When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
- Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005)
By Courtney Sudbrink, Editor
There’s a reason we’re Gonzo Country. So on the birthday of Hunter S. Thompson, it’s only fitting I get to the heart of that matter.
I was a sophomore in college at the time, attending The University at Buffalo in Amherst, NY. I just left a journalism class that I was taking on account of wanting to be like my hero in life, Hunter S. Thompson. I was determined to follow in his footsteps. To me, Thompson was the ultimate rock star – an enigma of cool who said whatever was on his mind, lived life to the extreme and who made crazy seem fashionable and drugs look safe. Under his influence, my reckless side came out in full force and I embraced it. Back then, I did my best to imitate Thompson, right down to carrying a dagger around school, wearing yellow tinted aviators and purchasing a Doctorate online from a church so I could be Dr. Courtney Sudbrink. I also tried to write like him and made it a habit of putting myself in every article, to the dismay of my journalism teacher who was trying to teach me the “right way” of doing things. I thought in my rebellion that I was carrying on the spirit of Gonzo, but I learned after awhile, that I hadn’t yet developed my own voice – a young girl using obscenities in every other sentence, pointing out the grotesque and insane, just didn’t work. I know that now.
When I logged onto a computer in my school library, I planned on writing. But instead, I saw the news that Thompson shot himself. His suicide note read:
“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun – for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax – This won’t hurt.”
Thompson wanted to go out like his hero, Ernest Hemingway. In his youth, he was as impressionable as I was, trying to copy Papa – the original badass writer. He’d go so far as to type out all of The Sun Also Rises in order to capture the beat of the writing, which explains the parallels in his second (but first realized) novel, The Rum Diary.
In the age of computers, I purchased myself a Smith Corona typewriter from a thrift store and typed out pages of my favorite books on it. Cross that with my penchant for vinyl records and I was pretty much living in another time and place. But, it was clear that the time and place I was living in, had a long hard road in store in the absence of Thompson.
The news of his suicide came at a time when Bush was actively ruining the country and Thompson, with his sports column Hey Rube, stood out as the sole voice to call every move like it was, just as he had in the age of his nemesis Nixon. In some ways, the political climate left him giving up the fight, at a point in this country’s history, when we probably needed him the most.
I’ve always made it a habit of paying tribute to my writer idols. I used to visit Kerouac’s grave and I went so far as to climb a mountain in Washington state because he did so in The Dharma Bums. I dreamed of doing that in High School. I was a loner, stuck in a redneck town who used alcohol and literature as an escape.
This trip wasn’t much different. At 22 I decided to leave college because, it seemed like I was following tradition – great writers never bothered to finish school, by the time they turned 21, they’d already written their first novel. Time was ticking.
I had no idea what I was going to do with my life other than write. For some reason, I thought California was the place to do that. Perhaps due to my love of Steinbeck. He made it seem like a place of opportunity. Though, I’m pretty sure I came a half a century late.
I loaded up my little hatchback car, put a gonzo sticker on the back and headed for the first stop on my journey, Louisville, Kentucky. The birth place of Hunter S. Thompson. The car ride there, I listened to Cash’s version of “My Old Kentucky Home,” a song originally penned by my cousin, Stephen Foster.
When I arrived in Louisville, my first stop was Thompson’s old school, then his old neighborhood. After that, I went to Church Hill Downs where I watched some horse races, drank mint juleps and pretended I was living his article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decedent and Depraved.” I’m not much of a gambler, but I placed a bet on a horse named Supercell and I won. Things were looking up.
After Church Hill Downs, I planned on going to St. Louis. When I arrived at the motel there, I saw 5 squad cars and as I drove away, noticed the prevalent crime in the area. Not a good place for a young girl to be alone. So, I decided to drive on even though it was already 10 pm. I drove for 22 hours straight. I wanted my next stop to be Woody Creek, CO
After a panic attack in Kansas and an attempt to drive up a mountain I couldn’t see in Colorado (it was so dark, it hadn’t occurred to me that my stick shift car wasn’t moving because I was going up the side of the Rocky Mountains in 5th gear), I decided to sleep the night in Denver. The next day, I arrived in Aspen, the closest city to Woody Creek.
I sat outside my room, staring at the mountains, drinking Miller Highlife and trying to soak in the scenery that Thompson looked at for years. Later on, I went to the Woody Creek Tavern and sat in the chair Thompson once occupied. It was emotional.
An hour or so later, I located his house- the Owl Farm – something I’d seen in documentary footage that, with the red mountains behind it, looked just like I imagined. I sat in my car listening to “Mr. Tambourine Man”, the song Thompson requested be played at his funeral as his ashes were fired out of a Gonzo fist canon. The emotion I felt isn’t something I could easily explain. It was at once, sadness, void and reality. Thompson wasn’t there on the other side of the heavy wooden door with a Gonzo fist carved on it. I came just a year too late.
The next day, despite warnings from the locals that Thompson’s widow Anita didn’t like visitors, I decided to buy her flowers and write a note thanking her for her late husband. In the note, I explained that I came from Louisville and my next stop was Las Vegas. When I arrived at the Owl Farm to drop the note off, it didn’t look like there was anyone there. So when I saw the peacocks that had been running around the property since Thompson’s days there, ran over and stole a feather as a souvenir. As I walked towards the road, I saw man in his thirties with a wife and baby. I recognized that it was Thompson’s son, Juan. I approached his wife.
“Hi I’m here because I wanted to give these flowers to Anita,” I explained.
“Oh how thoughtful of you. Let me go get her so you can give them to her yourself,” she replied.
When Anita emerged from inside the house, I was taken aback. The rumors in my case, weren’t true. Perhaps because I was a friendly looking little girl – not the typical Thompson sycophant. When I gave Anita the flowers, she thanked me and told me they were her favorite kind. She told me to wait there as she wanted to give me something. When she came back from the house, she had a copy of Thompson’s Proud Highway, the first in a series of collected letters from his younger days. The image depicted on the cover of him in a Kerouac style flannel sitting on the side of the road made that particular book my favorite read to draw inspiration from. When I opened the book it said “To Courtney – Thank you for the flowers. Anita Thompson Owl Farm 6/25/2006.” Beyond that, she also gave me some Gonzo fist stickers and a pair of Gonzo fist thong underwear. The marketing of her late husband’s logo, clearly in full force. But, with the emotion that I saw in her face, she undoubtedly loved him.
When I left Woody Creek towards Las Vegas, I did so with passion and hope that I hadn’t felt since Thompson’s death. I had the feeling that I was on my way to doing something in my life that would honor hm. As I got drunk at Circus Circus in my green visor, smoking a cigarette in a holder, it hadn’t yet dawned on me that I was imitating him. That didn’t come until I returned to college and started writing for the newspaper that I’d learned to (for better or worse) write like myself rather than someone else.
But, I am still that same person in spirit. I’ve learned from the mistakes of people like Thompson and I don’t drink nor do I do drugs. And though I may not write like him at all, I started this magazine because he showed me that an individual is capable of using their voice as a powerful tool. In this case, my chosen occupation is Music Journalism. But in listening to the heart of all the music we promote on this site, it tells stories, carries distinct voices and pays homage to America (in all its flaws) in the same way Thompson did with his typewriter.
Happy birthday Hunter and thank you for the inspiration.