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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

Jul 25, 2019

Ken Kesey, graduating college in Oregon with several wrestling championships and a creative writing degree, made a classic mistake: he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to find himself. He rented a house in Palo Alto (this was the 1950s, when normal people could have houses in Palo Alto) and settled down to write the Great American Novel.

To make ends meet, he got a job as an orderly at the local psych hospital. He also ran across some nice people called “MKULTRA” who offered him extra money to test chemicals for them. As time went by, he found himself more and more disillusioned with the hospital job, finding his employers clueless and abusive. But the MKULTRA job was going great! In particular, one of the chemicals, “LSD”, really helped get his creative juices flowing. He leveraged all of this into his Great American Novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and became rich and famous overnight.

He got his hands on some extra LSD and started distributing it among his social scene – a mix of writers, Stanford graduate students, and aimless upper-class twenty-somethings. They all agreed: something interesting was going on here. Word spread. 1960 San Francisco was already heavily enriched for creative people who would go on to shape intellectual history; Kesey’s friend group attracted the creme of this creme. Allan Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, and Wavy Gravy passed through; so did Neil Cassady (“Dean Moriarty”) Jack Keroauc’s muse from On The Road. Kesey hired a local kid and his garage band to play music at his acid parties; thus began the career of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

Sometime in the early 1960s, too slow to notice right away, they transitioned from “social circle” to “cult”. Kesey bought a compound in the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains, an hour’s drive from SF. Beatniks, proto-hippies, and other seekers – especially really attractive women – found their way there and didn’t leave. Kesey and his band, now calling themselves “the Merry Pranksters”, accepted all comers. They passed the days making psychedelic art (realistically: spraypainting redwood trees Day-Glo yellow), and the nights taking LSD in massive group therapy sessions that melted away psychic trauma and the chains of society and revealed the true selves buried beneath (realistically: sitting around in a circle while people said how they felt about each other).