I didn’t think twice when I was offered an opportunity to speak with Carolyn Adams Garcia a.k.a. Mountain Girl about the new Ken Kesey documentary, Magic Trip. Like many who were born slightly too late to participate in the acid tests directly, I grew up in the shadow of the sixties counterculture and as a teenager, I was inspired by the exploits of Ken Kesey and his group of Merry Pranksters.
I had literally missed the bus, but I did my best to catch up and along the way, I encountered the teachings of a whole host of characters that had stepped off the road most travelled to pursue their own paths. The out-on-a-limb postulations of Timothy Leary, the archaic teachings of Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass) and the stand-up spiritual comedy of Wavy Gravy were all part of my post-adolescent education. But, it was the music of the Grateful Dead and the culture that surrounded them that really set my imagination on fire. To me, it seemed that they were living an impossible dream of liberation while succeeding on their own terms. Central to this exploding scene was free spirit and original psychedelic den mother, Mountain Girl, who was often left to steer the ship and keep everyone grounded while chaos swirled all around them.
Mountain Girl was born Carolyn Elizabeth Adams in 1946 in Poughkeepsie, New York. After she was expelled from high school in 1963, she travelled to Palo Alto, California where she met Neal Cassady, the beat icon immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Cassady introduced Carolyn to Ken Kesey and many of the people who would soon become the Pranksters. Kesey and Adams fell in love and lived together briefly on his land in La Honda during which time they had a daughter named Sunshine.
Around the same time, Carolyn met Jerry Garcia and the members of the Grateful Dead when they agreed to act as the ‘house band’ at the infamous acid tests organized by the Pranksters. The pair hung out together for many years before finally marrying in 1981. Though they divorced in 1984, the two remained friends right up until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.
Carolyn’s book Primo Plant: Growing Sinsemilla Marijuana was first published by a local underground press in 1976 and remains an indispensable, common sense book on the topic. She is a board member of the Rex Foundation charity and still enjoys going to hear Furthur, the band founded in 2009 by former Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, in concert when they play in Oregon. “I have to. It would be rude not to,” she told me.
At the age of 65, Carolyn’s contributions to understanding the countercultural perspective cannot be overestimated. She is imbued with a grace, humor and a sincerity that is all too rare today. Simply talking to her on the phone was a gift. Of the dozens of interviews I’ve been involved in, the chance to talk to her from her home in Oregon stands out as a true pleasure and an uplifting experience that I will always treasure.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Carolyn Garcia: Hi! It’s great to hear from you. We haven’t had the pleasure of meeting each other, but in calls like this, it feels like I’m connecting with old friends that I’ve never met. I love that I’m talking to Cannabis Culture and that we are a culture now. Talking to you – it’s better than doing an interview with a big newspaper. I like this so much better. I love that I can talk to medical marijuana people from different places. The good news here in Oregon is that CAMP didn’t get funding this year, so that folks here and in Northern California can breathe a sigh of relief.
Cannabis Culture: I’m not sure I’ve heard of CAMP.
CG: That’s the federal and state funded helicopters that suppress marijuana production. They’ve been doing it for years and this year they didn’t get their funding.
CC: Is that because the attitudes have changed or that it’s simply ineffective?
CG: In California, they’re still having a lot of trouble with folks putting big grows up in national forest areas and those are the people they’re trying to get. Unfortunately, they’ll pick up anybody else along the way. It gives them something to do and a reason to feel important. I don’t know personally what the motivation is. Growing pot can trash the land, but it’s also a big feather in the cap of law enforcement to bust one of these big Mexican grows.
CC: Up here in B.C., it’s pretty progressive, but every now and then they decide to make an example of someone.
CG: They decide to pick on somebody.
CC: I was watching Magic Trip last night with my family and my daughter was wondering ‘why can’t we go and have fun like that anymore?’
CG: (Laughing) See, eleven year olds get it. They think those people are just being silly.
CC: My partner Jen broke it to her saying, “you know they’re on drugs” – but that doesn’t even compute for my kids.
CG: The thing is that they had a very small amount of LSD on the bus. There wasn’t much. They had another psychedelic.
CC: Something called IP91? I’m not sure what that is.
CG: Yeah, I’m not sure. But, I’ve got to say, I didn’t even see anyone drinking a beer. Nobody drank alcohol. They had some pot, but not a lot. The pot in those days was mild, very mild. So, I think there was an attitude of just frolicsomeness. They didn’t feel as if they had to get anything done.
CC: Do you think that’s something we’ve lost as a society?
