Known as “Hardly Visible” when he was on the bus with Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady, George Walker counted Gut Terk, Hunter S. Thompson and Terry the Tramp among his friends and still carries the torch for the Pranksters’ spirit
Merry Prankster George Walker, a.k.a “The Psychedelic Courier,” today remains a force in the shifting mainstream American consciousness. Since the early 1960s, he has been actively cultivating a cure for the stiff, crass, black or white straightness of the 1950s and continues to encourage colorful expression in whatever medium he can find. “Further” is more than a motto for Walker, he’s been “on the bus” before there was one.
“’Further’ was my idea.” This was said to me softly, as if no one else was meant to hear or to know. The quiet statement came from George Walker–the modest Merry Prankster, sailor, racecar builder, cultural observer, performance artist and storyteller–at a memorial in Reno in late February for his long-time friend and confidant “Gut” Terk, the outlaw biker chieftain turned psychedelic artist.
An Oregonian attending law school at Stanford University in the early 1960s, Walker’s post-Palo Alto circle consisted of an extraordinary crew of cultural pioneers that included Terk, journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Hells Angel Terry the Tramp (John Terrance Tracy), entrepreneur Steward Brand, one-time wife Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia, musician David Crosby, counter-culture hero Neal Cassady and novelist Ken Kesey.
In a BBC interview, Kesey recalled how he, Walker and Sandy Lehmann-Haupt drove back to California in late November 1963 from the Broadway opening of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Kirk Douglas, the play’s producer, had taken on the role of Randall McMurphy, the novel’s protagonist). Kesey described the trio experiencing the aftermath of the John F. Kennedy assassination while on the road, saying, “What you saw in people’s faces coming across the country–there was a grief–everyone in the United States felt it; not so much that we’d lost Kennedy, but that we’d lost a chance at a real different, better, hipper, gentler world. So we decided to do the most American thing we could do–travel across the country–to the World’s Fair [in New York City, the summer of 1964] and then come back again–to experience the American landscape and heartscape. And we set out like Travels with Charley, where [John] Steinbeck set out to find the soul of the real America, and we found it.”
George Walker attributes that we’re-on-a-mission-we-need-a-bus moment as shaping the Merry Pranksters’ style and look: “If you look at pictures of us in early 1964–and even later–we’re typically all wearing stripes, and almost everything was red, white and blue; it came out of that trip back. I remember, one day, we were in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, stopping to see some friends. Kesey, Sandy and I were high on peyote and we saw this huge red, white and blue billboard, for maybe an oil company or something like that, and the blue sky–and being high like we were–together with the snow on the ground somehow created an image in our minds and we all felt it–it galvanized this whole feeling of patriotism–after all, we had just seen [the film] How The West Was Won back in New York and that was truly patriotic stuff–we had this feeling, this sense, that we were pioneers crossing the country and that carried into the flags we flew, our wearing flag costumes and the stuff we did.”
In searching for the “right” vehicle to carry their crew back to New York, Walker, Kesey and their friends scoured bus listings all over the Bay Area and beyond–even back home to Eugene–until they came across a listing for a 1939 International Harvester school bus in Atherton [near Palo Alto] that had been converted into a camper vehicle. Walker recalls, “It had a rudimentary kitchen, a refrigerator, a stove and bunk beds built into the back and a settee that folded out into a bed. Ken bought the bus on the spot for $1,500 and that was the beginning of it.”
That may have been the origin of Further–the brightly-painted bus which became an indelible symbol of Sixties’ counterculture by way of Tom Wolfe’s 1968 Electric Kool Aid Acid Test–but it was far from “the beginning”. Walker traces the origin of the Merry Pranksters back to Perry Lane, a bohemian community that came together in what had been World War I military housing on the outskirts of Stanford University. It was there that Kesey brought “home” the psychoactive drugs he had been given at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, as part of a CIA-funded research experiment [Editor’s note: Taking part in those drug experiments while enrolled in a graduate writing program at Stanford, Kesey became an orderly at the facility and soon found his keys fit certain “locked” doors; his experiences as an orderly led him to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest].
