Fear & Lono: Hunter S. Thompson in Hawaii

Jay Cowan
For the Aspen Times Weekly
Hunter at the Helm of the Haere Maru. (Jay Cowan)

I “The Charge of the Weird Brigade”

Forty-one years ago Hunter Thompson spent most of the month of December in Hawaii working on a story about the Honolulu marathon. If that wasn’t odd enough for someone who hadn’t run in 20 years except for very brief bursts in the occasional game of paddleball, he was doing it for Running magazine, a Nike publication.

The executive editor had sent him a letter asking if he would be interested in the assignment and a copy of that letter is one of the first pages of text in Hunter’s 1983 book “The Curse of Lono.” It offered him an all expenses paid vacation for a month “and an excellent fee.” Hunter wrote to his longtime illustrator Ralph Steadman and asked him to join the project by saying, “I think we have a live one this time, old sport.”

To most who knew Hunter it seemed a strange choice, other than as a way to get paid to go to Hawaii. And the whole idea of running becoming a craze baffled him. But he thought it might reveal something about the current state of America. Still – for a magazine published by a shoe manufacturer? Hunter was a devotee of big, floppy, old-fashioned Converses long after sneakers had evolved. To see him transitioning to Nikes and then writing for their magazine was as if he’d stopped smoking Dunhills and switched to Benson & Hedges 100s, and was penning copy for their company periodical.

However the man was no stranger to semi-obscure magazines, and Ken Kesey and Ed Abbey were also writing pieces for Running. So Hunter’s next letter to Steadman began with, “The time has come to kick ass, Ralph. I’m also in need of a rest – for legal reasons – so I want this gig to be easy, and I know in my heart it will be… I have already secured the Compound: two homes with a 50-meter pool on the edge of the sea on Alii Drive in Kona, where the sun always shines.”

Rarely have any lines seemed more fateful or far off the mark, as the book went on to detail.

Hunter entered himself and Ralph in the race as a publicity stunt and thought they might actually show up and try to stage something clever. Then he learned that a good friend of his in Hawaii – former pro football player John Wilbur – still in top shape, had once tried to pull a Rosie Ruiz and jump into the race half a mile ahead of everyone and only two miles from the finish.

As Hunter wrote in “Lono,” “It was horrible. Nineteen people passed him in two miles. These bastards are fast. He went blind from vomiting and had to crawl the last hundred yards.”

Since it didn’t sound like any kind of stunt would be either original or even viable, he went with just covering the race. Which turned out to be a bizarre spectacle for the uninitiated, yet also somehow singularly uninspiring material. He wanted to know, “Why do those buggers run?”

In retrospect, it seems odd that even if he couldn’t comprehend wanting to be in shape, that he didn’t understand the endorphin releases involved that make long-distance running a lot like other drug addictions. And in the late ’70s and early ’80s it was booming, just like other less healthy drugs.

At the Hotel King Kamehameha with Laila Nabulsi and a Samoan war club on the bed. (Jay Cowan)

The Honolulu Marathon, for instance, started in 1973 and was an instant hit, doubling its number of entries each succeeding year through ’78. Today it hosts over 35,000 runners, none of whom have to qualify, and they pay an entrance fee to do it. It’s one of the biggest marathons in the world and has been a resounding success with tourism-based businesses on Oahu, just as the Ironman Triathlon is on the Big Island.

As Hunter continued searching for a dramatic or revelatory storyline he also reassured Ralph, who had crippled himself in a snorkeling accident right after he arrived on Oahu, that Kona would be the antidote to everything: an apparently meaningless foot race, a rainy and unhappy time in Honolulu, and Ralph’s wounds and forebodings.

After the race they went directly to their oceanfront homes and settled in to write and illustrate the story, in a place where “the sun always shines and the seas are always calm,” as he told Ralph. Instead, their stay unspooled like a National Lampoon Christmas from Hell.

On the one hand they had to deal with the endless rain and winds of brutal winter storms that hurled boulders from the shore into their houses and swimming pool. It was especially disruptive for the increasingly fragile Steadman family with their 6-year-old daughter.

On the other hand, Hunter was developing a fascination with the burgeoning culture of a paradise island being dominated by realtors and fishing guides running roughshod over indigenous people and customs that had been suffering at the hands of westerners for centuries. Reminiscent of his ongoing experiences in Aspen and Florida, the situation was a weird enough stew of angst and violence to pique his interest.

Hunter’s dispatch from the marathon ran in the April 1981 issue of Running magazine. (Courtesy Jay Cowan)

The long and lavishly illustrated story in Running, titled “The Charge of the Weird Brigade,” came out in April of 1981 and turned out to be good, though understandably not universally well-received by the magazine’s audience. It was admired enough by others to inspire Hunter to immediately begin looking for a way to turn it into a book.

