Ken Kesey on the bus.
Timothy Leary with Neal Cassady, on the bus.
©2014 Chris Butler & Elaine Sokoloff
I came across an empty space
It trembled and exploded
Left a bus stop in its place
THE BUS came by and I got on
That's when it all began
There was cowboy Neal
At the wheel
Of a bus to never-ever land"*
ou are either on The Bus or off The Bus, but you can’t get on The Bus if The Bus never shows up.
So Elaine and I wait. Not just for any old bus. It’s the “The Bus”!!!! This time, not named “Further”, or “Furthur”, it must logically be “Furtherur!”, we’ve jokingly christened it…the third iteration of author Ken Kesey’s famous Day-Glo, psychedelic, Merry Prankster “The Bus”, now being driven by son Zane Kesey across America to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original, 1964 “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” trek. The Bus that you are either on, or off of.
e are mutual! We are both past 50, and we get it! Or rather, we lived thru it the first time! Elaine grew up in Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement. I’d met Mountain Girl, too, and get this! one time I jammed with The Grateful Dead onstage! Our copies of Tom Wolf’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” book are first paperback editions, not whatever the astronomical print run number must be now. We are life-long pranksters – I make art gags, music gags (the World’s Longest Pop Song! Guinness Book of Records! Really!), and Elaine loves making prank art pieces for friends as trophies of one-of-a-kind moments shared. Plus she has a sly deadpan. No mind-fuckery…she's a benevolent little trickster, but she'll test you to make sure you're paying attention.
In short, we identify!
ut The Bus is late. Onetwothreehours late. LSDtimeslowsdown late. “Don’t be so hung up on time, man,” these words riding on the potsmokeslowexhale from the girl at the Park entrance gate. “It willl be here.”
Did I tell you we have to be at a funeral at 5 o’clock?
Zane had posted a schedule of Bus stops on Facebook months ago, asking for donations (I’d kickstarted in a hundred bucks), and on August 28th, 2014, at 2pm (2pm!) The Bus is supposed to be at Nelson Ledges Quarry Park in Northeastern Ohio. Where we are. Where it isn’t. Did you know that Elaine had come all the way from LA, and that I had come all the way from the East Coast for this? Half true - the true part being the distance traveled, the false part being I was back in the place of my birth to play a rock ‘n’ roll show, and Elaine wanted to see my house and meet my friends. The Universe had smiled - the cosmic (cosmic!) good timing switch had clicked, and all was aligned for a kismetic rendezvous.
ow, one does not normally think of Northeastern Ohio as having any sort of alternative culture, but they would be wrong (wrong!), because in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Ohio had caught the winds of change as much as anywhere else, and here kids started hippie bands and dropped acid in and dropped society out and at least in this corner of the State would come to Nelson Ledges to swim in the old quarry and camp out and get stoned and screw in the woods. The Park was cleaner then, not as seedy wait! not the right word tired? yes tired is better. Like so much of beat-up rusty-belted Ohio.
Elaine and I drive right past the entrance gate at first is that it? that can’t be it! but when we turn around for another pass, some friendly hanging-out be-dreadlocked teenagers smile an unconvincing smile I am not convinced this is the place at all passing it again. Elaine does the convincing, saying they must think we’re looking for a remoter location to get stoned. us? snort! One more turn around, and yes! this IS it! thank you! But interesting. They don’t look Prankster-ish. No regulation stripes you saw the Prankster movie right? stripes were the official uniform on The Bus. Just a bunch of scruffy, cloudy-eyed kids sharing a joint and enjoying the day.
Before us lies a large circular road with campsites, concession stands, a few performance areas on either side, and the sparkling spring-fed water of the old quarry halfway ‘round the circle life is a circle, remember? There had been a big deal local hippie band two-night stand festival party blow-out over the weekend and though the place had been tidied up some we could see the remnants of what must have been quite the bash. Some tents are starting to collapse, the bare feet sticking out the tent flaps not caring. Bright hippie laundry drying on an improvised clothesline flapping in the warm Monday breeze. Some neatly architextured trash piles wait for collection.
