Ken Kesey’s Furthur bus on the road to restoration

By Michael Taylor

Published 6:10 pm, Monday, January 20, 2014
  • Ken Kesey stands next to the overgrown Merry Pranksters bus on his Oregon property months before his death in 2001. Photo: Brian Davies, AP
    Ken Kesey stands next to the overgrown Merry Pranksters bus on his Oregon property months before his death in 2001. Photo: Brian Davies, AP
It was one of the glorious symbols of the laid-back, acid-laced ’60s in Northern California. Now, half a century later, Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus, with its quixotic name “Furthur,” has been rescued from an Oregon swamp and is on its way to restoration, minus the LSD that fueled its passengers so long ago.

Furthur – the name veered occasionally to Further, but Furthur stuck – was the bus used by the Merry Pranksters, a group of 14 happy friends of Kesey’s, for a cross-country trip (in more ways than one) in 1964. The goal was to visit the World’s Fair in New York and, incidentally, celebrate the publication of Kesey’s second novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion.”

Kesey had already scored big with his first book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and the voyage was going to be kind of an educational journey. LSD was legal at the time, and the Pranksters set out to explain the drug’s mind-expanding powers to anyone they met along the way who wanted to try it out.

Station wagon

Originally, the Pranksters were simply going to pile into a station wagon and set out for the East. But when the crowd grew too big for a wagon, Kesey, who was living in the Bay Area, bought a 1939 International Harvester school bus, which had been converted to a camper by its previous owner. Kesey turned it into the rambling acid lab on wheels that was immortalized in Tom Wolfe‘s 1968 best seller “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

Once the Pranksters set to painting it, they decided it was not going to be school bus yellow. As Wolfe’s book put it, the bus ended up “glowing orange, green, magenta, lavender, chlorine blue, every fluorescent pastel imaginable in thousands of designs, large and small, like a cross between Fernand Léger and Dr. Strange, roaring together and vibrating off each other as if somebody had given Hieronymus Bosch 50 buckets of Day-Glo paint and a 1939 International Harvester school bus and told him to go to it.”

This was not a body shop paint job.

“Being psychedelic characters, we were taking LSD, and LSD opens your mind to other things,” Ken Babbs, one of the original Pranksters, said in an interview the other day, by way of explaining the inspiration for the paint job. “LSD goes into areas where you’ve never been before, and you’re using all that newfound consciousness with all those psychedelic colors.”

Goldwater gag

Babbs, who is 78 and lives outside Eugene, Ore., said that when the bus rolled into Phoenix, home of Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, the Pranksters painted “A Vote for Barry is a Vote for Fun” on the side of the bus and then drove it backward down the main drag, while blaring out the national anthem from the bus’ prodigious bank of speakers.

Reaction to the bus, as it wound its way through big cities and small towns, ranged from puzzlement (adults) to delight (children).

“For the little kids, it was like the circus coming to town,” said another Prankster,George Walker, 74, who lives in Scappoose, Ore. “When we hit New York, we drove around the city, and the traffic was slow. We looked like the pied piper, with maybe 100 kids running along behind us. Adults were perplexed by it. Kids got it.”

The New York trip was a whirlwind – the Pranksters met up with such ’60s notables as LSD guru Timothy Leary – but eventually the trip was over, the ’60s ended and life moved on.

Kesey returned to California, but after a while he “kind of hung up his spurs and moved back to Oregon,” said software company executive and ’60s scholar Jason Johnson, who is executive director of the Furthur Down the Road Foundation.

Sunk in a swamp

Kesey, who had relegated the bus to a swamp on his farm, died in November 2001. About four years later, his son Zane hitched up a tractor and pulled Furthur out of the muck and towed it up to the house. It’s now in covered storage, awaiting restoration.

The foundation, which has raised about $15,000 for startup expenses, is spearheading the effort to resuscitate Furthur. The restoration itself has not begun. Johnson said it will take at least $300,000 to make the bus sound again, down to the unique paint job.

“We’d like to create a rolling exhibit,” Johnson said from Oregon, “and take the restored bus around the nation or loan it out to universities and educate people about Ken Kesey’s life, his art and his work.”

As for Zane Kesey, 52, he remembers “when I was a little kid, painting on the bus. Painting it (those colors) made all the sense in the world. Didn’t seem silly to me.”

Michael Taylor is a former staff writer for The Chronicle. E-mail:metro@sfchronicle.com

BLOGGER COMMENT:  Finally. The restoration has been planned for some time. I met Kesey several times and rode the bus, last time at Woodstock ’69. I actually saw Furthur at the World’s Fair in New York when I was visiting with my grandfather although I had no idea what was up then:) I have a photograph of the bus signed by him and several of the original Pranksters. 

One comment on “Ken Kesey’s Furthur bus on the road to restoration

  1. gpcox says:

    Oh, those were the days, my friend…

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