What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been
In 1964 a dozen or so LSD-dropping protohippies from the San Francisco Bay Area climbed aboard a kaleidoscopically painted school bus for a journey across America. Led by novelist Ken Kesey, these self-styled Merry Pranksters set the New York World’s Fair as their destination. But, really, it wasn’t the geographical end point but the long, strange trip itself—and the new psychic terrain the Pranksters traveled—that mattered. This map explores some of that territory.
In the space of two years Ken Kesey went from Cuckoo to cuckoo. In 1962 Kesey published his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, about life inside a mental hospital. The action centers on the charismatic Randle P. McMurphy, who attempts to foment an uprising among the nutcases. The book was a critical and popular success, but by the time his second book, Sometimes a Great Notion, was being readied for publication, Kesey had abandoned literature for a very different form of art. In the summer of 1964, accompanied by a group of young friends who christened themselves the Band of Merry Pranksters, Kesey—a charismatic character himself—took a cross-country trip aboard a psychedelically painted bus crammed with movie cameras, sound recorders and a whole, whole lot of drugs. Kesey’s aim was to create an epic film of his lunatic crew’s interactions with America at large, but this insane project’s results were, like McMurphy’s, mixed: The Pranksters—always high, and completely inept at operating movie equipment—produced 40-odd hours of wobbly, unsynched footage that never became the film Kesey had envisioned. The trip itself, however, helped light the fuse for the LSD-fueled countercultural explosion that followed.
In a pivotal scene from Easy Rider, small-town Southern lawyer George Hanson (played by Jack Nicholson) is slouching around the campfire with his brand-new buddies, a pair of stoner bikers who go by the names of Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Captain America (Peter Fonda). George explains why the local rednecks have taken such a strong dislike to the long-haired duo: “What you represent to them,” he says, “is freedom.” It’s a freedom that George is getting his first—and, tragically, his last—taste of. And it’s a role that, beyond giving Nicholson his first real break as an actor, typecast him for the better part of the next decade. In such films as Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974), Nicholson played the sometimes eager, sometimes reluctant rebel against oppressive systems bent on crushing the little guy. Young Nicholson’s off-kilter good looks, sassy intelligence and ability to communicate the vulnerability quivering behind his characters’ bravado made him the perfect choice to play the upstart asylum inmate Randle P. McMurphy in Milos Forman’s 1975 film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—a role that won Nicholson his first of three Academy Awards.
The open road’s promise of life-changing adventure, as an artistic theme, is at least as old as Cervantes’s Don Quixote. In American culture, the summons of the road can be heard in the poems of Walt Whitman, cowboy ditties and hobo songs, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (though the “road” Huck and Jim travel is made of water) and, in the mid-20th century, Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road and Dennis Hopper’s film Easy Rider. Touchstones of the Beat and hippie movements respectively, On the Road and Easy Rider share the same loose premise: Two young guys head out on the highway, things happen to them, and they’re somehow altered by the experience. But the works differ markedly in tone. Kerouac’s protagonists may seem lost, but they’re pilgrims in search of Truth; it’s anybody’s guess what Easy Rider’s feckless biker twosome is really looking for. On the Road’s narrative is paced at a syncopated bebop tempo; Easy Rider’s is driven by the 4/4 beat of acid rock. And while On the Road concludes with a bittersweet reflection on the impossible dream of human communion, Easy Rider ends in a searing demonstration of man’s brutal inhumanity to man.
“Everybody I knew had read On the Road, and it opened up doors to us just the same way drugs did,” said Ken Kesey, citing Jack Kerouac’s canonical Beat novel as one motivating force behind the Merry Band of Pranksters’ cross-country adventure. Indeed. Despite its questionable literary merit (Kerouac’s contemporary Truman Capote famously dismissed On the Road’s stream-of-consciousness prose as “typing,” not writing), the perennially best-selling novel has prompted successive generations to set out upon America’s highways in search of the nation’s soul and their own. On the Road can also be viewed as the urtext behind works as diverse as the upbeat early 1960s TV series Route 66, Simon & Garfunkel’s melancholic 1968 song “America” and the tragic, feminist 1991 road movie Thelma & Louise, among many others. Ironically, as Kerouac grew older he became increasingly grumpy, and he didn’t have much patience with the later countercultural shenanigans his novel helped inspire—including those of the Merry Pranksters. As it happened, Kerouac was present at a house party celebrating the Pranksters’ arrival in New York City in June 1964; a film of that event shows him slumped on a sofa, sucking on a Budweiser and looking annoyed.