What it lacked was something with him more at the center of it, which was his M.O. Then someone he’d met in Hawaii showed up in Aspen later that spring. His name was Steve Kaiser and he was the captain of a fishing boat in Kailua Kona. Hunter had met him at Huggo’s bar, struck up a friendship, did some fishing with him and invited him to Colorado. Kaiser was a skier and Hunter asked me to show him around the slopes, during which he mentioned a big fishing tournament in Hawaii in May. He wondered if that might be something Hunter would be interested in.

Boy howdy.

Hunter instantly was, and so was I. As a friend and once-and-future caretaker at Hunter’s Owl Farm in Woody Creek, I had heard all about the Running story. And since I planned to be in Kauai anyway I could easily swing over to Hawaii, where I’d never been.

Hunter saw the tournament as a perfect vehicle for exploring the gestalt and complicated dynamics of the state, and moving away from the notion of a travelogue or “Gonzo Goes Hawaiian” thing. His writing was being called genius by some of the most prominent authors of the day and getting compared to what cubists did for painting. A travel-story/sneaker-advertorial mash-up didn’t necessarily seem like the best plan for his much-anticipated next book.

There was concern that in the wake of his successful political writing in the mid to late ’70s, readers may have forgotten about “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which was essentially a ginned-up travel piece. And the seeds for that book and everything to follow had been sown with his landmark Scanlan’s magazine story, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”

This template was in place from the very beginning: participatory journalism with a Merry Pranksters attitude, the observations not of a neutral observer but a wildly original and manic personality unleashed on some place and time that seemed particularly deserving. For a prime example look no further than his first book, “Hell’s Angels.”

After that, whether intentionally or not, his specialty became attending and providing his unique interpretation of big events of one kind or another: the Mint 400 motorcycle race in Vegas, the Kentucky Derby, championship heavyweight boxing, Democratic Party presidential conventions, America’s Cup sailing, the Roxanne Pulitzer trial in Florida and the annual marathon in Honolulu. So now, why not the Kona Gold Jackpot tournament?

It was May 22, 1981, when we met up with Hunter who was trying to restore himself in Ralph Steadman’s room at the King Kamehameha Hotel in Kailua. He had passed out on Ralph’s ocean-view balcony that morning just after the cannon boomed and 199 high-dollar sport-fishing boats hauled ass out of the harbor and into the open ocean to start the tournament.

Hunter had slept in the hopes that when he awoke the complete collapse of the captain and mechanics and everyone else connected with Captain Steve Kaiser’s vessel the Haere Maru could somehow be overcome. It didn’t look good. The boat should have had Hunter on board and been with all the others charging off to catch the biggest marlin and ahi they could find for the start of the three-day event. But it wasn’t.

Hunter with Captain Steve. (Jay Cowan)

With a Samoan war club in hand and fresh from a loud harangue he delivered from the balcony to bemused tourists, a revived Hunter finally did manage to persuade Captain Steve to rally and get a backup boat on the water that day.

His conversation with Kaiser had followed one the captain had with Steadman about the artist’s deep distress and gloom at flying 12,000 miles only to find a boat with “many wires and things mechanical strewn about and numbers of greasy people buried deep in its innards, cursing,” and a general air of abject failure hanging heavy in the harbor at 2 a.m.

Ralph and Hunter weren’t the typical sport-fishermen that Kona hosts. And they definitely didn’t fit the profile of the average competitors at an event that attracts big-time captains and serious sports from around the globe. Captain Steve understood this, but his clients were “on assignment” and that made it even worse than if they were just paying customers.

The effect of the browbeating by Hunter and Ralph, only half-serious but impassioned, was hard to predict on a man in Steve’s condition. He hadn’t slept for days, was out of coke and an intelligible voice, and down many dollars to a mechanic who had thrown up his hands and walked away at 6:30 a.m.

And now the captain was being held accountable for the arduous travels of a famous Welsh illustrator and the publishing obligations of a lunatic author. If Steve had snapped and told them to just f— all the way off, no one would have been surprised.

On the other hand, the whole tournament was his idea. And it had been his – oddly timed – decision to do a major overhaul on the Haere Maru’s engine just days before the event. So he pulled himself together and got his alternate boat in the comp that afternoon.

My wife Denie and I and Hunter’s girlfriend Laila Nabulsi (who would ultimately produce the “Lono” book) took Steadman on a tour of the Big Island’s gold coast that afternoon. Even though he was operating on very little sleep, he was excited to go on a drive and accompanied it by strumming on his new Hawaiian ukulele and singing “God Save the Queen.” And it wasn’t the Sex Pistols version, though I had to listen closely to be sure.

