Across America Briefs

“It’s all a myth now, anyway. Tell it however you want.”

– Ken Babbs, one of the original Merry Pranksters.

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”

– Ken Kesey

On June 14th, 1964, fourteen men and women boarded a converted 1939 International Harvester school bus at a rural property in La Honda, California, and set out on a road trip to New York City. Scrawled on the destination board over the bus’s front windscreen was a single, hand-lettered word: Further.

The bus belonged to a then 28-year-old Colorado-born writer, Ken Kesey, who, just a few years before, had published a critically acclaimed, best-selling novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Now his second novel, Sometimes A Great Notion, was about to be released; he wanted to celebrate — and promote — it with a visit to the World’s Fair in New York. But what started out as a low-key, Kerouac-inspired idea of a cross-country jaunt in the family station wagon soon morphed in something more ambitious: a road movie to be shot on 16mm film with an expanded cast of friends and hanger-ons, and a narrative shaped not only by a meandering drift eastwards across the American heartlands but also copious amounts of lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD or acid.

Kesey ditched his station wagon and bought the school bus for $1,250.

“I was too young to be a beatnik, and too old to be a hippie,” Kesey would tell an interviewer, many years later. Long before anyone had heard of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, Kesey was drawing a bohemian crowd to acid-stoked, sexually charged, audio-visual ‘happenings’ at a log cabin surrounded by two-and-a-half forested acres that he had bought (with the profits from his first book) in La Honda, in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of the city. The regulars — writers, artists, musicians, groupies, actors, dancers, crafts people, sound engineers, students and drug dealers –formed a loose gang that Kesey’s best friend, Kenn Babbs, dubbed The Merry Pranksters. “I don’t pick ‘em,” Kesey said, “I recognize ‘em.”

Kesey wanted the bus to be a mobile extension of La Honda. The previous owner had already fitted it with bunks, water tanks, a toilet, a dinette, and a makeshift galley. The Pranksters added an electrical generator, a sound system (with interior and exterior speakers, microphones, tape decks, instrument amplifiers, and an early version of a synthesizer), an ‘observation turret’, and an exterior seating platform on a reinforced roof. A small, steel-framed deck was welded onto the rear of the chassis to house the generator and secure a motorcycle. The interior and exterior were painted in every imaginable color, except the traditional school bus yellow –patterns, symbols, celestial bodies, flowers, footprints, random words and phrases that were embellished or painted over several times.

Among the supplies loaded aboard just before departure were musical instruments, three or four Bolex cameras, and approximately twelve miles of 16mm color film stock. There was also a large quantity of LSD (probably stolen), 500 Benzedrine tablets, and a shoebox filled with pre-rolled joints. No surprise then that elemental details of the trip itself have become a little hazy. It’s not clear how some Pranksters came to be on the bus and why others — notably Kesey’s wife, Faye — decided not to join them. Nor is it clear how the route to New York was plotted; both there and back, it stuck to the edges of the country, determined to avoid the centre, as if leaving open the option of a fast run for the border.

Nobody remembers how the hooligan-muse of the ’50s Beat Generation, Neal Cassady, the fabled Dean Moriarty of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, ended up as the Prankster’s wheelman. Kesey and his wife had met him for the first time a couple of years before, when they found him in their front yard in La Honda,“smiling and rolling his shoulders this way and that and jerking his hands out to this side and the other side as if there’s a different drummer somewhere… corked out of his gourd, in fact.” Or so Tom Wolfe wrote in The Electric Kool-Air Acid Test, a decade later. The novelist Robert Stone described Cassady as “the world’s greatest driver, who could roll a joint while backing a 1937 Packard onto the lip of the Grand Canyon,” and when he turned up at La Honda again, pretty much at the last minute, he replaced Roy Sebern in the driver’s seat. The artist who had painted much of the bus and dubbed it ‘Furthur’ (at least, until Kesey corrected the spelling) decided to remain behind.

There were doubts that the quarter-of-a-century-old bus would make it out of La Honda, let alone across the country. On the morning of departure, Further rolled down Kesey’s driveway, with the sound system blaring Ray Charles’s Hit The Road, Jack — and ran out of gas. Even with a full tank, its aging, under-serviced engine and drive-train forced so many stops that it took 24 hours to cover the first 40 miles.

When the Pranksters finally arrived in the city of San José, one of the few women aboard, a 38-year-old dancer named Chloe Scott, decided to get off the bus. Cathryn (Cathy) Marie Casamo, a Northwestern University drama major and single mother, was enlisted to take her place, not only on the bus but in the chaotic, unscripted movie Kesey began shooting as Further rattled southwards to Los Angeles and beyond, to the heart of John Wayne-style Southern Californian conservatism, Orange County. After a two-day layover close to the coast, at the San Juan Capistrano home of Prankster Ken Babbs — who, just a year before, had been serving as a marine officer with one of the first US ‘advisory’ units in Vietnam — the Pranksters headed inland, towards the desert.

