A technicolor dream bus called "Furthur" captained by a man named Kesey is zigzagging across the country. It's no coincidence that exactly 50 years ago, a nearly identical magic trip took place.
Zane Kesey is the son of American literary and cultural icon, Ken Kesey, who participated in early government tests with psychoactive drugs like LSD, wrote the powerfully anti-establishment novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and then gathered on a busload of folks who called themselves Merry Pranksters and travelled the country experimenting with drugs, playing avant-garde music, and spreading love and mischief. Kesey and his gang were integral bodies in the constellation of American counterculture, whizzing around and often colliding with Beatnik-era survivors like Neal Cassidy, budding writers like Hunter Thompson, groups like the Hells Angels, and yet-unknown bands like The Grateful Dead.
Zane, who has the same mountain man frame and infectious smile as his father, thinks a lot of that stuff was pretty cool, so this May he launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than enough funds to do the trip again. Wearing an electric-blue zebra-stripe carnival-prize pimp hat and a day-glo-splattered jumpsuit, he rolled into the college town of Kent, Ohio this Monday and explained his aim:
On the surface we're doing the 50th anniversary trip and just going out and doing a bus trip and having fun, but deeper down we're setting out to see what that seed has blossomed into and how much of the '60s is still out there and whether it's thrived or shriveled on the vine and so far we're seeing a lot of really good stuff.
The nutshell of the '60s and almost what made it fall apart is [the idea that] all you need is love. And if you got everyone on that same page it would be a beautiful world. Not everybody got on that page. I'd still like to get everybody on that page.
Another part of the goal is to raise interest and money for a long-delayed restoration project of the original Furthur bus (there are several), to preserve that piece of American history. He and his pranksters stop in cities for jam band shows, play some music of their own, and sell blotter paper. Zane makes it clear, the paper is just art. It's drug free and so is the bus.
He's never had a taste for LSD and says that although drugs can be liberating, they were not an unequivocally positive feature of the movement his father started. "It's really important for us not to have that in the trip. And 'don't do drugs' is not necessarily our message. As long as you do all the steps you did before, you dress up crazy and act crazy and have psychedelic music and lights and everybody's having fun, it can be just as much fun."
His intrepid fellow travelers seem to agree. They range in age from "Pinky," who just turned 21, to some older souls who almost certainly qualify for Social Security. Brendan, who says he's "an outlaw in spirit" just joined the bus this week, claims he traveled all the way from Iraq to part of the fun. All decked out in hippie and raver attire, they enjoy having dance parties going down the highway.
Asked about their best experiences so far on this journey, many said they couldn't single any out.
"Every day is the most interesting day with the pranksters," says Matt, who serves as documentarian for the trip. "They're going to be friends for life." For him, "a big part of the message is showing that we can go even further in another 50 years" in terms of developing music, the arts, and the freedom to be "outgoing and creative and not caring what people think about you."
They're warm, if elusive, individuals. Some of them like "Thumpah" go by their prankster nickname instead of their given name. He wants to "prank at free will and allow people to think that which isn't really is, but at the same time in very humorous gesture." Far out.
Scotty, a.k.a. "Dontcha Know," says one of their favorite recurring pranks is to tell someone who looks rather serious, "Hey, you dropped something." The person looks down. "Oh, you dropped your smile!"
"I hate seeing people all depressed and driving in their boring cars and going to their boring jobs and thinking we have to be on this path. It doesn't have to be like that," says a young woman named Enthusiastic. She's a 7th grade teacher and wants to "show kids that they can change the future" by "taking back our freedom and really using it. Making new music, exploring new ideas. Going further forever."
It's a tall order to capture and recreate the energy, optimism, and absurdist humor that shaped American counterculture 50 years ago, but today's pranksters come at with a palpably genuine attitude, and they do succeed.
The tour is making stops in Maine and Rhode Island, and then they're heading, rumor has it, for a stop in San Francisco before parking the bus back on the Kesey property in Oregon.