By LAWRENCE DOWNES
Published: March 23, 2008
I am in the ocean, doing nothing, just bobbing.
I am facing a golden-sugar beach, a low pink hotel, a thatched palapa
baking in the heat. To my left, a long crescent stretch of bay, a
cradling arm around a basket of blue. To my right, a stone jetty.
Beyond it, a port full of oceangoing tankers and the cliff-hugging
city of Manzanillo. Behind me, the limitless Pacific. All around,
pelicans loitering in the swells, which lift and gently drop me, my
arms out, toes brushing velvet sand.
I said I was doing nothing, but I'm actually trying to summon
somebody: Ken Kesey, novelist, psychedelic prophet, leader of the
Merry Pranksters, hero of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." It was
here, on this beach, that he took to the waves as I did, back in
1966. He was a hunted man then, on the run from the F.B.I. and
Mexican federales, but even he, a man of great aplomb, found time for
"He's working on his wave theory. This morning for breakfast he
brewed and drank enough weed to put a horse in orbit. He's been out
there for three hours with his eyes closed ... imagining that he's a
piece of kelp or a jellyfish."
The observer is Mountain Girl, one of several Merry Pranksters who
followed Kesey to Manzanillo. She watches from the beach while
pondering his oracular musings.
"It isn't by getting out of the world that we become enlightened, but
by getting into the world ... by getting so tuned in that we can ride
the waves of our existence and never get tossed because we become the waves."
Manzanillo now is not nearly as metaphysical as that account, from a
trippy Kesey volume called "Over the Border," would suggest. It's a
tourist town, a cruise destination, one gem in the resort strand of
Mexico's Pacific coast, cousin to Acapulco, Ixtapa, Puerto Vallarta.
It's a city of strip malls and cineplexes, dive shops and
all-inclusive resorts where the help wears uniforms.
But Manzanillo then was jungle outpost, a nowhere port town on a
two-lane road from Guadalajara. It was a place where a gringo even
a famous novelist gringo accompanied by family and friends, an
abundant supply of drugs and an International Harvester school bus
covered in Day-Glo paint and blaring music from a sophisticated
loudspeaker system could reasonably expect to hide out for a while.
You probably know most of the back story. Kesey is a promising writer
at Stanford, publishes "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," his first
novel, in 1962, and a huge deal is made of it. A circle forms in Palo
Alto, bound by Kesey's charisma and brightened by psychoactive
chemicals and Day-Glo paint. It moves to the woods of La Honda,
Calif., and roams the country in an old school bus. Kesey and the
Merry Pranksters stage a journey into life, art, rock-and-roll and
experimental drug use that attracts hangers-on, Hell's Angels, Tom
Wolfe and, inevitably, cops.
Kesey is busted for marijuana possession once, twice. Now he faces
real time: a bad trip he does not want to take. He parks a truck on a
coastal bluff, writes a fake suicide note Ocean, Ocean, I'll beat
you in the end then slips into Mexico in a car trunk.
The headline: "LSD GURU SUICIDE!"
He hides in Puerto Vallarta, then Mazatlán, has B-movie escapes from
undercover agents, and ends up in dead-end Manzanillo.
There the circle reconnects. Kesey is joined by his wife, Faye, their
young children and a squad of Pranksters, including Mountain Girl, a
k a Carolyn Adams; Ken Babbs; Mike Hagen; Gretchen Fetchin the Slime
Queen; and the Beat legend Neal Cassady, with his parrot, Rubiaco.
Kesey and family and Mountain Girl take a little rented house on the
beach. The others hang their hammocks across the road, in an
abandoned pet-food factory they called La Casa Purina.
The sun pours off the mountains. The Pranksters soak in it, melting
in heat so thick they call it Manzanillo mucus. They swim, they fish,
they do laundry, they get stoned. They wait for family and lawyers to
wire money. Mountain Girl gives birth to Sunshine, her daughter with
Kesey, in the charity ward at the Hospital Civil.
The idyll lasted only into the fall. Kesey went home, did his five
months in jail, and got right back to being an author and
counterculture icon. His was a well-lived, well-loved,
well-documented life, and it ended in rural Oregon in 2001.