Plenty of parking spaces, since the lightweights have bailed and gone back to their You Don’t Know What It Is, Do You, Mr. Jones? lives. I pull into a spot. And it is there and then that Elaine and I begin to feel a very nice contact high, laced with our first paranoid dose of We. Are. Different.
My car is a 2003 Volvo V40. Black. In good shape, though it usually goes years without being washed. Until a few days ago. Now I have parked this clean, slick station wagon (how suburban, man) next to a collection of ancient everyquarterpaneliscrunched P.O.S. Specials. Actually parking it close to the entrance for a quick getaway, which means it is in plain sight, the first car you see when you come thru the gate. The first car the Pranksters on The Bus would see when they arrive. If they arrive. They might think they’d made a wrong turn into a golf course.
But we ur-hippies had plenty of Volvos back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s! PV544’s! 240’s! Sherman tanks, all. 300k miles, easy. The rides of these nouveaux flower childs? The lowest-end Japanese rolling scrap. I count at least three hoods up. Oil patches everywhere in the dusty dirt. I feel bad for them. Who wishes car trouble on anyone? Did I tell you that my 11-year-old car had plus-100k miles on it? That I try and keep it in excellent shape? Do you get how awkwardly out-of-place this car made us feel?
id I tell you we were in Ohio? Sorry…that ferocious contact high is starting to kick in. I’d read about Furtherur coming to Nelson Ledges Quarry Park, which coincided with my driving in from Hoboken, and Elaine flying from California. Good timing on our parts see? I’m cool with time, Gate Girl! We were gonna see The Bus! Or “a” The Bus. To get on. I’d found a striped shirt the original Prankster uniform was stripes! Elaine had a merry Moschino jacket with bunny rabbit ears where the pocket square should be, and a cottontail! When The Bus pulled in (when?), we’d be like…um…sports fans wearing the jerseys of our favorite team…?
What a funny thought.
Except…my jeans are too clean.
And Elaine has…a purse.
As we slowly walk the large circular campground, we are met with a good number of smiles, quite a lot of thousand-mile stares, but mostly we just don’t register on an awful lot of retinas. We are charmed and delighted, actually, and the comments between us have no sarcasm. Some envy, even. But despite our bona fide, zero-degrees-of-separation from the acknowledged icons of hippiedom, subsequent prankster cred, and our counter-culture authenticity…we are tourists.
laine and I feel like we’ve stumbled into a casting call for a 2014 revival of “Hair”. The auditionee’s period-correct hippie patina is accessorized by fads and subcultures which have come after. There are a few flashes of punk hair color, the odd hipster fedora or knitted snood. The new-slash-old combined and reinterpreted. The campers wear patchwork sweaters assembled from pieces of older sweaters, and quilted trousers made from look! a Ramones t-shirt! under a fringe vest! Most of the young males were just kinda sloppy grunge without the capital “G” Seattle Grunge tinge, and therefore more…honest? Authentic?
Classic hippie symbols abound - the Tao, ankhs, peace signs, as well as a few commercially printed tie-dye t-shirts. One kid has a Deadhead skull hoodie with “Ohio State” printed where the lightning bolt is supposed to be. OSU’s legendary football coach Woody Hayes is spinning at 10,000 RPMs in his grave. New icons, new symbols. A handprint missing two joints on the middle finger, Jerry Garcia’s right guitar pick hand, is everywhere, woven into parkas, stamped on backpacks, a Made-in-China mystical sign of…what exactly? What is the 2014 relevance of a deceased guitar player who once was the living embodiment of hippie creative potential, who died in 1995 a fat junkie with chilidog-induced diabetes?
