Monday, July 21, 2008

New Appalachian Thruhike Record!

New York, NY --
Johann Gambolputty of Niwumb County inadvertently set a new record in long distance hiking this week when he was found hiking in circles in the Catskills. Gambolputty, who is Ocularly Differently Abled (commonly known as cross-eyed), covered 2,175 miles of trail in five months of hiking, as his girlfriend put it "Around and around." Gambolputty joined other long distance hiker luminaries Scott "One Leg" Rogers and blind hiker Bill Irwin in accomplishing a singularly unique long distance hike. Appalachian Trail Conservancy representative Gary Kingfisher had this to say: "Never mind that Johann did all of his Appalachian hiking in a 3-mile circle of trail. He did it for five months! You do the math! It is our expressed mission to encourage all singularly unique hikers, especially the oddballs. Far too many boring thruhikes are completed annually by able-bodied hikers. I say, give us your weird and gimpy! The more the merrier!"

Photo by Michael Strickland

Friday, July 18, 2008

Happy Birthday Hunter Thompson

We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.

For a whole generation of writers inspired by prose stylist Hunter Thompson's drug-infused aggro-renegade satire and ruthless key-hammering reportage, these words are a haunting dirge. The sentence they form threatens to sentence us all to mimicry Hell. It is a beginning best relegated to nostalgia, then tossed out in deference to something fresh and new. It is a warning and a trap, our own personal dark and stormy night.

Or maybe I'm projecting.

Perhaps this is just my own personal literary tic and not a problem encountered by other contemporary writers. But I doubt it. There has to be a few hardcore crazies out there with "Gonzo" tattooed either literally (like me) or figuratively, on the skin of their writing arm. They're out there now, hacking away at the keys of laptops and desk tops and IBM Selectrics with gonzo conviction to spike the trees and shred the cutting teeth of the blogsaw currently bleeding the life out of this once noble tradition. Like me, they sit down to write and are hurtled headlong into the desert. The drugs take hold of them, too.

It could be worse. And if one believes Hunter's claim to have never found a drug to get him "anywhere near as high as sitting at a desk writing," then it is fitting. I don't know about the desk part, but there sure are moments when writing is so damn satisfying it confounds description. At its best, writing is a kind of freefall with no thought of landing any time soon. There is no parachute, but there is no fear. Perhaps there is no Earth. A writer on the nod with the muse has Jesus by one arm, Buddha by the other and the winged Pegasus between his legs. He has no fear of the ground coming up, because he is, for a moment, immortal.

Hunter Stockton Thompson voluntarily joined the class of Permanent Immortals (my emphasis – Hunter in fact believed in reincarnation) three years ago February. He'd been kicking around Earth for sixty-seven years. To my mind, his time among us was not a wasted trip. Today is his birthday.

I could tell you what I know about his life. But none of that can't be read elsewhere either online or in one of the five biographies published about him during his lifetime. You would be better served, and I better employed, however, by mention of how the man influenced me.

I began to write in earnest a year or two before being introduced to Hunter Thompson. But it could be surmised that without Hunter's influence, I would not still be writing today. It was in college in my late teens that a teacher first said, "Hey, you can really write!" But it was hillbilly Thompson, the aggressive Rolling Stone writer with the damn-the-torpedoes (and any guise of objectivity) style that said, "Hey, you can write anything you want, and you can make a career out of it."

It was a coworker at Licorice Pizza record store in Carlsbad, California that first noted some similarity between me and the character portrayed by Bill Murray in the 1980 film "Where the Buffalo Roam." I can't recall whether the coworker had read something I'd written or just intuited some relationship. But on his advice I took the film home, watched it, snagged copies of two Thompson books and read them with awe. I was hooked. That was in 1987.

A year later in West Germany I began cranking out a weird little monthly broadside titled "The Gonzo Gazette." With the aid of a friend at the local U.S. Army base, I mailed home dozens of Gonzo Gazettes at a fraction of overseas postage. My part in the outlaw journalist tradition had begun.

My choice of undergraduate studies is owed to Hunter Thompson. And one might say here is where my love for the man's writing began to steer me wrong, where I began to ignore Hunter's advice against any pursuance of his career or example. It seems clear to me now twenty years later that he said emphatically DON'T DO AS I DO. I was young. I did it anyway. I majored in Journalism.

But I wasn't completely foolish. My actions were in fact based very little on hero worship and more on the intersection of Thompson's legacy and my reality.

I was a slow reader. Despite proficiency in other areas, math and writing particularly, I couldn't break out of sixth grade reading level. I feared, therefore, that I would flounder under the heavy reading load of English. And there was more. I felt that I was not like everyone else. The sense of having found a kindred spirit in Hunter Thompson, coupled with the sense that what wasn't good (or bad) for the average joe didn't apply to me, made journalism and okay choice. Would I have studied something else if I had known what horrors lay in wait for a budding gonzo journalist in the tight-sphinctered halls of Humboldt State University journalism department? You bet.

So it goes. Today's birthday boy both turned me on to journalism and ruined it for me, all in one fell swoop. Or I ruined it for myself, as I've explained.

At any rate, Hunter Thompson kept me writing. His work and what I learned of him over the years influenced my own personal ambitions and made me vigilant in the face of ceaseless criticism of my chosen career. In defense of the critics, I never was much of a journalist. I never have had much of a career. But I have kept writing. I've never given up. Despite a constant rain of shit and very little of what you could call success, I'm still at it. Though I never knew him and he thus never knew it, Hunter kept me going.

For years and years preceding his wretched demise, Hunter Thompson pulled me toward him. But as with his advice against emulating him, I ignored the calls. Friends who understood the depth of my gonzo streak were forever suggesting a road trip to Woody Creek. My art car, Duke, a two-ton rolling monument to the gonzo way, severely aided and abetted the call to meet my mentor. "We really have to drive Duke up to Hunter's and chain the car to his gate!" I wouldn't do it. For some reason, I just didn't think it right to bother the man.

If I had to guess, I'd say I was afraid that the difference between the man and the legend would wreak irreparable havoc with my forever more-fragile sense that I was on the right track in life. In truth, it was probably more that I was afraid my mentor would disappointed with me. That would not have been cool.

So, by forever putting off that day, I sealed my fate. I never met my greatest mentor, though I had ample opportunity while he lived. Instead, a day late and a dollar short, I hiked 500 miles to his funeral in some kind of twisted tribute to the man. When I got there, despite a fair amount of media coverage of my walk, I was not admitted inside. I was there, however. I witnessed the explosion that shot Hunter's cremains out over our heads (and doubtless down into our hair) and joined my few fellow gate crashers in song, singing "Hey Mister Tamborine Man, play a song for me…"

If a man's life is a measure of his influence on others, and it isn't too rude to measure this man by his effect on me, then Hunter Thompson lived a hell of a life, and he continues to live through me. He lives on through many, many of us, and it gets weirder and better all the time.

Rick McKinney
Moose Pond, Maine
(Jammed out in an hour on a speedboat in thunderstorm)

Gonzo Mein Herr

Sixty-nine years ago today a great hillbilly was born in Louisville, Kentucky, one Hunter Stockton Thompson.

To say this man had an influence in my life would be one of my more fallacious understatements. At the time of Hunter's death three years ago, I still hadn't grasped the full extent of his impact on me, on my thinking and writing. Despite efforts in the past decade to distance myself from his legacy, I continue to marvel at the evidence of his enduring presence in my life.

With any luck I will find the time today to elaborate on this. For now, however, thank you to Hunter Mann (no relation, or..?) for cluing me in this morning to my mentor madman's birthday, and for this from NPR: