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Travel

Day Tripper: Chasing down Tom Wolfe’s Californian technicolour bus ride

@TomTaylorFO

“The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.” – Tom Wolfe (1930-2018)

Like a white-suited fly on the kaleidoscopic wallpaper of the counterculture, Tom Wolfe documented the room expanding movement with all the plausibility of a truth far stranger than fiction. His highwire journey through a revolution had only one destination in mind: Further. On a technicolour bus dubbed with that very name, Further travelled through the unfurling expanse of America and its consciousness. The closest Further ever got to reaching its destination was the sun-bleached rolling hills of idyllic and ultimately damned California. If that isn’t fitting, what is?

Naturally, if you want to follow in the trailblazing tire tracks of this magical mystery tour the spiritual bent of the journey complicates the A-Z logistics of your usual trip. However, you can still pillage the same boundless joys of waywardness on the Q-C journey that the remaining mystical motorways of America’s expanse can afford you. While Wolfe may well have been aboard with the living cultural zeniths Ken Kesey and his brethren of Merry Pranksters, basking in the wilderness is as fruitful as ever, even if you’re not forecasting the cultural zeitgeist like bus-bound time travellers of the early 1960s.

Now, not far off the gravel track of the intro to this travel piece, is the appropriate time to disavow the notion that Wolfe’s journey was one that occurred in an altered space between the ears, and, in the process, hang up all the double meanings that taking the ‘trip’ offers up. There’s no denying that LSD formed part of Wolfe and Kesey’s travel itinerary, but that was America in 1964—hell, it had even been legal a matter of months earlier and Kesey was one of the first to ever take it in government experiments! However, the wheels of the bus had since moved beyond that tie-dye terrain and new destinations were in mind—destinations that you can now safely and legally seek. 

In fact, it would seem that recent times have conspired to send an expanding legion of civilians out onto the spiritual bus. There was a time when introspection was a word that had you reaching for the dictionary when it cropped up in an expansive review of Bob Dylan’s latest album, but now a celebrity chef plugging a new cookbook on the One Show can pull the phrase of their arse without causing an eyebrow to shift, and it’s a sign that journeying towards something a little more primordial than picture-perfect is more important than ever. California is a State that can offer that up in all of its road-tripping glory. 

(Credit: Jamie Street)

As Wolfe once wrote of his fabled Kool-Aid adventure: “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 seemed to be a time not so long ago when that sort of prose had been highjacked by cringy cliches about making memories and finding yourself, but fortunately, people are overcoming those tripe put-offs and travel seems to be more about stepping away from pre-forecasted pages and relishing in the unravelling diegesis of non-fiction once more. 

It’s not about ‘finding yourself on the road’ as a cheesy Instagram post might proclaim – as Karl Pilkington once said, “I know who I am. Bloody hell, I’m getting enough bills for Karl Pilkington so I hope I am him, ‘cos if not I have no idea who I’m paying for” – it’s more the case that as you bathe in the burning sun above Monument Valley in a place that looks like the world’s first mammoth movie set, how can you not have some sort of moment? Even if that epiphany is ‘Dear God, I hate road trips and this stinking heat and I vow to holiday in six-star mild weathered luxury forevermore’.

California offered up these searching epiphanies to Wolfe and Kesey on their journey. From the gaudy streets of Las Vegas to cinematic Los Angeles, the cultural hive of San Francisco and the counterculture breading ground of Palo Alto, all of which dance dangerously close to the oblivion of the desert. These are the dotted points that many look to spot off at as they venture upon the modern incarnation of Wolfe and cos Mexico City to Palo Alto road trip. 

The “Van Life” is now a huge deal in California whether you’re a full-time four wheels resident or driving by on an extended vacation. Part of this is due to property prices becoming wildly unaffordable in the region, but in the same way that Wolfe responded with liberation, the notion of the “Van Life” has also provided the same route for millennials. The result from a traveller’s perspective is probably the finest camping infrastructure in the world. You can let your muse take the wheel in California, so much so that it’s utterly pointless for me to list all the spots that your fancy might take.

This growing ideal has set many tourists flocking there, all picking up on the trail of Wolfe’s wavering journey. As Ken Kesey said when The Smithsonian visited him and his Merry Pranksters at their residence up in Oregon in 1998 and inquired about turning the iconic bus Further into a cultural relic, “You restore it, that’s like saying, we’re going to stop here.” His flat refusal seems more pertinent now than ever as tourist trends prove the jaunt is just getting going.