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Ken Kesey: The Merry Prankster

Ken Kesey: The Merry Prankster
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“The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer. They think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.”

― Ken Kesey

Kenneth Elton Kesey, a bohemian soul who drove a psychedelic bus out of the beat generation of the ’50s and into the hippie counterculture of the ’60s. Kesey, a man mesmerized by the mysteries of the human condition, testing their boundaries with a little acid-fueled play.

Who is Ken Kesey?

Born September 17, 1935, Ken Kesey became an American novelist, essayist, and leading countercultural figure. Kesey’s research and experiments led society into the transformative era of the ’60s. He is most commonly known for his acid tests, merry bus trips, and synthesized novels, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Family and Education

Kesey was born into a family of dairy farmers in La Junta, Colorado. He had a love for reading, magic, ventriloquism, and hypnotism as a child. In his teen years, he was a champion high school wrestler, almost qualifying for the US Olympic team. He attended the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, where he graduated with a B.A. in speech and communications. He eloped with high-school sweetheart, Norma “Faye” Haxby while attending college.

Kesey had a very strong and free relationship with Faye. They had three children, Jen, Zane, and Shannon. With Faye’s consent, Kesey fathered a daughter, Sunshine, with Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams, also a member of their tribe, the Merry Pranksters. Kesey and Faye remained married until his death on November 10, 2001, at age 66.

Psychedelic Stimulus

During Kesey’s university years university, he volunteered for research experiments in order to earn some income. One particular experiment set the roots for his own “furthur” experiments later in life. This particular experiment was a CIA program called Project MKUltra. Their goal was to see if they could force participants into confessions through mind control tactics after the consumption of hallucinogens like LSD and mescaline.

The MKUltra experiment had a great impact on the narrative of one of Kesey’s most popular novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He wrote the novel immediately following the completion of his university studies in 1960. Published two years later, it was an instant success. With the momentum of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey had the drive to continue his own experiments. It seems that the CIA had stimulated a psychedelic chain of events with Kesey as the ringmaster. 


Kesey and Faye bought a home in La Honda, California, where they painted the trees in the woods in Day-Glo colors and hid speakers around the forest. They would invite guests over for a night of acid-fueled mystery while wandering through the music- and art-filled woods. This was the start of what they referred to as their “happenings.”

The happenings became so popular that unexpected guests would turn up. These included the Hells Angels, whom Kesey met through none other than Hunter S. Thompson. The happenings quickly outgrew the Keseys’ home, and a much more expansive venue was on the horizon. 

Furthur and The Merry Pranksters

The gang that organically grew from these happenings were sitting around the fire at Kesey’s house in La Honda, when Kesey appeared out of the blue with an exotically painted 1939 Harvester school bus.

“‘Tis I, the intrepid traveler, come to lead his merry band of pranksters across the nation, in the reverse order of the pioneers! And our motto will be ‘the obliteration of the entire nation’ … not taken literally, of course, we won’t blow up their buildings, we’ll blow their minds!”

—Ken Kesey

Kesey, abundant with funds from the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, drew up the map to drive cross-country on the bus they named Furthur. The trip served a dual purpose: one was to turn America on to a psychedelic form of enlightenment, and the other was to publicize Kesey’s new book, Sometimes A Great Notion. Onboard Furthur were half a dozen travelers who called themselves the Merry Pranksters, and a jar of orange juice laced with LSD. Notable members of the group include Kesey’s best friend Ken Babbs, Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia, Lee Quarnstrom, and Neal Cassady. The trip, immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, would become the mythologized starting point of the psychedelic ’60s.

Acid Tests

Upon the completion of Furthur’s trip across the country, the Merry Pranksters continued to host happenings and share their free-falling momentum. Thanksgiving 1965 marks the official date of the first Acid Test, a “semi-public” happening held in a ranch house called The Spread, home of Merry Prankster Ken Babbs. The happenings continued to grow in popularity. Their regular Acid Tests also were responsible for launching the musical career of The Warlock, who later changed their name to The Grateful Dead. 