Walker said, “We–Chloe Scott, Vic Lovell, Roy Sebern, Jim Wolpman and Jane Burton–would go to Kesey’s and take some of these things. Most of them had names that nobody’s ever heard of. Perry Lane became the place where we would hang out and do all this stuff. I took my first peyote in late 1961 and that was the first psychedelic I took, and then shortly thereafter I took some of the stuff that Kesey had. Things called IT-290 and MC-14; those were the military designations of those things. Any time we could find it, we’d smoke a little weed, which wasn’t ubiquitous like it is now. Sometimes you wouldn’t even find any weed for weeks at a time.”
We had this feeling, this sense, that we were pioneers crossing the country and that carried into the flags we flew, our wearing flag costumes and the stuff we did.
Walker dates the phrase “Merry Prankster” to a specific moment–The Great Alaska Earthquake on March 27, 1964: “That was the first time I took LSD. I had taken other psychedelics but never LSD. We were running around the Bay Area when we heard the earthquake reports on the radio, and later we went down to La Honda where Kesey had moved after Perry Lane. When we came into Kesey’s compound, [cameraman] Mike Hagen said, ‘Halt! Who goes there?’ and [writer] Ken Babbs responded with, “‘Tis I, the intrepid traveller, come to lead his merry band of pranksters across the nation, in the reverse order of the pioneers. And our motto will be ‘the obliteration of the entire nation’. That statement was the beginning of the term ‘Merry Pranksters’. I remember it like it was last week.”
Also on the scene at Perry Lane, and again in La Honda, was Neal Cassady, the hero of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road [as the fictional Dean Moriarty]. Walker remembers, “Cassady was really into smoking weed and was always really interested in people. He came around Perry Lane one time looking for Rom Bondoc, to get high and found Kesey instead. He kept coming around, seeing us and hanging out with us. When the bus thing happened–of course, Cassady was the penultimate driver–he said, ‘I’m going to take you guys. I’ll drive this thing to New York.” Which he did; that’s when we all really got to know him well.
At Gut Terk’s memorial, Walker was asked if it was possible that Cassady, who was known to sustain several conversations at once, could have voiced other people’s thoughts. Walker smiled at the question and reported, “Neal once said to me, ‘I’m just a telepath; I’m not sure why that’s such a big deal to some people.’”
“A lot of what I do now comes from Cassady,” explains Walker. “He talked a lot about karma. Our response back then was: ‘What the hell is karma? What do you mean?’ It was a word we didn’t even know. A year after he died, Cassady started appearing to me in visions, giving me instructions. One of the things he was telling me was to read Edgar Cayce and study that material, and learn what we’re really about because we’re all mistaken–everybody thinks that in your human lifetime you have to get all you can and that’s all there is to it. It’s different from that. We need to evolve our consciousness. We need to do better if we want to keep occupying the Earth.”
We had ‘Never Trust a Prankster’ written on the bus. It doesn’t mean that pranksters are unreliable and untrustworthy. It really means to say more about expectations: if you’re hanging around pranksters, you’re likely to be surprised by something that we do.
One of the creative projects Walker currently works on is a collection of his experiences with Cassady: “During the Acid Test days, Kesey got busted a couple times for pot. In those days, that was taken seriously and he decided he didn’t want to deal with it. He split in late ‘65 and went to Mexico, as a fugitive. By early ‘66, we realized other people could do this Acid Test stuff better than we could, so we all went– Babbs, me and Hassler [photographer Ron Bevirt] and a couple other people–we took the bus and went to Manzanillo [Colima, Mexico] and met Kesey. After we got established, after a month or two, we all realized we should have brought Cassady. So I went back and got him. We finally went back north to face the music, but Neal and I came back the next winter and ended up in San Miguel de Allende. It’s a story I’ve been working on for ten years now; it’s very complex.”
By late 1968, frayed from the non-stop fury of The Acid Tests and “The Summer of Love”, which together earned San Francisco the focus of the media and middle America, the Merry Pranksters decided to host “The Convention to Decide the Fate of the Universe” in an abandoned mine outside Virginia City, Nevada.
