Going Gonzo Revisited

The most unlikely day at Owl Farm.

Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson

The late Hunter S. Thompson 10 years before he declared "Football Season is Over" on his February 20, 2005, suicide note and took his own life. Actor and friend Johnny Depp ensured that, true to Thompson

Yes, I admit it.

As Feature Editor of Cycle World, I displayed either the idiocy or insight to give Hunter S. Thompson a high-end, high-speed, high-priced Ducati and did so with no guarantee that the Guru of Gonzo would return either the motorcycle or an article.

As for that “Memo to Self” that perhaps I should have considered prior to this gamble? You know, the one a sane editor would at least contemplate:

MEMO TO ME

Do this IF:

You want to get a bill for $10,000, the approximate price of replacing a 900 SuperSport should it end up bearing the brand of HST.

You hope to hand over your keys to Cycle World's garage, the toy box my 31-year-old juvenile side reveled in, picking out a different fancy, fun two-wheeler to ride home each day.

Conclusion: Forget this crazy idea.

Trouble was, that idea started out as a dare, and I almost always fall prey to such provocations. So when my boss, still appropriately pissed off that I dropped an expensive testbike while making what should have been a simple spin down a driveway, challenged that Hunter S. Thompson’s byline was a prize he’d love but doubted I could deliver, I took the bait with a big gulp and tore that “Memo to Me” into the confetti that could have marked my march out of the job I loved. Risky? No question. But Thompson himself would be quick to agree that you have to take risks to get anything worthwhile, and that hard-drinking, rough-talking iconoclast delivered intoxicating prose more potent than a straight shot of his favorite Wild Turkey.

Two days later, off went a letter addressed to Hunter S. Thompson, The Owl Farm, Aspen, Colorado, offering the use of a Ducati SuperSport for a month, along with the invitation to write about his experience in any way he wished.

Pretty sweet deal, huh? A Duc is an irresistible drug to anyone who craves the outer reaches, territory that Hunter Thompson explored extensively. He was the maverick writer, after all, who covered a District Attorneys’ conference with a fistful of psychedelic pharmaceuticals. This was the journalist who reviled politicians but ran for Sheriff of Aspen on the Freak Party ticket. The correspondent who barely escaped death (or worse) when shouting obscenities in aVietnambattle zone and who broke his nose knocking heads with the Hells Angels. Yes, how could Dr. T say no to the SuperSport, a ride capable of satisfying his bold need to blast through boundaries.

Well, very easily, it seemed. Radio Silence from the Owl Farm for months.

But I am nothing if not persistent and sent a new letter every week, peppering them with quotes from his books and articles, as I tried to get him to “yes.”

He finally did arrive at that word, but not in the way I anticipated.

“Send bike immediately.” A single sentence typed on a classic Royal. No mention that the Duc was not a gift but on loan; no word about any article.

But armed now with his phone number, I called.

“You sound crazy,” he mumbled, his voice growling like the sound of tires spitting loose gravel in a tight turn. “Crazy.”

I figured I had him then. Crazy, after all, is a compliment from this expert of extremes, perhaps even high praise from the Prince of Wild and Weird whose best-selling tales of pushing the envelope made him a household name, not to mention a character in the cartoon strip, “Doonesbury.”

A week later, I arrived in Aspen on a Honda VFR750, braving an early fall snowstorm on my long journey to Hunter’s hangout. Two metal vultures, riddled with bullet holes, greeted me, as did a sign on the front door of a weathered log cabin warning away visitors with a photo of the wrong end of a rifle. (Likely not an idle threat to trespassers—Hunter had quite the fondness for firearms.) But there was no turning back now. And besides, the late afternoon was perfect for a ride. Hints of Indian summer crackled in the air, splashes of sunshine so brilliant they overshadowed even the purple-breasted peacocks that Hunter kept as pets. My Honda and the SuperSport parked next to it begged to get on the road.

Hunter S. Thompson and Brenda Buttner

Hunter S. Thompson and Brenda Buttner

Then-Feature Editor Brenda Buttner on her strange trip into the world of Gonzo. Former Editor-in-Chief David Edwards recounted the editing

It would be a while before they did. The rhythms of the Owl Farm just do not echo those of the outside world. When I walked through the door, Hunter was still in his bathrobe, a young blonde assistant perched on his thigh. He shook my hand, smirking as I jumped when snapped by one of those buzzers you find in kids’ magic kits. With a trademark tumbler of bourbon in one hand and remote control in the other, he held court from his kitchen barstool. “Explain you!” he yelled at a CNN anchor, throwing a rubber ball at the TV. It missed and ricocheted instead off a nearby wall (which was adorned with a fax from President Clinton and a latex mold of a pair of breasts).

No, driving was not yet on the agenda of Thompson. There were guns to shoot and boxing to bet on. Theology to debate. “I figured out how that carpenter conned everyone about the fishes story,” he announced to no one in particular.

But I knew we had to get at least some photos that day or we would lose hope of ever completing the project. And finally, Thompson succumbed to the temptation of the Italian prize waiting in his driveway.

