Ken Kesey's Mexico - On the Lam With Ken Kesey-By Lawrence Downes

I am in the ocean, doing nothing, just bobbing.

I am facing a golden-sugar beach, a low pink hotel, a thatched palapa baking in the heat. To my left, a long crescent stretch of bay, a cradling arm around a basket of blue. To my right, a stone jetty. Beyond it, a port full of oceangoing tankers and the cliff-hugging city of Manzanillo. Behind me, the limitless Pacific. All around, pelicans loitering in the swells, which lift and gently drop me, my arms out, toes brushing velvet sand.

I said I was doing nothing, but I’m actually trying to summon somebody: Ken Kesey, novelist, psychedelic prophet, leader of the Merry Pranksters, hero of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” It was here, on this beach, that he took to the waves as I did, back in 1966. He was a hunted man then, on the run from the F.B.I. and Mexican federales, but even he, a man of great aplomb, found time for thoughtful bobbing.

“He’s working on his wave theory. This morning for breakfast he brewed and drank enough weed to put a horse in orbit. He’s been out there for three hours with his eyes closed … imagining that he’s a piece of kelp or a jellyfish.”

The observer is Mountain Girl, one of several Merry Pranksters who followed Kesey to Manzanillo. She watches from the beach while pondering his oracular musings.

“It isn’t by getting out of the world that we become enlightened, but by getting into the world … by getting so tuned in that we can ride the waves of our existence and never get tossed because we become the waves.”

Manzanillo now is not nearly as metaphysical as that account, from a trippy Kesey volume called “Over the Border,” would suggest. It’s a tourist town, a cruise destination, one gem in the resort strand of Mexico’s Pacific coast, cousin to Acapulco, Ixtapa, Puerto Vallarta. It’s a city of strip malls and cineplexes, dive shops and all-inclusive resorts where the help wears uniforms.

But Manzanillo then was jungle outpost, a nowhere port town on a two-lane road from Guadalajara. It was a place where a gringo — even a famous novelist gringo accompanied by family and friends, an abundant supply of drugs and an International Harvester school bus covered in Day-Glo paint and blaring music from a sophisticated loudspeaker system — could reasonably expect to hide out for a while.

You probably know most of the back story. Kesey is a promising writer at Stanford, publishes “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” his first novel, in 1962, and a huge deal is made of it. A circle forms in Palo Alto, bound by Kesey’s charisma and brightened by psychoactive chemicals and Day-Glo paint. It moves to the woods of La Honda, Calif., and roams the country in an old school bus. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters stage a journey into life, art, rock-and-roll and experimental drug use that attracts hangers-on, Hell’s Angels, Tom Wolfe and, inevitably, cops.

Kesey is busted for marijuana possession once, twice. Now he faces real time: a bad trip he does not want to take. He parks a truck on a coastal bluff, writes a fake suicide note — Ocean, Ocean, I’ll beat you in the end — then slips into Mexico in a car trunk.

The headline: “LSD GURU SUICIDE!”

He hides in Puerto Vallarta, then Mazatlán, has B-movie escapes from undercover agents, and ends up in dead-end Manzanillo.

There the circle reconnects. Kesey is joined by his wife, Faye, their young children and a squad of Pranksters, including Mountain Girl, a.k.a Carolyn Adams; Ken Babbs; Mike Hagen; Fetchin’ Gretchen the Slime Queen; and the Beat legend Neal Cassady, with his parrot, Rubiaco.

Kesey and family and Mountain Girl take a little rented house on the beach. The others hang their hammocks across the road, in an abandoned pet-food factory they called La Casa Purina.

The sun pours off the mountains. The Pranksters soak in it, melting in heat so thick they call it Manzanillo mucus. They swim, they fish, they do laundry, they get stoned. They wait for family and lawyers to wire money. Mountain Girl gives birth to Sunshine, her daughter with Kesey, in the charity ward at the Hospital Civil.

The idyll lasted only into the fall. Kesey went home, did his five months in jail, and got right back to being an author and counterculture icon. His was a well-lived, well-loved, well-documented life, and it ended in rural Oregon in 2001.

I flew into Mexico at the end of August, a late arrival to the Kesey fan club, looking to unearth whatever traces remained of the Manzanillo episode.

