There is perhaps no period in the history of the United States more simultaneously reviled and glorified than that which occurred between roughly the years 1966 and 1970. Enraged by the war in Vietnam, pissed off at the complacency of the previous generation and above all else, a bit bored, millions of Americans turned on, tuned in and dropped out. If that phrase seems ambiguous now, I assure you nothing has been lost in translation. There never was one specific definition, at least not after it left Timothy Leary’s lips, and in a way, that explains why the Summer of Love gave way to moustaches, high gas prices and eventually, the Me Generation.
Like nearly every ideology, ism or philosophical stance, hippydom was conceived, proposed and nurtured by highly intellectual men. Timothy Leary had a PHD and regularly guest lectured at Harvard. Abbie Hoffman quoted Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln during several trials in which he acted as his own attorney. And Ken Kesey, the inspiration, monetary backer and protagonist of this entire Magic Trip, wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, arguably, the single greatest novel to come out of the 1960s. Separately, each railed against societal norms, advocated drug use and preached a doctrine of expanding the mind, but together their message only served to fashion a generation into Lost Boys. The free wheeling madness each man rode to greater achievement couldn’t possibly have worked for everyone. Drop out may have meant succeed under your own conditions to Leary, but it was perverted and exploited by millions more to waste years of their lives. Sweeping change is messy and filled with unintended side effects. The further the message gets away from the speaker, the less control he or she has over its utilization. As Ken Kesey later put it, “once Pandora’s box opens, you can’t regulate who gets to use the stuff that comes out of it.” Of course, this all became clear later, well after he packed a bus full of optimistic intentions, acid and nearly a dozen people.
Slathered with vibrant murals and commentaries on Barry Goldwater, that bus, christened “Further” was purchased by Ken Kesey in 1964. He needed transportation to the World’s Fair in New York City, and with friends and acquaintances up for a road trip, the wheeled, multi-colored behemoth became the best option. Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney’s documentary Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search For A Kool Place tells the story of that ensuing journey and its aftermath. Beset by numerous breakdowns, both vehicular and mental and numerous buoys, both joyful and ideological, the abbreviated voyage is worth riding along with, if only to see how muddled a beautiful vision can quickly get.
For Ken Kesey, that vision was originally to wrestle in the Olympics. He may well have realized it, but a devastating shoulder injury cut his career short, shifting his focus toward graduating from the University of Oregon with a journalism degree. It was during his time in college that he volunteered for a secretive experiment in which the CIA administered him with doses of LSD. His life was never the same. He took a job at a mental hospital, started taking acid on a semi-regular basis and published One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. With his newfound fame and resources, the author became a sort of guru to and magnet for strange and exciting characters on the west coast. These fellow outcasts were dubbed the Merry Pranksters, and they were about as eclectic and bizarre a group as you could possibly get.
Among the colorful and exciting lot were a Stanford professor, a former soldier and Neal Cassady. At the time, Cassady was, of course, famous in his own right. Portrayed as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s bestseller On The Road and cited as the hero of Allen Ginsberg’s wonderful text Howl, Neal Cassady interacted with and inspired an entire generation without ever really creating anything lasting himself. He was like a muse for chaotic and brilliant upheaval, and perhaps more importantly for the Merry Pranksters, he knew how to drive a bus. Serving as conductor the entire way to New York, Cassady led the heroes, each with his or her own goal or purpose, into the further.
The stated end was the World’s Fair, but as with most road trips, the drive itself turned into the real story. It’s told through archival footage the Pranksters shot themselves. They wanted to make their own movie about the Magic Trip, but the dozens of hours never really got edited into anything usable, at least until Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney came along. With so much to choose from, the co-directors easily could have shaped the events into something they were not. Many probably would have preferred if they did, but the resulting product would have been a lie and inherently unfair to those who sat shotgun on that thundering machine.
Like the Pranksters themselves, the Magic Trip was a disorganized mess filled with good times, bad trips, arrests, enjoyable excursions and beautiful moments of clarity. Kesey and several of his mates had the time of their lives. Another ended up in the psych ward. Still another got off almost immediately and a third became scarred and disenfranchised by the actions of the others. That a similar experience could treat many so differently shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but it is, nonetheless, a telling moment about the 1960s. Everything has a price, even that which is called free. One person’s utopia is another’s hell. Chaos only works for a certain type of person. Much of that anarchy is noticeable in this film. The narration is a bit disorganized, the graphics are occasionally a bit off-putting, but its heart is in the right place and its subject matter is interesting and factual. I would have had an awful time on that bus, but I’m still a more informed knowing what happened.