I did mention the parkas, right? I haven’t been camping in decades. I forget that cold is colder when you camp out. But, it’s not chilly at all. It’s high summer. So why do you need a fire? At the entrance of the Park? Ok, so a fire pit draws you into using it. Understandable. Not understandable in 85 degree weather, but we see that you are the one giving orders around here…The Alpha Hippie…so if you say a fire needs to be lit, then a fire needs to be lit.
e’s tall and clean-cut, clean-shaven, blond, with what? two of your tow-headed children around the fire? A sputtering fire, scavenged scrap from the campsites and forest, but in danger of going out. Solution? Omigod you are pouring gasoline (gasoline!) on the fire! A lot of gasoline! Splash then run away, but your kids (your kids!) are just sitting there! whomp go the newly invigorated flames sparks cinders reach for your kids very close too close but Alpha Hippie thinks it needs more gasoline and so more whomp more kids in danger. Or am I just being a worried parent with an over-developed helicopter hovering attitude towards children in potential danger? More proof, as if I need more proof of my uptightness, I have become THE uptight old fart after all so much for my alternative bohemian lifestyle. But those children just sit there looking at the fire as the heat must (must!) be toasting their eyebrows. Fire trumps safety, so decree-eth The Alpha Hippie.
But the fire is still hungry. The Alpha Hippie finds a foot-ish square of white pine steadies it, letting go just in time to miss his fingers as his hatchet comes down. Missing the wood, too. Several times. Elaine cracks a visual joke, shooting her right hand into the air mimicking the Jerry Garcia gang symbol with her middle finger bent down quipping “Bartender, four beers for my coworkers at the sawmill!”.
“I see you were never a Boy Scout!”, I say to him. “Made Eagle, man,” he butt-out snaps at me, then remembering his training, instantly switches his method to bringing the hatchet and the piece of wood down together, Eagle-style. The wood is burnable pieces in no time. Elaine and I get another case of the giggles “Once a Boy Scout…,” I say to her. More giggles. “What?”, I ask her. She says, “I just got an image of you - there’s a camper way in the back of beyond doing something wrong? And out you pop from behind a tree to lecture them, citation pad in hand!”
And there it is again! The missing finger meme idea symbol! As a child, it was Garcia’s own brother who while CHOPPING WOOD had lopped off the two joints of his finger! SEE? THERE IS A CONNECTION! In the DIS-connection!
ontinuing around the circle, there is no pot smell. There is old grease in the air from the two or three burger trucks left from the weekend’s big Ekoostiktic Hookah tribal gathering. Did I tell you it was Monday? Why hadn’t The Bus made it here a day or two earlier? Only a thin crowd remained of stragglers, the nowheretogoers, and the carwon’tstarters. There’s Patchouli, of course. Some wood smoke. But no incense. How can you have a hippie event without incense? But there’s tobacco smoke. Lots of it. I’ve never seen so many young people with cigarettes. Really. 99% market penetration. So much for “educating the youth of today” about the dangers of smoking, so much for the warnings on the packages, the high taxes driving the price of a pack sky high. And even stranger…no Bugler or Samson. They are all smoking ready-rolls. Pricey. Even in Ohio.
Hungry? Lunch! Munchies! Many hand-written signs 100% vegan organic meets fried dough and meat-on-a-stick this is Ohio, remember? Only one place seems open, with a big biker-ish older man standing behind a roach coach counter. Sausage and home made biscuits? yum yes! superopenfriendly “I’m Papa Bear,” then points to his old lady Mama Bear back at the stove. BEAR? Elaine and I snap! instant simultaneous synaptic sizzle Bear! = Owsley! The Dead’s acid chef, and sound designer!
Papa Bear tells us his son got started in the bong business as an apprentice to a glass blower on the circuit. His kid had the knack, making bongs better than the Master, and thus causing grumbles in Pepperland. Chat chat chat then whoosh! a gust of wind dislodges a heavy metal awning support that swings down hard, almost braining Elaine. Papa Bear tries to bang the support back into place with his wrist, but the coupling is missing its cotter pin. He’s all casual, but this could have ended badly. And the next event on the Nelson Ledges schedule is a hip-hop show with 5,000-plus expected. “A different crowd,” he says, “meth and molly.” Elaine asides to me “hope he gets that awning fixed before he tries to sell food to a horde of cranked-up Methheads.”
