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Local 'Prankster' at heart of '60s-era cultural shift

Scappoose's George Walker had a front-row seat on a wild-eyed trip that pushed a generation Further


by: PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGE WALKER - George Walker sticks his head out of a dome he and the Merry Band of Pranksters made to look out of the bus,'Further,' in which they took a drug-fueled tour of the United States in 1964. The tour sparked a cultural shift still present today. George Walker has led what he calls “a rather illustrious career of not doing much at all and doing a lot.”

In 1964, Walker became part of a group of young Northwesterners known as the Merry Band of Pranksters who toured the country with author Ken Kesey in a hand-painted 1939 school bus named “Further.”

Walker has now lived in Scappoose for more than 20 years.

Neal Cassady, renowned Beat generation poet and inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s protagonist Dean Moriarty in the iconic novel, “On the Road,” took the wheel of the bus as the Pranksters traveled from California to the World’s Fair in New York. The tour was fueled by amphetamines, marijuana and LSD, and Kesey and the Pranksters were intent on shooting a film throughout, to preserve the experience.

The Pranksters’ 1964 tour, and subsequent tours promoting the use of the then-emerging drug LSD, were popularized in author Tom Wolfe’s 1968 best-selling novel, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

It could be argued Walker was an integral part of one of the most significant cultural movements of the 20th century in the United States.

Since pulling the bus out of a swamp on Kesey’s Oregon property outside of Eugene nearly 10 years ago, after the author’s death in 2001, Kesey’s family is attempting to raise funds to restore Further to its 1964 condition. While Walker is skeptical about whether the bus will ever be fully restored, he said he would be interested in using the bus again as an educational relic of the cultural era.

Still, Walker said there is no consensus among the remaining Pranksters as to what to do with the bus, some being of the opinion it should remain as it is, never to be restored.

Catching the wave

Walker said Kesey and the Pranksters on their 1964 tour were responsible for pushing forward a widespread cultural movement, even as the post-World War II Beats made a colorful transition into the hippie subculture during the late 1960s.

“Kesey said a lot about how we didn’t make it happen. It was like a wave and we were like surfers, just caught in the wave,” Walker said of his time with the Pranksters. “There was a wave of consciousness like a swell in the ocean. A swell had been building since World War II, so it was 20 years before the wave crested and broke so we could ride it. The Beats started battling to catch the wave and we knew a lot of them — Neal Cassady was one of my best friends before he died. And we knew Allen Ginsberg very well. He did a lot of stuff with us.”

After the tour, Kesey and the Pranksters returned to Kesey’s California home, but did not stay long.

“We got back to Kesey’s, probably in about a month, and then after about a week we decided we wanted to do some more. We went down to Mexico, then came back, then we were all just sort of hanging around a lot and didn’t leave,” Walker said.

As the Pranksters edited the film of their journey on Kesey’s property, they began to hold screenings of the footage. The screenings soon grew into touring parties centered around the use of the psychedelic LSD.

“After a while, so many people were coming around, it got to be where it was fairly regular to see, and drugs were generally involved, and partying of various kinds,” Walker recalled. “Kesey realized it would surely lead to trouble and it did. We continued and got it out of the house and decided to do shows, called the ‘acid tests.’”

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGE WALKER - Both of author Ken Kesey's 'Further' busses sitting next to each other. At front is a bus the author purchased in the 1980s to mimic the original. Kesey apparently tricked the media at the time into believing the original bus had been restored.

Bus restoration

Once the acid tests came to a halt, Further carried the Pranksters on a few more tours, including one to the 1969 Woodstock, N.Y., music festival.

Kesey eventually parked the bus in a swamp on his property with the intention it would rot away and eventually be consumed by nature, Walker said.

The Pranksters have not gotten together to discuss whether or not to restore the bus, Walker said.

“I’d guess it’s about equally divided between wanting to do it and not wanting to do it.” he said. “‘Nothing lasts.’ That was Kesey’s saying about what we were doing, and it was painted right on the interior of the bus.”

If he was in control of the bus, Walker said, he would get Further mechanically functional again, which he estimates he could do for about $10,000 with used parts. During the initial tour, Walker was the closest thing to a mechanic among the Pranksters.

“With something like this, it’s so old that new stuff, a lot of it, would not be available,” he said.

Walker said that the body of the bus would likely be harder and more expensive to restore than the engine.

“Once you start replacing the metal, it really becomes a question of what you have in the end,” he said. “Are you really doing a restoration or are you just doing a re-creation with some of the same parts.”

Walker said there has been talk of turning Kesey’s Oregon farm into a museum, where the bus might be a centerpiece.

“I’d like to see stuff like school kids could come out to the farm if the whole farm became like a Kesey museum,” Walker said, adding he was keen on the idea of picking up literature and writing students in the restored bus to tour the property.

“I think it would be real fun to show up at a high school with the old bus and take the kids for a ride on it.”

Kesey purchased a second bus in the late 1980s, which was painted to mimic Further and used to trick the media into thinking the original bus had been restored.

“We pulled a lot of tricks like that,” Walker said.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported in January that the foundation spearheading the fundraising effort to restore the original Further bus, called the Further Down the Road Foundation, is seeking $300,000 for the full restoration. So far, it has raised about $15,000.

Acid tests and drug use

While the Pranksters were largely regarded as young radicals who toured the country with heads full of LSD, Walker argued the group actually spent relatively little time on the drug during its initial tour.

