Dean Quarnstrom died in 2021 and his son Evan has spent the year since traveling the world, mourning and reading his dad’s journals, which chronicle his days hovering on the fringes of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in 1960s Santa Cruz. Dean describes the Pranksters as “pretentious,” “untrustworthy” and a “bunch of a--holes.” As he reads his father’s writing, Evan relives the counterculture generation — including his dad’s stories about Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Hells Angels — and gets to know a side of his father he never knew.
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“The Pranksters are a bunch of a–holes.”
My late father wrote that after spending years hovering on the fringes of the Merry Pranksters — the 1960s band of hippies, social critics and acid-trippers who orbited around author Ken Kesey and spent time drifting about Santa Cruz County well before my birth.
But according to my dad, Dean Quarnstrom, who chronicled his time with the Pranksters in his journals, they were also pretentious, untrustworthy and noninclusive as they followed Kesey, their unquestioned leader.
I’ve been reading the journals since my father’s passing in 2021. It’s helping me better understand him, after divorce and court-determined custody visits limited our relationship when I was younger.
Reviewing my father’s writings — many of which he wrote while serving 2½ years in prison for “conspiring to import and possess marijuana” — and his trove of corresponding films and photos has been emotional, but rewarding. I’ve realized we have more in common than I thought.
My father, and others like him in the 60s, flocked to the Bay Area in search of an alternate lifestyle.
Me too. I’m on a journey with similar motives, but my path has led me to South America, Indonesia and now India.
Actually, I am about to complete one year of traveling around the world. Lately, I have delved into the fascinating customs of the world’s most populous nation and am on my way to mastering the art of eating without utensils.
Dreaming of this trip and putting the plans into action required nontraditional thinking about my life’s goals. My dad had those thoughts, too.
My dad wasn’t one of the Pranksters, but his older brother, Lee Quarnstrom, was part of the “in” crowd that drove across the country on an influential, psychedelic bus they called the “Further.”
Growing up, I was indifferent about the Pranksters and my family’s connections.
That changed as I sorted through my dad’s words.
He depicts the group much differently than Tom Wolfe did in his 1968 book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” which catapulted Wolfe and the Pranksters to fame and included a glamorous first-hand narrative of Wolfe’s time with the Pranksters, including at a Soquel house known as “the Spread.”
“All the excitement and great moments in Wolfe’s book were all true, but they were rare. Many days, the Pranksters were hung over, coming down, freaked out and sick,” my father wrote.
“Bottom line, they were sponges with rare moments of gut-wrenching insight,” he continued.
He also admitted he was an outsider: “I was never really made to feel ‘on the bus’ by the Pranksters. I was always Lee’s little brother.”
My father recounts stories of LSD-fueled Prankster parties with the Hells Angels that took place at their cabins in the Santa Cruz Mountains town of La Honda. These parties partly defined the Pranksters and made them legendary, but they also had a dark side.
He told stories of the Hells Angels tying up and dangling his friend from the cabin’s rafters. And he witnessed other disturbing violence that sickened him, like the Angels taking advantage of heavily drugged women.
“I was pissed that night when Kesey didn’t step up and protect that crazy, screwed up girl,” he wrote.
“The Pranksters are a bunch of a—holes, so I dragged myself outside to my car, leaving behind another ‘great’ party.”
My dad witnessed stuff that disturbed him. It’s unsettling to read it.
I don’t blame him for not confronting the Hells Angels. But you could wonder how many women’s stories went untold.
My father’s stories taint the Prankster mystique. It makes them sound much less “merry” and far more cowardly. Certainly, some were poor role models, then and now.
I never paid attention to the Prankster history when I was younger. But now, I know it was present in my childhood.
Driving around Santa Cruz, my father would recount stories. Like the time Janis Joplin came to his Zayante cabin tripping on acid at a Prankster meetup. Or when he went on a Prankster road trip to New Mexico.
The portrait of a man flexing his biceps on our living room wall was Neal Cassady, the Beat Generation writer featured in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and one of the most notorious Pranksters.
On the first day of junior-year math class at Harbor High School, I vividly remember the teacher lifting her eyes off the roll call when she came across my name.
“Are you related to Lee Quarnstrom?” she asked with a slight smirk.
I already knew why my name was well known.
Everyone knew my uncle Lee, the former Prankster who was an editor at Hustler magazine in the 1970s and a reporter and columnist at the San Jose Mercury News in the 1980s and 1990s.
Following my uncle and dad, I became a writer in my 20s, and my father eagerly recruited me to help organize his memoir.
He never got to finish it.
But writing brought us closer. I learned who he was by hearing what he had lived.
We talked through his stories, mulled which words to use and pored over drafts and film photos. He told me about past lovers, failed relationships, living in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s, the epicenter of the cultural revolution.
He was eager to give advice and tell me and my siblings about the life he’d led decades before he was a father. He also shared some of the fond memories he had of some of the Pranksters.
Ron “Hassler” Bevirt, who opened the Hip Pocket Bookstore on Pacific Avenue in the mid-1960s, was among them. My dad remembers Hassler moving into his Zayante cabin and introducing him to a member of the Apache Tribe named Cliff who “cured” him from an endless LSD trip.
Neal Cassady was another friend he cared about. They took acid together at the Grateful Dead’s house in San Francisco, and my father said one of Cassady’s rambling monologues changed his understanding of life.
Learning about the Pranksters and reading my father’s writing has also helped me grieve. I hear him in the words I read, his opinionated stances, his sense that life was an adventure.
It’s fascinating to read words he wrote as a much younger man. It’s all part of my history, my legacy, as I sift through his stories and consider both where I came from and where I am headed.
Evan Quarnstrom is a Santa Cruz native with an affinity for surfing, the outdoors, traveling and studying languages. He graduated from Harbor High School in 2010 and went on to study international business at San Diego State University. After seven years working in the surfing industry, Evan now works as a freelance writer and online English teacher. He has been to 25 countries and counting. His previous piece for Lookout appeared in August.