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Pacific Northwest | May 30, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineMay 30, home
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Prankster, prophet, farmer, father, Ken Kesey found his grail at home
Ken Kesey drives up his driveway with one of his band members in a 1973 Cadillac El Dorado bought from a rancher in Pendleton, Ore.
WE STROLL ACROSS the sprawling yard behind the Ken Kesey farmhouse and toward his grave. It seems so lonely here now. Bare trees. A gray sky, dull and flat like a warehouse ceiling. A curtain of cold, flicking drizzle hanging about us. You can almost feel the ghosts: psychedelic wanderers and Kesey's band of Merry Pranksters; writers and poets; work-booted neighbors helping with the hay, then sharing in a feast. Wide-eyed kids he'd wow with magic tricks or tales of a strange creature lurking about the farm, literati like Robert Stone and other 1960s icons like Allen Ginsburg and Jerry Garcia.

For three decades, they came to this swath of land 10 miles outside Eugene and the red-barn Kesey house marked with a painted white star inside a blue circle. They came for gatherings and performances, for parties and thrills as well as for storytelling and movie-making, silliness and reflection. They came from all walks of life, eras, parts of the country and frames of mind. Some came for the Kesey charisma, some were drawn by the legend, but mostly, especially in the later years, they simply came for friendship.
Ken Kesey, always active in his community's life, talks on the phone in the doorway of his Pleasant Hill, Ore., home in 1986.
They say you knew what to expect with him, yet they all expected different things.

His son, Zane, leads the way to the backyard grave, carrying a paper grocery bag so he can clear the latest remembrances — wilted flowers, burnt-out candles and such. Each year he looks more like his dad, with that strong chin and Northwest pale. Zane lives just down the road in this burg of Pleasant Hill and markets over the Internet his dad's books and memorabilia from the Prankster days.

Kesey endures as a literary sensation whose first two books — "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes A Great Notion" — crystallized the rebellious energy of their era and aged into classics. He became a counterculture prophet, immortalized in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" for bridging the gap between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the '60s without belonging to either. And he was, according to a judge who once sentenced him on a pot-possession charge, "a tarnished Galahad" who veered from bright expectations.

Yet Kesey also endures as the ultimate idiosyncratic Northwesterner. Here, on his farm and around town, he worked the land, wrote some, raised kids, grew old — all just a few miles from where he grew up, went to high school, met his future wife and spent his college days. He settled into the rhythms of the Willamette Valley and Eugene's slightly off-kilter way of thinking. Folks were used to him riding his tractor in town parades, pontificating for gun control, griping about the field burning that used to shroud the whole area. That was the Kesey who kept his phone number listed right up until he died in the fall of 2001.
Photo 'I want to find out which side of me really is:
the woodsy logger side, complete with homespun
homilies and cracker-barrel corniness — a valid side
of me that I like — or its opposition.'

The other Kesey, the famous one, still draws academics from across the country to analyze his writing, cultural influence, place in history. On the second anniversary of his death, an impressive collection of Kesey experts convened in Eugene to present a wide range of papers with titles like "Rebel, Superman, Bull Goose Loony: The Hero as Adolescent." Two books came out then, too. One, "Kesey's Jail Journal," he wrote about his days in a work camp serving time for that pot conviction. The other is an anthology of Kesey memories, writings and elegies.
Forty years ago this summer, Kesey and fellow Merry Pranksters piled into a Day-Glo-painted International Harvester (originally called "Furthur") and drove it to New York for a publication party of "Sometimes a Great Notion." Along the way, Kesey and crew tripped on LSD and provided fodder for Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." The Beat Generation's Neal Cassady was the stalwart driver.
This summer, Kesey's life will be remembered again as two significant anniversaries are marked.

Forty years ago, in mid-June of 1964, he led a wild bus trip across the country, culminating in a series of strobe-lit LSD parties called acid tests. He was the unquestioned leader of it all, and it was he who had the idea of making his own movie about it — the first reality show, in a way.

