The success of Hell’s Angels gave Dr. Thompson credibility in the world of mainstream journalism and led to an assignment from The New York Times Magazine to write about the growing hippie scene in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
The resulting article, called “The ‘Hashbury’ Is the Capital of the Hippies,” begins as a piece of very straight journalism. At times the Doctor sounds like one of the so-called counterculture experts he would later mock:
The word “hip” translates roughly as “wise” or “tuned-in.” A hippy is somebody who “knows” what’s really happening, and who adjusts or grooves with it.
Although there’s no way of telling how much of that is due to some stiff-necked editor at the Times. But as you read on, you can see that Thompson really has taken the time to understand what is going on in hippie culture, and is doing his best to explain it to a mainstream audience. He does an exemplary job of examining the then-new hippie phenomenon without being either judgmental or sentimental; but in the end he finds that his ability to deliver the story is hamstrung by a unique set of difficulties.
A journalist dealing with heads is caught in a strange dilemma. The only way to write honestly about the scene is to be a part of it. If there is one quick truism about psychedelic drugs, it is that anyone who tries to write about them without firsthand experience is a fool and a fraud.
Yet to write from experience is an admission of felonious guilt; it is also a potential betrayal of people whose only "crime" is the smoking of a weed that grows wild all over the world but the possession of which, in California, carries a minimum sentence of two years in prison for a second offense and a minimum of five years for a third. So, despite the fact that the whole journalism industry is full of unregenerate heads — just as many journalists were hard drinkers during Prohibition — it is not very likely that the frank, documented truth about the psychedelic underworld, for good or ill, will be illuminated anytime soon in the public prints.
So the Doctor had a decision to make: To write truthfully about the drug culture he would have to include his own experiences, but to do so was career suicide. (Or at least it appeared so at the time; in the end, he got to have it both ways when magazines like Scanlan’s Monthly and Rolling Stone published the drug-fueled dispatches that made him famous.)
For a guy like Hunter Thompson, this was really no choice at all. He knew that he was in the middle of something important, and he wasn’t about to miss out on it. Here’s what he wrote about this era years later, in a famous passage from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run...but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant....
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" is seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L.L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket...booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)...but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt about that....
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda.... You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning...
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave....
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.