On the Road With Kesey’s (Drug-Free) Acid Test

The acid-fueled, hippie-run bus of ‘Electric Kool-Aid’ fame has emerged from our psychedelic legends and is back on the road, helmed by Kesey’s son Zane and—shockingly—substance free.

Jeff Barnard/AP

On July 26, an aging school bus—its yellow paint disguised under psychedelic colors and abstract artwork—pulled into a music festival in Madison, Wisconsin. Spilling from the old vehicle were hippies of all eras decked out in tie-dye and top hats bejeweled with feathers and beads. Atop the windshield, a name tag dubbed the bus “Further.” It was a historic evening that marked the inaugural launch of a journey that had been decades in the making. Almost exactly 50 years earlier, a similarly embellished bus had embarked on a road trip that would come to define an entire generation of experimental drug use and artistic freedom in America.

And so it was especially momentous that later that July night, an apparition of Jerry Garcia appeared in condensation on the rear window of the bus.

“Holy crap, do you see Jerry on the back of the bus?” someone yelled. There was a ripple of assent in the crowd as the word spread.

“What kind of Jesus-in-the-toast is this?” said Derek Stevens, one-half of the bus trip’s organizational team. But sure enough, when he wandered around to take a look at the dewy likeness, the Grateful Dead frontman himself peered back, sunglasses and all. “It was,” he remembers, “freaky as shit.”

In 1968, Garcia helped pen a song for The Grateful Dead about the original Furthur (spelled with two u’s) bus that author Ken Kesey and his free-wheeling cohorts called the Merry Pranksters notoriously had taken on a legendary acid-fueled, mind-bending trip across the United States. Now, half a century later, there could be no better way for the Merry Pranksters 2.0 to start off what would become a two-month, 15,000-mile epic anniversary journey across the country (albeit via a different route) than with a visit from the spirit of Garcia.

On July 17, 1964, the first Furthur and its passengers, a group of drug-experimenting literary and artistic types, set out from northern California heading east. The inspiration for this trip came from Kesey, who had recently received great acclaim for his novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and who was intent on getting to New York City for a party in honor of his newest work, Sometimes a Great Notion. At the wheel was Neal Cassady, whose speed-demon, fast-talking driving style had become infamous in the car trip memorialized by Jack Kerouac in On The Road. Lounging about the back was an ever-rotating cast of Merry Pranksters, as the passengers of Furthur were called.

Kesey and the Pranksters were set on seeing the country through LSD-tinted glasses. The recently successful author—who had earlier been part of government-run LSD testing—coined the term “Acid Test” to refer to the series of drug-fueled parties he hosted, many of which featured Grateful Dead performances. Some credit the road trip with sparking the psychedelic movement that transitioned the beatnik trend into a the hippy-centric ’60s and ’70s.

“When people ask me what my greatest work is, it’s the bus,” Kesey once said. “And they say, ‘Why the bus?’ It’s because the bus is a living piece of art where you’re out with the people and it’s happening right now, whereas writing, which is good, is removed.”

The importance of Furthur on his father’s life isn’t lost on Ken Kesey’s 53-year-old son. On the evening of July 23, Zane Kesey navigated another, very similar bus, named Further with an “e,” out of the Oregon barn it shares with the original set of wheels, unusable after decades of decay, to begin what is expected to be a two-month journey.

In 1974, 10 years after the Merry Pranksters took to the road, Ken Kesey purchased this second school bus and began doing it up in a similar style as his original. On the outside, artists turned the yellow bus into a trippy menagerie of abstract scenes and designs. Inside, the seats were gutted and replaced with benches flanking the walls. It was similarly painted and pasted with historical figures covering the walls and ceiling. Forty years and one month of remodeling later, Zane had finally readied Further for its first long-haul journey.

The idea of resurrecting Furthur’s first voyage “came to everyone else two years ago,” Zane says. “I thought they were crazy” and had a list “a mile long why I couldn’t, why I shouldn’t, how it’s impossible.” But after he raised $43,034 from a Kickstarter campaign asking for half that amount, Zane’s qualms quieted. There was no way around it: Further was hitting the road again.

“Can we bring the sixties back? Can we?” Zane asks in the fundraising video, shooting bubbles from a bubble gun. “So join us all you hippies, hoopies, harpies, and hopefuls—let’s head out, lets hit the road, let’s hop along, get on the back of the bus.”

