I have never used illegal drugs, but that doesn’t stop me from considering myself a hippie.
Although I was too young to appreciate it at the time, the 1960s “stick it to the man” era still resonates with me, and I make regular pilgrimages to San Francisco’s newly-gentrified Haight-Ashbury district to catch some of the lingering vibe.
Author Ken Kesey, one of the many founders of the counter-culture movement, would have turned 75 today.
Kesey was born in Colorado in 1935 and grew up in Oregon. He was a gifted athlete and scholar and entered the creative writing program at Stanford University in 1959. While there he volunteered to be a guinea pig in a CIA-funded study on the effects of mind-altering drugs.
The experience led to the creation of his masterpiece One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962, which was an instant success. He used the money from the book to purchase a home in La Honda, California, where he lead a group of like-minded experimenters known as the “Merry Pranksters” in mind-expanding drug trips known as “acid tests.”
In an attempt to enlighten uptight America, Kesey and the Pranksters took to the road in 1964 in a psychedelic 1939 International Harvester bus named the “Furthur,” which Kesey purchased for $1500. The trip was made famous by Tom Wolfe in 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is considered a landmark work in the emerging field of New Journalism.
Kesey later spent years on the lam and dropped out of the San Francisco hippie scene after spending a stint in jail. He moved back to Oregon where he continued writing and participating in counter-cultural events until his death from liver failure in 2001.
Which brings me back to the Furthur.
One would expect that such a famous bus that had such a large cultural impact on American history (for better or worse) to be in the Smithsonian, or perhaps in a private collection.
Kimi and I found it a couple of years ago disintegrating into a pile of multi-colored rust in the middle of a field on Kesey’s farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon.
We were given directions to the farm by some locals who had known and loved Kesey. We didn’t feel comfortable showing up uninvited, but they assured us that the family wouldn’t mind. When we arrived, we glimpsed the Furthur in the field in all its decrepit glory, but discovered that no one was home.
We snapped some photos of the bus, as well as of Kesey’s grave in the back yard, then left a note on the door informing the family of our visit, noting that our intent was to pay homage rather than trespass.
The last I heard, the bus had been dragged from the field and is in the process of being restored. Who knows? Maybe it will actually make it to the Smithsonian someday.
But I like the idea of it rusting in a field, because it was on fields in places like Woodstock and Golden Gate Park where the counter-culture movement was first born and once thrived. It seems fitting that this symbol of the 60s would pass away in a similar setting.
(Next week we will visit The Onion in North Hills where Kesey and the Pranksters first brought the acid tests to L.A.)