They called themselves the Merry Pranksters, and during the summer of 1964 they streaked across America in an old International Harvester school bus paint-splashed every Day-Glo color in the book. The idea was to travel from La Honda, Calif., to New York City, drop some acid, smoke some grass, and thus make a pharmaceutically enhanced pilgrimage to a psychedelic state of mind they dubbed Edge City.
And the whole thing probably would have been forgotten years ago if not for a foppish young reporter named Tom Wolfe, who rode along with them and wrote about it-not always approvingly-in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, published on Aug. 19, 1968. It was Wolfe’s third and most ambitious book; its corkscrew, to-hell-with-punctuation prose style (”thraaaaaaaggggghhh”) and attention to microscopic detail established him as the No. 1 practitioner of the New Journalism and made Tom Wolfe Tom Wolfe. Now in its 34th printing, Acid Test has sold 1.5 million copies and been translated into eight languages. Its acidhead heroes have become counterculture icons, the stuff of hippie legend.
Where are they now? The gang’s leader, Ken Kesey, 56, who back then was already famous as the author of 1962’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is farming and writing in Oregon (his latest book, Sailor Song, is due in September). Neal Cassady, who was famous in the ’50s as Jack Kerouac’s buddy and the inspiration for On the Road‘s Dean Moriarty, died at age 43 of drug-related causes shortly before Acid Test‘s publication. Some of the other aging Pranksters, like Intrepid Traveler and Mal Function, joined Kesey for a 1990 reunion bus tour to help promote his book The Further Inquiry, in which Cassady’s soul is put on trial. And Wolfe, of course, is still pushing the envelope of the English language with such best-sellers as The Bonfire of the Vanities.
As for that bus, nicknamed Furthur (or Further—the spelling varied): ”What’s left of the original is rusting in our swamp,” says Kesey. ”It came back from Woodstock with a broken heart.” But a rebuilt version, with ”a better paint job,” may soon be heading for the Smithsonian. Heeeeeewack!!!!