage to Ketchum, Idaho, in search of why novelist Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in the Sawtooth Mountains courtesy of his trusty 12-gauge shotgun. In these pre-gonzo days - before LSD and Freak Power and ROLLING STONE were in counterculture vogue -- Hunter emulated Hemingway more than any other writer. His first two narrative efforts, Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary, were, in truth, largely Hemingway-derivative, albeit with an original, double-edged twist of sobering invective and inebriated humor. To a degree, Hunter was parodying the Lost Generation icon in these early works. A whiskey-touched Hemingway may have shot lions in the green valleys of Africa, but a rum-besotted Thompson blasted away rats on the garbage heaps of Puerto Rico.

When Hunter finally arrived at Hemingway's empty alpine chalet, after journeying 700 miles from Aspen, he was in a feverish, bleary-eyed state of mind. After two days of interviewing locals, he came up with a matter-of-fact conclusion about his idol's sad last days. "He was an old, sick and very troubled man," Hunter wrote, "and contentment was not enough for him."

Besides reporting on "Papa's" death for the National Observer -- the article was later anthologized in The Great Shark Hunt as "What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?" -- Hunter engaged in an act of symbolic thievery. Genetically inclined to case every home/edifice he encountered, Hunter eyed a high-end souvenir: an elegant pair of elk horns that hung proudly over the entrance to Hemingway's house. "So I took them," Hunter confessed to me in 1998. "Forget running with the bulls or reeling in marlins or slaughtering rhinos. I had Hemingway's horns, and with that came an immense literary responsibility. It was now 'Fuck you' to the competition. I had broken from the pack, and there was no turning back."

Hunter showed me these elk horns when I first met him, in 1993. I was taking twenty-seven college students in two natural-gas-fueled buses across America for a nearly three-month, 15,000-mile educational adventure. Part of the curriculum was meeting distinguished writers at their residences and discussing their literary output: We visited Toni Morrison in New York, Arthur Miller in Connecticut, Studs Terkel in Illinois, William S. Burroughs in Kansas, Ken Kesey in Oregon. But my students were most excited about visiting Owl Farm.

As Hunter had instructed, we parked our buses in front of the Woody Creek Tavern and trudged inside for cheeseburgers. An hour later, he arrived in trademark style, wearing his omnipresent Tilley hat and Converse sneakers, a large glass of Chivas Regal in hand. I noticed his eyes dashing mischievously about, measuring the potential fun factor for the evening. One of my students, his hair day-glo blue, started asking Hunter if he really "sucked ether," as written in the Vegas book. Hunter leered at him. "You better be good," he snapped. "Ve-r-r-r-y good. Otherwise you come off as a rank asshole with blue hair." Somewhat embarrassed, the student lowered his head, blushed and declared, "I'm good!" Pleased by the response, Hunter chuckled, walked over to him and firmly grabbed the scruff of his neck: "We'll see about that, sonny boy. We'll see."

At one juncture, Hunter summoned me outside to confer privately in his jeep about my collegiate circus. He offered me whiskey, pot and fatherly advice. "You're doing remarkably well with these punks," he asserted. "But be meaner. Slap the little bastards around. Take no crap." I remember thinking, "This is the poet laureate of Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love?" There was nothing hippieish about him. With a skull pipe clenched in his teeth, he looked -- and sounded -- strangely like Douglas MacArthur on amphetamines.

Before long, Hunter, with a flirtatious eye on the women in my classroom-on-wheels, invited us all up to Owl Farm for refreshments. A few students worried he was going to spike their Pepsi with acid -- he didn't. But he did pull out his .45 Magnum and ordered them to queue up. In assembly-line fashion he had them -- one by one -- prop their personal copies of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, Songs of the Doomed, et al., against a tree and then blasted bullet holes through the text. "Next" is all he uttered in staccato voice after each shot, adding an occasional primal scream to keep everybody on high alert.

Sometime around midnight, after a couple of hours of talk, we became fast friends. He asked me to help edit his upcoming book about Bill Clinton, titled Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie. I said sure, it would be an honor. From 1993 to 2005, we usually spoke five to six times a week. Both of our clocks were nocturnal, and as Hunter used to say, you know who your real friends are at 2 a.m. Most of the time we gossiped about politics and sports and his beleaguered self. His take on everything was always the exact opposite of conventional wisdom. It was what he called his 180-degree philosophy. Whatever a U.S. politician or media maven publicly pronounced, the truth, he believed, was 100 percent in the other direction.

While not a contrarian, Hunter definitely saw the downside of any cherished plan or organized thought. "It's never as it seems, Bubba," he used to say. Facts were, to his mind, always weirder than fiction. And, more than any writer I've ever encountered, he was devoid of professional envy or jealousy. He wished all writers success -- they were, after all, colleagues. It was editors and agents who made his skin crawl. Yet, ironically, he relied on them more than any other major literary figure since Thomas Wolfe. Besides being the straight man in Hunter's nonstop carny show, I also became the editor of his vast correspondence. Together we published The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume One and Fear and Loathing in America: The Gonzo Letters, Volume II to superb reviews. Because these books showcased Hunter's gifts as a masterful prose stylist and trenchant satirist, his literary stock rose upward. But it was getting lonelier all the time for Hunter. His core constituency of friends -- Oliver Tribeck, Ken Kesey, Warren Zevon, among others, were gone. Suddenly cast as the Elder Statesman of the Counterculture, he grew uncomfortable with the horrific role. He hated the notion of being spokesman for the "New Old."

(Excerpted from RS 970, March 24, 2005)