As Walker remembers, “When Ken decided he wanted to do this, we had to tell people and, of course, in those days there was no Internet. You had to go around or call people on their telephones. I had a Lotus sports car that I had put an elaborate psychedelic paint job, with lots of day-glo and glitter, and I had a jumpsuit that was similar. My job was to tell people we were doing this ‘convention’, so I drove around the Bay Area talking to people; one of them was Gut [Terk] because he knew cool people like Arab [artist Gary Finnoe] that we didn’t. Anyway, when we got out to the mine, we took DMT [Dimethyltryptamine, a hallucenogenic], which really confuses you, and we had some nitrous oxide. Nothing much came of our ‘convention’ really, except that we decided that the Universe was really too far gone for us to decide its fate. It was an excuse to have fun, in a new place, and make it sound really important. That’s what we set out to do–have fun–we weren’t trying to change the world; we were into having fun.”
Having fun is key to Walker still, and the spirit of being a Merry Prankster is evident in his thinking even as the original Further slowly rusts on the Kesey farm in Oregon, having heroically and aptly fulfilled its intended purpose of transporting its riders to a place of learning. Walker said recently, “A trick is something that fools you; a prank is something that surprises you. We had ‘Never Trust a Prankster’ written on the bus. It doesn’t mean that pranksters are unreliable and untrustworthy. It really means to say more about expectations: if you’re hanging around pranksters, you’re likely to be surprised by something that we do. Our goal is to do it in a positive way, a way that’s enlightening.”
If something stops changing, it literally stops existing because existence and change are the same thing.
Continuing that thought, Walker added: “We had another saying which is even simpler: ‘Nothing Lasts’. What that means is: to be attached to any state of being, within yourself or externally, is a losing mindset, because nothing lasts. If you’re attached to something remaining in its current state, you’re sure to be disappointed, because nothing will remain like it is. Change is the same as being. In fact, nothing exists without change. If something stops changing, it literally stops existing because existence and change are the same thing. That’s the Einstein-ian notion of the interchangeability of energy and matter. If you think of matter as being things–stuff–it’s all mutable; it’s interchangeable with the energy. Energy and change are the same thing. If something has any energy at all, it’s changing; it isn’t in a static state. There is nothing anywhere in the universe that’s in a static state, that’s not changing; it can’t remain the same. It’s an absolute impossibility for things to not change.”
“On the Bus” today: George Walker on the edge of consciousness now
I’m really pretty enthusiastic about today’s youth, who seem to be a lot like we were. I see music concerts and festivals going on every weekend, all over the country, with thousands upon thousands of young people getting together, often getting high and listening to music. A lot of that music today is about higher consciousness; it’s not just shoddy stuff. There are a lot of messages in it; there are keys to real knowledge and wisdom in it that can be used to open all the locks we have.
With people getting out, getting together, and getting involved, they’re daring consciousness; they’re trying to feel better about life and about the world. I see this as a really good thing: these kids are getting high, dressing up, listening to good music and dancing–freeing up their spirits. That’s the way to open minds.
We have to open our minds to see things in ways that allow us to better understand what’s really happening, and to clear away the traditional stuff we were told. Enlightenment isn’t something that’s going to happen all at once. It’s like any evolution; it happens one day at a time. Something happens, and then something else happens, and then there’s a mutation here. Most mutations are unsuccessful, but if somebody suddenly sees better, or hears better, or gets stronger, or smarter, or more aware, then that mutation spreads. That’s why all these festivals are so valuable–getting people talk to each other–that’s the way consciousness spreads.
BBC film, “Tripping”, featuring Ken Kesey:
The film features interviews with Jarvis Cocker (lead singer of Pulp), Malcom McLaren (manager of The Sex Pistols), Hunter S. Thompson (writer), Marianne Faithfull (singer/songwriter), Jann Wenner (publisher of Rolling Stone Magazine) and Carolyn Cassady (wife of Neal Cassady).