From the outset, the Pranksters were on a mission. Kesey imagined their course eastwards as deliberately contrarian, stemming the tide of an historic east-west flow of European settlement across the country. Four and a half decades before the idea (and the word) became a debased cliché in Silicon Valley, Kesey wanted to disrupt, “to break through conformist thought and ultimately forge a reconfiguration of American society”, capturing average folks’ attention with random acts of outlandish performance art and whenever possible expanding their consciousness with hits of still legal hallucinogens.

Kesey’s very American impulse to take to the road in search of ‘another place’ — physical, emotional, spiritual, it didn’t much matter which — translated neatly as a metaphor for the chemically-induced, psycho-spiritual ‘trip’ into an interior self that LSD provided. Kesey and the rest of the Pranksters were ‘tripping’ in every sense. And they were determined to share this with the rest of the country.

“Taking acid led to an expansion of consciousness and a way of seeing things through new eyes, delighting in the world the way a child does,” Ken Babbs explained, later. “It was an experience that was bigger than music, bigger than poetry or plays or novels… It’s about everything happening outside of time, in the past, present and future all at once.”

Kesey’s interest in hallucinogens dated to 1959, when he was working as a night aide at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital. Some of the Central Intelligence Agency’s MKUltra-sponsored studies on hallucinogenic drugs (including LSD, psilocybin mescaline, cocaine and DMT) were being undertaken at the hospital and Kesey volunteered to be a test subject. Later, he stole doses of LSD from the hospital — The drug itself was legal in California until 1966 — and conducted experiments of his own within a bohemian community of Stanford academics in Palo Alto, wreaking all kinds of havoc.

Proto-hippies, outsiders, and anti-heroes, Kesey and the Pranksters were modelling with unlikely precision the aesthetic and attitudinal foundations not only of ‘flower power’ but a youth counter-culture that, within just a couple of years, would corrode the accepted norms and values of the suburban middle-American Dream.

Still, none of this had yet occurred to anybody in the early summer of 1964, as Further nosed deeper into the dusty back-country of the south-west, urged onwards by Neal Cassady’s relentless, carnival carney-like, streams-of-consciousness schtick. The Pranksters found themselves welcomed in some small towns as if they were a travelling circus. And they would give the locals impromptu performances of poetry and music in the middle of the main street, using the bus’s rooftop as a stage. They would clown for the kids, who would run alongside the bus, waving, laughing, when the time came for Further to continue on its way. The Prankster ethos was gentle, playful, and non-confrontational. Beneath their colourful face-paint, the women were an anodyne, all-American, ‘white bread’ kind of pretty, wide-eyed and giggling like homecoming queens, maybe because they were always stoned; the men were mainly short-haired and clean-cut, outdoorsy farm boys and veterans, with just a few mop-topped, Californian college types, who, when they weren’t bare-chested, wore variations of the national colours — red, white and blue — in stripes on their t-shirts and shirts (one of Kesey’s ideas). No whiff of protest, sedition or subversion — none of them looked like hippies.

“We weren’t anti-American,” Babbs recalled. “We always tried to embody the great American ideal, which is freedom: the freedom to do what you want with your own body, and to do what you want with your own lives. We were pranksters, but there was no cruelty or malice to our work, and we never made anyone the butt of our pranks…”

There was, however, little diversity among the Pranksters: no blacks, no Hispanics, no native Americans. And the men outnumbered the women by nearly five to one.

Outside the one-horse town of Wikieup, in Arizona, the Pranksters took a detour to the Big Sandy River — in reality, an intermittent desert stream — to go skinny-dipping. Further got bogged in the soft, alluvial sand. While a couple of the Pranksters set off to find a tractor to tow the bus out, the remainder turned the long wait under the desert sun into an ‘acid test’. When the bus reached Phoenix, later that day, Cassady convinced his stoned compadres to paint A Vote for Barry is a Vote for FUN! large above the bus’s windows on one side. He then drove slowly, in reverse, through the city’s centre, past the campaign headquarters for US Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater.

Cathy Casamo dropped a little too much acid during the river-side party in Wikieup, and for most of the long, hot, night-time drive between Phoenix and Houston, she insisted on dancing naked on the cargo deck at the rear of the bus; long-haul truckers saluted her with blasts from their air-horns.

