Searching for Hunter S. Thompson in Texas, Bolivia
Travel Stories: In an excerpt from his new book, "The Footloose American," author Brian Kevin follows Hunter S. Thompson's trail in Bolivia
06.04.14 | 3:39 PM ET
Editor’s note: In a new travel book, The Footloose American, World Hum contributor Brian Kevin follows in the footsteps of a pre-gonzo Hunter S. Thompson during his short-lived stint as a foreign correspondent in South America in 1963. In this excerpt, Kevin has arrived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. When Thompson passed through, the city was just beginning to boom with help from Gulf Oil.
From Santa Cruz, I set out on a wild Google chase. Looking at my laptop one morning, I noticed on Google Maps a spot just north of Santa Cruz that was marked with the word “Texas.” On the satellite view, it looked less like a town and more like some patchy green fields, but the label was tantalizing. Gulf Oil had brought many of its employees from Texas to Bolivia back in Thompson’s day. Surely, I thought, this area must have some connection to that era. Back then, the spot marked “Texas” would have been pretty far out of the city, but I figured maybe it was an oil camp, several of which Thompson had toured on his way through eastern Bolivia. Further web searching offered no more information, and when I asked at the Santa Cruz tourist office, neither of the puppy-eyed college girls there knew anything about the place. I approached a few drivers at the bus station whose routes seemed to take them nearby, but the only Texas anyone had heard of was the cowboy capital back in the United States. I asked a few taxi drivers, but it never rang any bells.
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“I have a cousin in Houston,” one of them suggested helpfully.
So I got up early one morning and rode a city bus as far as Santa Cruz’s northern airport, just outside the city, from where I could hoof it the last few miles to the general area where Google’s cartographers had placed Texas, Bolivia. Thankfully, it was an overcast day, so the heat was bearable. The road north of town was a four-lane highway like something out of rural Kansas, busy with semi-trucks and buses, cutting across an empty, scrubby flatland. Inexplicably, I kept walking past piles of rotting fruit—rank mounds of bananas and oranges piled up along the shoulder, covered in buzzing flies.
After a couple of miles I came to a tollgate and a military checkpoint, where a young soldier standing off to one side eyed me curiously. Just cruising on by seemed awkward, so I stopped and asked him whether I should pay the toll.
“Where are you going?” he asked, one eyebrow arched. He was justifiably suspicious. The vehicles next to us were six deep in three lanes, and I was the only pedestrian in sight. Santa Cruz, for all its prosperity, is also a drug-trafficking hub, and I’m sure he could think of reasons why I might hop out of a truck and try to breeze through the checkpoint on foot.
“Not far,” I said. “Another couple of miles, I think. I’m looking for someplace called Texas, or maybe Tejas.”
“And why do you want to go there?”
One thing about not speaking a language well is that sometimes it’s easier to lie than tell the truth. Back in Cali, I had fibbed about my rich retiree in parents because any attempt to explain about Thompson and the British golfer would have only led to confusion. In this circumstance, though, I had no credible alternative motivation. So I launched into a complex answer about researching the history of oil exploration in Santa Cruz, and I took out my phone to show the Google map. When I’d finished clumsily explaining myself, the soldier stared at me for a moment, then broke into a grin.
“First of all, the place you are looking for is called Texas Arizona,” he said, pronouncing the x. “But more importantly, it doesn’t mean anything. It is just a barrio, my friend. There’s nothing there. No petroleum history, no American history. No history at all. The people who live there, they just picked some names off a map.”
He was smiling at me, amused and a little condescending, but I still wasn’t sure if he was going to let me pass. Surely they must have something there, I said. Maybe I could just get some lunch and come back?
“There is no lunch in Texas Arizona,” he insisted, smiling wider. “There is nothing there at all.”
“Well, a refresca, then,” I said hopefully.
“No refrescas, sir. There is nothing.”
Well, I asked, could I please just go check it out anyway? I’d come all this way. The soldier was bemused, but he waved me through with a gloved hand and told me where to turn off. It was only another mile, he said, and Google’s map had actually put it on the wrong side of the highway.