As the psychedelic sabbaths continued to grow, pranksters painted “CAN YOU PASS THE ACID TEST?” flyers near San Jose’s music auditorium. The night The Rolling Stones were playing was a night of eclectic chaos. Fans flooded in to get a taste of The Acid Test. After their concert. Jerry Garcia, a member of The Grateful Dead, claimed it was the watershed moment for the counterculture. 

“They came piling in, and suddenly acid and the worldcraze were everywhere, the electric organ vibrating through every belly in the place, kids dancing not rock dances, not the frug and the –what? –swim, mother, but dancing ecstacy, leaping, dervishing, throwing their hands over their heads like Daddy Grace’s own stroked-out inner-courtiers–yes!”

Tom Wolfe, member of the Merry Pranksters

Word Gets Out

The Acid Tests continued and spread south to Los Angeles and north to Oregon and Canada. The pranksters even hosted days-long festivals, known as Trip Festivals, celebrating all things psychedelic. The Grateful Dead’s popularity can give credit to the inception of these festivals. Kesey had a charge of marijuana possession with a warrant out for his arrest. He had to show up to the festivals in a spacesuit disguise, complete with a helmet. Kesey would sit in the balcony and address the crowd over the PA system. Everyone knew it was him—but no one could find him.

A true Prankster.

Top Ken Kesey Quotes

“It isn’t by getting out of the world that we become enlightened, but by getting into the world … by getting so tuned in that we can ride the waves of our existence and never get tossed because we become the waves.”

― Ken Kesey, Kesey’s Garage Sale

“What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin’? Well you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walkin’ around on the streets and that’s it. ”

― Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

“We’d just shared the last beer and slung the empty can out the window at a stop sign and were just waiting back to get the feel of the day, swimming in that kind of tasty drowsiness that comes over you after a day of going hard at something you enjoy doing—half sunburned and half drunk and keeping awake only because you wanted to savor the taste as long as you could.”

― Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Ken Kesey In Culture

Kesey can be found in counterculture and mainstream cultural references.

Most Notable Books

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Sometimes a Great Notion 

Kesey’s Garage Sale

Demon Box

In the Media

You can find many references to Ken Kesey’s legacy in the media today. Allen Ginsberg writot of Kesey’s happenings in his poems. Other accounts appear in Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs by Hunter S. Thompson. Of course, we can’t forget the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It won five Academy Awards, crystallizing Kesey’s first book as a literary classic.

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test

Kesey serves as the basis for Tom Wolfe’s popular novel, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. This particular style of writing was one of the first examples of “New Journalism.” This had to do with the firsthand experience Wolfe had with Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and Furthur. The novel is largely the true chronicles of Furthur’s journey and the Acid Tests the Prankers curated. Wolfe was the first to paint such a vivid picture of the inside experiences of Kesey and the Pranksters. They did their best to film their experiments, but Acid and amateur filmmakers didn’t necessarily make the greatest pair.

Magic Trip 

Alex Gidney and Alison Elwood came along in the early 2000s and managed to reconstruct the almost unusable footage shot on the Furthur trip. The resulting documentary, Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place, was released in the US in 2011. 

The official movie site can be found here, and it can be streamed on Amazon here.


Comes Spake the Cuckoo: An Interview with Ken Kesey

RS Contributing Author: Niki Perlberg

Niki is a social and arts entrepreneur who specializes in project and creative production development. With her passion for social structures and the arts, she has been involved in the architecture of performance and festival culture around the country. In rapidly changing times she is now taking her passion for these sub-cultures and sharing them with us in our digital atmosphere through her writing and content development. Some of her favorite parts of life are coffee, campfires, and contemplating the mysteries of existence. Feel free to follow her on Insta @itsnikiperl

Image credit: Merry Prankster Matt on IG @merryprankstermatt

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