Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Other American Stories, Page 3Hunter S. Thompson
I agreed. By this time the drink was beginning to cut the acid and my hallucinations were down to a tolerable level. The room service waiter had a vaguely reptilian cast to his features, but I was no longer seeing huge pterodactyls lumbering around the corridors in pools of fresh blood. The only problem now was a gigantic neon sign outside the window, blocking our view of the mountains—millions of colored balls running around a very complicated track, strange symbols & filigree, giving off a loud hum. . . .
“Look outside,” I said.
“There’s a big . . . machine in the sky, . . . some kind of electric snake . . . coming straight at us.”
“Shoot it,” said my attorney.
“Not yet,” I said. “I want to study its habits.”
He went over to the corner and began pulling on a chain to close the drapes. “Look,” he said, “you’ve got to stop this talk about snakes and leeches and lizards and that stuff. It’s making me sick.”
“Don’t worry,” I said.
“Worry? Jesus, I almost went crazy down there in the bar. They’ll never let us back in that place—not after your scene at the press table.”
“You bastard,” he said. “I left you alone for three minutes! You scared the shit out of those people! Waving that goddamn marlin spike around and yelling about reptiles. You’re lucky I came back in time. They were ready to call the cops. I said you were only drunk and that I was taking you up to your room for a cold shower. Hell, the only reason they gave us the press passes was to get you out of there.”
He was pacing around nervously. “Jesus, that scene straightened me right out! I must have some drugs. What have you done with the mescaline?”
“The kit-bag,” I said.
He opened the bag and ate two pellets while I got the tape machine going. “Maybe you should only eat one of these,” he said. “That acid’s still working on you.”
I agreed. “We have to go out to the track before dark,” I said. “But we have time to watch the TV news. Let’s carve up this grapefruit and make a fine rum punch, maybe toss in a blotter . . . where’s the car?”
“We gave it to somebody in the parking lot,” he said. “I have the ticket in my briefcase.”
“What’s the number? I’ll call down and have them wash the bastard, get rid of that dust and grime.”
“Good idea,” he said. But he couldn’t find the ticket.
“Well, we’re fucked,” I said. “We’ll never convince them to give us that car without proof.”
He thought for a moment, then picked up the phone and asked for the garage. “This is Doctor Gonzo in eight-fifty,” he said. “I seem to have lost my parking stub for that red convertible I left with you, but I want the car washed and ready to go in thirty minutes. Can you send up a duplicate stub? . . . What . . . Oh? . . . Well, that’s fine.” He hung up and reached for the hash pipe. “No problem,” he said. “That man remembers my face.”
“That’s good,” I said. “They’ll probably have a big net ready for us when we show up.”
He shook his head. “As your attorney, I advise you not to worry about me.”
The TV news was about the Laos Invasion—a series of horrifying disasters: explosions and twisted wreckage, men fleeing in terror, Pentagon generals babbling insane lies. “Turn that shit off!” screamed my attorney “Let’s get out of here!”
A wise move. Moments after we picked up the car my attorney went into a drug coma and ran a red light on Main Street before I could bring us under control. I propped him up in the passenger seat and took the wheel myself . . . feeling fine, extremely sharp. All around me in traffic I could see people talking and I wanted to hear what they were saying. All of them. But the shotgun mike was in the trunk and I decided to leave it there. Las Vegas is not the kind of town where you want to drive down Main Street aiming a black bazooka-looking instrument at people.
Turn up the radio. Turn up the tape machine. Look into the sunset up ahead. Roll the windows down for a better taste of the cool desert wind. Ah yes. This is what it’s all about. Total control now. Tooling along the main drag on a Saturday night in Las Vegas, two good old boys in a fireapple-red convertible . . . stoned, ripped, twisted . . . Good People.
Great God! What is this terrible music?
“The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley”:
“. . . as we go marching on . . .
When I reach my final campground, in that land
beyond the sun,
and the Great Commander asks me . . .”