He is no stranger to motorcycles—at least one had graced his garage since he bought a BSA 650 in the late ’60s. An old BMW was there when I visited. But this would be his first spin aboard the rocket ride that is a Ducati, and he took care to do more than merely admire its elegant European lines. He scrutinized the engine intently and asked many questions, especially about the turning radius. “You don’t want to make a dumb mistake,” he advised. “Crazy mistakes are okay, but forget the dumb ones.”

My mistake was in turning away for a moment. With a thunderous boom, the bike burst down the driveway, and before I could jump on my Honda, he was a blur of crimson in the distance.

“Just showing off a little,” he explained later from another very fast, very red vehicle: his 1971 Pontiac after dinner with a few of his friends at a burger ’n’ beer joint. Hugging the yellow line, tires screeching in protest, we screamed through a corner barely keeping all four wheels on the ground.

That would not be the last time he scared me. I got to know one famous HST quote very well: “The Edge...there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”

He took me right to the precipice of that cliff often after I returned to the office and waited to receive and edit the piece he promised after a week or two with his new plaything.

Again, Radio Silence from the Owl 
Farm. I remembered with a cringe his
 comment when he first saw the Super-Sport. “I hate motorcycles,” he grinned. “Yet I may just have to steal this one.”

My voicemails to him grew more frantic. One Thursday night, prime party time for Hunter, I actually got an answer, but not the one I hoped. “What do you want?” a voice frayed from what sounded like more than a few drinks. After I meekly reintroduced myself, he said, “Oh, Hunter says he doesn’t know who the f&*k you are.” Dial tone.

The Edge got closer as again and again we repeated this game. Finally, another man answered and said, with his hand over the receiver, “Give the girl a break! She got that cool bike for you, after all.” Thompson promised to fax what he had written so far.

The next day, admittedly to my surprise, pages of prose, seasoned with more than a few four-letter words, spewed out.

I will not say that editing Thompson was an easy task. There was so much that was just plain brilliant in what he wrote, but it was too long (with a bit too much salty language) for our magazine. Then Editor-in-Chief David Edwards stepped in to help get the final draft to the one that was finally published.

Then the God of Editors smiled on me. A British accent left a message abruptly telling me to check the fax again. I approached with more than a tad of trepidation. My worried frown soon changed into a wide smile. Among expense reports and press releases, the machine coughed up a string of cartoon pages, Technicolor splashes of art in a style I recognized immediately from the cover of many of Thompson’s books. “Steadman” was scrawled across the bottom. Steadman, as in Ralph Stead-
man. The award-winning illustrator, a pal and partner of Thompson. Over the years, his unique artwork had created a classic caricature with bucket hat, aviator sunglasses and cigarette holder.

“Oh yeah,” Thompson explained. “I asked him to give that to you—I thought only he could really draw me as the Sausage Creature.”

Of course, that artwork helped define the article published in this magazine a month later. But it is truly the Sausage Creature as pictured by Thompson that made the most indelible mark.

“Song of the Sausage Creature” became one of the most controversial articles _CW_has ever featured. Many who hated it questioned its veracity, skeptical that Thompson had the skill to do what he described. And, I suppose, you could wonder whether Hunter, hypnotized by the Creature’s siren song, really could launch himself on that terrifying flight over the railroad tracks, landing gracefully in a trick that would defy Evel Knievel. And who knows if, as he warned me, he did somehow sneak the Ducati onto Aspen’s airstrip. “Get going about 140 mph,” he chuckled. “That’s where that bike belongs. What could it be? A felony?”

I ask, though, whether, in the end, "Did he REALLY?" matters all that much. Gonzo journalism has always been a combination of fact and fiction, and that marriage, fans of Thompson understand, is exactly where truth is found.

All I know is that for those of us who take to the road on two wheels, whether we cruise down Main Street on a Harley Softail or knee-drag through the switchbacks that tumble like coiled snakes from the Angeles Crest or patiently change the oil on an old standard to commute to work, for all of us bonded only by the knowledge that we just gotta ride, Thompson captures that almost indescribable need that is like a siren song.

Call me what you will. Idiot? Insightful? I won’t say it was an easy adventure, but as hindsight blurs the frustration and fear that I would end up losing both a Ducati and my job in a crazy bid for a story, I’m glad I played some small part in bringing the Sausage Creature to life.

**Read "Song of the Sausage Creature" by Hunter S. Thompson in the December 2012 issue of Cycle World, available on e-readers and newsstands:

**

Brenda Buttner is now an award-winning business journalist, host of "Bulls & Bears," one of the top-rated business shows on cable, airing Saturdays, 10 a.m. Eastern, on Fox News Channel. She has been a Senior Business Correspondent for FNC for the past decade. Her more challenging work, bringing up two teenagers, is all the harder she says because it's difficult to say no to their crazier requests when they answer with, "But, Mom, you used to be really insane when you wrote for that motorcycle thing." A graduate of Harvard College and Oxford University (which she attended as a Rhodes Scholar), Brenda adds that she learned much more in "street smarts" while working at Cycle World and still pines for a key to its garage.