In search of the American Dream
A journalist takes his quest
to Hunter S. Thompson's haunts in Woody Creek
Published: March 20, 2005, Ventura County Star
©TJ Sullivan ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
"Perhaps he found what he came here for, but the odds are huge that he didn't. He was an old, sick and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment was not enough for him. ... So finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun."
— Hunter S. Thompson,
"What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?"
May 25, 1964
By TJ Sullivan
Raindrops became snowflakes in the full-blown country darkness that cloaks rural Utah for nearly 12 hours a day this time of year. The road and my knuckles went white as I steered straight on into fear, determined despite reasons that would have made a ridiculous epitaph -- following the footsteps of a suicidal author in search of the American Dream.
The snow was hypnotic in the headlights. Faded lane markers were blurry hints on the pavement. And only the lack of violent vibration reassured me I was still on the road.
Moments earlier I'd been soaring past meek drivers who quickly became twinkles in the rearview mirror. I was the ugly American in lead-footed bliss, blasting through Los Angeles, Las Vegas and southern Utah in a mini SUV on my way to seek enlightenment in the land of John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High." But at this stage of the journey, as I banked onto the eastbound lanes of I-70, I was navigating alone. Exit ramps slid into hollow darkness. My only thought was to go forward.
The quest began two weeks earlier when Hunter S. Thompson, while seated before a typewriter in the kitchen of his home in Woody Creek, Colo., put the barrel of a Smith & Wesson model 645 handgun in his mouth and fired a single .45-caliber bullet, ending a life highlighted by the writing of an American classic, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream."
In the book he wrote that there's "no solace for refugees, no point in looking back. The question, as always, is now ... ?"
So what now? What about the "American Dream" in the 21st century, 34 years after Thompson embarked on that "gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country"?
Could it still be those simple rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger Jr. stories that Thompson referenced? Was it about building something from nothing, like the guy who invented the Circus Circus Casino at the north end of the Las Vegas Strip? Can mom and pop still compete in the age of Wall Street and Wal-Mart?
Or is it something completely different now -- a fat 401(k), a lean body or a Lotto jackpot? Is it Kenneth Lay's Enron or Jose Canseco's biceps? Perhaps the fear of terrorism has morphed the dream into something else, like a gas mask in every pot and a metal detector at the gates?
What about that cliche of home ownership being the dream?
If it's the house, I know a lot of fellow Generation Xers in big cities who aren't buying it. They refuse to be shackled to a 30-year loan that consumes more than half the monthly paycheck and all of their youth. Who wants to end up bitter and trapped in the American nightmare of debt, where the sources of pleasure get winnowed down daily until all that's left is drinking Two-Buck Chuck and watching "American Idol"?
The house can't be the dream, not for everyone -- and certainly not in Southern California.
Looking for the American Dream
So I followed the example set by the Doctor of Gonzo journalism and went on a 1,900-mile, roundtrip journey through Las Vegas and out to Thompson's home in Woody Creek, just northwest of Aspen. If Thompson could skulk around Vegas ripped on blotter acid, I could at least chug a venti coffee and retrace a couple steps. He retyped the work of Ernest Hemingway in search of answers and even traveled to Ketchum, Idaho, following Hemingway's suicide. Maybe he was onto something.
My first stop was Las Vegas, where I talked to Matt O'Brien, managing editor of CityLife, one of the town's weekly newspapers. O'Brien had emphasized the changing face of Vegas four years ago when he retraced Thompson's steps from "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," revealing that only four of the 14 casinos named in the book are still around.
"I don't know what Hunter meant exactly by the 'American Dream,' " O'Brien told me. "But, in a lot of ways, Las Vegas has become the American Dream for a lot of people."
For some, any major, western city that offers big houses with backyard pools in the neighborhood of $150,000 earns instant poster-child status for the picket-fence fantasy. That and Las Vegas' hearty casino job market are two reasons the population more than doubled in the past 10 years, O'Brien explained.
But still, it's Las Vegas, a town built on the losses of others. Thompson wrote that after five days "you feel like you've been here for five years." That's one aspect of the city that may always stay the same.
My conversation with O'Brien shifted to the state of the nation -- what's changed since 1971, and what's changed back?
I cited a New York Times piece Thompson wrote in 1974. It was about the failed Nixon presidency and observed that, before Watergate was a whisper, millions of Americans believed that "anybody who disagreed openly with 'the Government' was either paranoid, or subversive."
The idea sounded as fresh as today's newspaper.
Regardless of whether voters swallowed the red pill or the blue pill in the last presidential election, this point is not debatable. We live in a time when many equate questioning the government to seditious behavior. Even high school children, the leaders of tomorrow, said in a recent survey that newspapers should obtain government approval before publication, a policy that surely would have killed coverage of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and the Starr Report, to name a few.
President Bush even screens all who attend his town hall media events on Social Security reform, an effort to ensure the audience is 100 percent on his side.
Nixon used the same tactic.