II ‘The Shame of the Human Race’

Participating in and winning the Kona Gold tournament, with its grand prize of $30,000 for the biggest marlin, had become Hunter’s tailor-made mission. It combined so many things he loved that it seemed fated he should be there. Active gambling, from casual side bets to the big money Calcutta, was a baked-in part of the event. As were the fanciful stories (bald-faced lies) and colorful language that fishermen the world over are known for. Heavy drinking and chronic drug abuse were virtual prerequisites and no one could challenge Hunter on his credentials there. Plus, importantly, seasickness wasn’t an issue.

Hunter and Steve had taken an overnight trip on the Haere Maru during the Christmas visit, where they steamed all the way to South Point and back with heads full of hallucinogens. As chronicled in the book, it was a nightmare that Captain Steve said repeatedly they were lucky to have survived. But the trip established Hunter as a credible seaman, or at least one who could steer the boat and not puke constantly.

Missing the start of the event cost them a fine and whatever small amount of credibility the crew may have had. But Steve got the actual Haere Maru running for the second day and forged ahead. And for a time the whole project began to seem like something more than a literal pipe dream. Someone on the boat hooked up with a nice ahi, a competitive fish we were later assured. But the gaffer missed, and Hunter said that a “terrible silence” followed. Missing an important gaffe in competition means almost certain dishonor and a doomed pall settled over the boat.

First day of Kona Gold fishing tournament with substitute boat. (Jay Cowan).

Most of the crew mutinied that night and one of the paying sports, a United Airlines pilot named Mitch, had to leave early and gave Ralph his seat on the boat. Suddenly Ralph, the confirmed non-boater, had a wholesale change of heart. Now he would be the man to catch a 2,000-pound white marlin and win the tournament. Meanwhile, Captain Steve had flown in an expensive custom chrome prop from Oahu to lure in the big fish. And the final day of the comp dawned with, if not some hope, at least a shred of the old sporting spirit.

So much for that. First they were penalized an hour for missing their start, again, and fined for switching crews. Then when 190 boats headed north, Captain Steve went south, way south, tailing the handful of remaining boats calculating that some of the biggest marlin may get forced that way by the armada working in the other direction.

But no one near them hooked up all day and when there was only one more boat left that hadn’t headed home, Hunter suggested they leave while they still had some potential help nearby. He was justifiably worried about mechanical problems, given the recent overhaul. Instead they ran out of gas.

Steve, already late that morning and not planning on venturing so far, only took on three-quarters of a tank, and now they were dry. It was getting late, there was a storm brewing and they were out in the channel, dead in the water.

If missing a gaffe is a sin, running out of gas in a tournament is far worse and virtually unheard of among professionals. That last boat lingering behind them proved to be their savior. But it had to tow them into the harbor, the greatest humiliation imaginable for a charter boat. Hunter and Ralph abandoned ship when they reached the gas docks, publicly maligning the captain and calling the whole fiasco, “The shame of the human race.”

Onlookers had already heaped the crew with abuse as they were dragged in. It was the final ignominy of an ill-fated tournament, and by the time we all met at the Kona Inn the whole enterprise had assumed such farcical proportions that it was more funny than depressing, except maybe for Captain Steve. In Hunter’s go at being Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea” had turned into a slapstick version of “Moby-Dick.” He did eventually catch a 300-pound marlin a week after the tournament was over, and it added another chapter to the book as some small consolation.

Anglers weigh their Ahi at the tournament. (Jay Cowan)

III City of Refuge

Before he flew back to England a couple of days after the tournament, Ralph took Hunter to the City of Refuge at Honaunau, south of Kona. Ralph was very taken with it as he was with all of the various displays of the ancient arts and culture of the islands. And Hunter, of course, loved the underlying ethos of the place.

The Hawaiian cities of refuge existed, up until the early 19th century, so that anyone accused of breaking a kapu (ancient laws) could take shelter there safe from any of their pursuers, get absolved by a high priest and be allowed to go free. The trick was getting there. If you could manage to make it in through the gates without being run down or speared on the way, no one could come after you. If they did, they were killed.

The concept seemed especially topical given the ongoing crime surge that was sweeping the islands. With much of it apparently directed at white tourists by unhappy locals, it had been in the national news cycles and provoked a boycott of Hawaii by Canadians who had seen several people from their country murdered in the state. Whether it was actually any worse than Chicago, New York or Los Angeles didn’t seem to matter. In truth some of the reports were exaggerated, or related to drug deals gone bad, or involved individual psychos with no particular anti-haole agenda.

However, it was sensational and occurring in a place where the culture had, until then, been thought to be fairly laid-back and tolerant. Never mind that the indigenous peoples of Hawaii had been under assault by Christians, westerners and the rest of the world for more than two centuries. And a general resentment of tourists was obviously not unique to Hawaii, or totally unwarranted. There was also an economic slump throughout the islands led by a decline in real estate sales – a classic mixed blessing – producing a widespread sense of frustration and anger,.