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On Monday, one month after Zane’s journey began, I’m waiting outside Madison Square Garden as the newest batch of Merry Pranksters assemble. These Pranksters have all been chosen from among donors to the Kickstarter campaign who had to fill out a bizarre application test with dozens of seemingly arbitrary and abstract questions. The winning candidates include a middle-aged stagehand from Ontario; a quiet young girl with pink tips and a gaggle of friends and instruments to see her off; an older man from British Columbia who struts up with his open shirt billowing and lip bloodied from a cab accident; a man in a tie-dyed top hat from California who has brought only a hammock for sleeping; and a young, tattooed, mutton-chopped guy from Florida.

We find the bus on a street abutting Macy’s near Herald Square. Pharrell’s “Happy” blares as a crowd of dancers wave their hands and sing along on top of the roof. Zane is in front of the dancing pack, clad in a one-piece psychedelic tie-dye jumpsuit, a purple velvet pimp hat on his head, and a light saber in hand.

“You get to go home and tell all your neighbors you saw the real magic bus today,” a man in an American flag hat yells at perplexed, photo-snapping passersby. A string cordons off the inside of the bus, but many strangers walking by climb onto the front hood for a photo-op. Three trendy girls with shopping bags pose with sweet smiles for a picture, until they’re spotted by Zane who yells “PHOTOBOMB” and the Pranksters rush at them in a flurry of tie-dye, light sabers, and big hats.

Inside the bus, the walls are plastered with famous figures over swirls of chromatic paint. The most prominent of these is a cutout portrait of Ken Kesey, who died in 2001, peering over the steering wheel, guiding and gazing at the driver. “He’s the only thing really missing here,” Zane says, indicating his father’s posthumous approval of their copycat voyage. “He’s on board with anything that’s groovy. He likes to make a happening happen.” Near him, a sketch of Neal Cassady, the original bus driver, watches the door. Kerouac isn’t far off, near a pole taken from the original Furthur.

Zane, who turns a proffered handshake into a bear hug, has shed his costume down to its second layer of tie-dye: a shirt bearing the message, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” It’s a mantra that was coined by his father on the first trip and is chanted repeatedly by the Pranksters when the big bell in the back rings, indicating it’s time to get back on the road. (It’s a brutal system—the bus once made it 600 miles after leaving one poor Prankster at a festival campsite when he missed the bell’s chimes. He later caught up.)

Along with an entourage of two other buses, a U-Haul, and a hodgepodge of passenger cars in tow, Zane is driving Further from Manhattan to Woodstock and then onward. The bus has been hitting all the major summer festivals. It even, poignantly, pulled into Woodstock’s 45th reunion last week—a stop that the original incarnation of the bus also made in the summer of ’69. Hanging off the top and sides of the bus, the Pranksters were greeted with screams of “Welcome home!”

“When we get [to festivals] the people lose their minds and go mental. On more than one occasion people see the bus for the first time and they’re brought to tears,” Stevens says, recalling fans running up to hug and kiss the vehicle. “Because it’s so symbolic and a part of their lives.”

So far, one month and some 10 states later, there are no regrets. “It’s been crazy and insane and epic and iconic and just everything it should be,” says Zane, who was just 3 years old when his father Ken took Furthur out on her maiden voyage.

At least 15 of the original Pranksters are still around, and Zane expects some may try to make the journey. “Mountain Girl” (otherwise known as Caroline Garcia, the first wife of Jerry Garcia and mother of one of Ken Kesey’s children) and George Walker are coming, he says, and perhaps a few others. “They can’t help it,” he says. “It’s the bus.”

But the biggest difference in the second-generation trip is that the new bus is a drug-free zone. The hallucinogen-based trip of the ’60s was undertaken with the stated purpose of experiencing a journey in the haze of drug consumption and sharing that experience with the world. But there is allegedly none of that this time around on Further, a designated clean bus.

Zane and Stevens say they have called the state troopers in each state they plan to pass through to dispel the myth that they’d be armed with “Super Soakers full of acid.” And Pranksters are made to sign a handwritten promise to keep the bus devoid of substances (although they certainly don’t seem to require the assistance of drugs to keep things weird).

