Getting High with Hunter S. Thompson
by Keith Stroup
"I have always loved marijuana. It has been a source of joy and comfort to me for many years. And I still think of it as a basic staple of life, along with beer and ice and grapefruits – and millions of Americans agree with me." --Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
One of the serendipitous occurrences in my life was meeting the late Hunter S. Thompson, the original Gonzo journalist, in 1972, at the Democratic National Convention in Miami. Hunter was there to cover the event for Rolling Stone magazine and I was there, along with a myriad of other activists, hoping to find a way to get some national attention on the need to legalize marijuana, and to stop arresting marijuana smokers.
I had founded NORML 18 months earlier in late 1970, but few people were yet aware of our work, so we jumped in my 1961 Volkswagon camper, a common set of wheels for a would-be hippie back then, and headed to Miami to join the anti-Vietnam war activists along with proponents for all sorts of social change, from environmentalism to gay rights to workers’ rights, and everything in-between.
At the time, we didn’t have any party connections and we didn’t really have any idea of what was going to happen in Miami; but we made plans to go anyway because the prior Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 had been a watershed moment for American political dissent. In what must be a high point in political street theater, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the Youth International Party (the Yippies) nominated a pig for president, and captured national media attention in the process.
When I met Hunter he was smoking a joint under the bleachers at the opening night of the convention. I was sitting in the stands listening to the speeches when, quite suddenly — and without any question in my mind — I smelled marijuana, and quickly realized it was coming from down below. I looked below the bleachers and what I saw was a fairly big guy smoking a fairly fat joint. He was trying to be discreet, but it wasn’t working very well. I could see him hunkering in the shadows — tall and lanky, flailing his arms and oddly familiar. Jesus Christ, I suddenly realized, that’s Hunter S. Thompson!
Like every other young stoner in America I had read “Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas” as it was serialized a few months earlier in Rolling Stone. Hunter would soon gather great fame for himself, the kind of fame from which one can never look back upon. But on the night I met Hunter, his star was still ascending.
Screw the speeches, I thought to myself.
I quickly found my way under the bleachers and approached as politely as possible.
“Hu-uh - What the fuck?!! Who’re you?!”
“Hey, Hunter. Keith Stroup from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. We’re a new smoker’s lobby.” Easy enough.
“Oh. Oh, yeah! Yeah! Here,” Hunter held out his herb, “You want some?”
We finished that joint and started a friendship that lasted for 33 years, as Hunter became an important NORML supporter and advisory board member. Doc was a self-described political junkie and so am I, and that was the basis of our long friendship - that and a mutual predilection for fine drugs.
Over the next three decades plus, I would manage to get together with Hunter for some personal time, occasionally when he was on a speaking tour that would bring him to the DC area, but more frequently when I would visit Hunter at Owl Farm, his home outside Aspen, in Woody Creek, CO. It was always a special occasion that I looked forward to each year or so, as a welcome escape from the uptight East Coast political world in which I lived and worked.
While every experience with Hunter was a unique one, the Doc was a man with a daily routine, albeit a routine unlike most.
A typical evening at Hunter’s would not start before 10:00pm or so, as he generally worked all night and slept all day. He would arise in the late afternoon or early evening, take a few hours to read the papers and get over any sluggishness remaining from the abuses of the night before, and then he was ready for his friends.
Hunter would be sitting on a kitchen stool at his command post, a breakfast bar that divided his kitchen area in half, and provided Hunter with an unobstructed view of his television set, which was constantly tuned to whatever sporting event was in season; and within reach of his over-worked fax machine, which he used constantly throughout the evening to send provocative notes to his many friends. The remote for his television was hanging from a cord attached to the ceiling above where he sat, so he could always find it, regardless of how stoned he might be.
Usually it would be just Hunter and me (and sometimes his long-time assistant Debra Fuller), but occasionally Aspen Sheriff Bob Braudis, a good friend of Hunter’s, would also be there, and sometimes our mutual friend and part-time Aspen resident, criminal defense attorney Gerry Goldstein.
The idea of the local sheriff spending the evening with us initially seemed a bit strange, but everything was strange at Hunters, and being close friends with the sheriff and a nationally respected criminal defense attorney undoubtedly played a key role in keeping Hunter (mostly) out of trouble over the years.
Hunter was always playful, and loved to goad his friends, using his fax machine the way some people use Facebook today, sending out scores of faxes each night, both on policy issues, as well as challenging them to bet on sporting events (Hunter loved to bet), and those faxes would be taped to a nearby wall or lampshade or kitchen cabinet.
It looked like a piece of performance art created by someone who had been tripping on acid (that may well account for how this practice began), but in fact all of his friends were proud when we saw one of our own faxes among the hundreds taped to things around his command post. It was Hunter’s way of keeping track of things, a total stoner’s version of a Rolodex.
Needless to say, I would always bring my best quality weed to share with Hunter--he always preferred smoking joints, as do I--and he would always have what seemed like a bottomless supply of cocaine, and whiskey, often Wild Turkey bourbon, as well as some pot. And we would talk about current political events, or elected officials (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and others whom he despised, and never tired of trashing in his writings), and watch sporting events, and continually challenge each other to do more of all of the above intoxicants.
And of course he always told me my marijuana was dirt-weed, something no reputable stoner would ever be caught smoking; and I would suggest he must have stolen his marijuana from some college kids along the border, cause I couldn't even get a high from it. Of course the truth was that both of us had great marijuana, and the addition of the cocaine and whiskey meant we could not possibly distinguish which drug was responsible for the high we had achieved; we just knew we were getting high as hell and enjoying it. It always felt safe when we were locked away at Owl Farm.
Usually by 2:00am or so I was so wasted I would excuse myself and head back to Aspen to crash, but Hunter would then wake-up his assistant and begin his work day, which would not end until daybreak, when he would finally crash, only to repeat the routine the following day. The gonzo lifestyle Hunter so entertainingly wrote about was of course somewhat exaggerated, but only somewhat. In one of his famous lines Hunter bragged “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me."
He really did push the envelop in every possible manner, and he managed to maintain that lifestyle for decades, before finally ending his own life in 2005. His friends were all terribly saddened by his death, but not surprised. We had presumed that, baring an accident, Hunter would exit this world on his own terms and his own schedule. And he did.
I realized from the start that I could never really keep up with Hunter’s excesses; I could do it for a few hours at a time, and valued the many times I had the privilege of spending an evening with Hunter, seeing just how high we could get. He was without question the most fascinating and interesting person I have ever known, and I enjoyed being his friend. But I always knew I would be returning to my real life shortly after my visit, back to a world in which we all have both professional goals and personal lives to pursue, in which moderation plays a necessary role.
Gonzo was a state of mind I loved to visit, but I could never call it my permanent home. But those periodic visits were like a peek behind a very special curtain, and I was fortunate to have a back-stage pass.