There’s music around the bend. A band has started to play so more stragglers ooze out of the surrounding forest. I do not know how so many of these women, these serene hippie princesses, can pull together their flawless outfits while camping out in the grubby woods. They float out of ratty trailers which list to starboard, from homemade campers nailed onto the beds of suspect pickup trucks, and from stained, army surplus tenting…not the sort of clam shells that could produce such Venuses.
But it is Butterfly Girl who draws all eyes to her. A slim brunette with a trace of Asian in her face, pale (pale!) skin freckles! wrapped in sari gauze with iridescent butterfly wings that catch the sunlight and add to her stunning. The hippie boys try not to look. Impossible. She is the absolute epitome of the Mucha poster sprite…all the dreamy freedom, the self-expression, the beauty of what can be done with the living female form. Light bounces from her, and light she is…floating above the dusty ground, swaying to the music, swaying not dancing the traditional hippie twirl that would better fit the occasion. She flutters, in keeping with the swallowtail aspect she’s adopted, she’s become. You almost don’t care about the cutter scars on her upper arms she in no way attempts to disguise.
he contact high is reallllllly peaking now FLASH! an old woman granny dressed! pedals by on a crazy rat rod bicycle with baskets and tall whip antennae with plastic pennant flags of different colors FLASH! we get a lecture on geology from a very high guy selling geodes crystals fossils we feel like fossils here too more paranoia curling in around the edges? FLASH! Butterfly Girl flits into the scene, still carrying the light all around her beaming FLASH! a skinny kid zips through our view wearing an oversized, very purple Kool-Aid shirt. “Perfect!”, Elaine says, “The best outfit of the day so far! 10 hippie points! Take a picture!”. But I can’t can’t can’t this would SO mark me as voyeur poseur…touristeur.
Did I tell you there was a band? So spaced! Giggle! I keep forgetting what I’ve told you already! Bands at these gatherings usually suck lame 12 bar blues in E half of “Cassidy” because the musicians only know half the chords between them. But these guys are better-than-they-have-to-be-under-the-circumstances. They play a Meters (Meters!) song the piano player doing a very good Professor Longhair carnival rolling left hand. A trombone player, too. An odd instrument in a hippie band but that’s ‘cause they are not a for-real hippie band. They are older than their audience and good players, but not that old because they play an original song about how they never got to see The Grateful Dead live because they were too young and the lyrics are all about longing for that experience, of wishing they could’ve been at the Be-In in the Panhandle or gone to the Fillmore or had shaken the real Cassidy’s hand and I’m thinking I saw the Dead several times even at Woodstock (Woodstock!) the apotheosis of everything they were as a band and every hippie ideal made real and what do they do? They fart around for a while and then leave the stage unable to get it together. And how one time I even snuck on stage and met Mountain Girl (Mountain Girl!) who gave me a beer or three and when the band started to play Lovelight I started to bang the beer cans together jamming along I was jamming with the Dead! Such a blast I knew (knew!) where the percussion breaks came and then Jerry slowly walked over to me not smiling not beatific not filled with hippie peace and love and shouted at me “WILL YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP, YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE!!!”
Half of hippie died for me in that instant (the other half died in a hail of Kent State May 4th bullets, but that’s another story) and I am listening to this band sing about not ever seeing the Dead live and I have this heretical secret that I cannot relate to anyone here because 1) it would seem like I was trying to impress or “relate” again with my authenticity, and/or 2) retelling being angrily ungroovyly told to fuck off would besmirch (besmirch!) the sacred legacy of Jerry the myth of Jerry that is everywhere represented by a hand with a crippled middle finger. I could not pollute his sainted memory with any sort of bad vibe reality so there end of story end of anecdote.
o amazing. 13? 14? 15? year old girls in hippie kit full-on hippie kit! How can this be? Did they just wake up one day and…out of all the possible youth fashions - punk, hip-hop, preppy, Goth, nothing? - just decide they were going to be hippies? Complete with blissed-out mien, beads and headbands? Did they do a Google search for hippie images and pattern build invent craft their atavistic (atavistic!) couture from web searches? Did Teen Cosmo run a feature on “The Look of The Summer of Love”? A fashion statement that was never supposed to be a fashion statement the first time around it was anti-fashion it was to be totally individualistic NOT a series of off-the-shelf prêt a porter brands designers labels dividing “us” from “them” an inclusive method of homemade individual expression beautiful free. Funny how the beads and the headbands and the flowers in our hair became a look a fashion a collection of accessories that could now be bought online on Amazon or at Target. This used to be called plastic (plastic!) hippieness. Weekenders who were in it for the drugs or sex or just to belong a little not as a totally immersive lifestyle a way to be to be!
