No Left Turn Unstoned in La Honda

Ken Kesey's old stomping grounds inspire flashbacks to a psychedelic brand of nostalgia.

Goat Trails

by Ryan Masters

Feb. 23, 2015--The rolling grasslands of La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve are like a sublime hallucination this time of year; their contours, a sensuous geometry. A breeze sweeps through the clearing and the lush green shivers with life. The velvety slopes make me want to strip off my clothes and perform wild, flailing somersaults down the hill. Experience, however, suggests I resist the urge. This idea has already been filed under “Better in Theory than Practice.”

It’s a warm, cloudless February day. A hawk wheels in the blue sky overhead, hunting for rodents in the emerald meadow. Beside me, lichen-covered boulders squat like ancient Celtic tombs. Thick groves of redwood and Douglas fir form walls along the edges of the meadows, birds flitting about in their shadowy ramparts. Ten miles west, a large swell pounds San Gregorio State Beach—the detonating waves a thick lip of white foam.

This area is considered the gateway to the San Mateo Coast for good reason. From this vista point, the landscape unfurls like a vivid tapestry all the way to the water. The La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve is a relatively new entity; in fact, its 5,759-acres still include working ranch land. The long-term master plan for the preserve was finalized in 2012; its first phase of implementation will be complete in 2017; its last in 2042. As a result, I had to apply for a permit to explore the unmarked trails that wind through the grasslands and forests.

Today, I am thinking about psychedelics. La Honda Creek, which forms the eastern boundary of the preserve, runs through the area’s most famous property—the house of legendary author and LSD pioneer Ken Kesey. This is Merry Prankster country.

Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, bought the three-acre property in 1963. For two years, the wild, mind-expanding bacchanals he dubbed Acid Tests would become the stuff of legend and feature a Who’s Who of Aquarian icons including the Grateful Dead, Hells Angels, Hunter S. Thompson, and Neal Cassady. The Acid Tests would eventually be staged at larger, public venues in the Bay Area and even cross the country in a psychedelic bus dubbed “Furthur,” but it all began out here in La Honda.

Kesey is arguably the most famous of the psychedelic pioneers for a number of reasons: 1) He was a brilliant author who wrote a legitimate American classic; 2) He was one of the first Americans to experience LSD as a volunteer test subject in the CIA’s mind control program, Project MKUltra; 3) His antics were immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; and 4) The guy had an epic flare for the dramatic.

Having come to “maturity” in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1980s, I obsessively romanticized Kesey, The Merry Pranksters and the 1960s mythology as a whole. In high school, I once drove over to La Honda and walked around Kesey’s property, which was unoccupied at the time. I remember finding faded swatches of DayGlo Paint on tree trunks, wires strung through the branches and odd pieces of plastic moldering beneath the redwoods—the remains of some of the most legendary and culturally impactful parties in American history. At the time, the 1960s had seemed like some ancient Dionysian era that the older generation spoke about in revered tones. I felt like I’d missed the Utopian apex of human civilization.

Last summer, I met a longhaired kid who looked and dressed so much like Kurt Cobain that it could have been a costume. Born the same year Nirvana released Bleach, he waxed on and on about having “missed” the early 1990s in the Northwest. While I patiently listened to him tell me about a time and place I had actually been (in a manner eerily reminiscent of my teenage self), it occurred to me that this kid’s “historic” perception of Grunge™ was identical to my teenage perception of the Acid Tests on that day in 1989 when I trespassed on Kesey’s property wearing a hippie poncho, Lennon glasses and a ziggurat of bushy hair.

As I take in the shimmering grasslands of the La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve, I imagine naked, squealing hippies somersaulting down the hill while the sky rains psychedelic fire through their pulsating brains. I wonder if that ever happened.

I didn’t have the heart to tell the Cobain kid that the early 1990s weren’t nearly as great as the music makes them seem.

