Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey and Heavy Stress Outside the Hilton

The man himself, Hunter S. Thompson.

Source Neale Haynes/Getty

Why you should care

When you hit the road with no map or compass, anything — or nothing — could definitely happen.

There was a refurbished 1947 International Harvester school bus parked outside the Hilton on a rainy February night in Eugene, Oregon. When I walked up the few steps and entered the heavily decorated vehicle, Ken Kesey was kneeling behind the driver’s seat messing with the stereo, trying to figure out why the Ray Charles at Newport CD had stopped. At the other end of the bus, Hunter S. Thompson was involved in a game of cards at a small round table, but he was looking in our direction with some concern.  

Earlier, Thompson had given one of his notorious “talks” inside the Hilton ballroom. He was typically late, so Kesey and fellow “Merry Prankster” Ken Babbs (both of whom lived nearby) burned time telling stories while everyone waited. 

When Thompson finally arrived, it was lunacy: He made sardonic comments about the end of the Gulf War, took questions, mumbled humorous responses, occasionally blasted a goose call into the mic and at least twice pointed some kind of laser pointer into the sold-out room. It was an almost perfect show. 

“You’re either on the bus or off the bus” was a popular Kesey expression, a line in the sand separating “normal” from “weird”… 

A portion of the audience, however, wanted MORE and constantly interrupted the proceedings with verbal belligerence, yelling out lame questions and tossing drugs up onto the stage. They wanted the Doonesbury cartoon; they wanted a cliché while the rest of us wanted to hear what he had to say.     

Unwilling to go home once it was over, I hung around in the lobby. The kitchen’s double doors suddenly blasted open. Babbs was vigorously pushing one of those housekeeping carts, and on top, reclined with drink in hand and baseball cap pulled over his eyes, was Thompson. This little parade blew past those of us in the lobby and out into the back parking lot. I followed as if in a trance.   

Kesey’s bus was a stunning visual as it sat by the curb, windows illuminated with a golden, welcoming hue. Ray Charles’ voice boomed out of hidden speakers while people wandered around and a light mist fell. For the next 20 minutes I circled the vehicle, looking at the custom paint job, knowing this wasn’t the original bus from the Prankster days but its replacement. 

The door looked to be fairly unguarded; others had been casually getting on and off the whole time. So, after much inner debate, I finally decided to ascend those three steps. 

“You’re either on the bus or off the bus” was a popular Kesey expression, a line in the sand separating “normal” from “weird,” and one I had taken to heart years earlier in my reaching for radical individualism. “Always stay in your own movie” was another one of his sayings, but I didn’t really understand that one.  

there I was: definitely “on the bus,” that vague, mythical place I had been reading and daydreaming about for years.

Kesey stopped messing with the hi-fi and fixed me with a look of mild disdain. Was he frustrated with the electronics, or was he irritated that I, a stranger, had made myself welcome in his scene? Too spooked, I didn’t say anything and looked to my left, focusing on the table at the very back.

Thompson was playing cards with Kesey’s son, Zane, while another person stood behind a camcorder filming the action. It was then that Thompson slowly turned in his chair and faced my direction, and, while I can’t recall whether his trademark cigarette holder was clutched in his jaw, he did look irritated. “My mind was jackrabbits,” I would document in a spiral notebook the next day. Still, I remained anchored in place, speechless.  

The usual bus seats had been removed; in their place were beanbag chairs, maybe 10 of them, all occupied by grubby kids who looked to be in their 20s, dressed in loose-fitting, grungy clothes. They were glaring at me too. 

Jesus, what was everyone’s problem? How could they not be smiling right now? 

Were these the same assholes who kept interrupting Thompson during his talk? I flicked my eyes back to Kesey, who was hard at work on the stereo, then quickly glanced at the table where everyone was concentrating on the card game.  

Well, there I was: definitely “on the bus,” that vague, mythical place I had been reading and daydreaming about for years. Ironically, now that I was there, I felt wholly out of place.  

Psych-out! 

The scene was too hot to handle, so I backed down the steps. Just then, a nice-looking gentleman walked up, smiled, nodded hello, jumped up the steps, sat in the driver’s seat with some fanfare and shouted: “We’re rollin’!”  

Indecision time. If I jumped back on the bus, how would I get home from wherever they were going? I’ve never been known for my practicality, but this was a concern. If I didn’t get on, would my Outsider Credentials be forever revoked? This was a considerable amount of stress for a 20-year-old.  

Panic!  

I stood there in the mist, heart racing. The engine gurgled to life, the doors folded together and the bus lurched forward. Then it stopped. The doors opened, two people jumped off and ran to a nearby car. Now was my chance — this was it.  

… go. Go. GO.  

I didn’t move. The psychedelic monster crept forward with the car following; it veered right onto I-105 and chugged into the soggy darkness.  

GONE.  

Gone.  

… gone.  

The walk home in the rain was slow because I was kicking myself the whole way and didn’t bother to dodge the reflective puddles along my path. This was a decidedly painful experience, one that haunted me for years as I felt I’d really missed a chance at … something. 

But what? 

Being an unwelcome guest? Possibly rubbing shoulders with actual writers? Both? Neither?  

Though it didn’t occur to me until much later, that night wasn’t about countercultural heavyweights or gaining words of wisdom from people whose work I admired. It wasn’t about getting psyched out by a bunch of sloppy kids in beanbag chairs, or Life’s Big Regrets. 

Nope. This was about finally realizing what it means to “always stay in your own movie.” 

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