Words by Rory Feehan
Photos by David S. Wills
“My only faith in this country is rooted in such places as Colorado and Idaho and maybe Big Sur as it was before the war. The cities are greasepits and not worth blowing off the map.”
– Hunter S. Thompson (from a letter to Lionel Olay,February 16, 1962)
Hunter S. Thompson is a name that will always be associated with a variety of locations – from his birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky, to his longstanding fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado; from San Juan in Puerto Rico, courtesy of The Rum Diary, to Las Vegas and his journey to the heart of the American Dream. Thompson was a seasoned traveller and indeed such was the extent of his time on the road in his early twenties that he once declared his wanderlust made “Kerouac look like a piker.” Although the natural environment has always played an integral role in the make-up of Thompson’s work, it remains an element of his writing that is all too often overlooked in favour of focusing on the more radical characteristics that have come to define both his literary persona and Gonzo Journalism. In order to fully understand and appreciate the various underlying principles that motivated Thompson and shaped his development as a writer, attention must be paid both to the manner in which he utilises the natural environment as a literary device and how the frontier as a concept lies at the heart of his literary oeuvre.
Interestingly, the very point in Thompson’s life where the aforementioned come into being, a time and place that could be considered the genesis of both the fictive persona of The Hunterfigure and Gonzo Journalism, is actually one of the most overlooked periods in his life. That place is none other than Big Sur, California. Thompson arrived there in November of 1960, in the hope of settling down to write what he called “The Great Puerto Rican Novel,” inspired by his experiences living in San Juan. His journey from the Caribbean island to his new home on the west coast of America had been far from straightforward, with New York City being the first port of call in July, 1960, in what would become a westward voyage across the country that echoed Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It is important, however, to first examine how and why Thompson ended up in Big Sur from San Juan, as the journey itself reveals important details concerning Thompson’s motivations that ultimately find their ultimate expression through his writing.
The catalyst that spurred Thompson on his travels echoed that of certain frontiersmen that first journeyed westward across the land in search of pastures new: they were both equally motivated by a desire stay one step ahead of the law. In the time-honoured tradition of the outlaw heroes that he so admired in his youth, Thompson had fled Puerto Rico whilst out on bail awaiting charges of breach of the peace and resisting arrest. Rather than await his fate, Thompson, as ever, opted to control his own destiny and thus returned to the familiar scene of New York. Though he had become disillusioned with journalism following his stint in Puerto Rico, he still had a strong desire to get his fiction published and whilst in New Yorkhe made one final pitch to Grove Press to garner interest in Prince Jellyfish, his first novel. Success, however, was far off, and upon receiving yet another rejection letter, Thompson decided to move on from the novel, declaring to William Kennedy that he would “chalk that year up to experience.” For Thompson, though, New York proved to be only a temporary stay. His focus quickly switched to the horizon and an escape route away from the big city. He was never comfortable living in a city the size of New York, though he did find it to be a never-ending source of intrigue. When he first arrived there on Christmas Eve, 1957, the towering skyscrapers made such an impression that he later wrote,
I’d never been there, never even seen it. I remember being stunned at the New York skyline as I drove over this big freeway, coming across the flats in Secaucus. All of a sudden it was looming up in front of me and I almost lost control of the car. I thought it was a vision.
However, the constant struggle to survive on a meagre wage in New York had been the principle reason for Thompson fleeing to Puerto Rico by January, 1960, and now, six months later, he had come full circle. The city had proven to be a rich learning experience in the past, from his stint working as a copyboy at Time, to the classes in “Literary Style & Structure” and “Short Story Writing” that he had taken at Columbia University. Living inNew York had also exposed him to the very epicentre of the Beat Generation universe, and their rise to literary prominence did not escape his attention. He was particularly taken by Jack Kerouac, whose “confessional prose made quite an impact on Thompson’s philosophy for living, if not on his writing style,” according to Thompson’s literary executor, Douglas Brinkley. For Thompson, though, the negative aspects of living in New York far outweighed the positive to such an extent that he harboured a life-long aversion to the “rat-race” reality of big city life, a sentiment that was all too clear from even the earliest days of his time in New York, as illustrated in his letter to his former English teacher at Louisville Male High School, Arch Gerhart, dated January 29, 1958:
Anyone who could live in this huge reclaimed tenement called Manhattan for more than a year, without losing all vestiges of respect for everything that walks on two legs, would have to be either in love, or possessed of an almost divine understanding. The sight of eight million people struggling silently but desperately to merely stay alive is anything but inspiring. For my money, at least eight million people would be much better off if all five boroughs of New York should suddenly sink into the sea.
