On the bus with Ken Kesey

A look back at a culturaL icon and his bus
Ken Kesey and Further II on his farm in Pleasant Hill, Ore. in 1990.

In 1990 I had the good fortune to meet author Ken Kesey on his farm in Pleasant Hill, Ore. The counter culture icon wanted to show of Further the bus and invited Register-Guard reporter Kevin Miller and I to have a look.

For those who don’t know the story, Further was the bus the Merry Pranksters drove around during the 60’s. The adventure was chronicled in the book by Tom Wolfe entitled The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and recently was the focus of a documentary put together with footage shot during Kesey and his group’s adventures driving around the country during the summer of 1964.

As it turned out, Kesey was doing a little pranking of his own that day. Or was he? The original Further was actually rusting away in a woods behind his house. The bus he showed off that day was a not very convincing stand in. I remember him mostly joking around the question during our visit.

Despite the equivocation, Kesey could not have been more charming and was in rare form, cracking jokes and clearly enjoying himself. He offered us all a drink of whiskey even though it was 10 a.m. and then took us on a ride around the neighborhood, reporters on the top with Kesey behind the wheel yelling observations about the area in our ears through a sound system wired into the bus.

As the Pranksters say “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” For that day at least, I am happy to say I was on the bus.

Years later I invited myself back to the farm as a work party of old and new Pranksters tinkered with both the original and newer Further buses. A some point Zane Kesey, Ken’s son, found a black light strip and the two of use crawled into the rusted out old bus on a mission of exploration. As he shinned the light onto the ceiling the old florescent paint glowed brightly once again over 50 years after they were painted by the Merry Pranksters.

Before I said my goodbyes I asked Zane if I could make a portrait of him behind the wheel, but I accidentally called him Ken. I caught myself and laughed and he joined in the fun, saying, “I don’t even correct people anymore.” Then after sliding into the drivers seat, he struck a familiar pose. It was the same hand to chin, what does the world portend, look that his father gave me nearly 30 years before.

The Prankster and the bus live on.

Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.

Follow Chris Pietsch on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.