In 1964, just a few years before the widespread eruption of the hippie culture, Ken Kesey purchased a yellow 1939 International Harvester school bus. At 29 years old, Kesey was fresh off the success of his debut novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and he decided this bus would be the perfect tool for his newest adventure. Little did he know that the bus would go down as the most iconic vehicle of the 60s, inspiring a handful of novels and films, as well as helping to build the hippie culture.
Reverse 1 Year
In 1963, Kesey was living in La Honda, California, and he had a deep seeded urge to take an enlightening road trip to go see the New York’s World Fair. However, he didn’t want to make the trip alone. So, he recruited 13 other members- which would later be referred to as the “Merry Brand of Pranksters”- to go with him. However, going to see the World Fair was not the only reason for the trip.
Writer Tom Wolfe says, “The trip had a dual purpose. One was to turn America on to this particular form of enlightenment, the other was to publicize [Kesey’s] new book, Sometimes A Great Notion. Kesey was a great writer. It was too bad he abandoned writing but I think he meant it when he said, ‘I’m tired of waiting for an echo, I want to be a lightning rod.’” Kesey wanted an adventure; he wanted to get people talking; and he wanted to stir up the American consciousness through his actions, not his words. This trip was the perfect solution.
Originally, Kesey and the Pranksters planned on cramming into a station wagon to make the trip happen. Something didn’t sit right with that plan, though. The car would be too small, and it wasn’t the appropriate symbol. So, Kesey went out hunting, and that’s when he came across the ’39 Harvester.
As soon as Kesey saw the bus, he knew it was perfect because the previous owner had gutted it and turned it into a camper. Inside of the bus, there were amenities such as a stove, refrigerator, and bunks. All Kesey had to do was make a couple of simple, electric alterations. First, he added a sound system to the inside of the bus that also blared out externally into the streets. The next thing that he needed to do was make the bus magnetic, capable of burning a memory into onlookers’ minds. The best way to do this was with the paint job.
In his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe describes the bus, “[It was] glowing orange, green, magenta, lavender, chlorine blue, every fluorescent pastel imaginable in thousands of designs, large and small, like a cross between Fernand Leger and Dr. Strange, roaring together and vibrating off each other as if somebody had given Hieronymous Bosch 50 buckets of Day-Glo paint and a 1939 International Harvester school bus and told him to go to it.”
After all the renovations were done, the group hit the road with one of their main accessories: a jar of orange juice laced with LSD. This trip was about turning on and seeing the world from a new perspective, and there was no better tool than the acid. “Being psychedelic characters, we were taking LSD, and LSD opens your mind to other things,” said road member Ken Babbs. “LSD goes into areas where you’ve never been before, and you’re using all that newfound consciousness with all those psychedelic colors.”
This was going to be the ultimate hippie experience. Adding to the hippie legacy was the group of iconic figures taking the trip, one of which was driver, Neal Cassidy. Just a decade earlier, Cassidy had served as the inspiration for the Jack Kerouac’s On the Road character, Dean Moriarty. Now, he was reliving wild times and cementing the hippy’s place in culture inside of a bus that also featured Grateful Dead band members and leader Ken Kesey. It was pure madness.
In each town that the bus entered, people stood and watched to see what was happening; nobody had ever seen anything like it. Prankster George Walker said, “For the little kids, it was like the circus was coming to town. 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.”
Along the trip, there were run-ins with presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, guru Timothy Leary, and writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to name a few. The bus was chronicled by newspapers and local news stations, growing a mythic quality along the way, inspiring kids to turn on, tune in, and drop out. The bus and the trip also inspired Tom Wolfe’s legendary best seller, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. To many, it was more than a book; it was a manifesto of an entire culture. New York Times writer, Eliot Fremont-Smith, said, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is not simply the best book on the hippies, it is the book . . . the pushing, ballooning heart of the matter . . . Vibrating dazzle!”
The trip also inspired this film:
Today, 50 years after its initial run and a decade after Kesey’s passing, the bus still stands firm in history. Not only does it have a legacy as one of the most iconic automobiles of all-time, it also serves as one of the main catalysts for an entire movement and culture.