In the two years following that appraisal, Thompson had only found more reason to convince him that his time was best spent elsewhere. He had hoped that Puerto Rico would have been the solution to his problem, but even a supposed Caribbean paradise turned out to have a dark side. Thompson, however, had not entirely given up on the region and by August, 1960, he had another island in the Caribbean in his sights – Cuba.
As with all of his endeavours, the potential for excitement and adventure was always paramount and now Cuba was at the centre of attention, following the exploits of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara a little over a year earlier. The image of the guerrilla fighter in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, fighting to overthrow the Batista regime, greatly appealed to Thompson’s romantic sensibilities. There was also the Hemingway connection to contend with, which only served to heighten Thompson’s desire to travel to the country in search of work and indulge his fantasy of following in his literary heroes’ footsteps. The dream quickly fell by the wayside once Thompson realised that work opportunities on the island were scarce and his own financial situation had deteriorated to the point of making any return to the Caribbean impossible. Undaunted by this discovery, a new plan of action swung into gear by September, with Thompson and his friend Paul Semonin deciding to undertake the cross-country road trip that would culminate in his arrival at Big Sur.
The duo’s first destination was to be Seattle, which involved delivering the vehicle they were journeying in to a car dealer, after which they hoped to make their way down to San Francisco. Once they took to the highways, they quickly found themselves paying homage to Kerouac’s On the Road. As Paul Perry noted in Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson:
Their first rule of the road was to pick up every hitchhiker. In western Kansas, Semonin stopped for a man carrying a five-gallon gas can. When the hitchhiker got into the backseat, he flipped the latches on the can to reveal it was stuffed with clothes. “No one will pick you up if they think you’re a hitchhiker,” he explained. “You have to be a motorist in distress.” Hunter smelled a story and interviewed the man about the difficulty of getting rides. When they neared a signpost that proved they were in the middle of nowhere, Hunter made Semonin stop and take a picture of the interviewee with his thumb out, looking forlorn.
Given the nature of their expedition and literary sensibilities, the Beat Generation connotations are unsurprising. Thompson was particularly fixated on the image of the lone hitchhiker during this jaunt, with multiple photographs taken by both Thompson and Semonin along the way consisting of a solitary figure standing at the edge of an empty highway, awaiting the opportunity to catch a ride to the next town from a stranger that might never materialise. The sheer vastness of the landscape in the background creates an overwhelming sense of isolation but also raises the alluring prospect of endless possibilities and unlimited freedom. It was an intoxicating picture for Thompson but one that he felt was increasingly under threat, as is evident from his article “Low Octane for the Long Haul”…
Hitchhikers have fallen on bad times in recent years. The raised thumb, long a symbol of youthful adventure, suddenly took on a threatening aspect when both Hollywood and the Readers’ Digest decided the public would be better off if hitchhiking were a lost art. It almost is – and things have come to such a sad pass that only uniformed servicemen and Jack Kerouac seem to be able to move about the country with any ease. The others are having trouble. Most people are afraid of them, insurance regulations prevent truckers from picking them up, and a good many of those who still stop for the stranded thumb are often more dangerous than the hitchhikers themselves.
It was a doomed image that Thompson himself brought to fruition in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with his alter ego, Raoul Duke, and attorney Dr. Gonzo terrorizing a hitchhiker on the desert highway to Las Vegas, a place that we are ominously reminded as being the last known home of the Manson family.
