Throwback Thursday: The Merry Pranksters

Rot in the Forest

In 2002, I took a road trip from Tacoma—where I was living at the time—to Ken Kesey’s farm in Oregon, with the purpose of visiting the famous bus used by The Merry Pranksters. It was a surreal scene when I finally came upon the old relic, the 1939 International Harvester school bus, parked in a swamp under a press of trees clustering in around its decrepit body, rusted and rotting in the mossy arms of the damp forest, giant ferns strangling what was left of the bus I once took a ride in during The Summer of Love, when I went to Haight-Ashbury for two weeks in 1967.

All Things Must Pass

All things animal and mineral get old and pass, disintegrate into the further passages of Time. Memories last as long as they are passed down from hand to hand, mouth to mouth. Still, that leads to the question: Are memories real or imagined? The farther you travel back into your past, the harder it is to remember what exactly you did or what happened to you. Memories should never stay in the Past. Good or bad, glorious or terrifying, bring them to the fore. That’s what the #MeToo movement is all about. Get it out into the light of the day. Heal yourself. Go back and bring the pain forward until it melts in the light of the day—or the dark of night.

Nothing Lasts

Have you ever been sorry you didn’t do something you could have done? Something, when you look back on it, you would have loved to have experienced, but something inside held you back? A one-off kind of chance you knew in your heart would never come around again? Of course you do. Regret populates our lives like an endless array of gopher holes we try to navigate around in the dark, trying to make our way on our paths toward whatever light we can glimpse ahead of us. I have so many regrets that they fill a black hole in that part of my life I never lived. Only in my imagination and dreams did I live the things I never did. One regret was to not join up with the Merry Pranksters for a short while when I thought I had the chance. Still, I just couldn’t leave my precious bike in San Francisco and take off on a wild psychedelic ride in a school bus filled with a band of mad hippies, could I? Well, I should have, because nothing lasts.

The Blue Monkey

The Blue Monkey

I spent a couple of weeks in Haight Ashbury during the Summer of 1967. I had gone one day to Hippie Hill while still in the throes of a bad acid trip; the day was growing long and I wanted it to end. The crowd was scattering like mice into the nearby streets. Earlier I had listened to George Harrison, and now he had all but vanished—except for the music playing inside my head. I got up and moved with the crowd toward one end of the park. The sporadic effects of the bad acid trip were dwindling. Still, a small, wiry blue monkey was perched on my shoulders, tickling one of my ears. I kept telling myself this, too, will pass, but it didn’t—not right away, anyway. Barely able to hold my insanity at bay, I kept walking toward the place where I had parked my bike, trying to ignore the ever-burgeoning, ubiquitous monkey.

Further

I then came across a psychedelic painted school bus parked in the parking lot next to my bike. I had heard of the Merry Pranksters, seen photographs of the bus. This was it. The Pranksters had named it Further. Always eager to look ahead in their run amok, acid-fueled rides. The bus looked exactly like I imagined. I wandered over to it and felt like I was floating toward a multi-colored cloud. A few of the Pranksters (I no longer remember their names) were seated on a bench built into the back side of the bus, swinging their legs as if they were children. There was another one perched inside a huge cargo basket attached to the roof. When I asked, they told me the others were out in the park, enjoying the sunshine and music. After escaping to Mexico and returning to the U.S., their leader, Ken Kesey, was in jail serving time for possession of marijuana. As far as I can remember I had never met Kesey, but had read his novels and was an admirer of his, especially the accounts of his drug-fueled antics throughout the years beginning in 1958 when he started to take LSD. He was, like Ed Abbey, an eco-terrorist—or, as they say today, an eco-activist. Tom Wolfe wrote about the Pranksters in his brilliant book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestKesey predated the hippie movement and pushed right though it till the end, when he died of liver cancer in 2001.

The Good Ship

I looked up at the windows. The sunlight reflected color and chromatic sound back at me. Of course, I wanted to see the inside of the bus, but I was afraid to ask. They recognized my squeamishness and curiosity, so they jumped off their bench and invited me inside to have a look. One thing I noticed right away when I got inside was the faint tingling of body odor mingling with the more pungent smells of Patchouli incense and marijuana. The ceiling, like the outside shell, was splashed with bright, colorful, hippie-like designs. A plastic dome opened up overhead in the ceiling. I wondered what it would be like to ride in the open country stoned or whacked out on acid, the kind Owsley Stanley would give me if I knew him. There were a few seats and racks with mattresses on them, clothing piled to the sides. The driver’s seat wasn’t set in an enclosure, but open to the rest of the bus. I’d heard Neal Cassady did most of the driving, was the captain of the Good Ship Further.

The Great Wheel

They told me they were taking the bus to a gas station down the road to fuel it up for a trip to Oregon. Wanted to know if I wanted to take a ride. Why not? I said. I didn’t know if I was talking to Neal or not. At that time, I wouldn’t have known much about him, anyway, let alone what he looked like. The sky had bunched up into a cottony gray mass. The fog was rolling in on pinwheels of rain. We pulled out into traffic, the old bus creaking and groaning, its psyche screaming bright colors into a drab landscape. We made it to a gas station. I sat in the driver’s seat while they filled the peacocked beast with fuel. I put my hands on the great wheel and imagined running down the road, looking out the windshield. I was Odysseus at the helm my ship, plying the Aegean Sea on my way home to Ithaca, Cyclops and the Sirens behind me.

Regrets

When we got back to the park, they asked me if I’d like to join them. It was tempting, but I had to get back to my other life in Colorado. Had to finish school. The proper thing to do. Right. Still, I wasn’t ready to take off like that, although in hindsight I should have, and, in a heartbeat, I would today. If I didn’t complete my education, Uncle Sam would come after me, prosecute me like they were prosecuting the Vietnam war. I didn’t want to end up in some jungle swamp, my body rotting.

Bring it Forward

The next day I took off on my bike, rode out of Haight-Ashbury, looking over my shoulder, wondering if I should turn around and reconsider my decision not to join up with the Merry Pranksters. But I didn’t. I kept going down the long road ahead. On my own road. The couple of weeks I spent in Haight-Ashbury ended too soon, though, just as the Hippie movement ended too soon and is now a remembrance of the past. I wonder where we’d be if it had lasted? Nothing lasts forever. Except maybe memory. If you bring it forward.

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