I flew into Mexico at the end of August, a late arrival to the Kesey
fan club, looking to unearth whatever traces remained of the
I brought my 20-year-old stepson, Zak, who came well qualified
because of his skill with a camera and fondness for the Grateful
Dead, the Pranksters' house band. I brought my battered undergraduate
copy of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and "Mexico on 5 Dollars a
Day," the 1963-64 edition, which reported that Manzanillo's
"prettiest senorita" could be found, along with aspirin and diarrhea
treatments, behind the counter of the Farmacia America on Avenida
Mexico. I also brought a Hermes 3000 portable typewriter, at which I
planned to sit and write in the heat and moonlight, with cold, sweaty beers.
I'm sorry, reader. I did not become a wave and did not find many
physical traces of the Kesey interlude, though I came close, much
closer than I thought I would.
You can, too, if you go as the Pranksters did, poor and open-minded,
and look in the right places. Spend as little money as possible and
stick to the far, far southern end of Manzanillo Bay, away from the
high-end resorts and close to the jetty and pelicans.
Before I left New York, I had lucked upon Bart Varelmann, who had
owned the little Hotel La Posada, one of Manzanillo's only hotels
back then. It's still there, steps from the beach and that jetty,
which borders a channel leading into Mexico's biggest Pacific port.
Mr. Varelmann told me that the Pranksters had spent the summer next
to his hotel, parking their bus beside a huge rock. Mr. Varelmann is
now retired to Florida. He said he couldn't remember Kesey very well,
but he remembered the Pranksters and their kids, and the bus.
"The interior of Ken's bus was a grab-bag cornucopia of strange
pills, exotic herbs, magic mushrooms, peyote buttons, LSD, uppers,
downers, poppers and of course marijuana," Mr. Varelmann writes in
his self-published memoir, "Innkeeper." "On a windless day one could
get stoned just strolling past the bus. A battery-powered tape
machine enhanced the scene with a dreamy, pre-rock music by the likes
of Mile Davis, Stan Kenton and the Modern Jazz Quartet. We hung a lot
at Ken's magical bus that summer."
There's a problem with Mr. Varelmann's tantalizing story. He insists
that it all happened in 1963, which is impossible. Still, factoring
in the memory-glazing effects of time and heavy drug use, it was the
best lead I had, so I booked a room at La Posada for a week.
The first night, Zak and I walked through downtown Manzanillo, still
bustling near midnight. Sidewalk food stands glowed under bare bulbs;
it was a carnival of grease, of chorizo and chilies, roasted corn
ears and ice pops. Looking up in the narrow streets, I saw thousands
of swallows nestled for the night on telephone lines, evenly spaced,
like zipper teeth. We had a late dinner, bistek tacos and pulpo
gallego, octopus in olive oil and garlic, soft like butter.
The next morning, Zak sleeping, I slipped onto the beach to await the
sunrise. The windy tumult of the day before was gone; it was still
but not dark. Klieg lights from hotels cast a prison-camp glare, and
development all along the bay cast a pallid wash of light into the
sky. The most distant lights shimmered in the heat. The stifling,
hushed air, the sand and thumping waves all seemed to be waiting for
the sun to rise to ignite the conflagration of another stifling Manzanillo day.
MY other source of Kesey memories was Robert Stone, the novelist, who
had been there. Although he listened kindly when I called, he could
not answer all my questions about addresses and landmarks. He
confessed that it had been 40 years ago, and he too had been stoned a
lot of the time. The buildings were already ruins in '66, he said.
"We weren't much into infrastructure."
But in his 2007 memoir, "Prime Green," Mr. Stone shares a stunningly
vivid memory of Manzanillo:
"In the moments after dawn, before the sun had reached the peaks of
the sierra, the slopes and valleys of the rain forest would explode
in green light, erupting inside a silence that seemed barely to
contain it. When the sun's rays spilled over the ridge, they
discovered dozens of silvery waterspouts and dissolved them into
smokey rainbows. ...