In 1960, there was still a vestige of innocence and youthful optimism that had yet to be swept away by the tide of violence that would come to define the decade ahead. Upon his eventual arrival in San Francisco in October of that year, Thompson delighted in seeking out the North Beach haunts of the Beats, including the City Lights Bookshop owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But the novelty of the city by the bay soon wore off and, once more, Thompson found himself cursing the pressures of city life. The task of finding accommodation was temporarily eased by his friend John Clancy offering him the use of his vacated apartment until the lease had expired. Clancy was moving across the bay to Berkeleyand so Thompson seized the opportunity with relish. Yet the perennial problem of employment once more reared its ugly head, with a soon-to-be despairing Thompson applying for everything from bartending to selling encyclopaedias. He was met with rejection across the board. When his application to the San Francisco Chronicle for work went completely unacknowledged, Thompson sent Editor Abe Mellinkoff an Orwellian put-down entitled “Down and Out in San Francisco”…
City of hills and fog and water, bankers and boobs – Republicans all…city of no money except what you find at the General Delivery window, and somehow it’s always enough – city, like all cities, of lonely women, lost souls, and people slowly going under. City of newspapers for Nixon (“careful now, don’t upset the balance of terror”)…where you talk with editors and news directors and creative directors and hear over and over again how easy and necessary it is to sell out…
There was now also a notable political edge seeping into Thompson’s writing, no doubt a reflection of the extraordinary political circus that was unfolding before an electrified nation – the first televised presidential debates between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy.
With an average audience of some sixty million viewers, the four televised debates generated massive publicity and exposed the candidates to an unprecedented level of public scrutiny. When the black and white images beamed across the country there was a stark contrast in appearance between the two contenders – Nixon was recovering from illness and appeared gaunt, not to mention ill at ease, while Kennedy was confident, energetic, and relaxed. It proved to be a pivotal moment in American politics that sent shockwaves across the political spectrum, culminating in Kennedy’s victory that November. Thompson would later point to the televised presidential debates between Nixon and Kennedy as a moment of great importance in his political awakening:
That was when I first understood that the world of Ike and Nixon was vulnerable…and that Nixon, along with all the rotting bullshit he stood for, might conceivably be beaten…and it had never occurred to me that politics in America had anything to do with human beings. It was Nixon’s game – a world of old hacks and legalized thievery, a never-ending drone of bad speeches and worse instincts…With Nixon as the only alternative, Kennedy was beautiful – whatever he was. It didn’t matter. The most important thing about Kennedy, to me and millions of others, was that his name wasn’t Nixon.
…I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build our new West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, nor the prisoners of their own price tags. They were determined to make the new world strong and free…Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier. But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment…we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960’s…The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not.
In many ways, the 1960 presidential election was emblematic of an entire generational shift in the national psyche. In his inaugural address, President Kennedy spoke of his election as, “not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom – symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning – signifying renewal, as well as change.” Indeed, this change would become a cultural tsunami that would sweep across the country over the coming decade, altering virtually every facet of the American way of life in the process. For many, the opening salvo in this transformation had actually been fired almost a year before Kennedy’s election. The incident in question occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, when four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College refused to leave a segregated lunch-counter in the local Woolworths store. The sit-in set off a wave of similar protests across the nation and became a defining moment in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Seemingly overnight, what had been bubbling underground for years, came rushing to the surface, but now the voice of protest, dissent, and rebellion had spread to form a multitude of different voices and groups, each with their own story and vision of change. In San Francisco that summer, protestors at City Hall adopted the sit-in as a non-violent approach to voicing their opposition to the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but what started off as a peaceful event descended into a brutal confrontation with the police. Many of the attendees were students at nearby Berkeley University, which was becoming a hotbed of civil liberties activists, and such activism was rapidly spreading to other campuses. America was now bearing witness to the rise of what would become known as the New Left, whose underlying policy was to take to the streets and actively engage the opposition.
If action was the operating mantra, then no writer was more suitable to the call than Hunter S. Thompson, whose own work ethic operated on the same principle of shaping reality through action, and then writing about it. The road ahead for Thompson would prove to be as convoluted and challenging as that of the New Left, and while San Francisco would ultimately feature predominantly as a focal point for their respective endeavours, it had yet to deliver for Thompson as the year drew to a close. Tired of his fruitless quest for employment, his thoughts now rested solely on completing his Caribbean novel, but first he would have to settle on a suitable place that would facilitate such a commitment, and for a struggling writer in California there was really only one possible destination. Directly south of San Francisco, amidst the ancient redwood groves of the Santa Lucia Mountains and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, lay a territory of legendary repute – Big Sur.
