On the Road, Again

updated 05/24/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/24/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PAST THE WINDOWS OF THE BUS ROLL THE emerald foothills of western Oregon—and then, there it is, off in the distance, a Day-Glo-tinted pickup truck shimmering like a psychedelic tangerine. After three weeks and 4,000 miles, the members of Douglas Brinkley's Hofstra University social science class are about to meet the inspiration for their long, strange transcontinental trip: novelist and "60s guru Ken Kesey, king of the Merry Pranksters, who once upon a time turned the road trip into an art form.

"We'll just see where that Kesey energy takes us," says Brinkley, 32, alighting form the Majic Bus (named by driver and owner Frank Perugi after the song by the Who). Kesey, 57, sticks out a burly hand and greets the pilgrims. Someone pounds a bongo, and he smiles. "Ah, the mindless chatter of drums," Kesey says as he leads the group into a cavernous cinder-block garage. He begins handing out instruments. Within minutes ever)-body is blowing into strange-shaped horns, clanking cowbells and dancing as Kesey shouts indecipherable phrases into a cordless microphone.

Clearly this experience isn't for everybody—in more ways than one. The tab for the six-credit, six-week class, listed in the Hofstra catalog as "An American Odyssey: Art and Culture Across America," is $1,900 for tuition and another $750 for a berth on one of two sleeper coaches, plus around $700 pocket and meal money. Still, last November the scene outside Brinkley's campus office in Hempstead, N.Y., was a "virtual wailing wall of student petitioners," he says. They were begging to participate in this "90s. PG version of the cross-country LSD trip taken in 1904 by Kesey and the Pranksters in a Day-Glo school bus (later immortalized in Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). Appropriately. Brinkley has just published an account of his maiden academic motorcade, in 1992. titled The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey.

This semester's 26 trekkies have had plenty to write home about during their trip, which ended May 11.The students cruised through Alaska and down into Canada. They read Willa Cather and Alice Walker, hung out with the likes of William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson—who autographed a delighted student's copy of one his own books by blasting it with a shotgun. They camped out with the Sierra Club in the Mojave Desert and partied with Chuck Berry in St. Louis. At night they either slept under the stars, bunked on the bus or—when Brinkley's girlfriend Tamra Cimalore, 25, a Hofstra administrator, could line some up—enjoyed complimentary hotel rooms.

"From Walt Whitman's wanderings to Mark Twain going up and down the Mississippi to Jack Kerouae crossing the continent by car, the idea of movement for movement's sake is an American tradition," says the earnest, enthusiastic Brinkley, an assistant professor who has written two well-respected books in his original field of study, U.S. diplomatic history. "The idea is to get people asking that fundamental question: 'What does it mean to be an American?' " Brinkley believes that the firsthand experiences of the road can break through the daze of today students, whom he calls "another great lost generation. I'm trying to combat a sense of apathy and make them understand that they can get up and make things happen. If they can learn that, then everything in life is going to take off."

Taking off is exactly what attracted students like 19-year-old history major Craig Gordon. "I've never been out of my time zone," he says. Fellow bus tripper Steve "Blueberry Rider" Grafstein, a 21-year-old film and social science major sporting a freshly-dyed blue' do, had traveled to Europe, "but I've never really seen what America is made of—a lot of truck stops and shopping malls." He has also learned some valuable lessons about economics. "I'm going to be learning even more," he says, "because I'm down to my last $100."

Brinkley and his older sister grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio, near Toledo, where his father worked as a glass-company executive and his mother taught high school English. He pursued a love of history first at Ohio State, then earned a Ph.D. at Georgetown. He taught at the U.S. Naval Academy and Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School before joining the Hofstra faculty in 1989.

Brinkley got the idea for his American odyssey two years ago, after taking some students to visit Jack Kerouac's home in Lowell, Mass. "It just got me pumped up, and I started asking myself, 'Why don't I teach on the road?' " A few fellow faculty members groused that he should stick to teaching diplomatic history, but with the support, he says, of a "progressive dean," Brinkley was on the road in a year. He wrote an account of that first junket in the hope that it might promote his dream of expanding the program to include inner-city high school students—and also to taunt his critics.

But those critics are a continent away as Brinkley, Kesey and company make their raw, discordant and gloriously deafening racket. As he bops to the beat, Grafstein rolls his eyes and smiles beatifically. "You can't put a price tag on this," he says. "You can't put a price tag on any of this."

JOHNNY DODD on the Majic Bus

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