"All of us, stoned or otherwise, caught in the vortex of dawn, would
freeze in our tracks and stand to, squinting in the pain of the
light, sweating, grinning.
"We called that light Prime Green; it was primal, primary, primo."
Me, I saw no prime green. I couldn't see any green from where I was.
I watched mountainous container ships heading, I supposed, to China.
Mr. Stone remembers as heartbreaking the morning bugle call from the
downtown navy base that echoed across the bay some mornings, when the
wind was right.
As if on cue, dozens of young men, recruits from another nearby navy
base, flooded onto the beach in formation for daily exercises. Uno,
dos, tres, cuatro. They did arm rolls, shoulder shrugs, then took off
their T-shirts for a swim.
Zak and I took the Kesey search to downtown Manzanillo, to the
Archivo Municipal, to find phone records for a Purina factory or for
the Chinese grocer who had been the Pranksters' landlord it must
have been old Hector Yuen, some people told me, but another old-timer
said, no, it was a guy named Sam. A helpful official leafed page by
page through the fragile onion-skin pages of the hand-typed 1964
Manzanillo phone book, but found nothing.
Downtown was famous then for the huge jacaranda tree in the central
square. Now it is dominated by an immense sculpture, in blue steel,
of a leaping sailfish. The shops on the waterfront and the steeply
raked slopes behind cater to the sport fishing and cruise ship crowd
with T-shirts and tequila.
Zak and I spent a lot of time hunting in graveyards for Mr. Yuen and
looking for ruins with the Purina checkerboard. We found Mr. Yuen but
not Sam, and no trace of La Casa Purina or the Polynesian bar where,
in Mr. Wolfe's and Mr. Stone's accounts, a mysterious Mexican
policeman who called himself Agent No. 1 got drunk and bragged about
recovering Liz Taylor's stolen jewelry and shooting American potheads.
We visited the still-dreary Hospital Civil, where Mountain Girl, then
19, gave birth to Sunshine. She remembers one terrifying night when
beach crabs, amok under the full moon, climbed into bed with her and
One night I saw a crab crossing the highway. It brandished its claws
at my headlights before scuttling into the dark.
One of my goals was to recreate the impoverished pleasures of
Pranksterish beachside living, so even as my investigation faltered,
I relished chilling with Zak. The Posada had a big wooden icebox with
beer and soda, and at night we would grab bottles and eat tacos. In
the morning I would take my typewriter under the poolside palapa and
knock out an account of the previous day's fruitless search, now and
then gazing out through the fronds at the horizon, as if through
One calm morning, with snorkels and fins, Zak and I slid into the
womb-warm water and headed for the jetty. The water near shore was
sandy-turbid, but it cleared when we reached the rocks. We swam amid
silver clouds of fish, little three-inch tuna replicas; needlefish;
the occasional sea cucumber; puffer; Technicolor goby.
The microtunas swam in school-fish unison, and I was suddenly struck
at the synchronicity of their movements, how their thoughts were
wired together across space hundreds of separate beings, each doing
his thing, following his own trip, whatever his freak was, nibbling
this, chasing that and yet moving as if with one brain, darting up,
down, across in this riotous liquid carnival, this Day-Glo ocean.
Kesey was fixated on that phenomenon, which he called
intersubjectivity, and I wondered if he would have found the
snorkeling as mind-altering as I did.
Zak and I figured the best route back in time was probably out of
town, up into the mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur for the primo
greenness Mr. Stone wrote about.
We took our rented Nissan Tsuru up the highway to Colima, the state
capital, through coconut forests and a roadside district of coconut
and mango vendors.
We climbed through road cuts and beside steep mountain ridges, past
signs marked "Zona de Derrumbes."
What's "derrumbes"? I wondered.
"Death," said Zak. (The right answer was "rock slides.")
After Minatitlán, a tiny village, we took a fork to the Sierra de
Manantlán Biosphere Reserve, a Unesco-recognized park where
subsistence farmers coexist with untouched forests, jaguars and
orchids. We continued up the volcanic slopes on an increasingly iffy
dirt-and-stone road through a landscape of streaky limestone and cow pies.