Thompson’s attraction to Big Sur was inevitable, given its hedonistic reputation as a haven for a motley crew of artists and social misfits. One name above all had become synonymous with the area and that was Henry Miller. Thompson had long been enthralled by the work of the notorious iconoclast, whose first published book, Tropic of Cancer, had been banned in the U.S. on the basis that its content was obscene and pornographic. Miller lived in Big Sur between 1944 and 1962, during which time he produced some of his most revered writing – including Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Unfortunately, Miller was absent for the entire duration of Thompson’s stay in Big Sur during 1961, having travelled to Europe for several months, leaving behind a notable void in the community. In the months that followed, that void was more than filled by Hunter S. Thompson, who made sure to leave behind an indelible mark as The Outlaw of Big Sur.
Thompson initially rented a small cabin, the kind of which were scattered all along the coastline, nestled in the shadows of Big Sur’s giant redwood forest. Here he was joined by girlfriend Sandy Conklin and, as usual, money was scarce. The couple survived on meagre supplies delivered on credit by the postman, as there was no accessible store within the vicinity. Never one to keep a low profile, Thompson was quick to reach out to the Big Surcommunity, in particular author Dennis Murphy, whose 1958 breakthrough novel The Sergeant had become an internationally acclaimed bestseller. Murphy was a native of Salinas, a small city just north of Big Sur and home to literary giant John Steinbeck, who had a close connection to the Murphy family. Steinbeck allegedly used Dennis and his brother, Michael, as the basis for Cal and Aron Trask in East of Eden. The Murphy family were prominent in Big Sur, where they operated a large retreat compound, famous for its natural hot spring steam baths. Here Dennis Murphy would play host to his friends, of whom several were prominent figures in the Beat movement. He was particularly close to Jack Kerouac, who lived for a period in nearby Bixby Canyon, in a small secluded cabin owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Kerouac was battling alcohol addiction at the time and recounted his experience in the autobiographical novel Big Sur. In many ways, the Murphy compound was the nerve centre for Big Sur’s artistic circle and Thompson’s inclusion in this scene was all but a matter of time.
In the end, it was actually Thompson’s financial situation that propelled him into the inner circle at thehot springs. Unable to afford the rent for his cabin, Thompson sought out cheaper accommodation, and was directed to the Murphy compound by Dick Rowan, a photographer friend that lived adjacent to the property. The compound itself was run by Dennis Murphy’s grandmother, who was looking to rent a small annex to the main ‘Big House,’ as the family home was known. At only $15 a month, it was ideal for Thompson, who was further delighted to be offered the position as caretaker to the entire property, with the main house being vacated by Mrs. Murphy periodically throughout the spring due to renovations being undertaken as part of an ambitious project to transform the compound. Thompson moved into the annex on February 1, 1961. Shortly thereafter, work began on what would become known as the Esalen Institute.
The brainchild of Michael Murphy and Dick Price, the Esalen Institute was envisaged as a centre “devoted to the exploration of human potential” where a select group of influential figures could “develop revolutionary ideas, transformative practices, and innovative art forms.” Focusing largely on the teachings of Eastern religions, philosophy, and psychology, notable participants included writers Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Ray Bradbury, Ken Kesey, and Joseph Campbell, the Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann, who first synthesised LSD-25, Timothy Leary, and Richard Alpert. Throughout the sixties, Esalen would become a sort of countercultural Mecca, a focal point for the leading figures of the movement. Although Thompson’s arrival in Big Sur coincided with the genesis of Esalen, the spirit of personal growth and transformation had long been a feature of the community and it proved to be especially so for the burgeoning Gonzo Journalist.
