Fear And Loathing In Woody Creek: Growing Up With Hunter S. Thompson

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Juan Thompson and Hunter S. Thompson
Six-year-old Juan Thompson with Hunter S. Thompson in the kitchen at Owl Farm, circa 1971.

What was it like to have Hunter S. Thompson as a father? Juan Thompson says it’s the question he’s most often asked. To his fans, Hunter Thompson was a groundbreaking writer, the celebrated pioneer of “gonzo” journalism. To his son, he was a remote figure, an addict with a mean streak.

But the love between father and son was always there, even when it wasn’t obvious. Juan Thompson's new memoir about his father and their complicated relationship is called, “Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson.” Thompson spoke with Ryan Warner.

Juan Thompson on growing up in Aspen in the 1970s:

“Aspen was a strange place. You had the old-time conservative rancher and farmer community. And then you had these hippies who had come in from the coasts. It was a real clash of cultures. And you had all these people who were determined not to have mainstream lives, or raise their families in conventional ways. I can’t think of any families that I knew at the time where someone worked a nine-to-five job.”

On his father’s daily routine:

“He would get up around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, have breakfast while I was having dinner. And then, by the time I was going to bed, he was ready to go out and see his friends. It was the middle of the day for him. And then he’d go to bed around 7 or 8 in the morning. So our schedules were almost completely flipped.”

On writing about his youth:

One of the strangest things to write about the first time I took LSD at 14 with my mom and her boyfriend. Looking back, that’s a very strange thing. And that’s something I would not do with my son. But at the time, in that culture in Aspen, it was not strange. Parents did drugs with their kids. That was not uncommon. Did it harm me? No. But would I advocate it? No.”

On how he came to despise his father:

“He was verbally abusive. He was loud, and he was very insightful about exactly what words to use to cause the most hurt. And it wasn't physical violence. He really was trying to win, to break my mom down. And he did that. And watching him do that was painful. And I just came to really despise him for being so deliberately cruel.”

On guns, and how they helped bring him closer to his father:

“Once my parents got divorced, I had to make an effort to actually spend time with [my dad]. I’d go out there and spend the weekend. And then at one point, he said, ‘Hey, let’s clean some guns. Let me show you how to do this. And that evolved into a ritual really, that lasted up until he died. I don’t know that he intended it that way, but it really became this kind of bonding ritual. Whenever Id come up [to Owl Farm], I’d clean the guns. It wasn't the cleaning of the guns that was so critical, it was the bond that was implied as a result.

On Hunter S. Thompson’s widow’s plans to open Owl Farm to the public:

“I don’t think Hunter would have wanted that. Did Hunter want to be remembered as a great writer? Absolutely. Would he want people wandering around his home? Absolutely not. The idea of having a museum of some kind is a good one, but I really don’t think Hunter would have appreciated at all the idea of people being in his house.”

Read an excerpt:

In 1982, just before I left for Tufts University in Boston for my freshman year of college, I spent a week with Hunter at Owl Farm, just outside Aspen, where I grew up. It was the first time we had ever spent that much time together, just he and I, and it went surprisingly well.  As I was getting ready to leave for the Aspen airport, he gave me the following letter and told me to read it on the plane.

Sept 1 ’82

Dear Juan

Okay. You’re off. And things seem generally under control—
on your end, anyway. I am still juggling madness on this end, +
I’ve never even heard a rumor that the end might be in sight.

It’s a queer life for sure— but at least it keeps me in shape,
more or less.

Here are three valid $50 checks, which should keep you
solvent at least long enough to settle in + get a fix on things.
Use them to open your own bank account in Boston.

Also, call me tonight to confirm your safe arrival. Don’t
forget to do this.

I’ll call Dick + Doris [Goodwin] + Mike Barnicle at the
Globe, to say you’ll be stopping by sometime soon, to say hello,


Call your advisor from the Denver airport + say you’ll be late
for dinner—but you’ll try to make it + you’d like to meet him
tonight. Also, ask him the best way to get from the airport to
Tufts ASAP. . . . and tell him you’re very concerned that your
application for the school newspaper didn’t get there on time.
Can he help you straighten out the confusion?