(What did he ask you, Rusty?)
“. . . Did you fight or did you run?”
(and what did you tell him, Rusty?)
“. . . We responded to their rifle fire with everything
we had . . .”
No! I can’t be hearing this! It must be the drug. I glanced over at my attorney, but he was staring up at the sky, and I could see that his brain had gone off to that campground beyond the sun. Thank christ he can’t hear this music, I thought. It would drive him into a racist frenzy.
Mercifully, the song ended. But my mood was already shattered . . . and now the fiendish cactus juice took over, plunging me into a sub-human funk as we suddenly came up on the turnoff to the Mint Gun Club. “One mile,” the sign said. But even a mile away I could hear the crackling scream of two-stroke bike engines winding out . . . and then, coming closer, I heard another sound.
Shotguns! No mistaking that flat hollow boom.
I stopped the car. What the hell is going on down there? I rolled up all the windows and eased down the gravel road, hunched low on the wheel . . . until I saw about a dozen figures pointing shotguns into the air, firing at regular intervals.
Standing on a slab of concrete out here in the mesquite-desert, this scraggly little oasis in a wasteland north of Vegas . . . They were clustered, with their shotguns, about fifty yards away from a one-story concrete/block-house, half-shaded by ten or twelve trees and surrounded by cop-cars, bike-trailers and motorcycles.
Of course. The Mint Gun Club! These lunatics weren’t letting anything interfere with their target practice. Here were about a hundred bikers, mechanics and assorted motorsport types milling around in the pit area, signing in for tomorrow’s race, idly sipping beers and appraising each other’s machinery—and right in the middle of all this, oblivious to everything but the clay pigeons flipping out of the traps every five seconds or so, the shotgun people never missed a beat.
Well, why not? I thought. The shooting provided a certain rhythm—sort of a steady bass-line—to the high-pitched chaos of the bike scene. I parked the car and wandered into the crowd, leaving my attorney in his coma.
I bought a beer and watched the bikes checking in. Many 405 Husquavarnas, high-tuned Swedish fireballs . . . also many Yamahas, Kawasakis, a few 500 Triumphs, Maicos, here & there a CZ, a Pursang . . . all very fast, super-light dirt bikes. No Hogs in this league, not even a Sportster . . . that would be like entering our Great Red Shark in the dune buggy competition.
Maybe I should do that, I thought. Sign my attorney up as the driver, then send him out to the starting line with a head full of ether and acid. How would they handle it?
Nobody would dare go out on the track with a person that crazy. He would roll on the first turn, and take out four or five dune buggies—a Kamikaze trip.
“What’s the entry fee?” I asked the desk-man.
“Two fifty,” he said.
“What if I told you I had a Vincent Black Shadow?”
He stared up at me, saying nothing, not friendly. I noticed he was wearing a .38 revolver on his belt. “Forget it,” I said. “My driver’s sick, anyway.”
His eyes narrowed. “Your driver ain’t the only one sick around here, buddy.”
“He has a bone in his throat,” I said.
The man was getting ugly, but suddenly his eyes switched away. He was staring at something else . . .
> My attorney; no longer wearing his Danish sunglasses, no longer wearing his Acapulco shirt . . . a very crazy looking person, half-naked and breathing heavily.
“What’s the trouble here?” he croaked. “This man is my client. Are you prepared to go to court?”
I grabbed his shoulder and gently spun him around. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s the Black Shadow—they won’t accept it.”
“Wait a minute!” he shouted. “What do you mean, they won’t accept it? Have you made a deal with these pigs?”
“Certainly not,” I said, pushing him along toward the gate. “But you notice they’re all armed. We’re the only people here without guns. Can’t you hear that shooting over there?”
He paused, listened for an instant, then suddenly began running toward the car. “You cocksuckers!” he screamed over his shoulder. “We’ll be back!”
By the time we got the shark back on the highway he was able to talk. “Jesus christ! How did we get mixed up with that gang of psychotic bigots? Let’s get the fuck out of this town. Those scumbags were trying to kill us!”