Zane doesn’t drink, or smoke marijuana, and never was too fond of LSD. “I don’t think I’ve passed the acid test,” he says with a loud laugh.

“I thought there’d be some of that feel: How come this isn’t about drugs? But then people get here and it’s not even about 50 years ago, it’s just about how much fun we’re having.”

“It’s about,” Stevens says, “embracing how weird you can be.”

And embrace it they have.

One of the more permanent occupants of the bus is singer and music festival worker Tiffany Lake, who goes by the name Band Aid—an homage to a line in Almost Famous differentiating band hangers-on (who are supposedly around for the music) from groupies (who are around for the musicians). The long-haired, 35-year-old got on the bus by way of Facebook. After a friend shared the Kickstarter campaign, she felt giddy. “I immediately knew: this is my destiny,” she remembers. “I don’t know what this is, but this is my destiny.”

When she met the bus, hauling luggage full of “fluffies and furries and costumes and hair accessories,” in Madison—just as Jerry Garcia’s face appeared—she ran up and hugged it.

Just over halfway through the trip, there are already stories aplenty. There’s the tale of Further’s most poignant occupant: a woman who flagged down the bus on her way to scatter her late husband Andy’s ashes, and then placed the container in the driver’s seat for his final journey. There are many people who claim a connection to the bus, like the excitable purveyor of the restaurant Further stopped at in Pennsylvania who said the original bus had made the same stop when his father owned the place. And, of course, a constant stream of unplanned add-ons, including one hitchhiker who stayed on the bus for 600 miles before they finally let him off in Wyoming. A new Prankster even got married on the bus at a festival a few weeks ago, in a ceremony officiated by Wavy Gravy, known to some as the MC of Woodstock.

And the stories keep piling on, even in the most unlikely of Prankster-friendly places. On the west side of midtown Manhattan, as the bus loads excess gear into a following van, a firetruck stops across the street and three burly men in half-gear make their way over to Zane. The music is low, but we can’t hear what they’re saying. Two helicopters circle above and Band Aid seems nervous. “I get the feeling they’ve been following us,” she says. The firemen confer with the organizers and then beckon them toward the front of the bus. In a surreal moment, they pull out their phones, hand them to a willing photographer, and then, with Zane brandishing his saber, crowd together for a group shot.

As the bus gets ready to head out of the city, a young organizer scours between guitar cases inside the bus. “Excuse me,” he says, “has anyone seen a tie-dye jumpsuit?”

Sporting a headset intercom, Zane takes the driver’s seat, alternately singing along to the blasting music and issuing instructions to the top.

“It’s a Zen thing,” a guy sitting on one of the benches inside tells me. “It doesn’t matter where you are—you’re here. Don’t worry about where you’re going—as long as you’re here.”

A random trombone player climbs aboard and then up to the roof, where he plays for a few blocks until getting off and making his way to a gig. “I don’t know what you have in mind, but I do believe we’re on our way to Woodstock,” Band Aid suggests to him.

Sitting on the top of the bus speeding north on the West Side Highway back up to Woodstock, a guitar maker who goes by “The Wizard of Wonder” explains he took his nickname in homage to Kesey, who he believes was the original wizard. He immediately launches into a list of the hundreds of rockstars and celebrities of the ’60s and ’70s he’s met, marvels over his magical powers, which seem to draw these people to him, and transitions seamlessly into stories of his mother and his favorite festivals and his dedication to stay on the bus until the very end.

Suddenly, I realize we’re heading out of the city at full speed, and, as tempting as a night in Woodstock with the Pranksters may be, I intercom down to Zane my now-dire need to get off before the New York City skyline disappears completely. He pulls sharply to the side, and, as I climb down the ladder and onto the ground, bystanders immediately whip out their phones to capture the sight of an unexpected blur of psychedelics and waving hippies.

“They are above the multitudes, looking down from the Furthur heights of the bus, and the billion eyes of America glistening at them like electric kernels,” Wolfe wrote in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, “and yet the Pranksters are grooving with this whole wide-screen America and going with its flow with American flags flying from the bus, and taking energy, as in solar heat, from its horsepower and its neon and there is no limit to the American trip.”

“Where did that just come from?” a young woman standing on the side wonders aloud. And then Further is gone, back on the road, like a time-traveling relic from another era or an apparition of Jerry Garcia.