A Story of Further
Remembering the weekends painting on Further is like remembering a dream. Which if you consider the legacy of Further, is much like what it should be. A relic of an era of alternate consciousness, freedom, music, family, and what some call the hippy way of life. She still travels with a gang of Merry Pranksters under the caring direction of Ken Kesey’s son, Zane. In May 2015, after the filming of a new documentary about the bus, and before its movie release, I was privileged to attend the “Paint-Revamp” party, in which the aesthetics of the bus were enhanced, restored, and preserved. I won’t pretend to know everything about Ken Kesey, the Further Bus, the Merry Pranksters, or the history of its travels, because I don’t. This is just one story of many surrounding the mythos of Further. May there be many for generations to come.
“I should have brought my paint pens.” I told my husband Avery, as we bumbled along in his 1948 Cadillac hearse across the back roads of Oregon.
“We’ll grab some in Eugene.” He said, his hand confidently swaying the loose steering of the old wheel. If there was anything unconfident about his driving of a monstrously large Cadillac hearse, it was only in the directions getting into town.
Rust ornamentally donned the Cadillac’s fenders, and the old car had an inexplicable peaceful presence that reminds me fondly of a pleasant Hawaiian ukulele player. Yes, we call him a he; you can’t have that much life and not be called something. He was christened “Herman” after the memorable TV character, and by the several Herman Figurines that were painted and attached to various levers and knobs throughout the car: relics we had collected from Jimmy Flintstone in car events in Las Vegas and Detroit.
Avery builds cars, which is how we became acquainted with Further and her crew of Merry Pranksters in the first place.
I remember seeing Further for the first time as I walked into the backyard of the auto restoration shop Avery works for. Further was getting some much-needed electrical repairs, though you could tell she would rather be out getting her picture taken.
I know this because I asked her; she was quite distraught about it.
I reassured her --as I admired her eclectic and vivid artworks, ranging from a poised and seductive replica of Michelangelo’s David, to an ironic comic of Dorothy and the gang from Oz thinking “Oh Shit”-- that she would be out again soon better than before. Even in the back lot of the high-end auto restoration shop, surrounded by classic cars and racing machines, she looked like a gem among vagabonds.
Somehow in that little bus encounter, it was made know to the Further Bus driver, Derek, (A laid back guy not afraid to get his hands dirty with mechanical repairs.) that I was a painter.
This was probably Avery’s fault.
Avery welded a new music stand for the Bus, and I painted it. It was happily dubbed “The Tree of Life.” I’m very proud of that music stand; it’s the work of Avery and I.
Word wafted of a paint restoration later on that year. Avery gave Derek our number, and I waited like a kid-on-Christmas to find out when or if I could go put paint on a masterpiece that people happen to call a bus.
A year later I was staring intensely at a selection of paintbrushes, paints, pens, and paint pens, at a craft store in Eugene. Derek said they would have paint and brushes and everything any of the painters would need, but Further was special, I wanted to make sure I had the tools I knew how to use.
“I knew I should have brought those.” I mumbled. My obsessive calculations had probably attracted the attentions of the other customers. Avery, ever supportive, smiled awkwardly at the perturbed onlookers and somehow helped me narrow it down. We left, with one thought echoing in our ears. These are expensive…. But damn she’ll look good.
Damn, she’ll look good.
We crossed a bridge and drove down the most picturesque, lush, green, and magical stretch of farm road this side of Oz. It was familiar in the way imagination says hello to a good dream.
“Kesey…” I said to Avery, many months, before when he first told me about the Further Bus.
“Yeah, he wrote a bunch of books,” said Avery.
“Kesey!” I remembered, and felt instantly ashamed for not remembering sooner. “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.”
In high school, I always arrived to first class long before sunup because my bus came early. I sat in the buzzing, florescent-lit hallways, surrounded by white walls, cold white floors, and locked classroom doors. I would stare out the black windows, too tired to read and too awake to daydream. I remember the strains of an outdated and overpopulated school, and the continuous fear of a shooting or mass violence to occur, like they reported on the news every week.
I woke up at 5:45am, caught the bus at 6:15, got to school at 7:15, and went to work at 4pm, got off at 10pm. I woke up in the dark and got home in the dark.
I thought of Chief Brodmen’s notion of “The Fog”, and wondered why public schools felt like a mental asylum. Our rebellious clothing and artwork were McMurphy’s triumphant expressions of being alive, every condescending adult was an incarnate of Ms. Ratchet, and every ditched spirit assembly was a stolen fishing trip.
