The old, weird America. That’s what Greil Marcus called it. I’m pretty familiar with it. I’d encountered it enough when I was growing up. Talking to the old-timers in the small town in Wisconsin where I was raised, I knew there were plenty of wonderfully unmeltable lumps in America’s Melting Pot. I also knew that they held a special place in my heart, something I was reminded of a few years ago when I met the friend of one of my literary heroes.
My partner Todd and I had been driving along the Pacific coast from San Francisco to northern California, just north of Eureka, where we planned to camp. We weren’t prepared for the spectacular beauty we encountered along the way nor the extra driving time. Knowing we weren’t going to get as far as we’d hoped, we stopped in the small town of Mendocino for the night. It was pretty late, so we had to hustle to find a room. We were lucky: there was still a vacancy at the wonderful Seagull Inn. The proprietress called the nearby MacCallum House to see if they were still serving dinner. They were.
So we walked over and, because the dining room was full, sat at the Gray Whale Bar for a cocktail while we waited. I ordered two martinis. After pouring them, the bartender, pointing to Todd, joked, “And what will he have?” I laughed and told him that it reminded me of an anecdote about Hunter S. Thompson that George McGovern once told. Apparently, Thompson had joined McGovern and his wife for lunch. He waved down a waiter and ordered four margaritas then looked at the McGoverns’ and asked them what they wanted.
The bartender told me that he’d actually met Hunter Thompson, who used to stop at the Gray Whale when traveling between San Francisco and Aspen. When closing his tab, he would try to scam the bartender, handing him a AAA card instead of a credit card. As the bartender relayed his story, a gentleman walked up to the bar, eventually turning toward us, smiling. “Are you talking about Hunter Thompson?”
We told him we were, and he said, “He was a friend of mine.” He told us that Hunter had been a good friend and had been a very smart man. He expressed some dismay that Hunter was only known for his Gonzo antics. “I knew him when he ran for sheriff in Colorado. He had visionary ideas about law enforcement and local government. But people don’t want to know about that. They just want to know about the crazy persona that he had.”
I knew what he was talking about. I’d seen Thompson give a “talk” at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul in the late 1980s. I went because I thought Thompson was funny, insightful, and a hell of a writer. Most people went, it seemed, because he ingested lots of drugs. After keeping them waiting for well over an hour, Thompson didn’t disappoint as he opened his segment of the evening by shaking some pills into his mouth and washing them down with Chivas Regal, from the biggest bottle of whisky I’d ever seen in my life. He was soon incoherent.
“Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” the man at the Gray Whale Bar frowned. “That was the weird Hunter Thompson. But that was only a part of Hunter.”
I agreed. “But,” I told him, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about the weird Hunter Thompson.”
Perhaps suspecting that’s what we wanted to hear more about, he told us of the time, back in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s in Aspen, when he’d gotten a phone call from Hunter in the middle of winter. Hunter needed help. He was in no shape to drive. He wanted his friend to tow him to the abandoned train car he was temporarily staying in. Driving conditions were terrible, the roads like glass with ice. When he met up with Hunter, the man tried to talk Hunter out of it. He said he would give him a ride instead. But Hunter, a fire helmet on his head with a rotating red light on top, insisted through the haze of mushrooms he’d ingested that he needed to be towed. His friend obliged, terrified as the cars skidded down a steep hill, sliding from side to side.
When they got to the train car, Thompson sprinted inside and hid under a seat, ranting incoherently about some paranoid fantasy or another. “But that’s not who Hunter really was,” the man reminded us.
He was late to join the people he was sitting with in the dining room. I assured him that I had deep respect for Hunter as a writer and thanked him for his time. “Yeah,” I thought to myself. “Hunter was a visionary and a weirdo. And that’s why he was so important.”