Psychedelics, Literature, and Counterculture of the ‘60s: Ken Kesey in Menlo Park

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A pivotal moment in Menlo Park’s history unfolded during the 1960s, a decade synonymous with cultural revolution, psychedelics, and societal upheaval. At a quick glance, the town may seem preppy, rich, and stale, but it was once a hotbed of vibrance and volatility, thanks to the influence of one man—Ken Kesey.

In 1958, Kesey secured a spot in Stanford’s Creative Writing program through a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. He moved with his wife, Faye Haxby, from Eugene, Oregon to West Menlo Park. Initially drawn to the financial support that came with his academic pursuits, Kesey soon found himself embarking on a different kind of journey. Encouraged by psychologist Vic Lowell, Kesey became a voluntary “drug taster” for Project MK Ultra at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital in 1961. Kesey consumed a diverse array of psychoactive substances, including LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, DMT, AMT, and cocaine, for $75 per session.

It was within the surreal landscape of these mind-altering experiences that Kesey’s creative genius began to flourish, eventually giving rise to his most renowned work, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The 1962 novel delves into themes of insanity, evil, and the repercussions of medical malpractice within the confines of a mental institution. Kesey’s first-hand encounters with psychedelic substances lent a unique and provocative perspective to his storytelling.

The Merry Pranksters’ bus, ‘Further’

In 1975, the novel was adapted into a critically acclaimed film that garnered numerous accolades, including an Academy Award for Best Picture, a Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay, and the soundtrack was even nominated for a Grammy Award. Its numerous accolades solidified One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a cultural touchstone. 

Kesey’s influence extended beyond the literary realm, manifesting in the formation of the Merry Pranksters, a group of fourteen friends dedicated to challenging societal norms. Known for their psychedelic bus trips and avant-garde street performances, they became emblematic of the counterculture movement. Reflecting on the group’s purpose, Kesey remarked, “What we hoped was that we could stop the coming end of the world.”

The impact of Kesey’s artistic and social contributions extended far beyond the confines of Menlo Park. Once a relatively quiet suburban enclave, it briefly became a focal point for artistic expression and societal critique. Kesey’s ability to infuse psychedelic experiences into his work reflected a broader cultural shift occurring throughout the 1960s. And Menlo Park, for a fleeting moment in time, became a microcosm of the broader societal changes that defined an era.

As the years passed, Menlo Park shed all the color and intrigue that had briefly defined it. Today, its gray banality stands as an antithesis to the cultural revolutions of Kesey’s time. Paul De Carli, longtime neighbor and acquaintance of Kesey, summarized the change aptly when he said, “I hate the city of Menlo Park.” 

Ellen is a senior at M-A and in her first year of journalism. She hopes to write about stories that highlight social issues within M-A’s community. In her free time, she enjoys baking, reading, swimming, and spending time with friends.

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