I knew of Ken Kesey.
The Cadillac slowed in front of one of the green farms on the old back road. A gate was open, and we drove in.
I saw a score of people working around a big 1947 International bus, alive in all her painted glory. I grinned. “Hello Further.”
“Black is pretty dark, are you sure?” Zane Kesey asked me, skeptically. I had gathered a few armfuls of spray paint around Further’s giant wooden toolbox and had started spraying down some dark lines as a base coat. It looked pretty dismal.
I was aiming to make the base-coat look something like an orchid, though I realized partway through that it also looked something like a vagina. I remembered an old hippy woman in my college painting classes who was very vocal about interpreting any art remotely symmetrical and round shaped as ovaries. I vowed to not make this toolbox look anything like ovaries, or a vagina.
It was day two of the painting re-vamp for Avery and I. The day before had been mostly filled with sanding off Further’s primer coating. I’ve cleaned oil paintings that were a few centuries old; there’s a strange feeling that the ghosts of long ago are watching you. Sometimes they’re guiding your hand to make sure you get the grime and not the paint, sometimes they're screaming at you not to fuck-up their masterpieces. Sanding primer off of Further felt much the same, without the screaming.
Derek and some of the others had also pulled out Further’s toolbox and painted it white. It was a large wooden truck that was strapped to the back deck bellow the ladder to the roof, mostly used as a footstool.
On the first day I didn’t really know how I would contribute to the Further Bus. The protocol at that point was: find something you feel inspired to do, talk to Zane, see if he goes for it.
I fell in love with the old clunky wooden toolbox. I grew up around the romance of a toolbox and the people that made and fixed things. I knew that the best thing I could do for Further was give her a beautiful toolbox. I asked Zane, --rather nervously-- if I could paint the box, and he went for it.
It was now a little while later and the dark undercoat that was supposed to be something like an orchid --and not something like a vagina-- looked very out of character next to the bright and majestic 1947 International.
“Yeah,” I said, “This is the undercoat, the paint pens go over the top.”
“Opaque?” said Zane, with a grin I think only Zane Kesey knows how to do.
“There’s a plan.” I nodded.
“Ok,” he said encouragingly.
Whoa, Zane Kesey trusted me with the Further toolbox.
That’s a moment. Holy crap thank you.
Though the little voice in my head continued to jest: it still looks like a vagina.
Riding in the Further Bus was like being on a spaceship.
After several hours of sanding the first day, there was some fiberglass work that needed to be done on the top deck. A wild-haired fellow by the name of Thumpa was doing the work, and acted with as many nerves about working on The Further Bus as I felt.
Fiberglass is weird stuff. You mix an intense chemical solution and paint it over special cloth. It’s like paper Mache with really itchy material, and glue that can spontaneously combust because the mixing process makes it hot. Avery and I helped hold tarps and hand down paintbrushes as Thumpa worked, smoothing and gluing, and letting it dry. (It looks great, Thumpa.)
The fiberglass was sanded down and smoothed after it dried, and it was decided that the best way to get rid of all the itchy dust was to take a drive and let the wind do the work.
Have you ever ridden in a magical caravan with crew of enlightening, joyful gypsy buddies while driving through the clouds, and rocking out? Me neither, but that’s what it felt like.
Avery and I sat together on the colorful carpeted benches of Further with our backs to the windows, enjoying the ride with people we didn’t know, but shared a joyful camaraderie because they were there with us on Further. We drove down the old green farm roads of Oz, and I experienced what it was like to be Merry Prankster.
We whooped and drove with the windows down. A few people did handstands in the isle as we drove, gripping their feet on the roof before tumbling down. We waved to everyone, and flashed the peace sign to all the cars going by, or to no one. It didn’t matter.
I comprehended there in that rumbling, colorful spaceship that the psychedelic 60’s had nothing to do with hippies, drugs, and war protests, but of living and celebrating the greatness of life as we live it. Novel concept. Though, I was saddened to realized that in this day and age living happily and freely is a novel concept.
The chains rattled and bounced as we drove down the road, the sun lit the zealously colored roof panels, and the wind tossed our hair around. We were all filthy from working, but no one cared. I had a bandana around my neck, and I felt like a kid playing cowboy instead of an artist protecting my lungs from paint particles.
Light. Wind. Color. Joy.
