October 24, 2017

The Trip to Destination Further

In 1964, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters planned a road trip cross country from Palo Alto, California to the Big Apple. A station wagon was the original idea for wheels to New York. Then one of the Merry Pranksters discovered an ad for a 1939 International Harvester bus. Kesey and the gang painted the bus a “frenzy of primary colors” and placed a sign on the back of it with the message: “Caution: Weird Load.” The sign on the front was misspelled “Destination: Furthur.” Not that punctuation really mattered. The big deal was that the bus had a motor and enough wheels to chase destiny. They were bustin’ out, and trippin’ out, with Tom Wolfe along to chronicle their adventures.

Tom Wolfe caught up with Kesey in a San Francisco jail after the Feds in shiny black shoes finally caught him returning from Mexico where he ran to escape the drug charges. This was after Kesey became famous as the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which he wrote almost by accident. Kesey got a job at a psychiatric ward and intended to use his spare time to finish a novel called “Zoo.” Instead, Kesey “became absorbed with life on the psychiatric ward” and saw it as the “perfect anti-cure for what ailed the men on this ward.”

Keep ‘em cowed and docile, play on their weakness, “stupefy and shock the bastards.” Wolfe writes in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” that Kesey saw the theme of his novel in the faces of the men on the psychiatric ward. The terrain of the deep lines on their faces and dark, desperate eyes said “Me! Me! Me! Me! I am- Me!”

So off the Merry Pranksters went on the cross country trip- “Me and Us, the attuned ones amid the non-musical shiny-black shoe multitudes.”

New York was the destination to celebrate the publication of Kesey’s second novel “Sometimes A Great Notion.” But the critics weren’t nearly as unanimous with it as with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Some critics said the second novel was  his true masterpiece, comparing “Sometimes A Great Notion” to “Moby Dick.” While the Sunday New York Times writes of all the stellar five star ratings on Amazon thanks to paid reviews, in 1964 Kesey’s book got roasted by the New York Times book critic who wrote: “His monstrous book is the most insufferably pretentious and the most totally tiresome novel I have had to read in many years.”

Before Kickstarter, there was just a kick in the nuts as a motivational tool.

Kesey dismissed the negative critics as out of touch, like old fashion writing, like the old bus transporting their Hun invasion to New York. You were either on the bus or off the bus.

I saw the Partridge Family bus parked in the driveway last week. A real dude owned it. The driveway and house were like a thousand other around town. This was Flint, a psychiatric ward with zip codes to the Big Nurse.These were the kind of characters that made Michael Moore famous as Ken Kesey.

Expatriates were returning to Flint to run the Crim, the ten mile race in its 36th year. More than fifteen thousand entered the Crim and not one was wearing shiny black shoes. A record crowd attendance and thousands more spectators from some of the poorest zip codes in the country cheered the ten mile block party and race to destiny, offering water, doughnuts, and beer to runners who on a typical day would have done anything to avoid these zip codes. Flint Olympic gold medalist boxer Clarissa Shields was there. At the eight mile mark, a woman in front of me clutched her chest and collapsed. A female runner behind me said to her female running mate “Another fucking hill.” These women were tough.

Training on memories is a pretty bad substitute for the real thing. It’s almost like living on memories. Like an aging prize fighter, I took this opponent for granted. I ran five miles a day throughout the year, never “further,” was one of the last to register, and showed up at the start thinking no sweat. Been there, done that. At the eight mile mark and in 90 degree temps, I also thought another f…ing hill.

I was surprised how much better these neighborhoods appeared when everyone shared the same mindset of destination further. The ruin porn receded and signs of neighborhood watch groups were embarrassingly out of place. The watch groups on this morning had a different motive.

Ken Kesey began his destination further road trip in what today is Silicon Valley. The Crim race is at the birthplace of General Motors and the UAW. Opposite ends of the century, and economic spectrum. His second novel was about a logging family that refused to strike with the other loggers. Similar themes to the famous Sit-Down Strike in Flint that led to recognition for the United Auto Workers during the Great Depression. The obstacles never end in Kesey’s stories. The trip to Destination Further always seems to have another f…ing hill.

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