The Holy Goof

While the Preserve remains mostly unmarked and closed to the public, its nearly empty map does highlight one point of interest: “Big Tree.” It is precisely that—one of the last remaining old-growth trees in the area. That thought in itself would normally depress me some, but I’m in a good mood winding my way through the forest.

This particular redwood tree is 14 feet in diameter and nestled in a shady canyon. “La Honda” actually means “the deep,” as in deep canyon. Before the turn of the century, the area was noted for its lumber and shingle mills. Oxen used to drag these trees out of the canyons and down to the mills. Brutal, backbreaking, dangerous work.

Up until World War II, La Honda remained in a fairly pristine state, visited only by weekend and summer vacationers from the Peninsula and San Francisco. By all accounts, it was a forager’s paradise: strawberries, blackberries, red-ripe thimbleberries and hazelnuts were abundant; La Honda Creek was thick with trout and crawfish; the hunting was good.

But after World War II, people discovered the area and ranchers began clearing large areas of forest to graze their livestock and build their ranches. The irony is not lost on me. If not for the clear-cut forest, I would not have my gorgeous, rolling grasslands.

There are those who argue that everything is natural. Humans are a part of nature, they argue, so everything we do is, by definition, natural—even detonating thermonuclear devices or leeching minerals out of the earth with cyanide. “You wouldn’t call termites or gophers unnatural simply because they destroy things, would you?” they righteously demand.

This, of course, is a tremendously dangerous philosophy—especially when “God” finds His Way into the context. While I intellectually grasp the argument, proponents of a modern-day Manifest Destiny have to remember that God has a wondrously effective way of managing the populations of species that consume too much.

As I stand beneath the preserve’s last old-growth redwood, I consider that humans have failed to solve the world’s major problems because we tend to omit a key component from the equation: God, Creator, Nature, the Universe, the Holy Goof…whatever you want to call It. Unless we find a way to account for the Divine, God will most certainly insert Itself into the equation—and we may not like the solution.

Unfortunately, I suspect that most of the powerful people in this world are batshit crazy.

“Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn’t it?” (Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)

On the Bus

I actually met Ken Kesey once. On Feb. 28, 1991 in Eugene, Oregon. I’d bought a ticket to hear Dr. Hunter S. Thompson speak at the Hilton Ballroom. I was a freshman at the University of Oregon covering the good doctor’s appearance for the Willamette Valley something or other. (No record for this now-defunct publication exists in the Internet Age and for the life of me I can’t remember what it was called.)

Hunter Thompson had escaped his keepers while at a local bar and was nowhere to be found. After an hour of waiting, the ballroom’s capacity crowd of hippies, punks and would-be Gonzo types was restless. Kesey was a local fixture. He’d grown up across the river in Springfield, and returned to the area in 1965 after faking his suicide, fleeing to Mexico and doing six months at a San Mateo “honor farm” for growing weed on the La Honda property.

In an ill-advised attempt to mollify the surly punks and Gonzo devotees, Kesey leapt up in front of the room and began spinning yarns about his adventures with Thompson. I was delighted. But much of the jaded crowd was unimpressed with Kesey’s stale hippie shtick and began heckling him—one obnoxious dude in particular. Kesey pulled out his wallet, gave the guy ten bucks of his own money and told him to, “Get the fuck out, asshole.” Everyone cheered.

Shortly after the heckler was 86’d, Hunter Thompson slipped in through a rear door and took his seat on the stage. He did not disappoint. Completely addled, he rambled nearly incoherently. U.S. troops had just recaptured Kuwait. In hindsight, his thoughts on Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein and the motivations behind long-term U.S. involvement in the region were chillingly accurate. He also mumbled at length about sex on acid and the state of the NFL, and called George H.W. Bush “the meanest yuppie who ever lived.”

At one point, members of the crowd approached the stage and offered up various drugs—joints, a bindle of white powder, a half sheet of acid—as tribute. He accepted them with a sage nod, his reptilian lips clamped down around his cigarette holder.