CG: Well, I don’t think we ever really had it. It’s not considered adult behavior for one thing. You know when you see someone at a show dancing until they drop and you’re a little worried about them. Well, they’re putting on a great show for everyone around them. They’re giving it all they’ve got. I think that comes from the same place. It comes from the excitement of human energy. Like a kitten. You can play like a kitten. If you can find that part of you inside of yourself that wants to play like a kitten, you can let yourself do that.
CC: I think we’ve all got it. I’m thinking of the last Furthur concert I saw with my daughter. She was watching women in their sixties dressed in fairy costumes dancing in the mud. She was kind of hanging back at first.
CG: Wondering ‘what are they doing?’
CC: Then the first one who got really muddy was enough to give her permission…
CG: …to dive in. Kids love to dance in front of the stage. Little girls especially – between the ages of two and six – because they haven’t gotten self-conscious yet. I think just dropping the self-consciousness and all the posturing that we do is so healthy.
CC: Modern life offers us so few opportunities.
CG: Yeah, but it’s really great to see kids having a great time.
CC: We’ve gotten together to talk about Ken Kesey’s trip in 1964. If there was a bump in history and all of that happened today with the bus, do you think you’d have been able to do it in the same way?
CG: Probably not. It’s doubtful. I think that what happened was special. You know it didn’t just happen. It was a deliberate choice to create the bus and it was a choice to go on no matter what happened. It was sort of like at the coming of the psychedelic consciousness, there were an enormous number of choices to make about how you were going to live your life that didn’t really seem to exist before that. You know, we were really stuck in the middle of negative territory in the US and it was very hard for artists to break out and do art that wasn’t just paintings on the wall somewhere. To have a project like the bus that was a rolling, roving art project was amazing. It was always renewing itself. It was so exciting. You know, it kind of reeked of newness and novelty. The bus alone was a turn-on for a lot of people.
CC: Eventually you got off the physical bus. How did you maintain the spirit of that – the free form approach to life and experiences?
CG: It was hard. I transferred my intentions to child-rearing and Jerry Garcia. That took up a lot of time. I was cooking for people and taking care of the household. I had to live in a house and that was really tough. Being stuck in one place sucked actually! Being mobile, in a new place all the time and having all this novelty, but there was also this tremendous sense of excitement. There was all this energy coming in and excitement and intention from people coming in. The novelty of the band brought in all this excitement. After the Pranksters, there was this enormous amount of attention around the music groups like The Airplane and us (The Grateful Dead). The media attention was phenomenal.
CC: So, with all of this media attention, how did you keep it together? I mean, you said you were raising kids – in your own form.
CG: We just kind of did. By that time, we had developed our own characters to the point where we couldn’t get shoved off our direction by conventions. I think the acid tests and the bus had a lot to do with it. The Pranksters and their friends were just a bunch of characters. Neal Cassady was among the top characters there and he was busy constantly helping people with their character development because he was such a well-developed character. We had people around like Ginsberg, who was an amazing character. And, then there was Hugh Romney who became Wavy Gravy. Of course there was Owsley. We’re talking about people who were so firmly in their own characters. They made it possible for everyone to develop their own characters around them. So, it wasn’t wishy washy, you know. They knew who they were.
CC: Did it ever feel like too much? Did you ever want out?
CG: Oh man, all the time! It often felt like too much and I’d have to go hide for a few minutes to get my balance back. The energy, especially at the acid tests, would build to such a fever pitch, it would be hard to maintain your attention. I had a job during it all! I was supposed to be running all of this equipment and making sure plugs didn’t get pulled out and microphones weren’t knocked over. I’d be soldering all of this equipment and having to do this when I was a little bit enhanced, you know! So, it was a good juggling act, and after a while, you’d develop this amazing self-confidence being out on a limb like that.
CC: Do you consider that the golden age of the psychedelic movement? When you started doing these experiments, acid was still legal. That changed quite quickly and LSD became illegal.
CG: It did. I’m going to blame the psychologists because they held on to it for a long time. They kept it under wraps and in retrospect it was probably correct to do so. They saw the incredible value of these tools for helping people that needed to be helped over difficult places in their lives. Psychedelics are great tools for developing knowledge. The media only looked at the surface. They didn’t look carefully at the science involved. We knew all about the science, but there was a time when this stuff was spilling out into the public, which we had no control over. There was suddenly a whole bunch of it around. There was a sense that we had an opportunity to bring people into a room and have a good time while protecting them from the outside world while those first ten hours were going on. It was pretty hectic, but it was also a tremendous amount of fun. We weren’t making any money.