And halfway through the bus trip, his second novel was published. "Sometimes a Great Notion," with its intensely regional sense of place and heart, is still considered by many to be the Northwest novel. It is also a lasting window into Kesey's roots.

His widow, Faye, says "Notion" was a better book than his blockbuster "Cuckoo's Nest" because "there's more of Ken in it." Kesey himself told an interviewer as much way back when it was about to be published. "I want to find out which side of me really is: the woodsy logger side, complete with homespun homilies and cracker-barrel corniness — a valid side of me that I like — or its opposition. The Stamper brothers in the novel are each one of the ways I am."

ALONG THE WESTERN slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range . . . come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River. The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds, through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting, forming branches . . . Finally in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce — and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir — the actual river falls 500 feet . . . and look: opens out upon the fields.
Writer Ken Kesey's rainbow-marbled casket lies below a boulder tombstone on his farm in Pleasant Hill, Ore. Right next to him lies his son, Jed, a University of Oregon wrestler who died with teammates in a van accident. Wrestler earflaps constantly rest on his stone.
With that opening paragraph, Kesey invites readers of "Notion" on a complex, sometimes careening journey to the Oregon coast, through the loggers' life and into the home of the embattled Stamper family. He zooms in on a Northwest place, era and way of life to explore universal issues of compromise, loyalty, pride, loneliness and what it means to be strong.

The rugged land is a full-blown main character, as is the intrusive, incessant November rain. And there are the Stamper brothers, Hank and Leland. Hank, a former star athlete, is strong and tough, stubborn and myopic. His younger brother grew up and was educated in the East, came back as a weakling, an intellectual and drug user. Both are deeply flawed — and on a collision course from the start, just as Kesey's own two sides.

When he was about 7, Kesey and his parents moved to Springfield, a blue-collar suburb of Eugene. He and his older brother, Chuck, hunted, fished, shot down the McKenzie River on rafts. He worked for the family's dairy business, which became a successful cooperative. He was an outdoorsman, not a reader; a thick-necked teenager who won a football scholarship to the University of Oregon but excelled at wrestling.
Driving his tractor around the farm, Kesey said that bailing hay in the summer was like winding up "little bundles of sunshine" to be opened in the gray of winter.
Yet he also had the gift of presence, the kind that takes over a room. He was always performing magic shows as a kid, taking starring roles in college plays and briefly tinkering with Hollywood in bit parts.

The Leland side of Kesey began to emerge in late 1958 when he attended a two-year graduate writing program at Stanford University in California. He and Faye got into a bohemian enclave of cheap housing on Perry Lane, where neighbors, Wolfe says, saw a big Oregon hick with intellectual yearnings.

Intellectual or not, he was the most curious. He began hanging with the San Francisco Beat scene for a book he was planning, and found out that an area veterans hospital needed human subjects to see how LSD affected them. He signed up and went weekly, enjoying it so much that when the project concluded, he swiped the unused doses and began introducing them into his world.
Photo 'If it fails — and it could fail and be very close to being a great book — I've still learned a hell of a lot about writing from doing it.'

During the day, he was in class surrounded by future stars, including authors Stone and Larry McMurtry, and teachers like Wallace Stegner and Malcolm Crowley. At night, he was an aide in a mental ward, sometimes working high. His use of hallucinogens helped build the paranoid, imaginary world of "Cuckoo's Nest," narrated by a schizophrenic patient. The drug use lingered through much of his life as some ongoing experiment in point of view.

"Cuckoo's Nest" was a best-seller, Broadway hit and eventually an Oscar-winning movie (which he refused to watch over artistic differences). But the book was barely published when he started working hard on his next project, what he figured would be his William Faulkner treatment of the Northwest: "Notion."
At the 1986 National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Convention in Portland, a fan tells Kesey about a trip he made to the author's farm in the '60s. Kesey's place was a magnet for the famous, the flipped out and the curious for three decades.
Kesey mellowed with age and walked gracefully between the many worlds he inhabited throughout his life. He counted the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, prolific author Larry McMurtry and University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer as friends.
Kesey waits to give the commencement address to the Class of 1986 at South Eugene High School. He spoke without a prepared speech. Always interested in students, he was surprisingly traditional when it came to talking about literature, telling them, "Don't read me; read Moby Dick!"
ZANE HANDS four stumpy candles to Lynn Jeffress, a writer from the Oregon coast. She was part of Kesey's remarkable year-long creative-writing course at the U of O in the '80s. He didn't tell them how to write; he led them in writing a group novel titled "Caverns," then got it published. Several of the student authors are joining in a group memoir of the experience, set to be published late this year and titled "Under the Influence."

