Traveling the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America
Travel Interviews: Long before "Fear and Loathing," Hunter S. Thompson roamed South America. Eva Holland interviews author Brian Kevin about following in his footsteps decades later.
06.04.14 | 3:22 PM ET
In 1962 a young, still-unknown Hunter S. Thompson arrived in South America, planning to travel throughout the region as a foreign correspondent. He spent a year there, filing dispatches for a short-lived weekly American paper called the National Observer, and sending colorful letters home to his editor. He was traveling during the height of the Cold War, and President John F. Kennedy’s first wave of Peace Corps volunteers had arrived. Thompson chronicled the shifting power struggles of a continent caught between Washington and Moscow.
Fifty years later, travel writer Brian Kevin followed in Hunter S. Thompson’s footsteps, using the gonzo author’s articles and private correspondence as a guide. In The Footloose American, Kevin chronicles the trip and his findings—about what has and hasn’t changed in the places Thompson visited, and how the 1962 trip shaped the writer who would go on to produce “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72,” and more. (Read an excerpt from the book here.) I emailed Kevin at his home in Maine to find out more about life on the Hunter S. Thompson trail.
World Hum: Thompson’s time in South America isn’t well known, even among his fans. How did you learn about his brief stint as a foreign correspondent, and why did you decide to follow in his footsteps?
Brian Kevin: I first learned about Thompson’s year abroad when I read “The Proud Highway,” about 15 years ago. That’s the first volume of Thompson’s collected correspondence (still one of my favorite books), and it contains about a dozen-and-a-half letters that Thompson wrote to friends and editors while he was down there. Also, a handful of his South American stories are reprinted in his 1979 collection “The Great Shark Hunt.” So it’s not an unknown part of his life so much as an unexplored one. A lot of Thompson’s admirers and most of his biographers are more concerned with this gonzo character that evolved later, and nobody had paid much attention to his years as a working writer before the ascendancy of the counterculture.
Those few published snippets of South American material seemed really vital to me, though, maybe because I was just out of college, at a point in my life that a reviewer on Goodreads recently called “the granola/Guevara-worshipping phase of middle-class wanderlust.” Except I didn’t indulge this wanderlust. I got a magazine job, I got married, I went to grad school, and the better part of a decade went by.
Then one morning I woke up divorced, graduated, unemployed, and in debt. I was 29—the same age Thompson was when he published his first book. I guess I just felt sort of shitty and inert. Months before, I’d visited a friend who worked at Northwestern University in Chicago, and I’d killed some time in the school’s library digging up all of Thompson’s South American reportage from a microform archive. I’d wanted to pitch it as a Fulbright project, which didn’t work out. So I figured, hell, my loans are in forbearance for another few months and I have some frequent flier miles—why not go to Colombia and see if I can find some of whatever Thompson found there?
In addition to being a travelogue, the book is a sort of crash course in South American (and particularly Andean) history, politics and class relations. How much did you know about the continent before you arrived, and how did you fill in the gaps?
I wasn’t then and am not now an expert on Latin American history or politics, but I do totally nerd out on that stuff. I’d taken an LA politics class as a grad student, which I think sort of helped goad me into that first trip. I also considered The Economist kind of a guilty pleasure (still do)—this pulp thing that arrives every week, relentlessly furthering an ongoing story of world affairs in these little rapid-fire info morsels. It’s like a comic book, really, but infinitely less cool. Anyway, that gave me some grounding. Once I was on the ground, I talked to a lot of smart people. Everywhere I went, I just emailed a handful of local journalists and NGO directors and the occasional diplomat, asking if they wanted to drink some beer and help explain some things to me. People appreciate being treated like they have something valuable to teach you, and they appreciate free beer.
At one point you write that it was never Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo persona and public antics that attracted you—which probably sets you apart from a fair number of his fans. What is it about Thompson’s work that holds your attention? And ay favorite titles you’d recommend?
All that stuff feeds into Thompson’s strange brew, of course. But I think what made me a fan years ago and what keeps me rereading Thompson’s best work is the musicality of the prose—you can tell you’re reading someone influenced equally by Dylan, Hemingway and Fitzgerald—the deadpan humor, and this forever tension between nihilistic wastrel-ism and righteous indignation. I admire his lack of literary self-consciousness when it comes to making grand pronouncements. And Thompson was a great profiler, especially the young Thompson. Anybody who digs that form needs to pick up “The Great Shark Hunt” and read the profiles in there of the skier Jean-Claude Killy, the Chicano activist Oscar Acosta, and the archetype of the Air Force test pilot. Two out of three of those are pre-gonzo, and all are excellent.
As a traveler, were you ever tempted to break away from the Thompson trail and strike out on your own? Did any place tempt you to turn away from the task at hand?
I was tempted and did, although not dramatically. I spent a week in the Ecuadorian Amazon, for example, on the Napo River, which is an area of the country Thompson never stepped foot in. It’s not a segment of my trip that made the book. I wanted to see some of the region firsthand, because at the time, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa was promoting this provocative arrangement where he vowed to prevent oil companies from drilling there if the international community paid Ecuador something like reparations for their lost potential revenue. At the time, I thought maybe it would fit in the eventual manuscript, which I knew would have something to do with Correa’s schizophrenic leadership, but it didn’t end up working in the story, for whatever reason. And that was just as well, because the no-drilling initiative collapsed last year.
Elsewhere in the book, I detour a bit to places that are thematically relevant to the Thompson Trail, but where Thompson himself didn’t go—the mines in Potosí, Bolivia, for example. In fact, it’s probably fair to warn readers who are expecting more of a straightforward biography that the motifs of Thompson’s reportage steered me a lot more than his actual footsteps. It probably says something about me as a traveler that I conceived of this less as a pilgrimage and more as fieldwork.
The book’s core argument, as I read it, is that Hunter Thompson’s South American travels shaped his eventual, sharp-edged view of the American Dream. Did your own time down there change your perspective on the United States, and what it means?
Yeah, Thompson said as much towards the end of his trip, and I spent a lot of my time there trying to figure out just how it was that his perspective shifted. Looking at his 50-year-old articles, I was struck by this kind of bogus utopianism that underlay a lot of the Cold War rhetoric he was covering—the idea was that if only developing nations would follow certain steps, they could transcend scarcity and oligarchy and clan conflict, transitioning into some bold new (capitalist, democratic) phase. But the more I look at the realities of modern South America, the more it sinks in that development and modernization just aren’t linear in this way. In other words, oligarchy and clan conflict and all the rest are these wolves that are always at the door, a country’s GDP or its electoral institutions notwithstanding. And yeah, that should make us look twice at what we take for granted in the US. I think this was the same realization that Thompson came to, more or less, and it was pretty farsighted for a guy operating at the height of the containment era.
But a lot of the book also just pokes a stick at the reasons we give ourselves for traveling—and I include not just North Americans here, but anyone from the advanced industrialized world who enjoys the privilege of leisure travel. So, you know, we go off to find adventure, or to “get away from it all,” or maybe to give back somehow. The conclusion that I came to—and Thompson too, I think—is that a lot of these justifications are pretty specious, and that really the best you can hope for is to come home with fewer illusions about the world than you had when you left.