I brought my 20-year-old stepson, Zak, who came well qualified because of his skill with a camera and fondness for the Grateful Dead, the Pranksters’ house band. I brought my battered undergraduate copy of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and “Mexico on 5 Dollars a Day,” the 1963-64 edition, which reported that Manzanillo’s “prettiest senorita” could be found, along with aspirin and diarrhea treatments, behind the counter of the Farmacia America on Avenida Mexico. I also brought a Hermes 3000 portable typewriter, at which I planned to sit and write in the heat and moonlight, with cold, sweaty beers.

I’m sorry, reader. I did not become a wave and did not find many physical traces of the Kesey interlude, though I came close, much closer than I thought I would.

You can, too, if you go as the Pranksters did, poor and open-minded, and look in the right places. Spend as little money as possible and stick to the far, far southern end of Manzanillo Bay, away from the high-end resorts and close to the jetty and pelicans.

Before I left New York, I had lucked upon Bart Varelmann, who had owned the little Hotel La Posada, one of Manzanillo’s only hotels back then. It’s still there, steps from the beach and that jetty, which borders a channel leading into Mexico’s biggest Pacific port.

Mr. Varelmann told me that the Pranksters had spent the summer next to his hotel, parking their bus beside a huge rock. Mr. Varelmann is now retired to Florida. He said he couldn’t remember Kesey very well, but he remembered the Pranksters and their kids, and the bus.

“The interior of Ken’s bus was a grab-bag cornucopia of strange pills, exotic herbs, magic mushrooms, peyote buttons, LSD, uppers, downers, poppers and of course marijuana,” Mr. Varelmann writes in his self-published memoir, “Innkeeper.” “On a windless day one could get stoned just strolling past the bus. A battery-powered tape machine enhanced the scene with a dreamy, pre-rock music by the likes of Mile Davis, Stan Kenton and the Modern Jazz Quartet. We hung a lot at Ken’s magical bus that summer.”

There’s a problem with Mr. Varelmann’s tantalizing story. He insists that it all happened in 1963, which is impossible. Still, factoring in the memory-glazing effects of time and heavy drug use, it was the best lead I had, so I booked a room at La Posada for a week.

The first night, Zak and I walked through downtown Manzanillo, still bustling near midnight. Sidewalk food stands glowed under bare bulbs; it was a carnival of grease, of chorizo and chilies, roasted corn ears and ice pops. Looking up in the narrow streets, I saw thousands of swallows nestled for the night on telephone lines, evenly spaced, like zipper teeth. We had a late dinner, bistek tacos and pulpo gallego, octopus in olive oil and garlic, soft like butter.

The next morning, Zak sleeping, I slipped onto the beach to await the sunrise. The windy tumult of the day before was gone; it was still but not dark. Klieg lights from hotels cast a prison-camp glare, and development all along the bay cast a pallid wash of light into the sky. The most distant lights shimmered in the heat. The stifling, hushed air, the sand and thumping waves all seemed to be waiting for the sun to rise to ignite the conflagration of another stifling Manzanillo day.

My other source of Kesey memories was Robert Stone, the novelist, who had been there. Although he listened kindly when I called, he could not answer all my questions about addresses and landmarks. He confessed that it had been 40 years ago, and he too had been stoned a lot of the time. The buildings were already ruins in ’66, he said. “We weren’t much into infrastructure.”

But in his 2007 memoir, “Prime Green,” Mr. Stone shares a stunningly vivid memory of Manzanillo:

“In the moments after dawn, before the sun had reached the peaks of the sierra, the slopes and valleys of the rain forest would explode in green light, erupting inside a silence that seemed barely to contain it. When the sun’s rays spilled over the ridge, they discovered dozens of silvery waterspouts and dissolved them into smoky rainbows…

“All of us, stoned or otherwise, caught in the vortex of dawn, would freeze in our tracks and stand to, squinting in the pain of the light, sweating, grinning.

“We called that light Prime Green; it was primal, primary, primo.”

Me, I saw no prime green. I couldn’t see any green from where I was. I watched mountainous container ships heading, I supposed, to China.

Mr. Stone remembers as heartbreaking the morning bugle call from the downtown navy base that echoed across the bay some mornings, when the wind was right.

As if on cue, dozens of young men, recruits from another nearby navy base, flooded onto the beach in formation for daily exercises. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro. They did arm rolls, shoulder shrugs, then took off their T-shirts for a swim.