Pete Helzer is here, too. He's a neighbor, another former wrestler who coached both Zane and his brother, Jed, at Pleasant Hill High. He's also an accomplished sculptor who produced a memorial to Kesey that stands in the heart of downtown Eugene. Kesey's tombstone in his yard is a boulder, thick and uneven and leaning like petrified smoke. Below ground, his body lies in a tie-dyed coffin. To his right lies the grave of Jed, like dad a U of O wrestler, who died in 1984 when the team's van crashed while returning from a match.

Jeffress hands me one of the candles. Our job is to replace the burnt-out waxy nubs in the lanterns that surround the gravesite. Once she gets mine lit through the sprinkles, I realize the wind is wafting, too. This Oregon weather! I cup a hand over the flimsy flame while holding my open notebook under an armpit, then mutter a complaint about how the drizzle has smeared the notes. Zane responds with a laconic Oregonian scold. He knows I'm from Eugene, and here I am whining about a little rain like a Californian.

"This," he says, "ain't rain." He's right. You can just hear his dad telling him the same thing. Toughen up. The rain ain't gonna let up 'cuz you whine. That's the tone of "Notion." Kesey spent five months working on it in a cabin on the Oregon coast. He went with loggers as they set felled timber during the day and hoisted beers in dank bars at night.

The house that created the Stampers in his mind still sits, vacant, on Cox Island, along the south side of the Siuslaw River. As a teenager, he took a barge over to deliver dairy products. The house today is rickety and almost fully obscured from the highway view by thick fir trees. The Nature Conservancy manages the acres around it as a wildlife preserve.
Kesey friend, neighbor and fellow wrestler Pete Helzer created this bronze sculpture of Kesey that rests in the heart of downtown Eugene. Another longtime Kesey friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker, headed the grassroots fund raising. Plaques affixed to the base recite some of his famous book passages that capture the feel of Oregon.
Once Kesey finished his research, he wrote, sometimes 30 hours straight. Faye says he'd have notes and cards with various character and plot points pasted to all four walls. Like Faulkner, Kesey was splicing time and points of view in "Notion," sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. It was an ambitious project that scared him.

"My book is maybe trying to do too much, trying to encompass a man, a family, a town and a time, all at once, simultaneously," he wrote to himself as he labored over the writing, "and work them into a story and have the story say something important! Awful much. Awful much." And to his friend, Ken Babbs, "If it fails — and it could fail and be very close to being a great book — I've still learned a hell of a lot about writing from doing it."

It was such a solitary, arduous chore for Kesey, a social man who craved action and immediacy, that some suggest it's a big part of why it was his last novel for nearly 30 years.

ZANE LEADS US to a swampy patch of woods a bit farther into the property, across planks slick with forest slime and spanning a slough. Past a partly sunken rowboat known as "Deeper" we come to The Bus — "Furthur." The Day-Glo-doodled 1939 International Harvester, stray wires hanging out from its rusted engine, roosts like a woods-colored swamp creature now.

Climb the brittle bus steps and you come to the driver's seat, once the exclusive perch for Neal Cassady, the stream-of-consciousness talker and inspiration for Jack Kerouac's 1950s classic, "On The Road."

Books, Kesey had decided as the trip neared, were too removed. Live, uninhibited performance was his new thing. He saw the bus as a method for instant audience feedback and a rolling road show meant to wake up America. LSD-laced orange juice fueled the Merry Pranksters.