Up and up we went on the switchback road, into the cloud zone,
shrouded by rolling mist, the mountainside slipping in and out of
view: a tightly textured green, like low-pile carpet. Butterflies
flitted beside the road. Rain-filled tire ruts were thick with
tadpoles. The road kept getting more deeply gouged and steeper, so
steep as make me worry about falling over backward.
I WONDERED what I would do if the car died or some derrumbes
happened. We passed a roadside death shrine as the wind picked up and
clouds closed in and it started to rain.
We inched through the mud and prayed silently. The rain grew gentler
and the sky cleared, and I stopped the car beside a staggering
mountain view, a misty vista laced with shimmering tree branches
laden with bromeliads and lichens. Two woodpeckers clambered up a
fallen tree trunk. It was green prime green all around.
The rain had broken the heat. I got out to savor the coolness,
extended my arms and looked up into the droplets, through the
branches at the gray backlit sky and, exultant, naked under my
clothing, squinting in the light, stood sweating, grinning. It was
primal, primary, primo.
TAKING A, WELL, TRIP TO MEXICO
HOW TO GET THERE
Several airlines serve Manzanillo, but the cheapest and most direct
for me, from New York, was Continental via Houston. (Other carriers
often connect to a Mexican airline in Mexico.) Flights in mid-April
were available on www.continental.com for about $535.
TAKE THESE BOOKS
"The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," by Tom Wolfe, is still the
indispensable guide to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Mr. Wolfe
was on the trail of "Young Novelist Real-Life Fugitive" for Esquire,
but Kesey had returned from Mexico by the time Mr. Wolfe tracked him
down. The Manzanillo section, recreated through interviews, is
powerful: "Stranded in a up-tight town; no roads leading north and
no roads leading south; nine or ten hours of hell by bus to
Guadalajara the only way to git back to the rest of the world. ..."
"Kesey's Garage Sale," a deeply strange 1973 book by Kesey and
others, has a section about called "Over the Border." It's a
hallucinatory memoir in screenplay form, with the names changed:
Kesey is Devlin Deboree and Manzanillo is Puerto Sancto. But it's all
in there, the Casa Purina, the hammocks, waves and roaches (insects),
the zonked-out conversations, the amazing tales of survival and
resilience while stoned. And unlike "Acid Test," it has doodly
drawings in the margins. Try Amazon.
"Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties" is Robert Stone's memoir, and
its Manzanillo section is burnished by wisdom, distance and lovely
writing. "We were an unstable gathering, difficult to define," he
writes. Their landlord called them "existencialistas," but Mr. Stone
says they were more like "a cross between a Stanford fraternity party
and an underfunded libertine writers' conference."
"Innkeeper" is the self-published autobiography of Bart Varelmann,
who bought the hurricane-damaged Hotel La Posada in Manzanillo in
1960 and ran it for decades. Mr. Varelmann's life has apparently been
so eventful that Kesey has to fight for attention with Bing Crosby,
Bo Derek, Lee Marvin, a sunken treasure ship, hurricanes and lots and
lots of adoring women. Go to www.manzanillo-innkeeper.com.
"Manzanillo and the State of Colima: Facts, Tips and Day Trips," by
Susan Dearing, an sunbaked expatriate American who runs a Manzanillo
dive shop, tells you everything you need to know about where to go,
eat, stay and play in and around her adopted city. A spiral-bound
necessity available through her information-packed Web site,
READ THEM HERE
Hotel La Posada (Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas 201; 52-314-333-1899;
www.hotel-la-posada.info), on the beach at the end of the road in Las
Brisas section, has 23 simple rooms, a pool and a breezy sala full of
comfortable chairs and old paperbacks. A double room is $78 from Dec.
15 to April 14, $58 other times, including breakfast.
WITH TACOS AND BEER FROM HERE
Tacos Ramón is a short walk from La Posada, on the far (nonbeach)
side of Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas, near the traffic circle. Open very late.
LAWRENCE DOWNES is an editorial writer at The Times.