“Everybody talks about how we were high on acid the entire time. We had a total of maybe 40 hits of acid for the entire trip,” Walker said. “We didn’t have that much LSD. It was hard to get. It was hard to find and you can’t be high on it all the time, it doesn’t work. You can only get high on it about once a week.”

“[Kesey] kind of kept control of [the LSD] and would dole it out to the people he wanted performing, and then other people would stay straight to run the cameras so we could record these things,” Walker said. “So we weren’t high on acid all the time. We smoked a lot of pot. That, if anything, would’ve got us busted. Cops might catch up with us while we were smoking joints and passing them around on the bus. We were lucky we didn’t get busted for smoking pot.”

The Pranksters also took amphetamines on the tour to “keep going,” as Walker put it.

“In those days, [amphetamines weren’t] like the garbage they have now — meth,” Walker said. “We got pharmaceuticals, which were fairly cheap.”

Walker said he had been interested in mind-altering substances since he was a young boy and saw in the news that actor Robert Mitchum had been arrested for marijuana use in 1948.

“My fascination with mind altering drugs had started well before all this,” Walker said. “It was the day Robert Mitchum was busted for marijuana and sent to prison. I don’t know why, but I was absolutely fascinated as a little kid. I didn’t really know who he was ... but he had done this forbidden thing, and it was about states of mind, that was forbidden. Somehow that really fascinated me. That’s definitely when it started. He’s to blame for me.”

Walker was introduced to author Wolfe after Further’s initial tour, when the Pranksters began holding acid tests throughout California and Oregon. Wolfe joined the group to learn of the tests, which he would then immortalize in his novel, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

“Most of us considered him more or less of a nuisance,” Walker said of Wolfe. “After the book came out, I wished I had spoke more with him.”

“[Wolfe] was on the bus when we were doing Los Angeles acid tests,” Walker said. “We were doing a bunch of stuff at the time. He came around right after we came back for half a year in Mexico ... he cruised around with us in his his white suit and refused to take any acid or any other drugs. He did a really good job though. He reported what he saw.”

After the tours

After the acid tests, Walker said, Kesey was busted for marijuana possession and fled to Mexico to avoid trial. The Pranksters followed the author, spending about a year in exile with Kesey. During his time in Mexico, Walker married a woman known as Mountain Girl, who was pregnant with Kesey’s child. Walker said the purpose of the marriage was to act as a father to her child, so she would not be born out of wedlock. The woman, now Carolyn Garcia, would later marry Grateful Dead guitarist and singer, Jerry Garcia.

When the group returned to the United States from Mexico, Kesey was arrested and spent about five months in a California jail for his marijuana charges.

Upon the his return to the states, Walker said he witnessed an obvious cultural shift among young Americans.

“Finally, after we came back from [Mexico], is when it sort of ended,” Walker said. “But by then, there were thousands of hippie buses all over the place. Everybody had one. It was just amazing.”

Walker credited his departed friend Cassady for helping Kesey and the Pranksters ride and promote what walker described as a wave of consciousness that had been ready to break for years.

“Cassady was kind of the link between the Beats and the hippies,” Walker said. “He drove the bus when he was around, but we were the ones that really caught the wave.”

“The fact that is was so different probably made it possible that we were able to do it. Otherwise, we probably would’ve been arrested before we got to Arizona,” Walker said.

“It was an epic journey,” he said.

Life after the ’60s

After returning to Kesey’s farm in Oregon, Walker said he was ready for a new scene and purchased a sailboat with a friend.

“I was ready to get out of it, the whole hippie scene was deteriorating in my view,” he said. “We’d been past the Summer of Love and things were getting a little ugly. I could see it wasn’t going to be something we could sustain.”

The acid tests, full of bright lights, music and drugs, were what Walker described as a good way to “get people started,” but with limited musical talent, the Pranksters were quickly displaced by professional entertainers and musicians.

Walker and a friend, who he knew from his short time studying law at Stanford University, sailed their boat into the South Pacific and into Hawaii. Eventually Walker shipwrecked the schooner, then bought and restored another antique boat.

Walker said he later hooked up with a group of mechanics in California who were working on restoring race cars. It was at that point Walker decided to make the move to Scappoose, searching for a shop that could house the whole crew.

“We worked our way up to buying an Indy car and brought it to Indianapolis in 1992,” Walker said. “We had a car in for the Indy 500 and failed to qualify. We were 34th out of 33.”

With his remaining money, Walker purchased rental properties and hunkered down in Scappoose.

Walker says now he mostly fixes things, keeping up on his rental properties and taking on the occasional car restoration project. Walker has also published multiple written works, including the short story, “Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind,” published as a stand-alone book by Tsunami Books of Eugene and including Walker’s own artwork. The piece was also published as part of anthology of Grateful Dead-related fiction titled, “The Story Teller Speaks, Rare and Different Fictions of the Grateful Dead.” Walker also contributed two articles to the Whole Earth Catalogue, a periodical he described as the “hippie Bible.”

Asked how Walker perceives the 1964 tour, now 50 years later, he answered, “It means more now than it did then because we knew we would have some effect, just from the fact that we looked different from the rest of the world — the rest of the country — so we knew that people would see us and people would react, and they did. But we had no idea, no hint that it would have the effect, as much as it did and as much as it still does.”

“It’s still astonishing to me, but not surprising,” Walker said. “Looking back at it, the country was ready for something — young people were ready for something.”

The Band of Merry Prankster’s footage from the 1964 tour with Kesey was compiled into a 2011 documentary by directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood titled, “Magic Trip, Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place.”