So half an hour later, I was walking down a dirt road, out of earshot from the paved one, when I walked up on a sign reading URBANIZACION POLICIAL TEXAS ARIZONA. It was painted with stencils on a couple of old two-by-fours: Texas Arizona Housing Development. It seemed like the soldier was right. For the next hour or so, I walked the community’s dusty streets, surrounded by a few dozen brick hovels. The grid of unpaved paths was surrounded by beige scrubland, relentlessly flat, with the towers of the airport and the city silhouetted against the far skyline. Everything was quiet except for the occasional dirt-bike traffic. Most every family in Texas Arizona seemed to keep a few chickens, and all of them had sizeable gardens, coaxing who-knows-what out of the sandy, hard-pack soil. In the ditches along the road, a chorus of frogs cried like space babies—a weird, high-pitched vibrato. But I found no crumbling derricks and no tumbleweed ranches of forgotten American oil barons. It was just a flat, hardscrabble little housing project with none too many people around, and in all likelihood, I was its first-ever tourist.
So I tried striking up conversations with the handful of pedestrians, bricklayers, and porch-sitters I ran into, apologizing for approaching them out of the blue and asking whether anyone knew the history of the community’s name. The soldier, as it happened, was wrong about the refrescas. One house had a shed fixed up into a tiny bodega out back, and as I bought a cold beer there, I quizzed the twelve-year-old girl behind the counter. Elsewhere, a couple of teenage boys looked up from a disassembled dirt bike to stare at me, and I walked over and asked them, too. I was met with everything from blank stares to thoughtfully furrowed brows to observations that Grandpa might know, if only he were still around. But no one had any idea. A few folks seemed surprised to learn that “Texas” and “Arizona” were geographical entities outside of their little corner of Bolivia. In truth, nobody seemed to feel much like talking.
By late afternoon, I was tired and a little frustrated. It occurred to me that what I was doing out there in Texas Arizona wasn’t so different from what I was doing all along the Thompson Trail—just grasping around for links with history. The truth is that I feel a bit compelled to travel this way, always sniffing around for the cultural-literary-historical significance of this or that. It would be easy to chalk this up to a simple excess of liberal-arts education, but there’s more to it than that. In a sense, I feel like this is the only avenue of exploration left to me. Sure, I had consciously set out to follow in Thompson’s footsteps, but in reality, we are all following in someone’s footsteps now. There is no more terra incognita, if there ever was any to start, one man’s incognita being another woman’s backyard. There are no trails left untrod. Only in the most isolated of circumstances will a human being on this planet ever again stumble into a corner of the world that hasn’t been thoroughly mapped, explored, photographed, and otherwise documented—if not probed for oil and covered up with a housing project.
This may seem demoralizing at first, but the silver lining is a gradual unveiling of whole new dimensions of travel, unknown and unknowable to yesteryear’s swashbucklers. History is a space through which I travel now just as easily as longitude, latitude, and altitude. Thanks to the steady accumulation and diffusion of human knowledge, the enticing blankness of terra incognita has been replaced with bottomless layers of story and meaning and causality that, know it or not, we are forever drifting through, like scuba divers among the eddies. And if I can’t tease out the links and the logic among these layers, I sometimes feel like I’m failing as a traveler.
A mile up the road from Texas Arizona was a slightly larger community called Satélite Norte, with shops and services and buses into the city. I walked there to rest and regroup. The strip in Satélite Norte was actually a surprisingly happening place. Moto-taxis zoomed up and down the paved main road, and several blocks were filled with folks drinking beer in open-fronted bars with blaring video-karaoke machines. The bars were lined up side by side, five in a row, all blasting terrible adult-contemporary tunes at top volume. It was the philosophy of setting up next to your competitor taken to its full, nonsensical zenith, as each karaoke bar battled valiantly to be heard over its neighbor. The result was an unlistenable cacophony of synthesizers and power chords.
I picked a karaoke bar at random, and it was my kind of place—no kitchen, no pool table, no bar. Just six tables, forty glasses on a wall-mounted rack, one video karaoke machine, and a giant cooler of beer. I ordered a bottle and tried to figure out just what the hell I was doing there. I had found Bolivia’s Texas easily enough, but I still had no idea what it meant. And wasn’t that the point of all this? To find some meaning in the experience of these places? Thompson seemed to think so anyway.
