In June of 1964, Ken Kesey was a hot young writer. His novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” had been a best-seller and then a hit Broadway play. He needed to get to New York City, because his publisher was bringing out his second novel, “Sometimes A Great Notion.” And some of Kesey’s pals wanted to make the trip, too.
“The World’s Fair was there, and so a bunch of us wanted to go,” says Ken Babbs, who had met Kesey at Stanford in the late ’50s. After a stint as a Marine helicopter pilot that took him to Vietnam during the war’s earliest stages, Babbs returned to Stanford and reconnected with Kesey.
Kesey, Babbs and friends were experimenting with filmmaking and with LSD. Kesey had encountered the drug while volunteering for a CIA-sponsored test at the Menlo Park VA hospital. So the trip to New York, to be made in a 1939 International Harvester school bus painted in wild colors and named “Further” (a.k.a. “Furthur”), was meant to be a psychic journey as well as a physical one.
“We had this movie that we were going to make called ‘Intrepid Travelers,’ and this merry band of pranksters look for a cool place — the cool place that exists in you in your mind and your body,” Babbs says.
With that vision in mind, Babbs and the rest of the Merry Pranksters boarded the bus at Kesey’s home in La Honda. And at first, they didn’t go anywhere.
“We got the bus cranked up, we were ready to go, firing on all cylinders, headed out across the bridge there at La Honda. And … the engine died,” Babbs recalls.
Eventually, most of the Pranksters made it to New York, with Kesey’s friend Neal Cassady in the driver’s seat much of the time. Cassady was famous as Jack Kerouac’s friend and the basis for the character Dean Moriarty in “On The Road.” And so Cassady and Kesey were like a bridge between the beats and the hippies that followed.
The thing that distinguished the beats from the hippies was the psychedelic drugs that Kesey had discovered. LSD was still legal, but Ken Babbs says the Pranksters were not trying to turn on the country. The Pranksters’ act was more of a theatrical performance, with the bus, painted in spectacular colors, their stage.
“In ’64 there was nothing like it,” Babbs says. “Today, you know, they’re all over the place. But then nobody knew what it was. They thought the circus had come to town. ”
Kesey’s bus ride remains famous partly because writer Tom Wolfe chronicled the story in 1968’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
Kesey and Babbs organized their so-called acid tests up and down the West Coast in 1966, featuring spiked Kool-Aid, light shows and music by the Grateful Dead.
The acid tests were part of the wave of cultural change in the mid-1960s that included the folk music revival, rock ‘n’ roll, feminism, black power and the antiwar movement. But Kesey and the Pranksters weren’t political. Babbs says Kesey always believed the only true currency is that of the spirit.
“When we talk about expanding your consciousness, which we were doing, what it really meant was to connect with other people in a positive way and to be kind,” Babbs says.
And the legend lives on. Kesey’s son, Zane, has raised more than $40,000 to stage a 50th anniversary cross-country road trip, minus the LSD that played such a big role in 1964.
The trip will use Ken Kesey’s updated version of Further. As for the original 1939 vehicle, the author parked it in a swamp on his Oregon farm. Despite talk about restoring it and a 1990 Kesey prank involving the Smithsonian’s supposed acquisition of the vehicle, it remains an undrivable hulk.
Except, of course, in memory, where it’s still tooling down the byways of rebellious fun and psychic discovery.