Zak and I took the Kesey search to downtown Manzanillo, to the Archivo Municipal, to find phone records for a Purina factory or for the Chinese grocer who had been the Pranksters’ landlord — it must have been old Hector Yuen, some people told me, but another old-timer said, no, it was a guy named Sam. A helpful official leafed page by page through the fragile onion-skin pages of the hand-typed 1964 Manzanillo phone book, but found nothing.

Downtown was famous then for the huge jacaranda tree in the central square. Now it is dominated by an immense sculpture, in blue steel, of a leaping sailfish. The shops on the waterfront and the steeply raked slopes behind cater to the sport fishing and cruise ship crowd with T-shirts and tequila.

Zak and I spent a lot of time hunting in graveyards for Mr. Yuen and looking for ruins with the Purina checkerboard. We found Mr. Yuen but not Sam, and no trace of La Casa Purina or the Polynesian bar where, in Mr. Wolfe’s and Mr. Stone’s accounts, a mysterious Mexican policeman who called himself Agent No. 1 got drunk and bragged about recovering Liz Taylor’s stolen jewelry and shooting American potheads.

We visited the still-dreary Hospital Civil, where Mountain Girl, then 19, gave birth to Sunshine. She remembers one terrifying night when beach crabs, amok under the full moon, climbed into bed with her and her newborn.

One night I saw a crab crossing the highway. It brandished its claws at my headlights before scuttling into the dark.

One of my goals was to recreate the impoverished pleasures of Pranksterish beachside living, so even as my investigation faltered, I relished chilling with Zak. The Posada had a big wooden icebox with beer and soda, and at night we would grab bottles and eat tacos. In the morning I would take my typewriter under the poolside palapa and knock out an account of the previous day’s fruitless search, now and then gazing out through the fronds at the horizon, as if through untrimmed bangs.

One calm morning, with snorkels and fins, Zak and I slid into the womb-warm water and headed for the jetty. The water near shore was sandy-turbid, but it cleared when we reached the rocks. We swam amid silver clouds of fish, little three-inch tuna replicas; needlefish; the occasional sea cucumber; puffer; Technicolor goby.

The microtunas swam in school-fish unison, and I was suddenly struck at the synchronicity of their movements, how their thoughts were wired together across space — hundreds of separate beings, each doing his thing, following his own trip, whatever his freak was, nibbling this, chasing that — and yet moving as if with one brain, darting up, down, across in this riotous liquid carnival, this Day-Glo ocean.

Kesey was fixated on that phenomenon, which he called intersubjectivity, and I wondered if he would have found the snorkeling as mind-altering as I did.

Zak and I figured the best route back in time was probably out of town, up into the mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur for the primo greenness Mr. Stone wrote about.

We took our rented Nissan Tsuru up the highway to Colima, the state capital, through coconut forests and a roadside district of coconut and mango vendors.

We climbed through road cuts and beside steep mountain ridges, past signs marked “Zona de Derrumbes.”

What’s “derrumbes”? I wondered.

“Death,” said Zak. (The right answer was “rock slides.”)

After Minatitlán, a tiny village, we took a fork to the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve, a Unesco-recognized park where subsistence farmers coexist with untouched forests, jaguars and orchids. We continued up the volcanic slopes on an increasingly iffy dirt-and-stone road through a landscape of streaky limestone and cow pies.

Up and up we went on the switchback road, into the cloud zone, shrouded by rolling mist, the mountainside slipping in and out of view: a tightly textured green, like low-pile carpet. Butterflies flitted beside the road. Rain-filled tire ruts were thick with tadpoles. The road kept getting more deeply gouged and steeper, so steep as make me worry about falling over backward.

I wondered what I would do if the car died or some derrumbes happened. We passed a roadside death shrine as the wind picked up and clouds closed in and it started to rain.

We inched through the mud and prayed silently. The rain grew gentler and the sky cleared, and I stopped the car beside a staggering mountain view, a misty vista laced with shimmering tree branches laden with bromeliads and lichens. Two woodpeckers clambered up a fallen tree trunk. It was green — prime green — all around.

The rain had broken the heat. I got out to savor the coolness, extended my arms and looked up into the droplets, through the branches at the gray backlit sky and, exultant, naked under my clothing, squinting in the light, stood sweating, grinning. It was primal, primary, primo.


Reprinted with permission from The New York Times