Do their parents know they are here? Dressed like this? Allowing it? We caught hell for wanting long hair and for the way we dressed it was a statement it was a threat it got us grounded and kicked out of high school and here they are in the open air their parents probably dropping them off with a got your cell phone, honey? call when you want to be picked up! have a good time!
Shit. Here I am again the old fart looking for meaning when these kids just want to have fun. But why hippie? What’s the attraction? They have the Internet smart phones the cloud (Captain Cloud…do you get that reference?) the vast alternative worlds of gaming if they aren’t happy in this one. Again I ask what is the appeal of hippiehood? Is it also for them the drugs the sex AIDS!! we didn’t have AIDS to worry about in addition to the other STD’s herpes we had The Pill or rather the women had The Pill the men if they were enlightened had to help pay for the script or the diaphragm fitting and tubes of goo yes there was fucking but not as much as you might think is there ever enough fucking, really?
oday is serious times. Trouble everyday. College loans, terrorism, joblessness, pollution, corruption, war war war. Everything is no hope hopeless the struggle is grim. And yet, the fact that anyone can still drop into this mobile lifestyle, run a small roach clip concession or crystal business and follow the rock festival Rainbow Tribe Burner Deadhead trail all year…in 2014…is amazing. And wonderful. Or maybe needed now more than ever? You can’t fight all this stuff there is no win so the idea of dropping out? Has more appeal today? In 2014? Than it did 50 years ago?
Elaine and I finish our walk ‘round the circle and are back at my car. Fifteen more minutes, and we’ll have to bail to make it to the funeral on time. Fifteen more minutes of hoping not to be mistaken for Narcs. A truck pulls in hauling a collapsible stage for the hip-hop show. The roustabouts unfold the stage carefully methodically they are pros no half-ass hippie chaotic disorganization here.
Still no Bus. It’s a prank! we laugh there is no Bus! “Never trust a Prankster!” was one of their mottos, and we fell for it! The Bus doesn’t exist! Or if it does, it is just another revived brand from the past…like Indian motorcycles, Danelectro guitars or Abercrombie & Fitch.
Then…air horns! Loud rock music! Furtherur is here! The Bus lumbers in, trailing confetti and stardust and daydreams and reefer smoke, The Alpha Hippie hanging from the rear platform!
It’s as real as this not-the-real The Bus can be.
What is “real” anyway?
Did I tell you we have to be at a funeral? Major gear shift from our non-stop merry riff-a-thon and day outside of time, to the sober reality of honoring the life of our friend's father. With the silly idea that The Bus would be on time, we had not brought mourning attire with us, and Elaine's got that Moschino jacket, remember? The most inappropriate jacket you could wear to a somber memorial? To the funeral of a clown, maybe. And I'm in jeans and Prankster stripes. We can’t show up looking like this. We decide to detour back home to put on serious clothing - Elaine in a black shift with light black coat over it and me in black slacks, shirt and jacket. On the drive back the weight of the need to be a grownup now grabs me, and I speak critically of myself re: that to Elaine, who tends to worry about me being too hard on myself as it is. For the first time in the day we feel dressed appropriately and in the arms of Our People again, all sense of outsiderness left behind at the Park. All sense of merriness left behind at the Park, too.
It's a full circle, from my youthful days when time stretched out forever in front of me, to this funeral, and the feeling that the days we have ahead are so very not limitless, that this is the time to do everything NOW you thought you'd have time for, forever.
That there was always going to be more furthur coming.