Though he came to Big Sur to focus on writing “The Great Puerto Rican Novel,” Thompson also continued to submit articles to newspapers and magazines in an effort to provide some form of income to support himself and Sandy for the duration of their stay. His big breakthrough came when he finally managed to break onto the national stage courtesy of Rogue magazine, who paid him $350 for his article entitled “Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller,” a timely portrait of both Henry Miller’s life in Big Sur and the off-beat community that had built up around him. A month prior to the article’s publication, in September, 1961, a high profile obscenity trial had taken place surrounding the attempt by Grove Press to publish Tropic of Cancer for the first time in the United States. Anything connected to Miller, censorship, or pornography became a highly sensitive topic in a politically charged atmosphere across the nation. In light of this, it is ironic that not only was Thompson’s article published in a magazine that was a market rival of Playboy, but also that part of the article itself involved the disclosure of the somewhat controversial escapades of the Big Sur community.
In retrospect, the article is as illuminating of Thompson himself as it is of the subject matter. In many ways, Big Sur’s eccentric community and its enigmatic figurehead proved to be the ideal vehicle for Thompson, affording him the opportunity to exercise his flair for wild language, which melded seamlessly with the overall context of the piece itself – a perfect reflection of the spirit of anarchistic freedom that remained a constant association throughout Big Sur’s storied history, irrespective of the somewhat inflated truth:
If half the stories about Big Sur were true this place would long since have toppled into the sea, drowning enough madmen and degenerates to make a pontoon bridge of bodies all the way to Honolulu…The very earth itself would heave and retch in disgust – and down these long, rocky slopes would come a virtual cascade of nudists, queers, junkies, rapists, artists, fugitives, vagrants, thieves, lunatics, sadists, hermits and human chancres of every description.
Writing with absolutely unapologetic conviction, Thompson crafts a portrait of the Big Surway of life that zeroes in on the truth behind the myth, despite compromising his position in the community in the process. It was a dedication to the story that foreshadows much of his later work, particularly that of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 and the manner in which he was unafraid to burn bridges in his pursuit of the real story hidden behind a web of political spin. In terms of the Big Sur myths, the first one that Thompson tackled was its reputation as a hell-raiser’s paradise, a wanton den of hedonistic pleasure straight out of Sodom and Gomorrah. Thompson was unflinching in his appraisal that the reputation was not entirely unfair, though more likely as a result of the behaviour of the weekend visitor, pinpointing Murphy’s Hot Springs as being the central focus for thrill seekers of every persuasion:
During the day most people observe the partition that separates the men’s side from the women’s, but once the sun goes down the baths are as coeducational as a cathouse New Year’s Eve party, and often twice as wild. This is the glamorous side of Big Sur, the side that occasionally matches the myth – and none of it is hidden away in the hills, as a lot of people seem to think.
In his assessment of the long-term residents, he was even more provocative with his choice of words, describing the owner of the Big Sur Inn, Helmut Deetjan, as looking “more like a junkie than a lot of the hopheads who’ve been on the stuff for years.” Of Henry Miller’s personal secretary, Emil White, Thompson claimed that people frequently mistook him for “a hermit or a sex fiend.” Despite these inflammatory remarks, it is precisely these individuals who represent the otherBig Sur, a side that Thompson considered to be truly fascinating, particularly in relation to the almost pioneer-like sense of determination and independence that distinguished the long term residents from the ever-changing influx of tourists to the area. To reinforce this difference, he delves into the harsh reality of living in an isolated, lonely wilderness, which is so far removed from the norms of regular urban life that it takes a special kind of individual to truly tolerate Big Sur for any significant length of time. Having come toBig Sur and experienced this struggle for himself, Thompson made no attempt to gloss over the details, offering candid anecdotes that thoroughly dispel the romantic notion that life amongst the small bohemian colony served as an easy escape from the confines ofMiddle America. The majority of the individuals in this community were either artists or writers, who spent their time largely engrossed in their own work, unperturbed by the events of the outside world. Some even went so far as to be entirely self-sufficient, living off the land without so much as electricity. Having grown accustomed to living not only geographically, but also socially, apart from the rest of society, a tangible resistance to outsiders was prevalent amongst the group. Indeed, this is a sentiment to which Thompson repeatedly returned throughout the article, acknowledging the tension and distrust that existed between the community and uninvited visitors. In light of this observation, his decision to paint a thoroughly dysfunctional picture of Murphy’s Hot Springs in the closing paragraphs of the article proved to be a high risk manoeuvre. Not only was Thompson breaking the trust afforded to him by the community, but he was also undermining the Murphy family, who were in the process of launching the Esalen Institute. The image created by Thompson was precisely that which they had sought to leave behind:
This place is a real menagerie…There are only two legitimate wives on the property; the other females are either mistresses, “companions,” or hopeless losers…the late Dr. Murphy, conceived this place as a great health spa, a virtual bastion of decency and clean living. But something went wrong. During World War Two it became a haven for draft dodgers, and over the years it has evolved into a lonely campground for the morally deformed, a pandora’s box of human oddities, and a popular sinkhole of idle decadence.