Cathy earned one of the Pranksters’ best-remembered, (albeit most prosaic) nicknames — Stark Naked — and she was still naked, still tripping, the next morning when Further pulled up outside the Houston home of the best-selling author, Larry McMurtry. “… Ken called and said they were coming to see me; little did I know that the breeze of the future was about to blow through my quiet street,” McMurtry wrote in a brief memoir, Stark Gets Off The Bus, “A very few minutes later there it came, the bus whose motto was Further, and whose occupants probably indulged in a bit of drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll, as well as almost continuous movie-making and a good deal of rubbernecking as they sped across America. There were Pranksters sitting on top, waving at my startled neighbors with Day-Glo hands…

“My son James, aged two, was sitting in the yard in his diapers when the bus stopped and a naked lady ran out and grabbed him. It was Stark Naked (later shortened to Stark), who, being temporarily of a disordered mind, mistook him for her own little girl. James, in diapers, had no objection to naked people, and the neighbors, most of them staid Republicans, took this event in stride…”

Cathy went missing that night. The Pranksters spent 24 hours searching the city for her. She was found by the police, who confined her to a holding cell in downtown Houston: “She has no I.D., no shoes, and she bit the arresting officer,” the desk seargeant told McMurty, when he had finally tracked her down. “Do you know if she’s on anything?” But before she could be bailed, the police transferred her to a public asylum on the outskirts of Houston, “a massive, grey, hospital building out of a Batman comic book” (McMurtry, again), for observation. The Pranksters decided to push on without her.

“If you’re not on the bus, you’re off the bus.” It became an oft-repeated catch-phrase of mid-‘60s counter-culture — but it was originally just Kesey’s caveat to a bus-load of stoned, unruly Pranksters.

Mais laissez les bons temps rouler! Wanting to show the Pranksters a better time, Neal Cassady steered them to New Orleans, and after a night of partying in the French Quarter, they found their way to a beach on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to go swimming. The trouble was, Louisiana in the ’60s was a tense, racially segregated state, and the beach was one of just a few reserved for blacks. For the blacks there, the Pranksters presence was an unwanted intrusion, an exertion of resented white.privilege, although the Pranksters were too stoned to realize it. When they did, Kesey recalled, “I don’t think a word was said. We all just got back on the bus and left.”

It says something about the antic novelty of the Pranksters, in those early years of the ’60s, that although they had plenty of run-ins with law enforcement on the trip, none resulted in any of them being busted — not even Stark Naked, who was eventually released into the care of a boyfriend — despite the bus’s cargo of illicit dope and speed. A year later, Kesey would go on the run and eventually face jail time for possession and suspicion of dealing, but in that still innocent summer of ’64, a random stop by the highway patrol or a curious hick sheriff resulted in little more than a request for a licence and identification, a few questions, a bit of head-scratching, and maybe a twitchy caution that the Pranksters should think about being out of their jurisdiction by sundown.

From New Orleans, there was a short run along the Gulf coast, through Gulfport and Biloxi, to Pensacola, in Florida, to visit a buddy of Kenn Babbs, before Further turned northwards for New York City. And apart from leaving behind Ken Babbs’ younger brother John, after a toilet stop in South Carolina — he managed to hitch a ride and catch up with them — the drive to New York was relatively uneventful.

A suspicion lingers that the Pranksters arrival in New York, on June 29th, was something of an anti-climax, a let-down or, at least, less than Kesey had hoped. As soon as the Pranksters hit ‘Madhatten’, as they called it, Kesey phoned his literary agent, Sterling Lord, and told him, “The city just rolled over on its back and purred.” The Pranksters took over an apartment on Madison Avenue, between 89th and 90th, that ‘first off the bus’ Chloe Scott had located for them — Further was parked in front of the 90th Street Pharmacy, just across the street — kicking off what would become a week-long party. Among the first visitors was the author, Robert Stone, an old friend of Kesey’s from Stanford University, who wrote of their long friendships in a 2007 memoir, Prime Green: “He really seemed capable of making anything happen. We sat and smoked, and Possibility came down on us.”

Top of Kesey’s ‘Madhatten’ wish list was a meeting the legendary chronicler of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac. Kesey and his friends imagined themselves as the natural successors of the free-wheeling, poetic and spiritually questing Beats, and a meeting with Jack was seen, somehow, an opportunity to gain his imprimatur.

It wasn’t to be.

Kerouac’s former lover, Neal Cassady phoned the poet Alan Ginsberg and together with Alan’s lover and fellow-poet, Peter Orlovsky, and Peter’s brother, Julius, who had just been released from a 14-year confinement in a mental institution, they organized to drive to Northport, Long Island, to pick up Jack Kerouac. When they all arrived at the Madison Avenue, the Pranksters were so cranked-up — the apartment filled with “spontaneous combustion musical and verbal make-believe shenanigans,” as Ken Babbs described them — the world-weary, alcoholic, 42-year-old Kerouac was driven to an armchair in the corner of the room, where he remained, aloof and unwelcoming. When the Pranksters draped a small American flag over his shoulders, “he took it off, folded it neatly, and placed it on the arm of the couch.” Kerouac left without conversing with Kesey after just an hour.

