WOODY CREEK, Colo. — For more than an hour, Hunter S. Thompson has been calmly and cogently presenting his views on national politics between bites of his lunch. So calmly, in fact, that he doesn't even bother to harass the waitress when she informs him that there is no more tuna salad.
Suddenly, he stops in mid-sentence and emits a blood-curdling cry.
He has detected a strand of hair on the lip of his drinking glass and cannot continue. Not just a small hair, mind you, but a "large, ugly, black-rooted hair" that is spoiling his jumbo tumbler of Chivas on the rocks.
Soon, everyone at the Woody Creek Tavern in this Rocky Mountain hamlet--from the manager to the neighborhood barfly--is holding the glass up to the light and examining it with the concentration of government health inspectors. No one can see any foreign matter--except for Thompson, who has worked himself into a snarling fever trying to get someone to admit that he's not just hallucinating.
Vindicated at Last
Finally, bartender Mary Harris defuses the crisis. "Why, yes," she says, turning the glass around and around, "I can see the hair now." Vindicated at last, Thompson placidly returns to his discourse.
For a few fleeting moments, the barroom has gotten a glimpse of the Gonzo journalist of old--that literary lion of lunacy who used to prowl the corridors of power for Rolling Stone magazine with a quart of Wild Turkey in one hand and a bottle of amphetamines in the other; the "Good Doctor" whose fear and loathing of American politics were expressed in hilariously vituperative attacks on national political figures; the founder and chief practitioner of a peculiar brand of "new journalism," which held that the story of the writer struggling to work through a drug- and alcohol-induced frenzy was a lot more interesting than whatever his editors had assigned.
Today, however, there is a new and possibly improved version of Hunter S. Thompson--a sedate, almost serene, scribbler of serious political prose with a nationally syndicated column who for the moment is seated on a chair of genuine Naugahyde at his favorite hometown watering hole and exhibiting all the signs of someone capable of acting, well, normal .
What's different is both the man and his message. He's 50 years old now, for one thing, and he knows that what was charming when he was 30 or wild when he was 40 takes on a pathetic patina with the big Five-O. The outrageous outfits of Hawaiian shirts, baggy shorts and high-top sneakers are mixed these days with mountain-man khaki pants and flannel shirts. (Of course, his favorite slacks are still the ones in Day-Glo orange with white unicorns.) The diatribes at high decibels have given way to give-and-take discussions so quiet they could be moved to a library.
And, sometimes, if a harvest moon is shining outside and the air is as autumn crisp as a shiny McIntosh apple, the man who once derided the United States as a nation of 220 million used-car salesmen "with no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world" sounds suspiciously like a flag-waving, Republican-by-birth patriot.
"This is the only nation in the world where your vote is heard. You make a difference," the new Thompson says with apparent sincerity. "You do have a say in things. Democracy is really not a bad
idea if you pay attention to it."
One reason the change seems so marked is that until recently Thompson hasn't written much of anything for anybody. In fact, for the last decade Thompson has been something of a recluse on his 100-acre farm here, content to leave the Gonzo image intact rather than go to the trouble of replacing it publicly.
Actually, he and his friends say, it's not so much that Thompson disappeared; he simply seemed content to let the world spin by for a few years. "People think his brain has been fried. But it just isn't true. He's sharp as a tack," says his longtime friend, Aspen entrepreneur Dan Dibble. "He's been very aware and very involved," and simply hasn't bothered anyone lately.
Thompson himself is rather shy about discussing the change. "I'm just living a different side of life," he explains. And what about his life before? "None of it seems crazy to me, really. Well," he mumbles with no explanation, "maybe getting married to that fat boy down in Bimini." (In actuality, Thompson, who is divorced, is known for his succession of much-younger girlfriends.)
But the new Thompson is more "organized," more "sensitive," more "open to serious intellectual exchange," according to his friends. That may be a reflection of changing times rather than just a transformation of Thompson himself. "I'm not going to call it maturity," Dibble says, "because . . . he was a success at 30, so he wasn't a kid. But times were crazier back then and Hunter meets all challenges with whatever it takes. And if times are easier like they are now, then he's easier as well."