Hunting Hunter S. Thompson in Vegas

By | July 19, 2022

Hunter S. Thompson would have turned 84 this week. But while the man himself didn’t last, his legacy certainly has. Thompson shook pop culture by inventing what he called “gonzo journalism,” a hallucinatory mix of fact, fiction and literary brilliance. His 1971 novel, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” was a mind-exploding quest for the American Dream set in one of the most unlikely cities for him to discover it.

Hunter S. Thompson (left) and Oscar Acosta pose in the Baccarat Lounge at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, in April 1971.

What also still survives, surprisingly, is some of the original Las Vegas from the two road trips that Thompson and his attorney, Oscar Acosta  — renamed Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in the book — took here from L.A. while Thompson gathered material.

Circus Circus
2880 S. Las Vegas Blvd.

We know that much of the novel sprang from Thompson’s furtive, drug-fueled imagination. But there’s no way he didn’t visit this still-surviving icon of Vegas excess, since his descriptions are so hilariously detailed.

“Right above the gambling tables, the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high-wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet Sisters from San Diego,” Thompson wrote, claiming to be high on ether and mescaline at the time. “So you’re down on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked fourteen-year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine.”

While supposedly seated on the second of two floors of a free-standing revolving carousel bar called the Horse-a-Round — converted in 2012 into a snack bar on top and slot machines below — Thompson quoted Acosta famous uttering: “I hate to say this, but this place is getting to me. I think I’m getting the Fear.”

At one point in his novel, Thompson described Circus Circus as “the vortex of the American Dream.” At another, he described it as “the sixth Reich,” explaining that it was “what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.”

Quite understandably, a concerned Circus Circus wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the 1998 Thompson-sanctioned Terry Gilliam movie starring Johnny Depp as Thompson. So locations at the Stardust and Riviera hotels, both of which have since been imploded, had to stand in for what was sadly redubbed “Bazooko’s Circus.”

Whiskey Liquor Up at Binion’s
128 E. Fremont St.

A good chunk of the novel’s action took place in Room 1850 of The Mint’s tower. According to Thompson, he and Acosta ran up an unpaid room-service bill of $29 to $36 an hour, for 48 consecutive hours, before trashing the place and swiping 600 bars of Neutrogena soap.

In 1988, the Mint was absorbed into the neighboring Binion’s Gambling Hall, which at the time was called Binion’s Horseshoe. Binion’s closed all 365 of its hotel rooms in 2009. And when Hotel Apache reopened 81 of them 10 years later, none were located in the Mint’s tower, which remains closed to the public.

So why are we dragging you to this bar then? Because the lower portion of the original pink Mint sign can still be seen in the stairway leading down to it.

Neon Museum
770 Las Vegas Blvd. North

More complete, and more reverentially displayed, old neon signs can be viewed in what is known as the Neon Boneyard. This includes signage from the Desert Inn, from which Thompson claimed he and Acosta were ejected for trying to sneak into a concert by Debbie Reynolds, whom he described as “yukking across the stage in a silver afro wig to the tune of ‘Sergeant Pepper’ played on a trumpet.” (Reynolds played herself in the movie, recreating the moment, whether it actually happened or not.)

Caesars Palace
3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd.

No “Fear and Loathing” action was set here, but you can attempt to recreate the photo of Thompson and Acosta on its back cover — though the bar where they’re drinking, the Baccarat Lounge, no longer exists.

Golden Tiki
3939 Spring Mountain Road

The closest thing to a Hunter S. Thompson museum in Vegas — which by the way totally should exist — is a bowie knife once owned by the author, which is proudly displayed behind the bar stabbing a photo of Richard Nixon.

Thompson also figures prominently in the Golden Tiki’s famed display of faux shrunken heads, alongside Carrot Top and Pauly Shore.

The bar’s owner, Branden Powers, is a Thompson superfan who met his idol twice — once when Thompson and a shaved-bald Johnny Depp just showed up at a 1997 rave Powers organized at the Snow Valley Mountain Resort  in Running Springs, California, and again when Powers just showed up announced at Thompson’s Owl Farm compound in Woody Creek, Colorado. Here, Thompson obliged him by signing, and shooting, his first edition of “Fear and Loathing.” (Powers reports he sold the remains of the book to a private collector who plans to display it at the New York Public Library.)

“To me, Hunter was one of the best writers ever,” Powers told Casino.org. “He just lived life to the fullest every day, until it became no fun anymore.”

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