The succinct but damning description firmly put Thompson on a collision course with his landlord, Vinnie Murphy, the matriarch of the Murphy family, which once more carried with it the inescapable sense that he was unable to exist harmoniously with any figure of authority. He did have a certain amount of breathing space before publication of the article, but his increasingly unpredictable and erratic behaviour in the intervening period ensured the prospect of a confrontation to be inevitable.
The Big Sur article was a watershed moment for Thompson, revealing the changes developing within his writing, in conjunction with affording an insight into his ever-growing identification with individualist anarchism and the cult of personality. However, there is one particular statement from the article that is definitive in terms of illustrating the underlying reasoning behind the radical change in Thompson’s outward persona: “This place is a mythmaker’s paradise, so vast and so varied that the imagination is tempted to run wild at the sight of it.” Witnessing firsthand the fervour surrounding Henry Miller’s association with Big Sur was proof enough for Thompson that his statement was no simple theory. In writing of this phenomenon for Rogue magazine, Thompson creates a detailed portrait that illustrates the extent to which he understood the various factors that had elevated Miller from writer to icon. He had also witnessed the insatiable public appetite for more, with Big Sur constantly inundated by those who sought out the notorious writer, only to be met with something entirely unexpected:
They weren’t interested in literature, they wanted orgies. And they were shocked to find him a quiet, fastidious and very moral man – instead of the raving sexual beast they’d heard stories about.
None of this was lost on Thompson. Combined with the money and the confidence from successfully selling his article, he quickly embarked on his own relentless mythmaking strategy. To that end, the Big Sur wilderness proved to be the perfect setting for invoking the larger-than-life outlaw persona that would define his life and work.
The first to bear witness to this transformation in Thompson was the immediate community surrounding Murphy’s Hot Springs, where Thompson had embraced his role as caretaker with relish. Carrying a bullwhip and a truncheon as he patrolled the property, the darker confrontational aspect of his personality radiated an overt threat of violence that did not sit well with the more sedate, pacifist spirit of the larger community. One of the most notable figures that frowned upon his behaviour was Joan Baez, who had just released her self-titled debut album. In a way, the two figures represented the different sides to the Big Surenvironment, with Baez evoking the daytime tranquillity and peace amongst the towering Sequoia forest and Thompson representing the untamed violent underside of the night that ultimately governed survival in the wilderness. It was an opposition which ultimately proved to be the barrier that ensured that Thompson and Baez remained somewhat distant in their neighbourly relationship; the divide was far too ingrained for either of them to be able to bridge the gap. As Peter Whitmer noted in When the Going Gets Weird, Baez was “born into a legacy of pacifism in the same degree that Thompson was born into a legacy of Kentucky feudal violence.” It was also a division that would come to define the years ahead for both Thompson and his neighbour. Baez and many of the Big Sur community embraced that which would come to define the hippie generation – a peculiar smorgasbord of folk music, Eastern religion, psychedelic drugs, and non-violent protest. For Hunter S. Thompson it was a different path, one that would lead to riding with the Hell’s Angels and a trip to the very edge where the American Dream turned into the American Nightmare by way of the bomb and the bullet. That being the case, it was all too fitting that it was in Big Sur where he first seriously embraced what would become a lifelong obsession – guns.