What Hunter had witnessed and heard about when he’d been there the previous winter, he wrote off to the climate as much as anything: “People get edgy when the Kona weather hits. After nine or ten straight days of high surf and no sun you can get your spleen kicked clear out of your body on any street in Honolulu, just for honking at a Samoan.”

Hunter at the Kona Inn in Kailua. (Jay Cowan)

To be sure there have been issues with violence in the Hawaiian culture and nearly every other one on the planet for millennia. And that’s part of what helped foster the Hawaiian Cities of Refuge.

IV Finding Black Coral and Lono

A few days after Steadman escaped back to England, Captain Steve took us on the Haere Maru to Kealakekua Bay, or Captain Cook as its more familiarly known, so Hunter could scuba dive for black coral. The bay is about 12 miles south of Kona and bordered by 400-foot cliffs. At that time it was still difficult to reach the by road and lightly trafficked, so the diving was outstanding, with huge colorful coral heads, lots of fish and almost no people.

I read later that the high, sheer lava walls enfolding the bay – one of the truly safe harbors on a long swath of the Kona coast – are pockmarked by hundreds of small caves and holes where the bones of many Hawaiian royals over the years were interred. Loyal subjects were lowered down on vines and ropes to place the bones. Then, so no one would know exactly where any of them were, the ropes were cut and the subjects plunged to their death.

Once we dropped anchor Hunter got progressively testier because he hadn’t been scuba diving in years and was uneasy about remembering what to do. Black coral isn’t found above about 90 feet, so it was going to be a deepish dive, appropriately macho, and something he badly wanted to do but was nervous about.

Hunter preparing for a scuba dive. Note the white Converse. (Jay Cowan)

When they finally did go I went out for some snorkeling and then talked to one of Steve’s crew about why it was called Captain Cook. Turns out it was where the legendary explorer first made land on the Big Island, and eventually met his end. Islanders mistook him for their god of legend, Lono, who had left the islands hundreds of years ago, but promised to one day return. Cook played along for weeks until he basically wore out his grandiose welcome. He and his two ships with large crews consumed much of the local food supply, and when it seemed they might never leave, he was attacked while onshore in that bay. And when it was clear he wasn’t actually a god, he was savagely killed and soon eaten. King Kamehameha the Great is said to have dined on his heart.

When Hunter and Steve returned he had his coral, which today I think would be illegal. Steve let him pilot the boat on the return trip and I took photos of the whole outing, which was one of the few that didn’t go sideways somehow. The piece of coral was later carved into a double-thumbed peyote fist that was Hunter’s Gonzo insignia, and he wore it for many years on a Chinese gold baht chain from Thailand.

It was around this time that Hunter became convinced, for a variety of reasons both mystical and literary, that he was the modern day reincarnation of Lono. From what I knew of the story, that didn’t seem like it would necessarily have a happy ending.

That wasn’t a deal-breaker for Hunter, since his deification conveniently tied up some loose threads in the book and gave it a vague cohesiveness. Because in the end it turned into the “Fear and Loathing in Hawaii” travelogue he at first disdained, a collection of his real adventures flavored with his fever dreams and made all the more tangible by Steadman’s dazzling and florid illustrations, which Ralph had enough of for a book twice as long,

On the Haere Maru. (Jay Cowan)

“The Curse of Lono” was something of a disappointment for everyone, including readers, because of everything from format to content, but it became a cult classic. And a 2005, limited edition hardback, was issued by the German specialty publisher Taschen in a large enough size to do the art full justice.

I met Hunter and Ralph at the Woody Creek Tavern one day in 2004, when they were still in the throes of figuring out what should go in the new edition. Ralph had a video camera and was taping people reading chapters of the book aloud to them. I can’t remember what chapter I read. But Hunter liked it because I’d been spending more time in Hawaii and could pronounce a lot of the names. And he also appreciated my frequent laughter. To this day, it’s a very funny book.

Ralph had been excited at the prospect of being able to include some of his “lost” drawings in the larger format. And he was trying to convince Hunter that he should add some of his copy that had been edited from the original book in ’83, much to Hunter’s displeasure. Hunter talked to me about it and said: “I know I was mad at the time, but now when I hear it read it sounds pretty good. I think I might leave it just the way it is.”

And that’s what they both did.

Aspen Times Weekly

Jack’s Jitney: Coors Field

Baseball is for everyone; hipsters, gamblers, and drinkers, it doesn’t matter. It brings people together sans the hostility of most sporting events, maybe it’s the calming effect of the greenest possible green that is the field’s grass.

See more