It is 4.30 on a Thursday morning and I am writing these words on the big red IBM Selectric III that once belonged to Hunter S Thompson. Owl Farm, Thompson’s “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Colorado, is dark and silent outside. Even the peacocks he raised are sleeping. The only sound anywhere is the warm hum of this electric typewriter and the mechanical rhythm of its key strikes, as clear and certain as gunfire.
In April, Thompson’s widow, Anita, began renting out the writer’s cabin to help support the Hunter S Thompson scholarship for veterans at Columbia University, where both she and Hunter studied. It sits beside the main Thompson home on a 17-hectare estate marked with hoof prints and elk droppings that gradually rises towards a mountain range. A short walk uphill is the spot where Thompson’s ashes were fired into the sky from a 153ft tower in the shape of a “Gonzo fist”, a logo he first adopted during his unsuccessful 1970 campaign to be sheriff of nearby Aspen. Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, picked up the $3m tab for that elaborate sendoff, which took place shortly after Thompson killed himself in 2005.
There is still a piece of rebar buried in the ground where the tower once stood. It now marks the heart of a labyrinth, picked out in red rocks that were placed there by Anita several years ago. Walking there during the day, I found myself lulled into a state of meditation. It was reading Thompson as a teenager that made me want to write for a living. Like many, my gateway drug was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his vicious satirical broadside against the American dream that begins with the line: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
There is, I realise now, a certain irony to the fact that a journey beginning with that debauched and hallucinatory tale has brought me to one of the most serene and peaceful places I’ve been. While sitting at the typewriter, I glance out the window and see a lone white-tailed deer standing on the ridge just above Thompson’s cherry-red Pontiac Grand Ville. In the afternoon, Anita shows me around their home, including the kitchen that was once his “command centre”. Another typewriter remains where he left it, engulfed in a snowdrift of books and papers. Indeed, the whole room is largely unchanged, part of Anita’s plans to preserve the home as a museum.
She met Thompson in 1997, when he saved her from being mauled by a pair of crazed great danes on the boardwalk of Venice Beach in LA. At least, that’s the way he tells it in his sort-of memoir Kingdom of Fear, published in 2003. In truth, they were introduced by a mutual friend: she had a question about football and the friend thought Thompson, then primarily a sportswriter, would know the answer. She had no idea who he was.
“I was 25 and I had an instant crush on him,” she says. “I’d never met anyone like him. I knew him as Hunter before I knew him as a writer. He was an intense and kind person. When I met him, he wasn’t a wild partier. He wasn’t a Raoul Duke character.” That’s his drug-snorting alter ego, the name he gives himself in Fear and Loathing. “When he was under stress or having a lot of fun, that character would come out, but generally he was just like you and me. Having said that, he did have a way of consuming more food, more alcohol and more drugs than anybody I’ve ever seen – and still be able to function.”
Anita helped Thompson get back to writing in the last half-decade of his life; he produced as much work in those five years as he had in the previous 15. That included a regular column for sports network ESPN that included a startlingly prescient piece, published the day after 9/11, that predicted the US military follies that would define the decade to come.
In 2001, he also returned to campaigning journalism with his battle to free Lisl Auman, a Colorado woman convicted of murdering a police officer even though she had been handcuffed in the police car when the shot was fired by her companion. The supreme court overturned her conviction two weeks after Thompson died. “It was bittersweet for all of us,” says Anita.
These days, Anita finds herself charged with preserving her husband’s legacy. There have been rumours of TV shows, a film adaptation of his 1983 Hawaiian escapade The Curse of Lono, even a branded cannabis line, but she is understandably cautious. “I try to steer the conversation back to his writing, because there’s always a focus on his lifestyle,” she says. “That’s the clickbait, but it’s the writing that’s important. We need him now more than ever, and his work is so poignant and personal. He’s always in the present moment. In every story, he’s showing you what it felt like, all the smells and sensations. Every time you read a page, it makes you more empowered today, in 2019, whether you’re reading about the 1970s or 2003.”
I have worked as a journalist for the best part of a decade now, and there are elements of Thompson’s mythology I can no longer romanticise. There’s a section of Fear and Loathing that begins with this editor’s note: “The original manuscript is so splintered that we were forced to seek out the original tape recording and transcribe it verbatim.” Any illusion I once held that this was a sort of meta-joke was shattered when I read that it had been written up by Sarah Lazin, an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone in the 70s. “I had done a lot of transcribing in several languages,” she recalled last year in a Vanity Fair piece, “but this was pretty intense. In one of the tapes they’re in this restaurant, and they’re essentially torturing the waitress – yelling and screaming and throwing things – and I had no idea how to transcribe that.”
While that sort of behaviour may make Thompson seem like a relic from a different time, when one could be a nightmare to work with and be forgiven, his writing still resonates – some of it more noisily than ever. Unfortunately, there is nothing outdated about this observation from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72: “The main problem in any democracy is that crowdpleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage and whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy – then go back to the office and sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece.”
A new biography, Freak Kingdom by Timothy Denevi, focuses on Thompson’s incendiary writing in the decade between two seismic events in American politics: the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963 and Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Denevi started writing his book after rereading Strange Rumblings in Aztlan, Thompson’s 1971 Rolling Stone piece about the death of Mexican-American reporter Rubén Salazar at the hands of the LAPD – a story that has obvious resonance both with President Trump’s attacks on immigrant communities and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Reading that piece, I began to realise that this is one of the great literary political voices of our time,” says Denevi, down the line to the cabin. “He was indicting and attacking those with the most power for their dishonesty. Although I don’t mention Trump or his administration, of course my book was coloured by the present corruption which shines its garbage light upon us all. Thompson understood that power is inseparable from the people who abuse it. That means you have to look at the people who are abusing it to understand its nature and how it can be manipulated, in America especially, to hurt the people who already have the least.”
This isn’t the first time Thompson’s prescience has rung bells. Alex Gibney’s 2008 documentary Gonzo made it clear how easily his work in the 1960s and 70s also applied to the George W Bush era. Here we are again, a decade later. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. “That’s because what Thompson is really writing about is how people abuse the American system to gain more power, and that’s as old as America itself,” says Denevi. “Thompson’s insight is like Mark Twain’s insight, in that it lasts outside of its cultural moment. It’s his logic, perspective and rigour that allows his work to fit into the Bush administration, or Reagan, or now.”
Having spent roughly half my life reading and rereading Thompson, it is serious fun to come to Owl Farm and hear the sound of his typewriter, moving once again under my fingers. I come away thinking that his voice too, leaping from every page with righteous anger, is still needed.
Before I leave, I tell Anita how meditative I found walking the labyrinth. “It’s a really powerful spot,” she says. “It’s almost like a tattoo. You pin something very painful to the earth and it frees your mind. All labyrinths serve the same purpose, which is to centre you and set you in the present moment. As Hunter said, we only have the present moment, and it’s so easy to get out of it. The future can bring anxiety, the past can bring depression, but right here? Right here is good.”