Covering the Story . . . A Glimpse of the Press in Action . . . Ugliness & Failure
The racers were ready at dawn. Fine sunrise over the desert. Very tense. But the race didn’t start until nine, so we had to kill about three long hours in the casino next to the pits, and that’s where the trouble started.
The bar opened at seven. There was also a “koffee & donut canteen” in the bunker, but those of us who had been up all night in places like the Circus-Circus were in no mood for coffee & donuts. We wanted strong drink. Our tempers were ugly and there were at least two hundred of us, so they opened the bar early. By eight-thirty there were big crowds around the crap-tables. The place was full of noise and drunken shouting.
A boney, middle-aged hoodlum wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt boomed up to the bar and yelled: “God damn! What day is this—Saturday?”
“More like Sunday,” somebody replied.
“Hah! That’s a bitch, ain’t it?” the H-D boomer shouted to nobody in particular. “Last night I was out home in Long Beach and somebody said they were runnin’ the Mint 400 today, so I says to my old lady, ‘Man, I’m goin’.” He laughed. “So she gives me a lot of crap about it, you know . . . so I started slappin’ her around and the next thing I knew two guys I never even seen before got me out on the sidewalk workin’ me over. Jesus! They beat me stupid.”
He laughed again, talking into the crowd and not seeming to care who listened. “Hell yes!” he continued. “Then one of ’em says, ‘Where you going?’ And I says, ‘Las Vegas, to the Mint 400.’ So they gave me ten bucks and drove me down to the bus station. . . .” He paused. “At least I think it was them. . . .
“Well, anyway, here I am. And I tell you that was one hell of a long night, man! Seven hours on that goddamn bus! But when I woke up it was dawn and here I was in downtown Vegas and for a minute I didn’t know what the hell I was doin’ here. All I could think was, ‘O Jesus, here we go again: Who’s divorced me this time?’”
He accepted a cigarette from somebody in the crowd, still grinning as he lit up. “But then I remembered, by God! I was here for the Mint 400 . . . and, man, that’s all I needed to know. I tell you it’s wonderful to be here, man. I don’t give a damn who wins or loses. It’s just wonderful to be here with you people. . . .”
Nobody argued with him. We all understood. In some circles, the “Mint 400” is a far, far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one. This race attracts a very special breed, and our man in the Harley T-shirt was clearly one of them.
The correspondent from Life nodded sympathetically and screamed at the bartender: “Senzaman wazzyneeds!”
“Fast up with it,” I croaked. “Why not five?” I smacked the bar with my open, bleeding palm. “Hell yes! Bring us ten!”
“I’ll back it!” The Life man screamed. He was losing his grip on the bar, sinking slowly to his knees, but still speaking with definite authority: “This is a magic moment in sport! It may never come again!” Then his voice seemed to break. “I once did the Triple Crown,” he muttered. “But it was nothing like this.”
The frog-eyed woman clawed feverishly at his belt. “Stand up!” she pleaded. “Please stand up! You’d be a very handsome man if you’d just stand up!”
He laughed distractedly. “Listen, madam,” he snapped. “I’m damn near intolerably handsome down here where I am. You’d go crazy if I stood up!”
The woman kept pulling at him. She’d been mooning at his elbows for two hours, and now she was making her move. The man from Life wanted no part of it; he slumped deeper into his crouch.
I turned away. It was too horrible. We were, after all, the absolute cream of the national sporting press. And we were gathered here in Las Vegas for a very special assignment: to cover the Fourth Annual “Mint 400” . . . and when it comes to things like this, you don’t fool around.
But now—even before the spectacle got under way—there were signs that we might be losing control of the situation. Here we were on this fine Nevada morning, this cool bright dawn on the desert, hunkered down at some greasy bar in a concrete blockhouse & gambling casino called the “Mint Gun Club” about ten miles out of Vegas . . . and with the race about to start, we were dangerously disorganized.
