Between the Lines: Encounters with the head wizard

Between the Lines: Encounters with the head wizard

Ken Kesey would have been 73 Wednesday. Kesey, who died in 2001, was Oregon's prince of letters, the closest thing the counterculture had to a chief wizard, and a family man.

He could be the most regular of guys, or tuned into a different channel. He could also be the most voluble of writers, but in several of my most memorable meetings with him he spoke barely a word.

Spring 1984. The home of Ken's mom, Geneva, not long after Ken's son Jed died. The van carrying most of the University of Oregon wrestling team had plunged over a cliff, killing Jed and another athlete. Kesey sued the U of O for negligence, won the suit and used the money to buy a safer bus for the team.

I'm with a friend related to the Keseys by marriage. As we wait for Ken, Geneva shows me a letter Ken wrote to Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ed McClanahan and other writer pals. It says Jed's coffin, clear pine pegged together and trimmed with redwood, was built by Prankster George Walker, Jed's brother Zane and Jed's friends.

They buried him on Ken and Faye's farm in a nice spot between the chicken house and the pond.

A couple details stick. One, the lining was a piece of Tibetan brocade given to Mountain Girl, aka Carolyn Garcia, by Owsley Stanley 15 years earlier, with russet phoenixes rising from flames. Two, Kesey described people as Jed lay dying in the hospital saying tearful goodbyes, kissing his busted nose and squeezing his big old ham of a foot.

Years later that I learn that the letter, in slightly different form, I think, appeared in Co-Evolution Quarterly's summer, 1984 issue. Kesey had qualms about taking his grief public. But, he explained, "I mean only to suggest a path for others wandering in similar pain. We've all got a lot of dying ahead of us. We might as well learn how to go about it."

July 1987. Autzen Stadium in Eugene. The Dylan and the Dead tour. Mass craziness. Entering, I lead our mob down into the bowels of the west end of the stadium, which is strictly off-limits, down and down.

We run into Kesey. Hi Ken. He walks straight by, on a mission, gaze fixed in a 1,000-yard stare. A security guy says we can't be there and whisks us past the backstage area — and ejects us in front of the stage.

April 1997. Kesey's new bus, Furthur II, pulls up to the Ashland Bakery and Cafe. It's to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Janis Joplin's Porsche and John Lennon's Rolls Royce. It must be in San Francisco the next day. It's a replica of Furthur, in which Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in 1964 took an LSD-fueled odyssey to celebrate the publication of "Sometimes a Great Notion" and hang out with Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg and film The Movie (see "The Further Inquiry," see "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test").

A crowd has gathered. The Chief is hungry and in no mood to talk. Dinner for 20 would eat up precious time. It took eight hours to herd the bus to Ashland from Kesey's farm near Springfield, normally a bit over a three-hour drive, and San Francisco is a further six normal hours away — as if normalcy entered into any of this.

One man tries to introduce another to Kesey.

"Introduce me to one of those beers," Kesey says.

Babbs, George, other Pranksters drift in and out. Standing alone across Main Street is Mountain Girl. I walk over and ask her if the Chief is a bit off his game.

"Oh yeah," MG says.

The years flip back like snapshots in Viv's photo album in "Sometimes a Great Notion" as the lights create an electric aura around Furthur II, but the real Furthur is moldering out at Kesey's farm and everybody is three decades older. The moment fuzzes out and passes, and MG is still standing alone and Kesey is still prowling restlessly around the cafe.

"Let's vote," he says. "I vote we go."

He leaves the beer on a table. There's more milling around, the commotion of a boarding, and the engine turns over and the bus moves out and rumbles through town toward the Siskiyou Pass and the darkness beyond.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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