I can’t think of a better title for a book based on a picaresque writer like Hunter S. Thompson than his collection of letters from1955-1967 called, “The Proud Highway.” This collection of letters, during his formative years as a budding journalist, reveal a man determined to stay on the road less taken no matter the danger or barrage of hurdles. In them, Thompson makes vitriol—spawned from his real life frustrations—come off as elegant prose.
Thompson to an oldgirlfriend (pg.136)
“The phone company isready to take out my phone and the light company is ready to cut off my gas andelectricity. I cashed a check in Florida for my bond and it bounced. Tomorrowone of my brothers will poison the other and my mother will confess to havingbeen a Communist spy for fifteen years. I paid half my rent with a check and itwill bounce. In a country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
Nomadic is a word I’d use to describe Thompson’s, “Buy the ticket, take the ride,”approach to journalism. With those words he was saying that one has to live itin order to write it, if one seeks to find the truth in it. This ideology prompted him to roam town to town seeking gainful employment. He began a shortstint in Florida working for the Air Force, shortly, then bouncing over to the east coast—a stint as a copy boy at TIME in NYC—and after an experience or twoon the coast it was off to Puerto Rico, South America, the west coast andfinally mid-west. By freelancing, Thompson had freedom to travel but nary thefinance to enjoy it. Many publishers felt unsettled by his cynical prose andthere was a sense of frustration with the absurdity of it.
Thompson from Bogota,Columbia to a friend (pg.341)
“Being a free-lanceris impossible, of course; they are used to $100-a-day types who fly in and outwithout the faintest idea of who the president is or what it means. These arethe Alliance for Progress boys, deft technicians all. And then there are thesocial workers, vastly dedicated people who make a man feel degenerate if he can’tavoid a feeling that they are all phonies. It is like knocking the flag.
“Everybody is workingterribly hard on some Worthwhile Project, and for some queer reason it is depressing.They are hauling the indians out of the mud huts and putting them in huts madeof concrete blocks—then hiring $100-a-day photographers to take pictures of theprogress. They have imported ping-pong and the Twist to combat the Red Menace,and an unsalaried cynic with no coat or tie might just as well slink off tosome bistro and masturbate in a back booth.”
Thompson lived a life without a safety net as he would often say, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” He got his most challenging ride in 1965 when The Nation asked him to do a piece on the motorcycle gang Hell’s Angels. This would lead toThompson’s fringe association with the bikers, a book about them and hiseventual hospitalization from the association. Early on he ran the assignmentby his old friend Charles Kuralt feeling out the interest level by explaining his daring exposure.
Thompson to Kuralt(pg.498)
It’s been a wild dayhere. At 6:30 this morning I finally rooted the last Hell’s Angel out of myliving room and went to bed, just as Sandy (His wife) was getting up for herfour-hour stint at the real estate office. I’m doing a piece on motorcyclegangs for The Nation—no money but plenty of kicks. Before I let them into thehouse that night I explained that I didn’t go much for fist-fighting, butpreferred to settle my beefs with a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun. Theyseemed to grasp this concept and we got along fine; Sandy’s hysteria abated, Iwas a gallon of wine and a case of beer poorer, but in the end I think I gotthe makings of about five fine stories.”
Thompson’s gamble with the Angels would pay off, but it would by one expensive ticket and one nasty ride. As he said in his novel Fearand Loathing in Las Vegas, “You can turn your back on a person, but neverturn your back on a drug.” For Thompson, the oft doped and drunk Angels had all the makings of an unstable drug. Apparently, he was away from his Angel contacts and went to take a few pictures on a last run when he was accosted. His recounting would be that an Angel hita woman in her face and Thompson called him a coward. Then next thing he sawstars and was almost beaten to death. He paid a high price for a journalisttrying to get the truth of a matter and felt betrayed by the devil he thoughthe knew.
Thompson to Hell’sAngels leader Sonny Barger (pg.585)
“In all, I had noreason to expect that sort of action—as I’m sure you realize—and in general itdisappointed me about the Angels.”
WhatThe Proud Highway offers is the chronological account of how one of America’s most prolific journalists came to find his voice. From a wayward youth thatlanded him in the Air force, to a disillusioned stint as a copy boy at TIME, tothe Tropics and beyond, throughout his homeland, embedded with an outlaw-motorcycle-gangall the way to Woody Creek, CO, Thompson lived the life of a poet-warrior. Hisrogue lifestyle couldn’t help but infiltrate his prose and this becomes obviousafter reading twelve years of his personal reflections and missives. Thompson became battle-hardened traversing life’s battlefields clinging on to the onething he could never let go of, his pride.