Ken Kesey: A Short History, Part V, Conclusion

k2_2.jpg(Photo: Novelist Ken Kesey at right with unidentified man).
In spite of Kesey’s notoriety and reputation as a novelist of stature, the authorities viewed him as a menace to society. In April 1965, San Mateo County sheriff’s officials, a police dog and a state narcotics agent raided Kesey’s five-room rustic cabin in La Honda.

Kesey and some 14 others in the cabin at the time were arrested on marijuana charges. Soon after, Kesey was again arrested on similar charges in San Francisco and fled.

But after being a fugitive for eight months, Kesey returned from Mexico to the Bay Area–and in a melodramatic scene on the Bayshore Freeway near Candlestick Park he was captured by FBI agents.

Kesey served a short sentence at the San Mateo County Jail and the Sheriff’s Honor Camp at La Honda. When released, he moved to Oregon with his wife, Faye where he died at age 66 on November 10, 2001.

Fascinated by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, social observer and famous New York author Tom Wolfe captured their spirit in his best selling,still not-to-be-missed 1968 book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

Kesey and the Pranksters must have been seen as a calamity by many La Hondans–and some who are alive still harbor bitterness toward them. But as the years roll by, and the memories of Kesey and the Pranksters cavorting in the beautiful redwoods have softened, their once controversial presence has evolved into local folklore.

Ken Kesey: A Short History, Part IV

k1.jpg (Photo: Novelist Ken Kesey with what looks like the redwoods behind him).

Several round-trip adventures from La Honda to New York followed and the remarkable school bus was immediately recognized in cities and towns across the nation.

On one trip, the Pranksters shot 40 hours of film for a movie called “Intrepid Traveler and the Merry Band of Pranksters Look for a Cool Place.” (Where is that film today? Let’s get up on youtube!).

When Ken Kesey and the Pranksters returned to their home base in La Honda to edit the film, it became evident that the lcoals were greatly disturbed by their new neighbors. There were reports of unfriendly rifle shots breaking the still of night and bullet holes in Kesey’s mailbox (which stood beside the road).

Many La Hondanas in those days were conservative anti-social types who never wanted to understand Kesey. They were suspicious of this counterculture hero. Perhaps they had good reason to be wary when Kesey invited the Hell’s Angels to La Honda for a party. The never low-key Kesey publicized the event to the dismay of locals by posting a sign on his gate that read, “Welcome Hell’s Angels.”

(Actually that was pretty funny).

…To be continued…

Ken Kesey: A Short History, Part III


“One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest” Author bought a 1939 International Harvester school bus, already equipped with bunk beds, benches and a refrigerator. It was christened with a new destination sign that read, “FURTHER.”

At the wheel of the bus was Neal Cassady, the real-life hero of Jack Kerouac’s beat generation novel “On The Road.”

Can you imagine that? How cool….Authentic individuals, ok, wild and crazy but not cookie-cutter people…

Kesey’s first project for the “Pranksters” was to decorate the bus and it turned out to be a never-ending process, with sprayed-on yellow, blue and orange Day-Glo paint. Did they do it at the La Honda property? I don’t know. I hope so. I saw that cabin from the twisty-turney road once; the cabin was located at an “elbow” in the road–I think Kesey and his family had moved to Oregon by then–but empty or not the cabin still held great fascination for me…We had been exploring an old apple farm and enjoyed the trek to an incredible water fall….La Honda had it all…

Neal Cassady’s nickname was “Speed Limit” and he revved up the spray painted bus. It was a beautiful bus. Who wouldn’t want to get on board?

…To Be Continued…

Ken Kesey: A Short History, Part II


Embraced by literary critics, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” was viewed as a microcosm of the wider world–where power is often abused–and the individual is suppressed for the sake of conformity. “Cukoo’s Nest” soon became a Broadway play and later an Academy Award-winning film starring Jack Nicholson.

Although Kesey’s second book, “Sometimes A Great Notion,” a lengthy saga about a logging family, won some acclaim, it faile to ignite the literary excitement of “Cuckoo’s Nest.” It was “Cuckoo’s Nest” that brought Ken Kesey fame and a modest fortuna via royalties. Seeking creative isolation, he purchased a mountain hideaway, a rustic log and stone cabin on 2 1/2 acres surrounded by a majestic grove of redwood trees in La Honda in San Mateo County.