The Prankster’s outing to the New York World’s Fair was also a bust. As Alex Gibney, the American film-maker who, 47 years later, would edit 100 hours of 16mm film footage and un-synched sound Kesey captured on the bus into the coherent, watchable, 2012 documentary, The Magic Trip, told an interviewer, “They thought they were going to hang out in a vision of the future, but it turned out the World’s Fair was actually a vision of the past. The future was them, the future was now, the future was right there on the bus.”

Any doubt that the road trip had taken a wrong turn was erased when the Pranksters, accompanied by Alan Ginsberg, set off upstate to meet Timothy Leary, the infamous psychologist and public proselytiser for the spiritual potential of hallucinogens. Together with Richard Alpert, who would become known as Ram Dass, Leary had set up the International Foundation for Internal Freedom (aka IFIF) at Millbrook — a 2,500-acre estate near Poughkeepsie, New York, owned by heirs to the Mellon fortune — after their less-than-rigorous studies on the therapeutic possibilities of psychedelic drugs had resulted in both men being dismissed from Harvard University.

The Pranksters were not exactly welcomed with open arms. Their amplified singing and the coloured smoke grenades they tossed from the rooftop of the bus as it made its way up Millbrook’s driveway might have had something to do with it. Leary, who was said to be tripping on acid, hid out. It was left to Richard Alpert, to greet them. Only later did Leary surface long enough to say hello to Cassidy — Alan Ginsberg snapped a photo of both of them together in the bus — but he snubbed Kesey and the rest of the Pranksters, leaving them to cool their heels on the mansion’s wide, bow-fronted, colonial verandah.

Neal Cassady stepped off the bus and disappeared after the visit to Milbrook, and without his amphetamine-amped vibe, the long drive home to California, skirting the northern border with Canada this time, occasionally straying over it, was something of an anti-climax. The cast of Pranksters changed: new people climbed aboard, others stepped off; once stable emotional relationships became mutable and there were experiments with what was later touted as ‘free love’. It didn’t work all that well for everybody.

When the bus finally returned to La Honda, Kesey urged The Pranksters to burn their ‘bus clothes’ on the lawn in front of his home. “I was done with it,” he said. “I wanted to get back to business. I had books to write, kids to raise.

“But it wouldn’t die. People just kept coming ‘round.”

In many ways, the trans-continental road trip was just beginning for Kesey and the Pranksters: they had, quite literally, sown the seeds of not only a psychedelic, pop cultural revolution but a seismic social shift that amplified with the growing economic power of youth. Within a year, a Grateful Dead sound engineer turned chemist, Owsley Stanley III, would manufacture almost industrial amounts of LSD for sale to The Pranksters and everyone else in the US who wanted it; within three years, Timothy Leary would instruct a crowd of 30,000 at an event called Human Be-In, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, to “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. The city’s much-vaunted Summer Of Love, in 1967, when 100,000 young hippies from all over the USA made their way to Haight-Ashbury to hang out and get stoned, was the culmination of a journey that began when Ken Kesey and the Pranksters first set out across America from La Honda, three years before.

Kesey’s ‘acid tests’ became a mainstay of California’s counter-cultural scene, with screenings of fragments of Kesey’s film footage, light shows, performances by the Grateful Dead and essentially, communal experiences of LSD — until 1966, when California and Nevada became the first states to prohibit the manufacture, sale and possession of LSD (the US Congress passed the Staggers-Dodd Bill, criminalizing the recreational use of LSD-25 in all states, in October, 1968). Inevitably, Kesey himself fell foul of the law. In April, 1965, a team of local sheriff’s deputies led by a federal DEA agent raided Kesey’s home in La Honda and arrested him and thirteen others for marijuana possession. “I don’t like to divide the world into ‘they’ and ‘us’ but people here don’t seem to be able to leave us alone,” Kesey told a reporter.

The Prankster story descended into farce: Kesey staged a fake suicide, then went on the run aboard Further with his family and the Pranksters. They made it across the border into Mexico, where they stayed for eight months, drifting from Puerto Vallarta to Mazatlán to the dead-end jungle port of Manzanillo, until homesickness drove Kesey home; in January 1966, he turned himself in and was sentenced to six months in the San Mateo County jail, in Redwood City.

By the end of 1968, less than a year after the Summer of Love, all innocence was lost. Neal Cassady was found dying of drug-induced renal failure alongside a railway track outside San Miguel de Allende, in Mexico; Jack Kerouac would die of alcoholism the following year; Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, and a few months later, in Washington, so was Robert Kennedy; Richard Nixon was elected president; America committed tens of thousands young American lives to an unwinnable war in Vietnam War; the country was divided by increasingly bloody protests.

America was no place for pranks anymore, merry or otherwise.

© 2018 C.C. O’Hanlon

Published in The Odysseum: Strange Journeys that Obliterated Convention, edited by David Bramwell and Jo Tinsley, publ. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 2018

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