What a Trip

Ken Kesey's visions of a different world set the Sixties in motion.

January/February 2002

Reading time min

What a Trip

Photo: Michael Zaharuk

Before there was Woodstock, the Summer of Love or flower-painted VW bugs, there was Ken Elton Kesey. Quenching his thirst with LSD-spiked fruit juice and wearing homemade clothes bearing then-taboo images of the American flag, Kesey burst memorably onto the national scene. A catalyst in the development of the Sixties counterculture, Kesey’s 1964 cross country adventure with the Merry Pranksters (chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) secured his enduring fame. But his gift for storytelling, combined with a boisterous charisma, solidified his legend. A celebrated novelist, psychedelic pioneer and iconic hero, Kesey “will be remembered historically as the key figure in what came to be known as ‘the Sixties,’” says former Merry Prankster and San Jose Mercury News columnist Lee Quarnstrom. Kesey died on November 10 in Eugene, Ore., of complications after surgery for liver cancer. He was 66.

His LSD-enhanced adventures and epic bus rides paved a bridge between beatniks and hippies. But by then Kesey already had written a book that helped define the cultural landscape. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published in 1962, brought him overnight stardom. Two years later he followed up with Sometimes a Great Notion, which he considered his magnum opus. Kesey, who enrolled in Stanford’s creative writing program in 1958, wrote Cuckoo’s Nest while working as an aide in the psychiatric ward of the Menlo Park Veterans Administration Hospital.

Born in La Junta, Colo., in 1935, Kesey and his family moved to Springfield, Ore., 11 years later. In high school, he was voted most likely to succeed; he later married his high school sweetheart, Faye Haxby, during their years at the University of Oregon. Kesey devoted his undergraduate days to stage-acting and honing his championship-caliber wrestling skills—he nearly made the 1960 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. He also wrote his first novel during that period, End of Autumn, an unpublished work about an athlete.

Kesey came to Stanford on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship in 1958. He and Faye moved to Perry Lane, a bohemian stretch of cottages near the Stanford Golf Course. Then, in 1961, his path took a turn for the surreal. He enrolled in an Army-sponsored hallucinogenic-drug experiment—which paid him $75 a session—run by Stanford scientists at the Menlo Park VA Hospital. In a 1988 conversation with Stanford, Kesey likened the experiment to exploring a haunted house. “[The scientists] didn’t have the guts to do it themselves, so they hired students. ‘Hey, we found this room. Would you please go inside and let us know what’s going on in there?’ When we came back out, they took one look at us and said, ‘Whatever they do, don’t let them go back in that room!’”

Kesey took a liking to one “room” in particular. Lysergic acid diethylamide provided unparalleled psychedelic views, and he returned to it again and again in the coming years. “There were other people doing the same stuff,” remembers Quarnstrom, “but Kesey was the most free-wheeling and truly experimental guy in terms of risking his mind to see if it could be expanded.”

Kesey soon became a night aide on the psychiatric ward at the hospital. His on-the-job observations, combined with regular drug use, inspired the shriek-at-the-establishment Cuckoo’s Nest. The novel was made into an Oscar-winning 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson, but Kesey refused to see it, citing essential deviations from his book.

Sometimes a Great Notion was a different, larger undertaking. The 600-page tale of an Oregon logging family employs cinematic devices—alternating narrators, superimposed time frames and shifting points of view. Less commercially successful than his first hit, the novel (completed in 1963) was lauded by many critics as a masterpiece. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that again,” Kesey conceded to STANFORD.

He and his Merry Pranksters hit the road in 1964, and Kesey didn’t even try to repeat his literary success for almost 30 years. There were acid parties, narcotics charges, jaunts to Mexico, time served on a work farm and heady rap sessions with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary.

In 1967, the man who once told Tom Wolfe “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph” settled with his wife and children on his father’s farm in Pleasant Hill, Ore. For two decades. he raised cattle and sheep, taught graduate writing seminars at the University of Oregon, coached wrestling, started a website and edited a magazine. He wrote some more—Sailor Song in 1992, Last Go Round: A Dime Western in 1994, as well as several essays and children’s books—to much less acclaim.

Kesey tried to explain his impact to Stanford in 1988, a quarter-century after the Pranksters had reached their peak. “What we hoped was that we could stop the coming end of the world,” he said. History has shown that he helped create a new one.

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