He can. But you’ll have to get serious about it right away. Gall
is a basic tool of journalism, which is a rude business at best.


And so much for advice + logistics. I’m not worried about
you— but I am interested, and I’ll want to know what’s
happening. Send me your phone number and a P.O. address.
Let’s talk on the phone as often as you feel like it— especially for
the first few weeks, which will almost certainly be nervous. Or
maybe not. But if they are, don’t worry. The Glum Reaper will
be hanging around, but to hell with him. We have dealt with
the bugger before + we know the one thing he can’t handle is a
bedrock sense of humor.

So remember the 44 “Naked + Alone . . .” books. All you
have to do is write the first two. I’ll handle it after that, + we
will both get obscenely rich. Take my word for it. Why fool
around with tangents, like all the others? Your future is already
assured. All you need is a typewriter + a few reams of paper.


I’m glad you came home for a while, + I wish it could have
been longer. I had a good time— and as always, was proud of you.
Very few seekers go out in the world as well- armed as you are.

I’ll keep after [Paul] Rubin for the $1000 he owes you for
technical work. He says he has a fat job for you next summer—
but so do I, and mine is a lot fatter. 44 books, rich + famous by
21. No problem.


Anyway, I’ll figure on seeing you for Xmas, if not before

We still have a ways to go before we can act like good
friends + yell at each other without worrying about what it all
means. . . . But we’re doing pretty well, considering the small
amount of time we’ve really put into it.

You’re a good person, and I love you for that as much as
because you’re my son.

Or because you’re about to be rich + pay my expenses forever.
With my wisdom + your talent, our bets are covered from the
start. By 1984 we’ll be making $ 44,000 a month, and even
Jimmy [Buffett] will be standing in line to get your autograph.

Let’s stop looking at this college gig as a foolish expense +
start seeing it as an avenue to big money: a fine investment,
with huge returns in the offing. Right? Yes. Let’s do it.

Love, H.

Sometimes apparently ordinary events or objects encapsulate vast realities. This letter is one. What is perhaps most remarkable is that I had completely forgotten about this letter until I rediscovered it during my research for this book. It is the letter I had been waiting for my whole life, a promise of an engaged father who gives advice, gives encouragement, promises adventure, affirms the good times, and talks of getting together soon. All of a sudden
I had a father again. How could I have forgotten this letter?

However, we moved too fast toward a kind of intimacy that we both wished for but which did not yet exist. I took him at his word, plunged in and sent him a letter expressing my loneliness, sadness, homesickness, and depression.

It was in this state of mind that I wrote this letter to Hunter, full of disdain for the people around me, a disdain and arrogance born out of loneliness and fear.

Sept 4th, 1982


Yes— naked and alone in Boston. How baffling this is. “I’m
not like the others!” The glum reaper is devious this time. He
hides outside the window, the tip of his scythe barely visible.
Thankfully, he doesn’t show his miserable, despairing form,
but I know he’s there. Other times he’s not so subtle. He and
I walk side by side, completely alone, so close I can smell the
tears, the utter hopelessness of this endeavor. He shows me
memories, vivid nostalgia, better times. It’s deadly, and very
painful. And then, he retreats, I am reprieved, he never lets me
forget he is there, though. Devious, insidious. I feel the best
I’ve felt since I’ve been here. As I write this, light glints off the
blade of that scythe, moves a bit farther out . . . It’s true, I’m
not like the others. I’m quiet, “weird,” solitary. What can I
say? I’m sure there are, among Tufts’ 5000 students, at least a
hundred people with whom I can make friends, but they are as
invisible as I. The social codes are different, distinctly preppy,
fraternity-sorority, hip, flip, fast-and-cute, nauseating, and
artificial. I have no doubt that the majority of these people are
interesting, likeable, intelligent people. Unfortunately, they’ve
been taught not to show it. The problem lies in socializing.
When these people socialize, they don a common “mask.” They
talk a certain way (hip, flip) act a certain way, do certain things,
all of which have been defined as socially acceptable. By acting
in such a way, one makes “friends.” With time, friends use
their masks less and less, and a true, deep friendship results. But
the mask is so cheap, and repulsive! I don’t want to use it, so I
take the alternative (which is not necessarily best) and retreat,
becoming quiet and “unsociable,” waiting to meet someone like
me. Lonelier. The price of principles. The price of a progressive,
Aspen, western education. The Community School. I’d do it a
thousand times over.