Outside, the lunatics were playing with their motorcycles, taping the headlights, topping off oil in the forks, last minute bolt-tightening (carburetor screws, manifold nuts, etc.) . . . and the first ten bikes blasted off on the stroke of nine. It was extremely exciting and we all went outside to watch. The flag went down and these ten poor buggers popped their clutches and zoomed into the first turn, all together, then somebody grabbed the lead (a 405 Husquavarna, as I recall), and a cheer went up as the rider screwed it on and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
“Well, that’s that,” somebody said. “They’ll be back around in an hour or so. Let’s go back to the bar.”
But not yet. No. There were something like a hundred and ninety more bikes waiting to start. They went off ten at a time, every two minutes. At first it was possible to watch them out to a distance of some two hundred yards from the starting line. But this visibility didn’t last long. The third brace of ten disappeared into the dust about a hundred yards from where we stood . . . and by the time they’d sent off the first hundred (with still another hundred to go), our visibility was down to something like fifty feet. We could see as far as the hay-bales at the end of the pits. . . .
Beyond that point the incredible dustcloud that would hang over this part of the desert for the next two days was already formed up solid. None of us realized, at the time, that this was the last we would see of the “Fabulous Mint 400”—
By noon it was hard to see the pit area from the bar/casino, one hundred feet away in the blazing sun. The idea of trying to “cover this race” in any conventional press-sense was absurd: It was like trying to keep track of a swimming meet in an Olympic-sized pool filled with talcum powder instead of water. The Ford Motor Company had come through, as promised, with a “press Bronco” and a driver, but after a few savage runs across the desert—looking for motorcycles and occasionally finding one—I abandoned this vehicle to the photographers and went back to the bar.
It was time, I felt, for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene. The race was definitely under way. I had witnessed the start; I was sure of that much. But what now? Rent a helicopter? Get back in that stinking Bronco? Wander out on that goddamn desert and watch these fools race past the checkpoints? One every thirteen minutes. . . . ?
By ten they were spread out all over the course. It was no longer a “race”; now it was an Endurance Contest. The only visible action was at the start/finish line, where every few minutes some geek would come speeding out of the dustcloud and stagger off his bike, while his pit crew would gas it up and then launch it back onto the track with a
fresh driver . . . for another fifty-mile lap, another brutal hour of kidney-killing madness out there in that terrible dust-blind limbo.
Somewhere around eleven, I made another tour in the press-vehicle, but all we found were two dune-buggies full of what looked like retired petty-officers from San Diego. They cut us off in a dry-wash and demanded, “Where is the damn thing?”
“Beats me,” I said. “We’re just good patriotic Americans like yourselves.” Both of their buggies were covered with ominous symbols: Screaming Eagles carrying American Flags in their claws, a slant-eyed snake being chopped to bits by a buzz-saw made of stars & stripes, and one of the vehicles had what looked like a machine-gun mount on the passenger side.
They were having a bang-up time—just crashing around the desert at top speed and hassling anybody they met. “What outfit you fellas with?” one of them shouted. The engines were all roaring; we could barely hear each other.
“The sporting press,” I yelled. “We’re friendlies—hired geeks.”
“If you want a good chase,” I shouted, “you should get after that skunk from CBS News up ahead in the big black jeep. He’s the man responsible for The Selling of the Pentagon.”
“Hot damn!” two of them screamed at once. “A black jeep, you say?”
They roared off, and so did we. Bouncing across the rocks & scrub oak/cactus like iron tumbleweeds. The beer in my hand flew up and hit the top, then fell in my lap and soaked my crotch with warm foam.
“You’re fired,” I said to the driver. “Take me back to the pits.”
It was time, I felt, to get grounded—to ponder this rotten assignment and figure out how to cope with it. Lacerda insisted on Total Coverage. He wanted to go back out in the dust storm and keep trying for some rare combination of film and lens that might penetrate the awful stuff.