“I came to South America to find out what it meant,” he wrote in 1963, toward the end of his trip, “and I comfort myself in knowing that at least my failure has been on a grand scale.”
I looked out at the dirt road leading back to Texas Arizona, then at a man herding three goats past the video bars of Satélite Norte. My failure was playing out on a rather provincial scale, I thought.
I drained my first beer and ordered a second. The bartender was wearing a faded Green Bay Packers T-shirt, and even though that’s my favorite football team, I kept quiet. You only have to see two or three grown men wearing Twilight tees before you realize not to read too much into fashion in South America. The shirt didn’t mean that the bartender was a fan of American football. It didn’t mean anything. He set a fresh beer in front of me and opened it wordlessly.
Back in Wisconsin, on the wall of my favorite college bar, there was a large, framed poster of a Mr. Natural comic book from 1971. The white-bearded character drawn by cartoonist R. Crumb is probably best known for his thumbs-up, “keep on truckin’” pose, but this particular panel finds Mr. Natural cruising down the sidewalk on a scooter. As he scoots along, a bystander shouts, “Mr. Natural! What does it all mean??” To which Mr. Natural, not pausing from his ride, replies, “Don’t mean sheeit. . . .”
I must have drunk a thousand beers in front of that poster. Maybe, I thought, Mr. Natural was right. Maybe Thompson gave up on finding meaning down here around the same time he started embracing the fundamental absurdities of life in South America. In another letter, from December of 1962, Thompson wrote glumly that he had already found out “what I came down here to find out, and there is nothing else left for me to do but document it. Dostoyevsky was right.” What did he mean by that? What had Thompson found that validated the troubled Russian existentialist, himself famously obsessed with meaning and absurdity? Dostoyevsky’s heroes tend to embrace suffering and neglect their own best interests. Is that what Thompson saw happening around him in South America? In Bolivia’s mines, for example?
I thought about it as a hundred decibels of Hall & Oates went head to head against a hundred decibels of Toto next door. Above all, Dostoyevsky’s characters are rarely motivated by reason. So maybe I was wrong to expect a rational explanation for Texas Arizona, Bolivia. Maybe it didn’t mean sheeit.
I walked back to Texas Arizona when I’d finished my beers. From the girl at the shed bodega, I bought three more warm cans. It was getting late, and I would have to get back to Santa Cruz before the buses stopped, but with the sun going down and people settling into their leisure hour, I hoped that maybe I could find and lubricate an old-timer, some strolling graybeard who’d loosen up with a can of suds. The streets were still eerily quiet, though. I walked twenty minutes before I saw a man in the road just ahead. He was helping a woman and two small children onto the back of a moto-taxi that barely looked big enough for two. She straddled the driver and held a child on each thigh. Somehow the bike sputtered away without tipping, and the man stood in the street, waving good-bye.
I caught up with him and begged his pardon before introducing myself. He wore a polo shirt and a baseball cap and was probably somewhere in his fifties. Juan Carlos was his name, he said, and he considered my question thoughtfully as I followed him back toward Satélite Norte.
“This place has been called Texas Arizona since before there were people here,” he said, “since even before they built the houses.”
“And when was that?” I asked.
“Maybe fifty years ago.”
Now we were getting somewhere. That was about the same time that the Gulf Oil Company was hitting its stride in Bolivia. Did he think that the area might have been named by the oil companies? Might there have been oil camps here? Juan Carlos just shrugged. He had never heard such a thing. We walked quietly for a while, and I reached into my backpack to offer him a beer.
“No, thank you,” said Juan Carlos politely. “I don’t drink.”
It was getting dark, and the weird frogs in the ditches were trilling louder than before.
“I guess I’m a little disappointed,” I said. “I really thought that someone around here could tell me the significance of this name.”
“You wanted to hear a story,” Juan Carlos said, shaking his head, “but this is difficult, because sometimes the people come, and then later, they forget all the stories.”
The wall of sound from the karaoke bars echoed a good half-mile from Satélite Norte. On a side street, Juan Carlos spotted some friends walking a different direction, and he wished me well before joining them. I took a quick look back at Texas Arizona, then opened a beer and walked to the bus stop alone.