CC: Acid’s never been like that – you never hear of LSD moguls living in tax havens in Costa Rica.
CG: Especially in those days. We charged about fifty cents or a dollar to get in. We got lucky enough to attract this bunch of musicians in Palo Alto in the beginning who were willing to come out and play. And, talk about a group of characters! They were able to develop those characters to the point where they became the longest-running band and, God, look what they did with that.
CC: And, if you wrote those characters down in a script, no one would believe you.
CG: No one would believe any of this. How that all happened and hung together for so long and created such fabulousness along the way. They went from being a post-Beatles blues band trying to play Rolling Stones covers and Willie Dixon covers and then suddenly realized they had to write their own stuff and create their own thing. They created all that music and a lot of it was so experimental. It was so vibrantly in the moment. It was amazing what they could do with the skills they developed over the years. To be able to do that and trust that the other guys on the stage weren’t going to screw up. It’s really amazing what they did and I don’t know that they get enough appreciation even today. The amazing amount of improvisation they did was so successful.
CC: And they introduced the larger culture to so many forms of music – I mean, they played the Stanley Brothers and John Coltrane often during the same set and it was all played with such commitment and joy.
CG: That’s true. There was so much joy. Joy is a good word. It was joyous and the whole Prankster thing was joyous until we got entangled with the law. That made it a lot harder.
CC: Can I bring up something else that was happening? I’m thinking of the scene in the movie when the bus arrives at Millbrook where Leary and Alpert were staying. It seemed like there was a huge culture clash captured on screen there. We talked a bit about the psychologists and their perspective on psychedelics. It seemed so serious. Even in the body language. There’s a huge difference between how, say, Richard Alpert and Ken Babbs stand in a room. Can you talk a bit about the differences in approach between the two psychedelic camps?
CG: They were going all religious, the Millbrook guys. But, they had also locked themselves in a building with a mason jar full of LSD. They were weirder than we were, and that – I think – was a shock!
CC:How did Ken (Kesey) look back on these early experiences? I know that you and he were neighbours and friends right up until the time of his death, and I’m wondering if his perspective shifted at all about the acid tests and the Furthur trips.
CG: Oh yeah! I lived four miles away. Well, I don’t really know. I think some of the quotes that are in the film shed some light on that. I think he looked back with considerable nostalgia. First of all, he paid for all that damned film with the money he made from those fabulous books that he wrote. It was madly expensive to use that much film.
CC: Especially because he was filming in 16 millimeter.
CG: Oh my God! I can’t even imagine how much it must have cost to do that. So, basically that was his pot full of treasure. And, right up until the day he went in the hospital, he was over at his studio re-editing portions of that and they were selling little handmade movies constantly over his website. The Kesey website still sells a bunch of that stuff. What he would do would be to make an hour long film of some of that stuff and give it a title and then paint a case for it for a VHS tape.
CC: That is so far out.
CG: They had a little case that he would dip paint and fantastically embellish the lines and people would write back and say “it’s still wet and sticky after six months”. He’d laugh. He didn’t care. There are hundreds of those out there, but they pretty much had a handmade studio there for years and years. He and Ken Babbs edited and re-edited with the help of their children, of course, who understood computers and could help them figure it out. So, they were constantly working on that stuff.
CC: Do you think he’d be happy with the film as it came out?
CG: Oh yeah. I like it very much. I think it’s fine.I think it’s a little bit too long and I think they left in some commentary that didn’t need to be left in. What they did was cut and paste a lot of stuff together that didn’t really belong together. I think it was very cleverly done. Well, that’s what they had to work with. They had a big pile of stuff. They had seen Ken’s versions of things and they went back to the original material. What they did do was find wonderful quotes and overdub them into the film in a way that was really charming. They did a very nice job of welding together the story, too. It’s so nice to see the film. They really made it look pretty.
CC:They also made it all understandable for the uninitiated without a huge background in sixties culture.
CG: It really does pretty much tell the story even though it sketches the last part which goes into what happened after that. So, those are all tiny indications of what happened, but it’s hard to cover everything. I’m glad they did it. When I watch it, of course I have a lot of personal connections with people in it. So now I’ve seen it four times and suddenly I realized the fourth time that it’s really fun to watch this film. I don’t have to feel personal about it. It’s just really fun all by itself.
CC: It sure is.
CG: I showed it to a room full of freaks and they were howling. They thought it was really funny.
CC: And what else could you want from a film?
CG: Exactly. Thank you so much.