Ken Kesey’s legacy lives on in Oregon

Dave Masko's picture

LINCOLN CITY, Oregon – “The road to paranoia is shorter than you think,” lamented the famed Oregon writer Ken Kesey shortly after 9/11 and just a few months before his untimely death in 2001. Kesey warned people not to “fear,” and pointed to those in sheep’s clothing who would deceive America into doing the wrong thing when trusting those politicians who seemed act more like game show hosts than leaders.

Genius “turned-on” to a different frequency

Although Kesey’s life and work still remains controversial, “the man still has a huge presence in Oregon and with his many fans worldwide,” says his longtime friend Jake Edwards. “Ken knew how to turn-on to a different frequency, and tell you exactly what was going on. He didn’t mince words when stuff was happening.”

Kesey’s book’s have been translated into 40 different languages and is considered one of the most famous of the Sixties radicals who helped change American culture during that turbulent decade.

During a series of phone and e-mail interviews with this reporter – prior to his untimely death on Nov. 10, 2001 --Kesey noted his concern about the state of the world.

For instance, he predicted that any attack on America’s enemies needed serious consideration before rushing into war.

Still, he was a “prankster,” and those who knew him said his talent was to mix serious issues with his joking ways. No one captured this better than the famed writer Tom Wolfe in his 1968 book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

“It was November of 1965 – or now 45 years ago next month -- that I remember Ken first talking to Tom Wolfe who was a famous journalist back then. Wolfe wanted to cover Ken and his band of Merry Pranksters on the bus Further when it toured around,” explained Edwards during a recent interview.

Wolfe described Kesey as the “Golden Boy of the West” – a scholar, actor, star athlete and one of the most outstanding novelists of his generation.
It was Kesey, said Wolfe, that “gave the hippie world of the 1960’s much of its philosophy and vocabulary.”

Sometimes a Great Notion film turns 40

“Our lives are like movies,” Kesey used to say. “Everybody, everybody everywhere, has his own movie going, his own scenario, and everybody is acting his movie out like mad, only most people don’t know that is what they’re trapped by, their little script.”

There’s was no shortage of local movie goers at the famed Bijou Theater in Lincoln City recently for a rare opportunity to see the 1970 film “Sometimes a Great Notion.” The film is based on the book of the same name by Kesey.

Lincoln City is a tourist destination along the central Oregon coast that was featured in the filming of Sometimes a Great Notion that was directed by Paul Newman and earned two Academy Award nominations.

“I know this would have watered Ken’s eyes to see such a great turnout for a film that was made 40 years ago. Although Kesey considered Pleasant Hill and Eugene his home base, he liked the coast to get away from it all,” added Edwards.

In fact, it was back in fall of 1970 that Kesey would drive up the coast from his summer home at Bray’s Point to watch filming of the final scenes of Sometimes a Great Notion with its star and director, Newman. Both men, now gone, are the subject of a recent photography perspective that’s touring up and down the Oregon coast.

“Sometimes A Great Notion” was Kesey’s second novel from 1964. It followed 1962’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

According to fans of the book, the film does follows the novel pretty close. It’s about an Oregon logging family living and working in the Mapleton and Florence area along the Siuslaw River who cut trees for a local mill. Both the book and film’s conflict focuses on the “Stamper family” hassles with a local logging union.

“What’s great about this 40th anniversary of the Sometimes A Great Notion movie is this small coastal movie house showing it all on their own,” says Edwards. “There wasn’t a formal Sometimes a Great Notion celebration around here for this anniversary, but simply fans who think this is a masterpiece by the late Paul Newman and Ken Kesey.”

Both the book and film are considered the quintessential story of Oregon, and is appreciated in Portland, Eugene and up and down the coast where it was filmed during the spring and summer of 1970.

Edwards and his wife Grace have one special memory that’s captured in a photo of Kesey riding a motorcycle from his coastal summer place up to where they were Newman was filming in Toledo, Newport and Lincoln City.

“Ken knew Paul Newman was a big biker and he wanted to surprise him. Then party and do a little race,” explained Edwards while pointing to the photos from 1970.

“Imagine a sunny summer afternoon and the likes of Kesey and Newman speeding around a dirt field up here in Lincoln City. That’s what crossed my mind during this recent showing of the film on the big screen. I got lost in the movie and, for those two hours, I was back with that gang again,” he said with a cigarette in one side of his mouth and the smoke sneering across his face.

“Yep, those were the days,” said this former hippie with a lazy laughter in his eyes.


Submitted by Dave Masko on
Those who view the memoiral to Ken Kesey at "Kesey Plaza" in downtown Eugene might not know that the bronze statue portrays Ken reading to his grandkids. Ken wrote two children's books, and enjoyed reading his favorite book, "Moby Dick," to students at various schools in the Eugene area. He always talked about his family during interviews and "was a devoted to them," say close friends. It was a great honor to talk to Ken on the phone and through e-mails. We were all set for a proper interview at his coastal place near Brays Point, Oregon, in late August 2001. But I had a bad summer cold. I called Ken to reschedule the interview. Ken's reply was typical Kesey: "How are we going to do it -- by astral projection?" He then told me to "take it easy, drink plenty of fluids and just take care of yourself." Just a few months later, Ken died of what his close friend, Ken Babbs, called a "bum liver." With all that Ken had been through in his life, I thought he was indestructible. And, like the famous line from Sometimes a Great Notion, "never give an inch."

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