The drive was just to get the fiberglass of the roof, but in Further, it was a voyage through happy eternity. On those few miles of bouncing green Oregon backroads, we were free.
About two hours into painting on the toolbox my eyes started to get weird. I had been hunched over the box with my paint pens, making rhetorical patterns with different colors. One of the secrets to effective abstract art is to imply the principles of a fractal image; a skill that Jackson Pollock was doing before anyone knew what a fractal image was. It’s a lot of repetitive shapes, making a bigger shape into a bigger shape, into a bigger shape. Like the patterns on a leaf, Phi, and the golden rule.
Science makes good art.
The paint on the toolbox was beginning to look like something, and I was glad because I really wanted it to be good enough for Further. I shook out my wrist, rubbed my eyes, and looked around for my water bottle. I stopped a moment to enjoy the beauty of the pasture and the luminous grey clouds in the west. I swear that farm is really located in Middle Earth, or Oz, or some magical place in-between. I tracked down Zane and asked if the water from the spigot was safe to drink.
“Oh yes,” he said, “It’s good water.”
I pulled up the spigot handle and listened to it clatter onto the tall grass. I filled up my water bottle and drank. It was sweet and clear and wonderful. I wondered if this inconspicuous spigot was really the mystical fountain of youth. I looked back up at the sky as I drank more water.
“Nah, its just Oregon.”
I remembered my mom telling me about her visit the Oregon State Hospital in Salem when she was little; the actual hospital they filmed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. One of our relatives was getting over the trauma of losing an adult son, and they came to visit her. When I told my mom I was reading Cuckoo’s Nest for class, she told me that a woman at the asylum wouldn’t stop staring at her, but when mom turned to look at her, the woman screamed and ran away.
This made the narrative of Cuckoo’s Nest more potent for me because I knew that place was real.
Ken Kesey was the first Oregonian Author I had read who wrote about Oregon, and it felt like I was reading a piece of home. The Kesey’s and the Further Bus are Oregon treasures; legacies that must be preserved and respected.
And Zane was right, the water was good.
There were many marvelous people at the painting-revamp that weekend doing various jobs on Further: hanging out, cooking food, passing out food, passing out, singing, and playing the ukulele. Avery was helping me on the toolbox, drawing a fantastic bull like creature on one of the side panels. It was many hours into painting and laughing and enjoying everyone’s company. My arm freckles progressively grew darker from a tan. A few short months after we painted on the Further Bus, marijuana would become officially legal in Oregon.
I don’t like to take things that alter my perception of reality, but I treasure the experiences of art and music that show you realities you didn’t know existed. Further is a strange conduit of crazy and weird in all the right ways. From an artistic perspective, she is a perfect interactive sculpture; you literally sit in her and let her take you were she goes. There should be textbooks talking about how well Further does Art.
It takes an incredible amount of vulnerability to reach out and see the grander realities of existence because you are equally exposed to the good and the bad. If you take acid, you could have a good acid trip or bad acid trip. You won’t have a trip at all unless you are brave enough to take the journey, but drugs are not the only way to take a trip.
I recommend riding in a hearse, myself.
I asked Zane if we could visit Ken’s grave. “Sure!” he said, like it was great idea. Avery and I followed a path behind one of the dark wood buildings up a little grassy hill. In a much different world than the restoration party bellow, was a small fenced cemetery, the trees of the swamp loomed behind it.
There is a purple bench in the Kesey cemetery. I sat on it silently with Avery.
The grass rustled serenely and soaked up the warmth of the sunny afternoon. A few grey clouds added to the beauty behind the graves, where green pastures flowed through the waves of hills, valleys, and patches of old forest like the backdrop of a Rembrandt. A few trees lined the back of the two headstones, and a short metal fence surrounded the space. Jed Kesey, who passed in a tragic van accident with the University of Oregon Wrestling team at the age of 21, and Ken Kesey are written on the two markers in front of us. Avery and I sat silently together on the purple bench with the rustling grass and the two well cared-for headstones.
I thought of my own brother, who died of a heart defect a year before I was born. I miss him in a terrible way that I can’t describe because I never knew him. His ashes were buried with my grandpa; the next of us to go. I remember seeing the little box of ashes when my mom brought it out. It never occurred to me he had not been buried. I was too young to go to the funeral, but we took flowers to the grave often, and next to my grandpa’s name on the gravestone was my brother’s name, with a picture of a teddy bear. My mom told me that his box of ashes was resting in grandpa’s hand. I felt great relief in this, relief my young mind couldn’t comprehend, but I felt it again on that little green cemetery on the hill.
