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Zane Kesey picks at clumps of moss and swirls of brightly colored paint and patches of rust covering the school bus that his father, the late author Ken Kesey, rode cross-country with a refrigerator stocked with LSD-laced drinks in pursuit of a new art form.
“This comes off pretty easy,” Kesey says, a smile playing over his face. “It’s amazing, some of the things that are coming out — things I remember.”
He continues tidying the keepsake. “It’s going to take a lot of bubble gum,” he says.
For some 15 years, the 1939 International bus dubbed “Further” has rusted away in a swamp on the Kesey family’s Willamette Valley farm, out of sight if not out of mind, more memory than monument.
That is where Ken Kesey — author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and hero of a generation that vowed to drop out and tune in with the help of LSD — intended it to stay after firing up a new bus in 1990.
But four years after his death, a Hollywood restaurateur has persuaded the family to resurrect the old bus so it can help tell the story of Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and the psychedelic 1960s.
“I read his books back in high school and through college,” says David Houston, owner of the historic roadhouse Barney’s Beanery in Los Angeles. “I just always thought he was a fascinating and brilliant man. The story of the bus was always very compelling. To find out it had been just left to go — I really wanted to restore the bus and tell its story to the world.”
Houston hopes to raise the $100,000 he figures it will cost to get the bus running and looking good. The Kesey family will maintain control of the bus, though, taking it to special events.
“People think of a bus as transportation,” Zane Kesey says. “No. It’s a platform, a way to get your messages across.”
Tough job ahead
Last fall, a group of old Pranksters hauled the bus out of the swamp and parked it next to a barn to await restoration.
“One of the things that is really optimistic for me is it’s got full air in the tires from Cassady,” says Kesey, referring to Neal Cassady, who was the wheelman in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and drove Further on that first trip. “Honestly, if the tires had been flat, I would have said, ‘Just leave it there.”’
The restoration will be a tough job. On a cold misty day, Houston, Zane Kesey and former Green Turtle bus mechanic Mike Cobiskey climb on ladders, peer under the hood, pick at paint and crawl underneath to look it over.
What they see is daunting. The body is badly rusted. The paint is peeled. The roof leaks. The engine, not original, and transmission have both been underwater. The original bunk beds and refrigerator are gone, but the driver’s seat remains.
“The most important thing is the paint,” Cobiskey says to Kesey. “I’m sure you have a thousand pictures of it.”
“And no two are alike,” Kesey replies.
“It’s gonna go,” says Houston. “It can definitely run. It shouldn’t drive across country. But certainly it should be a living, healthy, valuable piece once we are done with it.”
Bob Santelli, artistic director of the Experience Music Project in Seattle, tried to raise money to restore Further in 1996 when he was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, but couldn’t swing it. He did get Kesey to bring the newer incarnation to the museum.
“I consider the bus to be one of the most important icons of the ’60s Counter Culture,” says Santelli. “Inside that bus occurred many of the things the counter culture was all about, from a revolutionary perspective. That is mobility, freedom to be on the move, and to react to situations and create situations to react to, drug use and experimenting with drugs, and the importance of music in a cultural revolution.”
Fresh from the stunning success of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Kesey wanted to drive to New York City for the 1964 World’s Fair and a coming-out party for his new book, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” making a movie along the way.
“At first, a bunch of us were going to go in a station wagon,” says Ken Babbs, one of the original Pranksters. “Then it was getting too big for that.”
Fresh from the stunning success of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Ken Kesey bought the bus for $1,250 from Andre Hobson in Atherton, Calif., a sales engineer who had outfitted it with bunks, a bathroom and a kitchen to take his 11 kids on vacation.
Hobson, who never saw the bus again, says he had no idea who Kesey was. “But I do know his check was good,” he says.
At La Honda, Kesey’s home in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, they installed a sound system, a generator on the back and went wild with the paint. Artist Roy Sebern painted the word “Furthur” on the destination placard as a kind of one-word poem and inspiration to keep going whenever the bus broke down. It wasn’t until much later that he found out he had misspelled it. Just as the bus was constantly being repainted, somewhere along the line the Further sign was corrected.
The day they were ready to go, Ken Kesey recruited Cassady from a bookstore where he was working, Babbs recalls. The bus pulled out of the driveway with Ray Charles singing “Hit the Road Jack,” and ran out of gas. That was quickly remedied, and down the road they went, Cassady spewing the speed-talking rap-babble that inspired Kerouac’s writing style.
“For me and Kesey, too, we were trying to move into a new creative expression which was movie making, and being part of the movie,” Babbs says. “This was all a tremendous experiment in the arts. We always figured we would be totally successful and make a lot of money out of it.”
The wildly painted bus got stopped by the police, but with their short haircuts and preppy clothes, the Pranksters were never arrested. They carried orange juice laced with LSD, which was legal at the time. Kesey had been a guinea pig in government-sponsored LSD tests and was trying to turn the entire country on to it through events known as the Acid Tests.
The bus got stuck in an Arizona river. It stopped in Houston for a visit with author Larry McMurtry, who was with Kesey at the Wallace Stegner writing seminar at Stanford University when he wrote “Coockoo’s Nest” in the early 1960s. The Pranksters jammed with a piano player in New Orleans and were ejected from a blacks-only beach on Lake Ponchartrain.
As they rolled through New York City, the Pranksters tootled saxophones and blew soap bubbles from the roof, and later stopped at Timothy Leary’s Millbrook meditation center in upstate New York, where Kerouac sang a sad rendition of “Ain’t We Got Fun.”
The film and tape rolled constantly, but when they got back to La Honda, they could never get the two to synchronize. Author Tom Wolfe used the material for his book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” but the movie lay dormant until 2000, when a digital editing machine made it possible and Kesey issued, “Intrepid Traveler and His Merry Band of Pranksters Look for A Kool Place.”
“When people ask what my best work is, it’s the bus,” Ken Kesey said in 2000. “Those books made it possible for the bus to become.
“I thought you ought to be living your art, rather than stepping back and describing it,” he said. The bus is “a metaphor that’s instantly comprehensible. Every kid understands it. It’s like John Ford‘s ‘Stagecoach’ with John Wayne in the driver’s seat just like Cowboy Neal.”
After one last trip, to Woodstock, N.Y., in 1969, Kesey put the bus out to pasture, where it served as a dugout for softball games. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., expressed some interest in restoring the bus, but Kesey would never let it go. He towed it to the swamp in 1990 when he bought a 1947 bus for a whole new series of trips.
“People were always saying, ‘Is this the real bus?”’ Babbs says. “And he would say, ‘Yes, there’s only one bus, just like there’s only one Starship Enterprise.”’
Kesey’s widow, Faye, had reservations about restoring the old bus, but did not try to stop it.
“I kind of liked it in the swamp covered with moss and becoming part of the swamp,” she said. “But I talked to everybody who had been on it. To a man they all wanted to see it restored.
“If not, it can always go back to the swamp. Nature does a pretty good paint job, too.”