Merry Pranksters

The Merry Pranksters was a cohort that formed around American author Ken Kesey in 1964 and sometimes lived communally at his homes in California and Oregon. The group promoted the use of psychedelic drugs. Their motto was ‘Never Trust a Prankster.’

Kesey and the Merry Pranksters are noted for the sociological significance of a lengthy road trip they took in the summer of 1964, traveling across the United States in a psychedelic painted school bus enigmatically and variably labeled ‘Further.’ Their early escapades were chronicled by Tom Wolfe in ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.’ Wolfe also documents a notorious 1966 trip on Further from Mexico through Houston, stopping to visit Kesey’s friend, novelist Larry McMurtry. Kesey was in flight from a drug charge at the time.

Notable members of the group include Carolyn Garcia (named ‘Mountain Girl’ by Kesey). ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ founder Stewart Brand, cartoonist Paul Foster, the Grateful Dead, improvisation pioneer Del Close (then a lighting designer for the Grateful Dead), Wavy Gravy, journalist Paul Krassner, and ‘Kentucky Fab Five’ writers Ed McClanahan and Gurney Norman (who overlapped with Kesey and Babbs as creative writing graduate students at Stanford University) were associated with the group to varying degrees.

On June 17, 1964, Kesey and 13 Merry Pranksters boarded ‘Further’ at Kesey’s ranch in La Honda, California, and set off eastward. Kesey wanted to see what would happen when hallucinogenic-inspired spontaneity confronted what he saw as the banality and conformity of American society. One author has suggested that the bus trip reversed the historic American westward movement of the centuries. The trip’s original purpose was to celebrate the publication of Kesey’s novel ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’ and to visit the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.

The Pranksters were enthusiastic users of marijuana, amphetamines, and LSD, and in the process of their journey they are said to have ‘turned on’ many people by introducing them to these drugs. The psychedelically painted bus had its stated destination as being ‘further.’ This was the goal of the Merry Pranksters, a destination that could only be obtained through the expansion of one’s own perceptions of reality. They traveled cross-country giving LSD to anyone who was willing to try it (LSD was legal in the United States until October 1966).

Novelist Robert Stone, who met the bus on its arrival in New York, has written that those accompanying Kesey on the trip were Neal Cassady (described by Stone as ‘the world’s greatest driver, who could roll a joint while backing a 1937 Packard onto the lip of the Grand Canyon’), Ken Babbs (‘fresh from the Nam, full of radio nomenclature, and with a command voice that put cops to flight’), Jane Burton (‘a pregnant young philosophy professor who declined no challenges’), Page Browning (‘a Hell’s Angel candidate’), George Walker, Sandy Lehmann-Haupt (‘dis-MOUNT’), Mike Hagen (‘Mal Function’), Ron Bevirt (‘Hassler’), and Paula Sundstren (‘Gretchin Fetchin, Slime Queen’).

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