Thompson liked nothing better than to punctuate the Big Sur serenity with drunken outbursts during the day and bouts of gunfire in the middle of the night, targeting raccoons with blasts from a twelve-gauge shotgun and simultaneously shattering his neighbours’ nerves in the process. The drunken antics were considered tolerable. The gunfire became a near constant in what was once a serene forest thanks to Thompson’s newest pastime, one that once more stemmed from his Hemingway fantasy – blood sport. Thompson’s accomplice, when it came to hunting down the game that inhabited the Big Sur wilderness, was a sculptor named Jo Hudson. Together, they soon acquired a less than flattering reputation. Whitmer explains,
The two men would pile into Jo’s car at night, stick a couple of beers between their legs, and load up the back with their dogs and go deer hunting. “The Senseless Killers Club” was what some called it – running down deer blinded by Hudson’s headlights on Route 1, or shooting wild boar that roamed the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Of course, making an impact, negative or otherwise, was what mattered, as was the feeling of not only matching his literary idols, but going one step further. Douglas Brinkley described Thompson’s tendency towards “sardonic one-upmanship,” and went on to add that “if Hemingway, rifle in hand, had hunted big game around Mt. Kilimanjaro, then Thompson would stalk wild boar with a Bowie knife in Big Sur.” To compound the distasteful manner in which their hunting sorties were viewed by the rest of the community, Thompson delighted in utilising various remnants from a wild boar kill for his own brand of practical joke. The severed heads of the animals turned up in a variety of locations, including the hot springs, much to the distress of the unfortunate victims of the act. Thompson never let an opportunity for street theatre to go to waste.
This impulse towards the theatrical is further evident in the manner in which Thompson began to mould his outlaw persona with a level of dedication befitting that of a method actor. With the money he received from Rogue magazine he immediately set about boosting his armoury, first by purchasing a .22 calibre pistol, followed swiftly by a .44 Magnum and a rifle. He said,
With the Rogue money I bought a pistol and a Doberman and a lot of whiskey, and now a man up the road has put the sheriff on me for shooting while drunk and keeping a vicious dog.
The .44 Magnum in particular would become an essential association for Thompson, remaining a constant part of the Hunterfigure image as renegade outlaw. Re-inforced through numerous references to it throughout his writing, it became a favoured prop when he was photographed. These new additions to his collection were not just for show. Thompson furthered his alienation from the community by first shooting out the windows of his own cabin and then using his neighbours’ windows as target practice. Twice he was spoken to by the sheriff about his violent behaviour, but it did little to alter his ways.
The most notable event during Thompson’s Big Sur tenure was undoubtedly his confrontation with a group of gay men who had made a habit of visiting Murphy’s Hot Springs on weekends. Soon their presence became a problem, with Michael Murphy and Dick Price wanting to put an end to the activity that was taking place there. They sought to establish the Esalen Institute, whose operating ethos did not include the use of the hot springs as an all-night party venue. As caretaker, it was Thompson’s duty to enforce the new rules and, in typical fashion, he set about doing so in a particularly over-the-top and menacingly theatrical manner. Whitmer explains,
“The Night of the Dobermans” is how locals recall it: a mad romp around the baths, maybe thirty or forty naked men doing whatever naked men who are willing to drive pink Cadillac’s all the way from L.A. or San Francisco to Big Sur are prone to do. Suddenly, above the boom of the surf, above the riot of their own partying, came the sound of pistol shots, the voice of Hunter Thompson, and enough canine snarling to ice their blood.
The following night, the group of men returned the favour. Thompson suffered a severe beating and only managed to escape being thrown off a cliff due to the intervention of his friend, Maxine Ambus. When Thompson retreated to the sanctuary of his cabin for the rest of the night, he made sure to voice his displeasure at the incident in his own particular manner of expression. Again, from Whitmer,
For the rest of the night he punctuated the silence of Big Sur with rifle shot fired through his unopened window. In the morning, Murphy looked out to find a horizontal line of bullet holes, and Thompson’s clothes hung on the line. “They were stiff as a board with blood,” Murphy said.
Thompson was quick to capitalise on the balance of terror that he maintained with the local community in Big Sur, regaling his friends with letters concerning his daily strife in a manner that not only bears many of the hallmarks of Gonzo Journalism, but also illustrates an effort to stage-manage his life in order to project the requisite image. Brinkley said,
It is clear from the letters that Thompson deliberately cultivated himself as the American Adam, a figure defined by critic R.W.B Lewis as “an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.”