Tried calling you tonight—no answer. Play? You’re right about
the sense of humor. The Ultimate Weapon. Unfortunately,
humor seems so far away when I most need it. I’ve made a sign,
“Naked and Alone” . . . which I’m putting on the wall. Perhaps
Tufts isn’t the place for me, perhaps the east isn’t the place for
me. Nevertheless, I’ll definitely plan to stay a year here, to make
a fair judgment. No Concord fiasco, I’m more sensible than that.
Yeah, it’s easy to say that behind “His” back, but when he’s beside
me, it’s hard.

My roommate wears the mask. The other night he took
it off (why?) and was very nice. A pleasant person and
worthwhile roommate. The next morning, and ever since,
he’s had it on. The room is looking better. Once I get my
boxes it will be quite nice, I think. Now, I could stick it out.
Tomorrow, when HE comes, I won’t be very sure. Don’t worry,
I’ll survive.

By the way, this newspaper, The Tufts Observer, needs
a good reporter. More importantly, it needs a good editor.
Too ambitious? We’ll see . . . If this is one of the top 5 college
papers, I couldn’t bear to see the worst. It needs work. So,
Monday or Tuesday I’ll get on the staff, get my foot in the
door, so to speak. I hope they aren’t stodgy, intellectual,
fraternity snobs running the paper. They may well be.

My phone number is: 617 628 2043

Please call anytime. I really enjoyed your letter, thank you,
it helped. Get some work done. I’ll be working hard here. Fear
is in the air. These people would rather be at Harvard. Old
Harvard. These people will be running this country. Not me,
I’m not like the others, I won’t be. Never!

Can I maintain such a claim in the face of such as HE? I’ll
make friends, slowly, as is my nature. Slow but steady. I’ll send
for some literature on Reed College in Oregon. Just look. A
year here may be long enough, or just the beginning. Remind
me, Keep me honest, my objectivity can be easily lost here.


I love you, Dad.


When I found this letter to Hunter in the archive, I also found his notes that he had scrawled on the letter:

Yeah. “they’ll (sic) all gay like me— why won’t they admit it?”

Jesus. What hath Sandy wrought?

No college will cure this problem— only postpone it, for
$1500 a month.

That would pay the mortgage on the Owl Farm.

I have already paid $5000. Another $1000 due on Oct. 1st.

Can Sandy take me back to court if I don’t pay?

So what? He’ll be in the Village by then.

A few weeks later Hunter replied with a rambling, confused letter in which he recounted a story about the last time he received such a letter in which a friend of his informed him that he was gay and was going to New York City “to be with his people.”

Hunter wrote that their friendship petered out after a few get-togethers, not because of Hunter’s hostility to gays, but because they now had different interests and social circles. He finished the letter with this:

. . . there is a knotty kind of intensity in your message that
was exceeded only by its obscurity. So I figured I’d just skrike
out in the fog and see what came of it. None of my doctorates
gave me wisdom in areas like these— but I sense something
heavier than just college on your mind and I think I should
know what it is. Tell me.

I had written him two long letters explaining how lonely and unhappy I was and his reaction was to tell me I wasn’t being clear and to state the real problem. I had asked my father, who in his previous letter had been so supportive and welcoming of communication, for help or understanding, and now he was no help at all. In fact, his letter brought up uncomfortable questions: Did my father think I was gay? Was he saying that we would drift apart if I were? What was he trying to say? Did he understand me at all? Clearly he could not help me.

That first letter from Hunter was beautiful wishful thinking. He wanted to believe we had that kind of relationship, as did I. We wanted to believe we could start over from that moment and he could be the father he and I both wanted him to be. My letters to him exploded that illusion, and now I see he had no idea how to handle this kind of appeal from me. He could give practical advice; if I had asked him for help getting a job, getting a car, getting an interview for an article in the student paper, that he could have handled. But a cry of loneliness in the darkness, that
he could not handle.

Reprinted from "Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson," by Juan F. Thompson with permission of Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright (c) Juan F. Thompson, 2016.