Amid scenery that looked like a Christams card, Kesey emerged as a leader of the psychedelic movement, on the cutting edge of “acid tests,” long hair and Eastern mysticism. He was at the center of the counterculture scene emerging in San Mateo County and the young people who flocked tohis side at La Honda were dubbed “The Merry Pranksters.”

They “goofed off,” smoked pot and listened to live rock n’ roll, much of it provided by a musical group that later became world famous as the Grateful Dead.

…To be continued…

Ken Kesey: A Short History, Part I

k1.jpg(Photo: Novelist Ken Kesey)

Counterculture hero Ken Kesey went all out researching his first and highly acclaimed novel, “One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest.”

Published in 1962, “Cukoo’s Nest” earned favorable reviews for its bitingly satiric look at a mental hospital where the inmates as well as their keepers wrestled with reality.

Collecting material for the book commenced after Kesey completed a year long creative writing course on a Woodrow Wilson scholarship at Stanford University in the 1950s. A friend told the aspiring novelist that the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park needed “paid” volunteers for experiments they were conducting on the effects of LSD and other hallucinogens. Kesey signed up, and when the program ended, he took a job as a night attendant in the hospital’s mental ward.

When Kesey quit that job, he walked away with all the ingredients for an extraordinary novel. He had observed a mental ward up close, got to know the patients and even ingested mind-altering drugs.

…To be continued…

Ken Kesey’s Long Lasting Effect

I still vividly remember getting my copy of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. I was a kid living with my parents in San Francisco’s Sunset District. Back then I did all of my reading at the library. But I knew there was one bookstore with big glass windows on Irving Street. I could see the books inside but I had never bought one.

My father– who had always wanted to be a writer– subscribed to Newsweek and read a review of Ken Kesey’s blockbuster. Without telling me ordered a copy from the bookstore on Irving Street. Can you believe it? This great book had to be ordered in those days!

That was back in the early 1960s and all these years I have kept my copy of Kesey’s book.

Me & Ken Kesey

“The man” himself, Ken Kesey

I never knew Ken Kesey personally but one of the first books my father gave me was “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest”

“Cukoo’s Nest” made such a deep impression on me, and when I discovered that he lived in woodsy, isolated La Honda, and I saw the cabin he lived in, I felt very close to this author I so admired.

It was the 60’s–almost “romantic” now–remember Kesey’s day glo spray painted bus (now in the Smithsonian museum, driven there by Kesey himself a few years before passed) and the Merry Pranksters.

The folks in La Honda did not appreciate Kesey choosing their neck of the redwoods to live and write and play in. Legend has it that on more than one occasion Kesey walked to his mailbox outside to find bullet holes in it.

And of course Ken Kesey had his share of legal problems–I’ll try to get into a more detailed bio of the famous author in a future post because his past directly relates to the writing of that great book, “Cukoo’s Nest”.

Ron Duarte of Duartes Tavern in Pescadero, Ron’s Aunt Carrie, now gone, once told me Ken Kesey came down from the mountains to take out books at the local library. She was the librarian, she would get to know everybody who took out books.

When I was on the San Mateo County Historical Museum’s Board of Directors some years ago, I wrote Ken Kesey and asked him if he would contribute an article–or even a “fragment” to our historical publication, “La Peninsula”. I typed the letter on a typewriter, I think, and mailed it to his farm in Oregon. He had moved there from La Honda. I’m sure life there was more peaceful.

Was I surprised when I received an answer from Ken Kesey. I must have been jumping up and down–he had used my typed letter to create a work of art with his magic marker pens.

Here’s Kesey’s response to my request that he pen “something” for the county’s historical journal.

(Imposed over my letter Kesey’s colorful magic marker words read: “La Honda is a slingshot at the sky!”)

When Ken Kesey was delivering the historic day-glowed magic bus to the Smithsonian in D.C., he stopped off in San Francisco at a book fair and I almost talked to him but he was in motion, moving here, moving there, physically, a small man, but he was a muscular ball of energy.

I never knew Kesey personally but I will never let go of my old copy of “Cukoo’s Nest”, both a reminder of the culture-changing 1960s and of a great book filled with truths that will remain relevant forever.