This marriage between the image that he was fostering in his writing, one that both reflected and simultaneously informed his way of life, is also evident in his photography from this period. The central emphasis is, of course, that which was also conveyed throughout his writing, that of the Hunterfigure as an outlaw, the rugged individualist and writer juxtaposed with the frontier-like vast wilderness of Big Sur. The most powerful of these images captures Thompson, pipe in mouth, typing at a small table overlooking the plunging cliffs of the Big Sur coastline. Another shows him surveying the view with a telescope, with a rifle by his side, accompanied by Agar, his Doberman. Hunting is a prominent theme, with many photographs capturing his boar-hunting exploits. One particular photo of the hanging carcass of a boar features Thompson’s handwriting on the reverse. It simply states – “Joan Baez butchering hogs – Big Sur 1961.” When he submitted various photographs in conjunction with an article, Thompson provided various explanations for each image. For a group shot Thompson identifies Jo Hudson as “yachtsman and big-game hunter,” John Clancy, “now a SF lawyer,” with Sandy described as “then private secretary and constant companion to Big Sur’s most prominent thug.” Another similar image, this one actually including Thompson himself, is captioned – “More of same. Foreground is the thug – in this case, the author.” In retrospect, these are the first photographs of Thompson in the guise of his literary alter ego.
Though clearly happy to promote this image and, indeed, live up to the name, Thompson knew that he was making life difficult for himself in the community. It was a pattern that dominated his life ever since his youth in Louisville. A copy of Rogue magazine containing Thompson’s article on Big Sur had made its way to Vinnie Murphy, the eighty-nine year old matriarch of the family and owner of the hot springs. She did not appreciate Thompson’s description of the antics at the baths, particularly his disclosure of its popularity as a homosexual rendezvous point. Thompson was given one month to leave the property. Though hardly a stranger to receiving an eviction notice, in Big Sur it proved to be a particularly difficult problem for Thompson to resolve. The Rogue article mentioned a number of other members of the community, who were similarly none too pleased by the article’s content. Finding a new property to rent proved to be impossible. It was clear that Thompson’s time in Big Sur had come to an end in a manner that could only serve to highlight the extent of his outsider status. Whitmer explained,
In his expulsion from Big Sur, Thompson was cast out of a community of castaways; even with an international reputation as a pornographer, Henry Miller had been welcomed here with open arms. Thompson seemed to be taking iconoclasm to new heights.
Big Sur had more than lived up to its reputation as a place of personal growth and transformation. For Hunter S. Thompson the untamed wilderness and the inherent freedom that it afforded represented an America that was increasingly under threat. Though he left Big Sur for pastures new, it is no coincidence that Thompson eventually settled in Woody Creek, Colorado. His “fortified compound” in the Rocky Mountains spoke to his romantic sensibilities, fitting perfectly with his image of the outlaw individualist. Free from the constraints of city life, it was a place where he could be the master of his own domain. It was this same wild nature and inclination to challenge the dominant and established power structures that also enabled Thompson to break free from the existing literary rules and establish his own unique genre of Gonzo Journalism. Beyond this, it often boiled down to appreciating the simple things in life – like being able to walk outside, stark naked, to fire your .44 Magnum at targets on the hillside before loading up on mescaline and blasting “White Rabbit” at 110 decibels while the sun comes up on the snow-peaks along the Continental Divide – and not get arrested.
Perry, Paul (1992) Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S.
Thompson. New York: Avalon.
Thompson, Hunter S. (2001). Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey
of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976 [Fear and Loathing Letters, vol. 2]. London:
Thompson, Hunter S. (2006). Gonzo. Los Angeles: AMMO
Thompson, Hunter S. (1992). Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the
American Dream [Gonzo Papers, vol. 3]. London: Picador.
Thompson, Hunter S. (1997). The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern
Gentleman, 1955-1967 [Fear and Loathing Letters, vol. 1]. New York: Villard.
Whitmer, Peter O. (2000) When The Going Gets Weird. Princeton: POW.