Kesey's longtime friend, Stanford classmate and Pleasant Hill neighbor, Babbs went on the trip and tried to explain how the guy who wrote "Notion" could be the same guy who rode that bus. Kesey "always thought of himself as a performer first, a master of illusion," Babbs said. "To him, a book was an illusion, a neat trick."

After the trip, Kesey and Faye moved to a spread in remote La Honda, Calif., where he organized his "acid tests" around the San Francisco area. He caught the curl of an emerging hippie scene there, and became tight with Jerry Garcia and his then-obscure band, The Grateful Dead. The Hells Angels hung out at Kesey parties. They liked him. He was tough. His first pot-possession bust came in 1965; in 1966, while still on probation, he was nailed again. So he faked his death, fled to Mexico, got bored, came back as the rebel hero, teased the authorities, got nabbed and wound up serving five months in a jail work farm in California.

When he got out, he moved to Oregon and stayed. He was frustrated by what happened to the '60s. In his mind, it had become empty and sometimes a little mean. Paul Dresman, a professor of 20th-century literature at the U of O, produced a provocative paper about an autobiographical short story Kesey wrote in the '70s titled, "The Day After Superman Died." It takes place on Kesey's farm. Cassady, who died in 1968, is Superman.

In the story, Kesey's character is losing badly in an argument with a conservative friend who is listing all the ways "the revolution" failed. Two hippies show up. They carry knives, have bad teeth, bad breath and bad vibes. Kesey told an interviewer that about 60 people who had been living temporarily at the farm departed for the Woodstock festival in 1969. He stayed behind and went up to a loft in the farmhouse to find a burning candle left near hay. That moment, he said, made him think about his family and how his grandfather and great-grandfather would not have tolerated that.

He put up a one-word sign at the entrance to the driveway: "No."

SPRINKLES HAVE given way to pelting rain. Zane and Jeffress are inside with Faye. Helzer stands in the front yard and points to a hump on the Mount Pisgah skyline. That's a memorial he sculpted for Jed, who used to run up there as a workout. Helzer met Kesey through wrestling. The men became close friends, sharing wrestling and small-town issues, kids and art. From atop Pisgah, you can see the Kesey farm and dozens more throughout the valley. The Cascade Mountains lie to the east; the coastal range, which Leland travels to get back home, is to the west.

Helzer hiked up to the top with Kesey after Jed's death and was awed by the panorama as filtered through Kesey's view. To honor Jed, Helzer worked for six years, consulting with the Oregon State Museum of Natural History to focus on a succession of plants and forests as a way of representing a sense of geologic time.

"Ken didn't want to see the memorial until it was done, and didn't want a description, either," Helzer says. "When he saw the piece for the first time, he knew exactly what I had done. He said, 'It's about the impermanence of life and the infinity on either side of it.' "

Brian Lanker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who worked with Kesey and led the drive to pay for his memorial downtown, says people — even people who lived so fully — tend to get reduced to footnotes after they die. He didn't want that to happen to his friend.

"If I invited you over to dinner, you might bring a bottle of wine or flowers," Lanker says. "Ken brought over kites, or magic. The first words out of his mouth each time were, 'Where are the kids?' "

The memorial project received donations from Kesey's high-profile friends and admirers, including Phil Knight and Paul Newman. Yet it was a local project. The $120,000 goal was reached, appropriately enough, through a benefit concert by a Grateful Dead-style band, known as The String Cheese Incident, at the downtown theater where Kesey used to perform magic.

Everybody remembers Kesey their own way, but this is the way he'll always be remembered in Eugene, a place he embodied. Here, he is a big, strong yarn-spinner, a hardy soul and one of a kind.

The bronze Kesey sits on a bench just a block from the theater. It shows him dressed in jeans, work shirt and sturdy boots with his trademark star on the toes; he holds a book up to his face, as if peering in a mirror. Three kids take up the rest of the bench, listening.

Helzer took the image from a photograph of Kesey reading to three of his grandchildren on a log.

The sky is wailing now; fat drops splatter against the brick courtyard and off Kesey's cap. A stream slithers down the face of the boy sitting nearest him. A tear, maybe. But nobody runs for cover. Kesey's reading.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Harley Soltes is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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