Angular, amphetamine-addicted Neal Cassady played an unusual role in midcentury American counterculture: that of male muse. In 1946 the 20-year-old Cassady, who’d grown up hard on Denver’s skid row, arrived in New York City, where he met then-unknown writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg fell in love with the ruggedly handsome, unlettered but natively bright young man, and so did Kerouac, though in a more latent, “bromantic” way. (Intrepidly promiscuous, Cassady mostly went for women, but he also bedded Ginsberg, carrying on an affair that Ginsberg claimed lasted nearly 20 years.)
Cassady is celebrated in Ginsberg’s 1955 Beat epic Howl as the “secret hero of these poems.” For Kerouac, the hero worship wasn’t so secret. A lightly fictionalized Cassady appears as Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road. Basking in the antic radiance of Dean is the raison d’être of the transcontinental journeys that the novel’s narrator, Sal Paradise, chronicles in On the Road, whose pages are moistened by verbal ejaculations over Dean’s improvisatory brilliance, sexual prowess and sublime beauty. “[H]e looked,” Kerouac writes, “like God.” The devotionals didn’t end there: Cassady—as the character Cody Pomeray—likewise figures beatifically in several of Kerouac’s later novels.
Ken Kesey is the central figure of Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney’s Magic Trip, a 2011 documentary based on rescued film footage the Merry Pranksters shot during their coast-to-coast joyride aboard the bus Further. But it isn’t Kesey who most strongly attracts the viewer’s interest. That would be Neal Cassady, Further’s driver on the California–to–New York leg of the trip. A generation older than the other Pranksters (“He looked like my father,” observes one), Cassady is also a good deal nuttier than most of them. This wild-eyed, motormouthed madman—who, though haggard, still looks damned hot with his shirt off—manages, implausibly, to mostly keep the bus on the road. He’s riveting in a way that commingles lust and fright, and when the Pranksters reach NYC and Cassady declines to join them on the homeward trip, the movie loses half its steam. Cassady did return to California, however, and hung with Kesey & Co. throughout their “Acid Test” phase: He’s a constant presence in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But there’s something tragic now about the washed-up, speed-addled original Beat, a poète manqué who spent his life inspiring important writers instead of being one himself.
Recounting Ken Kesey’s serial transformations from Oregon farm boy to straitlaced college athlete to up-and-coming novelist to LSD-cult guru to on-the-lam outlaw hero, Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a landmark work of the so-called New Journalism that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Abandoning “objective” reporting for creative nonfiction, Wolfe and like-minded writers Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, 1966), Hunter S. Thompson (Hell’s Angels, 1966), Norman Mailer (The Armies of the Night, 1968) and Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968) inserted themselves into the events they chronicled. In Acid Test, though, Wolfe isn’t so much a participant as a somewhat uptight witness—alternately acerbic and agog—to the revolutions in culture and consciousness that Kesey and his ever-changing cast of devotees and hangers-on were, in the mid-1960s, helping to foster in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Formally inventive, Acid Test provides a thickly described account of the rise of hippiedom that veers from the vivid to the obscure—sort of like an acid trip itself. Most insightful is Wolfe’s analysis of the Merry Pranksters as followers of a religious adept, Kesey, who preaches no doctrine but guides them through a primal experience of ecstasy.
The “Acid Test” referred to in Tom Wolfe’s title was one of a series of events—big all-night or, in a few cases, several-days-long parties—staged by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters at various venues in California and Oregon in 1965 and 1966. Naturally, partygoers dropped acid (the slang term comes from LSD’s full name, lysergic acid diethylamide). The events were designed to enhance the psychedelic experience, with strobe lights, black lights, sound-and-light shows and rock music—provided, at most of the parties, by a Bay Area band called the Grateful Dead, whose leader and cofounder, Jerry Garcia, had been a peripheral member of Kesey’s druggy coterie for a couple of years. The Dead, of course, would gain international renown and accumulate a famously die-hard nomadic community of fans, the “Deadheads,” over a career that lasted until Garcia’s death, 30 years later. But the Dead’s signature performance style—unplanned, free-form sets that might last for hours on end—came into being during the brief period the group functioned as the Acid Tests’ house band. The Dead’s best-known song, “Truckin’”—whose lyric provides this map’s title—was released in 1970 and details the Dead’s own peregrinations, not Ken Kesey’s.