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A TRUTH THAT SOMETIMES LIES
La Honda, California
I wrote a book early on entitled A Truth That Sometimes Lies, which was essentially a mess, though I liked it at the time and absolutely thought it great work. Now I look back and rationalize that it was necessary, a step in the progression, for what I can write now.
I twist up from the Bay area, great glimpses of the lower bay to my left. Up, up I twist, leaving the dry grassland and entering suddenly sunless redwood groves. They are tall trees, with bases as wide as six feet. Onward, upward I move, toward the fabled town of La Honda.
As a writer I can say that I have had some influences. Perhaps it was the era in which I was young that led to the mantras of Thoreau's Walden and, more jarringly, Jack Kerouac's On The Road. The stream of consciousness writing in that novel, as well as side-kick character Dean Moriarty affected not only I, but an entire generation. A friend of mine recently had a baby girl and named her Cassidy, perhaps more for the Grateful Dead tune than for the real name of Kerouac's side-kick Dean Moriarty, about whom the song was sung.
Groves of redwoods now, beautiful trees, ageless in this mid-summer cool, San Franciscan peninsula air. At a crossroad I am greeted with a hint of what has passed and what is to come: Alice's Restaurant. I do not stop, but proceed across Rt. 35, and on toward my goal. Another book written by Tom Wolfe, The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test, is about another of my literary heroes, Ken Kesey, and the wild band of Merry Pranksters that terrorized the California scene in the 1960's. I first heard of the book One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest during my freshman year at UMass, and remember opening it and not closing it until I had finished, as the morning light angled across my dormitory room. The book flattened me, a run of words so unique, so impressive, that I was moved to learn more of the guy who wrote it, and thus stumbled across the legendary exploits of the madman and his band of drug-crazed misfits so well documented in Wolfe's book. When I discovered that Neil Cassady, the real-life Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's novel, had become Kesey's main sledge-hammer-tossing sidekick, I was completely taken with the story.
We have all had parties, but not many can say our parties ended up in books, or had the Grateful Dead and the Hell's Angels and a hundred other bizarre characters parading through them. Onward toward Kesey's place in La Honda I drive, anxious to see in person where the Great Madness had occurred. I come to a block of single story stores, the U.S Post Office, a barbershop, and a general store next to it. Kitty corner is a great looking joint, the place I was looking for, a place to have a beer and do some serious investigative work.
Inside is one of those great little joints you sometimes come across, wooden ceiling, dance floor and jukebox, rustic and littered behind the bar with currency from across the world. The bartender Stephanie is hungover and laments with her companions of the previous night. A man in his mid-to-late fifties sits nearby, and I ask if he is a La Hondan.
"Moved here on October 31st, 1973," came his reply. "Lived here for ten years. Live in Menlo Park now, I'm back to meet my buddy. My name is Wes, what's yours?"
"Don. Were you here when Kesey was here?"
"Hell no, he was gone by '69, '70. I think they threw him out of California by '70. I came up after reading some stuff by Tom Wolfe, the night I came up was an acid-laced Halloween party - you wouldn't believe it. Craziest thing I ever saw... back then there weren't no police, you know. You could do anything you want. There used to be cars lined up on this road for miles in each direction, everyone sleeping in their cars. Bucket of blood... "
"Back then it wasn't just hippies, there was a whole crowd of redneck natives. And the mix was something - a bucket of blood! Where's his house at? You go on down and where the road curves to the right - just after you cross the creek - just before the creek there's a log house on your right, and after the curve and across the creek Kesey owned the log house on the left. That's where all those parties were. There's a bridge you gotta cross to enter the property."
I drink two Guinness, then overhear one of those great lines you file for the writing future. Guy wandered in, sat next to me and called to Stephanie: "I'll have me one a them large-mouthed Bass." Draft Bass Ale. But really, sitting in a joint in La Honda, I'm thinking... what happened back then? What events conspired to create such a crazy world, a world gone by? The drugs were prevalent, pervasive. Few speak of those days now, today I know lawyers and doctors and school teachers and accountants who once ventured along the rocky path... No, it is not spoken of much now, a mixture of political correctness and mild embarrassment, it would seem. Guys married to soccer moms, with D.A.R.E. bumper stickers on their SUVs. I'm not sure why. I myself get a kick out of announcing, especially in new company, "I love Texas, know why? I love taking LSD down there." This always creates a pregnant pause in the conversation, all eyes glancing about, not sure how to take my words because you don't speak about this stuff today - until I add, "Yeah, LSD, Lone Star Drafts... ." Gets a nervous laugh.
"I'll have one a them large mouthed Basses," I call to the Stephanie.
I also know that Ken Kesey wrote one of the greatest books I have ever read while high on acid. I know that Doc Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates admitted that he was on acid when he threw the only no-hitter in his major league career. John Lennon is said to have taken LSD almost daily during 1967, the year he and Paul McCartney wrote what many consider the greatest pop/rock album of all time, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart's Club Band. Yes, that was Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. I know Ernest Hemingway felt he needed alcohol to spur his creativity. I know that Neil Cassady was wired in the fifties, when he taught Kerouac how to write, so I know there is more to the thing than embarrassment, and regret.
I pull away from Apple Jacks and its motley crew of refugees from the drug wars. I pause and snap a couple of pictures of the place, then meander down around the curve, and pause in front of Kesey's old place. I also know a guy who took acid one day in 1974 and hasn't been seen since. I know Neil Cassady died in Mexico, miles from nowhere along some railroad tracks, where it is said he was walking them, and counting the rails. Hemingway blew his head off with a shotgun. Jerry Garcia was said by a member of the Grateful Dead to have loved heroin more than them. He died at 54 from a heart attack. And alas, I know the great character himself, the great novelist and leader of the Merry Pranksters is also no longer among us.
It was almost forty years ago, for crissakes. I pull over, unwilling to leave La Honda behind. Forty years... I glance up and catch a bit of irony: the street sign in front of me states: Memory Lane. Gets a laugh and off I go, leaving La Honda and the clarity of events forty years past, A Truth That Sometimes Lied, meandering down and away toward the coastal villages, and into my present day fog.