“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” – And with those opening words Hunter S. Thompson captured the imagination of at least one high school senior – me. I was a nerd, I had few real friends at the time, and I was just itching to get the Hell out of podunk nowhere, but reading that made me feel like I was too hip for the room. I could scoff at the squares and look down on those looked at me like I was the loser. “Ha,” I would think to myself “I get it and you don’t.” Ribald, cartoonish vignettes of drug abuse and flaunting the rules fed my angsty little soul. Back then, those opening words were shocking in just the right way – at least to my mind. I felt as if I were quietly but decisively flipping the bird to the squares who were dragging my world down.
Over twenty-five years later, what I have learned is that the real worth of that book isn’t its shock value but the insight that it offered into that period of time. At its core, its not a tale of drug-addled depravity but a harsh, painfully accurate snapshot of these United States. The country was still very divided but the initial euphoria and optimism of the 60s was giving way to cynicism and paranoia. Thompson notes this clearly when he points out that both Kennedys were dead and Nixon was POTUS now. The party was over and now he had come to Las Vegas to peer into the true, reactionary heart of America. The revolution was over and never spread as widely as anyone wanted to believe, anyway. And it’s here that I see that while the opening sentence of Dr. Thompson’s masterpiece is its most quoted part, it’s his look back at what had become of San Francisco’s “Spirit of ’65” in 1971 that’s the true heart of the book:
“Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
I’ve gotten it for a while now, but like all wisdom, it came at a cost. The world doesn’t change very quickly, and simply wishing for it is never enough. The comedown from the whole damned high is never is easy, and it’s easy to just up and fucking quit. But, life goes on, so unless you want to just shrug your shoulders and give up, so must you. And so, it’s back to work. Now if I can just remember to maintain a sense of humor and carry a little hope with me as I advance into the middle of middle age while praying to…something… that things will get better. Wisdom can be a bummer. Bastards.