When Thompson was done spouting his wisdom and nonsense, the crowd rushed the stage. I had no press credentials and no plan on obtaining an interview so I waited patiently at the rear of the mob lamely clutching my notebook and pen. By the time I reached the stage, it was empty. Feeling foolish and disappointed, I wandered out of the Hilton.

In a dark parking lot beside the hotel, a 1939 International Harvester bus was squeezed in between a building and a semi-trailer. It was “Further II,” a replica of Kesey’s original psychedelic school bus. The shades were pulled, but there were lights on inside and nobody standing out front.

When I knocked on the door, to my amazement, it immediately opened. Ken Babbs, the legendary Vietnam War helicopter pilot and Merry Prankster, was in the driver’s seat.

“Whattya want?” he asked, his hand on the door crank. Struck mute, I simply showed him the notebook and pen in my hand.

“Kid out here wants to ask you a couple questions,” Babbs said over his shoulder.

“Let him on!” Someone yelled from the back of the bus. Timidly, I boarded the fake version of the legendary bus. It was a lot smaller than I’d imagined. Most of the seats had been removed and replaced with furry dwarf benches. In the rear of the bus, Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson held court at a round poker table covered in green felt. I didn’t recognize the handful of other people on the bus. Kesey was looking at me. Thompson appeared to be intently studying the backs of his hands.

“We’re in the middle of something here,” Kesey said. “So I’ll save us all some time and give you all the advice you’ll ever need: Less fact. More story.”

Everyone other than the preoccupied Thompson appeared to find it uproariously funny when I scribbled this down. Thanking him, I stepped back into the dark parking lot and the bus doors swished closed behind me.

I’d been on the bus. Granted it was a replica of the bus. And it was 1991. But in the immortal words of Kurt Cobain, “Oh well, whatever, never mind.”

The Scene of the Crime

I leave La Honda Open Preserve, drive east on Skyline Boulevard and turn right on to Highway 84 at Alice’s Restaurant in Woodside. It’s Saturday and the place is crammed with weekend bikers who roar through the mountains in shiny packs of leather and plastic.

I descend the curves of 84 into the town of La Honda. A mile past Apple Jack’s, the legendary honky-tonk and biker bar, I pull over to the side of the road and park. Across the highway is a short bridge that leads across La Honda Creek to Ken Kesey’s old house.

It’s been extensively renovated since I was here some 25 years ago. Apparently there are new owners. Kesey had to sell the place in 1997 to pay an out-of-court settlement to a San Mateo County sheriff’s deputy who suffered severe neck injuries after falling off the bridge.

Kesey’s life wasn’t particularly easy after the 1960s. Other than perhaps Sometimes a Great Notion, which he finished writing right here in La Honda, he never published another book with the same impact or power as his first. In 1984, his son Jed was killed in an automobile accident and by many accounts this had a profound impact on the man. Kesey’s last important publication before his death on Nov. 10, 2001 was an essay in Rolling Stone calling for peace in the wake of 9/11.

That said, he had a far better run than Kurt Cobain.

But that’s the thing about heroes, isn’t it? In real life, they don’t ride a palomino across rolling grasslands into a Santa Cruz Mountain sunset. The ones out there on the edge either fall off or are eaten alive before our eyes in torturous little bites.

And while these men and women may have seemed insane in the context of their own time, it eventually becomes clear how lucid they really were.

That, of course, is what makes them heroes.

# # #

To download a permit to hike La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve, visit the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and email it back. If you need help, you can call (650) 691-1200. You’ll receive a map, directions, and codes that give you access through a locked gate to a secure parking area.

Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the world at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes a weekly column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.

More Goat Trails by Ryan Masters:
Hiking Through Quicksilver and ‘The Legend of New Almaden’
At Home on Sierra Azul’s Priest Rock Trail
Bodysurfing: The Ecstatic Motion