Magical Mystery Tour

In 1964 a psychedelic placard heralded the arrival of counterculture guru Ken Kesey and his entourage to America’s cities

The moment he saw the signboard in 1992, National Museum of American History curator Bill Yeingst knew that he had uncovered a watershed artifact of the 1960s. In the company of novelist and counterculture guru Ken Kesey (author of 1962's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Yeingst had turned up an old 3- by 5 ¾-foot wooden panel painted in psychedelic colors. It had announced the arrival of Kesey and his traveling companions, the Merry Pranksters, when their bus rolled into towns and cities across America in the mid-1960s.

Yeingst had made his way to Kesey's Oregon farm in search of an even more numinous '60s talisman, the 1939 International Harvester school bus in which Kesey and the Pranksters journeyed from coast to coast, preaching a gospel of transformation—political as well as social—through sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. As Kesey, who died in 2001 at 66, once put it, "What we hoped was that we could stop the coming end of the world."

By the time he bought the bus in the spring of 1964 and painted it in Day-Glo colors, Kesey was a well-known author, whose second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, would be released that summer. He had already gathered around him a group of about a dozen friends and acolytes (including Neal Cassady, who was the model for a main character in Jack Kerouac's On the Road). In June, Kesey and his entourage embarked on an epic, month-long journey from his home in La Honda, California, to New York City. During that drive, documented in part by journalist Tom Wolfe in his 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and on many an odyssey thereafter, the Merry Pranksters performed street theater and took part in group LSD sessions. Outrageously dressed, antic and idealistic, the group offered a living blueprint for the San Francisco hippie culture that would reach its apotheosis in the 1967 Summer of Love and spread quickly across the country. Some have said that Kesey (with a little help from the Beatles) and his bus, christened "Further," invented the '60s.

Yeingst, who had been in touch with the author for a period of months, had high hopes of acquiring the bus when he showed up at Kesey's home in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. Accompanied by a colleague, archivist John Fleckner, he spotted Kesey driving a tractor pulling a hay wagon. The two visitors soon found themselves riding the wagon, tossing out bales for Kesey's cattle. But once they got a look at Further, a crestfallen Yeingst and Fleckner quickly realized that the challenges of restoring the bus, which was in a decrepit condition, as well as transporting, storing and exhibiting it, would amount to a major undertaking.

Always on the hunt for "ordinary things that helped shape American history," Yeingst wasn't prepared to leave empty handed. After they described their quest for an object that would evoke the psychedelic pilgrimages of the '60s, Kesey took them to the loft of a chicken coop and pointed out the Merry Pranksters signboard. Even in the loft's dim light, Yeingst recognized its significance. With its hallucinogenic graphics and double-entendre slogan—"can you pass the Acid Test?"—the sign symbolized the beginning of the Age of Aquarius no less dramatically than the bus itself.

Although Kesey's espousal of the drug culture was ultimately perceived as a threat to law and order and the author was arrested and prosecuted for possession of marijuana, his introduction to hallucinogenic drugs had been entirely innocent. In 1959, while a graduate student in a writing program at Stanford University, Kesey volunteered for a government-funded research project. He was given LSD (which was legal at the time), mescaline and other mind-altering substances and asked to write reports about the various drugs' effects. These controlled but disorienting experiments conducted in a clinical setting, along with Kesey's work as a part-time orderly at a VA hospital, provided the template for Cuckoo's Nest, in which the main character, Randle Patrick McMurphy (played in the 1975 movie version by Jack Nicholson), tries to organize the inmates of a mental ward to resist Nurse Ratched (a stand-in for governmental authority) and is finally silenced with a lobotomy. By the time Kesey was arrested, he had renounced his earlier belief in the power of LSD to bring about positive change. After serving a sentence of six months, he and his wife, Faye, and their three children settled on his Oregon farm where he raised cattle and sheep.

Some wag once wrote that anyone who could remember the '60s probably wasn't there. Those of us who were there, and remember the decade vividly, will disagree. But for generations born later, the significance of a tumultuous time when America changed forever (whether for the better or worse depends on one's point of view) can begin to seem more an unfortunate fashion phenomenon than a profound shifting of social and political tectonic plates. As decades pass, a simple object like the Merry Pranksters panel—literally a sign of the times—rescued from a chicken coop in Oregon, has transformed into history itself.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.