I quickly understood what Thompson meant by "The Fear." It was clear that finding the American Dream would require the confidence to chart my own course and not be led astray by grifters, charlatans or radio talk-show hosts. The metaphor provided by my blinding snowstorm was obvious as I continued in the darkness until I reached the dim glow of a valley town.
No welcome at Woody Creek
Richfield, Utah, was my midpoint in the bucolic center of the state, a town with a Wal-Mart SuperCenter that opens every day at 6 a.m. and closes at midnight.
At dawn, I set out to log the last 400 miles to Woody Creek, not stopping until I reached Thompson's fortified Owl Farm. It was early afternoon when I parked outside.
A man in blue jeans and an untucked shirt was on me in an instant. He was a junkyard dog, 50 years old at least and a week from his last shave. In 16 years of journalism, I've never seen an angrier face so close up.
Note to readers: Out of respect for 21st-century sensitivity, all bad words in the second half of this story have been replaced with "NIXON."
"What's up?" the guy said.
I told him I wanted a picture and motioned to the iron vultures mounted atop poles at the farm's entrance, a fitting choice for a journalist.
"Get the NIXON out of here!" the guy spit.
I explained that I didn't mean any disrespect.
"Get the NIXON out of here. Get the NIXON out!"
Not wishing to experience injury or incarceration, I left as the codger kicked the dirt behind me. I hurtled into town, checked into the hotel, and promptly stewed about being bullied.
As later observed during a conversation I had with Scott Dickensheets, editor of Las Vegas Weekly, if Thompson were writing this story, true or not, he would have included a scene where he returned to the farm and burned something.
I went instead to the Woody Creek Tavern, a Thompson hangout.
About a half-dozen casual characters at the bar were sipping beers and shots as I stepped inside. I sat in the middle, next to some Thompson cronies who were remarking about building a monument of the sign of Gonzo, a double-thumbed fist so tall it would likely require aircraft warning lights.
Alone with a cup of coffee and a bowl of chili, I was the odd man, Albert Camus' "Stranger" blinded by the light of the place. The bartender was whispering into the phone, likely relaying details of a secret and exclusive tribute to Thompson, a celebrity-infested affair scheduled that weekend at a hotel. The thought of crashing the party occurred to me, but that made me feel much more like Michael Moore than Hunter S. Thompson, so I quickly dismissed it. At the same time, the cronies at the end of the bar had lowered their conversation to a mumble with occasional outbursts that hinted at Thompson's desire to have his ashes scattered by cannon fire, a pyrotechnical affair that is expected to be discharged at Owl Farm in private sometime in the future and on short notice.
Bonding in the bar
Like Thompson, I believe in karma, so I bought the house a round of drinks to make up for the invasion. I planned to leave after that, to head back to L.A. before they called out the dogs, but then the place lit up like slot machine with all the bells and whistles. In a moment I flew from anonymity to toasting Thompson's memory with the waitress who served him thousands of drinks over the years.
They'd already heard of my confrontation at the farm and hassled the guy who'd run me off when he later walked through the tavern door. Instead of beating me, this time the codger patted me on the back and remarked that "some NIXON was going on up there," and it wasn't intended for my eyes. He said I could head up to the farm when I was ready.
I didn't buy him a drink.
I took my time and talked a bit more to another Thompson friend who shared his life's story, how he'd gone 1-A in the draft the day the Vietnam War ended and decided to stay in Aspen as a carpenter, ditching the career for which he'd earned a college degree.
"I never left," he said, and I could see glee in his eyes as he talked about his adult children and about the silver Honda Accord he gave his wife for their 25th wedding anniversary last year.
Aspen and Woody Creek were different places when Thompson and his friends arrived. Back then it was a refuge of sorts for hippies who'd checked out of the American Dream. They mobilized to give the system one last go in 1970, when Thompson ran for Pitkin County sheriff on the Freak Power ticket. It was a campaign against unreasonable fear and unfair tactics being used by police at the time. Thompson lost by 400 votes and declared that it proved "the American Dream really is NIXON."
Nowadays, Aspen's storefronts tell the tale of the town's transformation with names like Polo Ralph Lauren, Prada and Fendi. They're not what you'd expect to see lumped with the likes of Thompson, who wore Converse tennis shoes and short pants year round, but he remained, nonetheless, and stayed true to himself, never the sort to shrink from a fight.
I left Aspen the next morning while pondering the possibility that the dream may be as obvious as Thompson's hunting of it, as simple as the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, the part about pursuing life, liberty and happiness. The cell phone rang in the middle of Utah at an exit marked "Thompson Springs." It was Tim Mooney, one of Thompson's close friends.
Mooney confirmed my conclusion. "I think what Thompson did very early on was realize that he could choose what dreams to pursue," Mooney said. "The right stuff isn't about money. It's about truth and enthusiasm."
"Give 'em hell," he advised at the end of the call. "Don't eat NIXON!"
I assured him I wouldn't.
Enthusiasm is fuel, and truth is worth pursuing, even if Thompson "for what he must have thought the best of reasons" decided to take one of those dark exits in the middle of a storm.
TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.