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Published: 2011/08/31
by Brian Robbins

Mountain Girl and the Magic Trip : A Conversation with Carolyn Garcia

Whether you lived the 1960s or are a student of them, your personal philosophy can easily be defined by answering one single question.

What do you feel was the important voyage: Apollo 11’s mission to the moon’s surface and back in 1969 or Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ cross-country bus trip in 1964?

Or boil it down to a bumper sticker, if you’d like: Neil Armstrong or Neal Cassady?

Think about it.

The only downside I can come up with as far as Magic Trip is concerned is that one viewing is not going to be enough. There are two magic trips afoot in this movie: the first, obviously, is the one taken by Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters aboard the 1939 International Harvester schoolbus named Further back in 1964.

(And before the debate starts about the name of the bus, I’ll defer to Captain Ken Babbs, Kesey’s co-pilot in innerspace exploration. The Intrepid Traveler says, “The bus was Further, named by Roy Sebern, who painted FURTHER on the sign on top in June 1964. It was a good luck name, he said – one that would keep the bus going to its destination. Later on, the sign on the bus was misspelled as FURTHUR, a mistake by someone who repainted it. That’s the reason lots of people think the bus is called ‘Furthur’ instead of ‘Further’ – and now, to complicate things even more, Furthur is a band.”)

The second magic trip is the one filmmakers Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney take you on over the course of an hour and forty seven minutes. “Magic Trip” is not a collection of “I remember back when …” present-day interviews done over cups of tea in the sitting room.

Oh, no.

Magic Trip scoops you up and sets you down right in the middle of the happenings – from Kesey’s recorded observations during his early (government-funded) trips at a VA hospital in 1959 to the Acid Test Graduation in 1966. You’re there when the Pranksters slather Further with its initial coat of many colors at Kesey’s home in La Honda, CA; you’re riding shotgun with Neal Cassady at the wheel singing “Love Potion #9” as the bus makes its approach into New York City; and you’re on the floor at the Acid Tests with the music of the then-Warlocks-but-soon-to-be-Grateful-Dead pumping through you.

Working with the blessing of the Kesey family (and access to Ken’s manuscripts, letters, photos, and other materials), Ellwood and Gibney overcame the idiosyncrasies that rendered the original 16mm footage shot by Kesey and the Pranksters nearly useless. Oddball fluctuations in recording speeds due to unsteady genset power threw the sound and video totally out of sync at times; attempts to edit footage over the years had made the materials even more disjointed; and, of course, the acid-soaked weirdness that fueled the original filming presented its own set of challenges. If the filmmakers hadn’t gotten it – if they had approached the story of Kesey, the Pranksters, and Further as if they were oddities in a time-capsuled zoo – then the movie would never have worked.

But it does. Magic Trip is totally on the bus.

Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia (or MG) wasn’t aboard Further for the original cross-country voyage, but she logged in her share of miles as a Prankster, for sure. Arriving on the scene soon after Further’s return to La Honda (introduced to Kesey by none other than Cassady himself), Garcia spent untold hours over the years working with Kesey, Babbs, and her fellow Pranksters at trying to tame the wild-ass film footage and audio from the bus trip. When she refers to Magic Bus as “amazing,” then you’d better pay attention.

Former wife of Jerry Garcia; mother of three; board member of the Rex and Furthur foundations; member of the Women’s Visionary Congress; author, visionary, psychedelic pioneer, and Merry Prankster for evermore. If the Grateful Dead are thought to be the forefathers of the jam scene, then Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia is its godmother.

We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak (and laugh) with MG in early August. It was a magic trip of its own.

BR: Before we get too far into the movie – and this isn’t too far off-topic, as there’s some great early footage of The Dead playing at the Acid Tests – I feel like it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t ask you about this time of year. It seems like the whole world becomes honorary Deadheads when the first week of August rolls around – from Jerry’s birthday on the 1st to the anniversary of his death on the 9th.

MG: Yes, it does – I get a lot of extra e-mail around this time of year and a lot of extra phone calls. It’s gotten almost a little bit eerie for our family, actually. They’ve chosen to call August 9th “Jerry Day” in San Francisco, but his birthday was back on the 1st and I like that day better. It’s just gotten a little creepy.

BR: There are so many holidays now that are celebrated on days other than when the actual cause for celebration happened …

MG: That’s right – exactly. But I do love that people are paying attention to Jerry’s music – I think that’s great.

BR: Also, I’m supposed to say “Hello” from Ken Babbs. In an e-mail earlier today he said to tell you that he’s seen the movie and gives it “two thumbs up” – he really enjoyed it.

MG: Oh, it’s delightful. I’ve watched the movie four times now and each time I notice completely different stuff about it. The last time I watched it, I was in a room full of properly-prepared people and they were rolling in the aisles. (laughter) They were roaring with laughter – it really caught me by surprise.

But the way the movie is put together is just amazing. The work the editors did was phenomenal – they took film that was so messed up and they made it viewable again.

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