They were together. There was love in that place.
We sat for many minutes in silence, each contemplating our own peace about death. We hadn’t spoken a word since we unlatched the gate. There are some places you don’t need to speak. Silence is a beautiful thing about a cemetery. It’s a peace that can be frightening if you look away, but all encompassing if you look at it with complete acceptance.
There are five hearses on our property back home. I have felt many beautiful and sad things sitting in them. From calm peace, like what I feel in ‘Herman’, to closed-off tension, and despair, like I feel in the hearse that once served as an ambulance.
Further feels like a cardboard box-fort with wheels, an awesome stereo, and a roof that wouldn’t cave in if you stepped on it.
Automobiles have hearts made of engines, circulatory systems made of tubing and lubrication, and nervous systems of wire and electricity. They eat finely-aged and well-cooked dinosaur bones, and if you crank the piston’s full of gasoline, spark, and air, they live. They are a lot like people, and if you listen, sometimes they will tell you their stories.
There are few things and places left on this earth that feel real. Art feels real, Hearses feel real, hospitals feel real, schools can feel real, libraries definitely feel real, and cemeteries feel real. (Nature IS real.)
No gloom existed here in the little green outdoor mausoleum. An old stained-glass window rests behind the headstones, and it felt like we sat in the most holy church on earth. It was ethereal.
Silence. Light. Peace.
Little relics adorn the headstones, love is in this place.
Engraved on Kesey’s headstone is: “Sparks Fly Upward”.
I think of the holes in Avery’s shirts when he welds and sparks fly on the cotton.
I stretched my fingers and wondered if the paint and dirt on my hands is disrespectful, then I remembered were I was and decided Ken wouldn’t have minded. Hope you don’t mind either, Jed.
Sparks Fly Upward.
Sparks Fly Upward.
I don’t remember the exact moment the toolbox was done, but I remember thinking it wouldn’t be right to return the toolbox to it’s place bellow the deck ladder without giving it feet.
I put two feet on one end of the lid: a good luck for all the travelers, and sure footing for all those on deck.
I put two hands on the other side: good luck for the hands that work to keep the bus fixed and going, for the artists who worked on her, and for high-fives to all Pranksters.
It seemed fitting for a toolbox.
Avery’s panel that looked strangely like a bull may be my favorite. It’s unfortunately the side no one will ever see, as it is facing into the bus. It’s the treat for the fixers and mechanics.
“We’ll have to get a clear mat to protect it!” said Zane, who smiled cheerfully at the toolbox. “Cool!”
Further is about Family, and not always the blood kind.
The weekend after we finished painting the toolbox, Avery and I were in town with my in-laws. Avery texted Derek if we could come out and see the bus again.
The six of us drove in my sister-in-law’s 1965 Ford Falcon back to the farm. The painting re-vamp party lasted for over a week, but we had to go back to work. I hadn’t expected to see Further again for a while.
We walked up and said hello. Zane gave Avery and I a jolly hug. He handed me a paint pen and I outlined the fin of a freshly sproosed up whale tail. They had bought some of the paint pens I used on the toolbox, and Further supported many new artistic additions from other skilled artists since I last saw her.
Somehow we got into the passenger side mirror, beside the doors.
We all painted on that bar.
Zane took this picture:
We went and visited Ken and Jed and the little purple bench again. No one spoke this time either. We sat on the bench and wondered about our own mortality. Candles had been lit recently by the headstones, earlier in the week they had a ceremony.
Sparks Fly Upward.
We drove home in the Falcon, six of us crammed on old bench seats, feeling lucky and alive. There was paint on my hand were I had pressed in the paint pens to get them to flow, even though I knew the paint wouldn’t be gone by work on Monday.
On those back roads of Oz, I felt no less enlightened on the Further Bus as I did in the Cadillac Hearse or the Falcon Station wagon. This is beautiful Oregon, these are my people, this is my home, and Further is a magnifier for that remarkable reality.
Thanks Further, here’s to the stories.
Never stop making them.
12/6/2015 02:08:07 pm
Thank you for sharing.
12/7/2015 01:32:05 am
Thank you Ken Babbs for the link to this story.
12/9/2015 08:31:07 pm
Always loved Ken. Thank you for keeping his legacy alive. He's proud and graciously humbled by all you've all done. Love you all peace.
7/28/2016 07:48:50 pm
This is great!!!!!!
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