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Going gonzo

People are always asking me if I’m a Hunter S. Thompson fan, because clearly any Vegas writer worth his/her salt owes a huge debt to Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and father of the so-called “gonzo” school of journalism.

Basically, Thompson earned his place in the Vegas pantheon of literary greats for having gone on a drug binge here back in 1971 and then writing a stream-of-consciousness book-length account of it.

The truth is I’m not really a Thompson fan. I haven’t read any of his books, and the one time I watched the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I was confused and bored. But that’s not saying much – I’m confused and bored by all movies.

I prefer to get out and do shit!

But I’ve always had the feeling I was missing out when it came to Hunter S. Thompson. So many really cool, interesting people are all about him, surely there’s something there that I just never glommed onto. They say the best way to understand a man is to walk in his shoes – maybe I could finally get into Thompson’s shtick if I were, hypothetically, to take a page out of Fear and Loathing: eat some drugs and wander around Vegas.

Now, there’s an idea!

Now, I’m not really one to go on a 3-day binge, but what if I were to take separate trips, in the interest of literary understanding, and see what happened? A few hours here, a few hours there – would that make me finally appreciate Thompson?

In Fear and Loathing, Thompson and his attorney hit Vegas with “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls.”

Well, let’s say I had an aversion to pharmaceuticals and decided to eat some good old-fashioned magic mushrooms, instead. Would that do the trick?

Alas, the merry-go-round bar at Circus Circus is long closed, as are most of the places where Thompson and his attorney hung out while tripping. So what if, instead, I went to one of the only hotels in town that was around back in 1971…Caesars Palace? And in keeping with the ‘70s shtick, what if I went to see the Rod Stewart show?

Like Thompson, say I was with a buddy, but only instead of my attorney, let’s hypothetically say it was a wealthy Republican oilman friend visiting from the South, who was inexplicably psyched to get psychedelic. The two of us made at least as odd a couple as Thompson and his attorney , but would we have as transformative an experience as theirs?

Let’s just say, hypothetically, that we did! Say the show was amazing, with incredible set and lighting design (the lighting!!), and an amazing band, and say Rod Stewart himself is an incredible performer (let’s say it wasn’t just the mushrooms talking). But let’s also say that the show itself was nothing compared to sitting at the lobby bar afterward, tripping balls, observing all the botoxed old bags and rent boys come and go as a Jamaican hooker tried to pick up a shifty-eyed airline pilot two seats down.

Wowza! I think I’m finally starting to get this whole Hunter S. Thompson shtick! Hypothetically, I mean.

But let’s just say, also hypothetically, that I still wasn’t 100 percent sold. Say the following week, another friend invited me to eat mushrooms again, out in the desert on the edge of Death Valley. This time, let’s say it was a crew member from another shitty 1970s-era show – and let’s just say I said “YES.” Maybe I just needed one more trip to convince me that Thompson’s warped vision is literary gold.

Now, let’s say this experience was even better! Say we went out to these hot springs, and ate the shrooms, and wandered around a vast, desolate winter moonscape that really did look like the surface of Mars. Say there were some crazy Russians having a picnic out in the middle of nowhere next to a steaming mudhole, and say we were too flummoxed to soak in the mudhole near them, so say we climbed a nearby hill instead and sat there for hours, marveling at the sunset.


After the sun went down, say we wandered through the desert in bathrobes – part Carlos Castaneda, part Jeff Lebowski – enjoying the utter stillness and the subtle perfume of creosote bushes and distant meth labs. Say we hung out for hours, talking and talking of cabbages and kings and Bikram yoga and ethanol and drum patterns and the shitty state of EDM until 1 a.m., when the shrooms finally wore off and we headed back into Vegas.

Say it was fabulous!

Between these two hypothetical experiences, would I finally understand the magic of Hunter S. Thompson?

Meh, despite all that hypothetical fun, I gotta admit I’m still not 100 percent sold. I mean, he’s okay, but what’s that got to do with me?

Then I looked up the definition of “gonzo journalism” on Wikipedia: “an experimental style of journalism where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories.”


SARAH JANE WOODALL is a one-woman culture festival. Read more at her blog,