By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
(top): Photo by Tom Johnson (bottom): Photo by Ted Streshinsky
Skippin’ through the lily fieldsI came across an empty space, It trembled and exploded, left a bus stop in its place. The bus came by and I got on, that’s when it all began, There was Cowboy Neal at the wheel of the bus to never ever land.
—"That’s It for the Other One,"The Grateful Dead
Zane Kesey bears a striking resemblance to his father, deceased novelist Ken Kesey. The main difference is that Zane, 42 or 43 years old (he forgets), is yet to be victimized by the male-pattern baldness that struck his dad in high school. Dressed as a tourist in a Hawaiian shirt, stone-colored pants and blinding-white running shoes, Zane guides a reporter from a local daily around Further, the 1947 International Harvester bus that he drove down from Pleasant Hill, Oregon, to Pomona for the L.A. County Fair. Construction workers passing through the exhibition hall stop to gawk at the bus’ coat of narrative imagery, which evokes a William Blake painting. With its Day-Glo interior, its golden Joker figurine mounted on the hood and its American flags positioned at full mast, it’s a dead ringer for the original Further, the 1939 International Harvester that Ken Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters piloted from La Honda, California, to the Big Apple and back 40 years ago this past summer. The original Further is stuck in a swamp outside of Eugene, Oregon, waiting to be resuscitated, but it’s still very much alive as an icon of the days when Kesey and his Pranksters put acid on the map by gobbling it like mad and, over the course of their literal and figurative trip, fermented the mindset that would move the counterculture from the Beats to the hippies.
Flashback to 1964. Ken Kesey, having already published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, has just finished his follow-up, Sometimes a Great Notion. To celebrate, he and the hangers-on around his place south of San Francisco set off for the World’s Fair in New York City. At the wheel of their audaciously painted school bus is Fastestmanalive Neal Cassady, the real-life Dean Moriarty to Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise in On the Road. En route to the East Coast, the Merry Pranksters stop in Millbrook, New York, where their spontaneity proves at odds with the sterile experimentation of rival heads Timothy Leary and his League of Spiritual Discovery. Upon their return to La Honda, the Pranksters start hosting psychedelic tribal gatherings called the Acid Tests. These freeform festivals of light, sound and pictures, with LSD as the party favor of choice, eventually travel to Santa Cruz, San Jose, Muir Beach, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles and the beaches of Baja, Mexico. "I’d like for someone to someday list all of the Tests that took place," Zane says.
The Pranksters’ story — a part of which is Kesey’s mythical transformation from country bumpkin to college wrestling star to literary lion to borderline cult leader — is most famously told by Tom Wolfe in his 1968 counterculture opus The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Because Wolfe never was on the bus, he had to rely on firsthand accounts from people trying really hard to convey the experience, along with countless reels of film documenting the voyage and Tests. Wolfe’s New Journalism masterpiece was conceived as an article for the Sunday magazine of the now-defunct New York World Herald Tribune. Legendary editor and current UC Berkeley journalism lecturer Clay Felker decided that the story was "so significant and wonderfully reported and written" that he devoted the entire issue to it. That Sunday the Herald Tribunesold more than 750,000 copies, beating The New York Times.
Condensing such an epic, metaphysical journey into a simplified Q&A session with a clueless reporter is noticeably irritating to Zane. After a while, he stops the session and sends the daily reporter off to do his homework, referring him to various books on the topic.
"That’s the kind of stuff that would drive Dad crazy," Zane says after the reporter leaves. Sitting on the bus’ shiny bumper, though, he is all bark and no bite, hamming it up for a photographer by sporting shades and flashing peace signs and touching his index figure to his tongue to symbolize the act of dropping acid. Like father, like son. Zane’s audience is rapt as he tells the story of making a magical batch of Kool-Aid when he was a child. Instead of sweetening the drink with granulated sugar, he used some "sugar cubes" he found laying around. When Zane’s parents came home, they found him dangling from the tree fort. They took Zane to the doctor to have his stomach pumped, but it was too late to stave off the sugar’s effect. So Ken Kesey took his son to play in the woods instead.
The San Francisco Bay Area may be synonymous with the counterculture, but Los Angeles provided a haven for the scene’s progenitors once the heat up north got too hot. What’s more, Los Angeles is on the way to Mexico, where Kesey had fled after faking his death to avoid a felony marijuana-possession charge in January of 1966. Later that month, Reverend Paul Sawyer offered to let the Pranksters stage their first L.A. Acid Test at his Unitarian Universalist Church in North Hills. His only requirement was that LSD not be served, since his congregation would be participating. "I was kind of concerned that the thing would become a publicity ploy," he says, his tone deliberate.