LAS VEGAS -- Hunter S. Thompson shot himself on Feb. 20, 2005. I was sitting in my cubicle on a cold and otherwise quiet Monday morning in Bristol, Conn., when Page 2 skipper Kevin Jackson came over and told us the news.
The Good Doctor was dead at age 67.
Like so many other HST devotees, I too was enthralled by his persona, but I knew that mine was a fixation different from most of his emblematic disciples -- given that I did not live through the decades which spawned Hunter's impetus.
I am a product of 1980, and thus grew up behind the Gonzo curve. Like most others my age, I once knew of Hunter only in the way I know of Vietnam, The Big Red Machine, "Lawrence of Arabia" and Hall and Oates.
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" was published in 1971 -- nine years before I was born. Johnny Depp's movie masterpiece hit the big screen in 1998 -- the year my class graduated from high school. I have read pages of Hunter's Nixon-despising diatribes and have consequently developed a subliminal odium for the swine ... even though Ronald Reagan is the first president I can remember.
Thus, it was in that cubicle at ESPN just a handful of years ago that I became acquainted with the extraordinaire Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. As a young intern with not so much as a shadow of journalistic chops, Hunter's columns felt almost as convoluted as they did infectiously alluring.
His writing was chaotically obsessive. It was caustic, it was electric and it was unlike anything I had seen published on these golden yellow pages (and not just because it had almost nothing to do with sports).
I was immediately rapt by Hunter's writing and even more obsessed with the fact that he was a virtual co-worker of mine. Though I would never meet Hunter S. Thompson, I was acutely affected by his presence on ESPN.com.
While so many of his fans came to Page 2 seeking Hunter in the twilight of their Gonzo dedication, I was, for all intents and purposes, just discovering his iconic flare and political prose through a computer screen and a sports Web site. It was there, as an observer to the unique editorial freedom he was granted, that I began to pursue his full body of work.
I remember in his passing, trying to grasp the weight of who he was, just like I had done so many times before, throughout his existence. I can recall the discussions about how his legacy would endure and all that might befall from his suicide. I remember my mind racing with associations between Hunter and Elliott Smith ... and Kurt Cobain ... and Hemingway ... and van Gogh ... and Romeo. But most of all I remember my subtle lack of surprise.
I wondered where The Good Doctor would settle into the ranks of my generation. I wondered if we knew enough to carry his spirit -- as history is, after all, hard to know.
It wasn't until spending the last few days here in Sin City for the Vegoose music festival that I unassumingly witnessed the first confirmation that, in fact, we 20-somethings get it. I'm standing at the source and am happy to report that we have somehow found a way to tap the true spirit of HST.
This Halloween, about 25,000 people bought the ticket and took the ride.
I hit the open road on Friday with a group of six friends who are just as wild as I am. We had no attorney, but we packed thoroughly and drove from Los Angeles, past the edge of the desert, through Barstow (luckily, it wasn't bat season) over the sands and down the strip for the second annual Halloween Weekend jam-fest on the grounds of UNLV's Sam Boyd Stadium.
What ensued there was a sea of new-age nihilism and traditional tie-dyed hysteria, but we concertgoers were inebriated by more than just the music and mind-altering tricks and treats. Fervent politics surged like acid on tongues while a potent message of democracy and responsibility laced the air with a vision (not hallucination) of a better tomorrow.
In the unique and inveterate spirit of Las Vegas, we were reveling in a powerful surge of expectations, carved by the prospect of success ... with the consolation of sweet, provisional indulgence.
The famous words of Dr. Thompson in "Fear and Loathing" best describe the atmosphere: "There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right ... 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... "
HeadCount.org volunteers dressed as presidents and petitioned thousands of concertgoers in their "Pledge to Vote" campaign. Oval orange stickers proclaiming the message (simply stated, "Vote!") were slapped on backpacks, trash cans and foreheads. There was a feeling that together something will be accomplished -- that we can rock the vote, that we can make a difference.
Strong doses of such high-powered principle, coupled with the charged energy inherent in a large crowd gave way to a truly intoxicating hopefulness this Vegoose Halloween 2006. Artists spouted choruses of ambition into microphones from four different stages and sunshine fell upon those fields of Nevada like streamers of sanguinity.
Sitting on a blanket with my friends in the throng of music and motivation felt like a present-day depiction of a 2004 HST essay that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. "[We were] righteous ... and there were millions of us. ... It was fun ... our tribe was strong like a river. That river is still running. All we have to do is get out and vote, while it's still legal... "
The spirit of Hunter S. Thompson and the River of Righteous has been running like chemicals through my veins for the last five days. He was in the pamphlets of grassroots campaigns. He was on the T-shirts of teenagers. He hid in the dread cap of the displaced hippie staring at the sports book scoreboard in the Bellagio. He was under the big-top tent of the cabaret club stage, shining like the lights of Circus-Circus and a county-fair/Polish carnival.
He was in the music of Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and Steve Kimock -- which I suspect will be as close as I ever get to those magical middle '60s in San Francisco, which Hunter so adored.
You could strike his sparks anywhere while wandering among the masses who were all, in the spirit of the season, dressed up and tripped out. I counted about 15 Napoleon Dynamites, a good-sized swarm of Blind Melon bumblebees and about 10 Janis Joplins. There were jokers, pumpkins, poker chips and playing cards. There was a (functional Bud Light-dispensing) human keg and a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man -- further solidifying that this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs as reality itself is too twisted. But most striking to me, in the midst of all this madness, were the dozens of Raoul Duke impersonators twitching around the horde.
It wasn't their perfect ensemble of the fisherman hat, tinted aviator shades, Hawaiian shirt, midcalf socks and long cigarette holder that impressed me, but rather their ability to stay completely in character every minute of each day and night. (At least I thought this to be an astonishing feat until I realized that it was entirely possible that these gentlemen were fueled by the exact cocktail of pharmaceuticals that Duke himself once imbibed.) Regardless, Hunter Thompson was everywhere, and the innumerable facets of his eccentricity and wisdom were perhaps never more comprehensively represented than at Vegoose 2006.
This epiphany struck most severely when I was asked to finish a beverage before walking through the gates on Day 2. I used the pause to engage with my fellow Vegoosers for a minute and immediately realized that to talk to the folks in attendance at Vegoose was to open yourself up to psychedelic reflections, near-incoherent ramblings, opinionated conclusions, incisive assessments, articulate proposals and everything else in between.
The conversations I had at Vegoose 2006 could have been typewritten by The Good Doctor himself. In fact, I took some video of said conversations in hopes to include them as a supplement to this account but we managed to lose the camera somewhere in our travels (which may be for the better as absolute truth is of course a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism). So without so much as a bootleg recording of the shows or the camera I came with, I head home from Las Vegas with nothing but a feeling for this festival.
It was just good times over long nights, but I swear it felt like something bigger.
Maybe it meant something in the long run, maybe not. But in the words of The Good Doctor -- no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories, can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant...
Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If she'd written all the truth she knew for the past 10 years, about 600 people -- including she -- would be rotting in prison cells from Connecticut to California today.