Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (2024)

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From the Merry Pranksters to the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia's former wife opens up about what the age of free love was really like

Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (1)

David Kushner

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It's a bright, crisp morning on a leafy street in Eugene, Oregon. Inside her plant-filled home lined with scientific books on psilocybin and posters of the Grateful Dead, Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia, legendary godmother of the hippie counterculture, Jerry's ex-wife, and mother of their two daughters, sits on a red leather couch dressed in a red shirt and purple pants. Now 76, with shoulder-length gray hair and black-framed glasses, she's reading me an excerpt from her unpublished memoir, which she just dug out of an old brown box. It's a familiar story from a revelatory point of view: her own.

"The Beatles came to the old Cow Palace down in the mudflat south of San Francisco," she reads. "Someone got us all tickets and we dressed up to go."

It was August 31, 1965, and everyone piled into Furthur, the painted school bus that would soon become one of the most renowned icons of the Sixties. "We mustered the instruments up on the roof thinking to lead a parade to the Cow Palace. The bus, however, was in a hiccupy mood and would only get moving 25 miles an hour up the hill, choking and gasping, overloaded and full of very high Pranksters."


In those days, Mountain Girl was the brash, 19-year-old "it girl" of the nascent psychedelic underground. She'd fled her hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York, to become the unlikely teenage matriarch for the counterculture's most celebrated influencers, the Merry Pranksters. Led by Ken Kesey, the swashbuckling author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the communal crew of seekers and misfits road-tripped the USA in Furthur, experimenting with the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll that would come to define their generation. Their adventures, as immortalized in Tom Wolfe's seminal book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," inspired legions of young people eager to break the shackles of the 1950s and embark on a new age of personal freedom. And none of the Pranksters embodied that emerging spirit more than Mountain Girl.

But there was one glaring problem. The mythology of the time, and the dynamic young woman at the heart of it, was written mostly by men — Wolfe, Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady — all of whom fashioned themselves as the hypermasculine heroes of their own stories. As a result, the prevailing narrative of Mountain Girl in the popular imagination reads like a comic-book male fantasy: saucy, sexy, sassy, "swinging into every situation like on a vine," as Wolfe wrote, "like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle."

Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (3)

The real story of Mountain Girl, as I've learned after months of talking to her, is far more complex. Back when she was riding with the Hells Angels and tripping with the Dead, she was a teenager coming of age at a moment the whole world seemed to be coming apart. She was broke. She was pregnant by Kesey, 11 years her senior, who was married with kids. At times, as she puts it, it was a "horrible story" — one that's much starker and scarier than suggested in Wolfe's book.


But unbeknownst to the guys, she was taking notes. From the affair with Kesey to the agony and ecstasy of her decades with Jerry, Mountain Girl was writing it all down in letters and journal entries. Now, after keeping her writings in a box for years, she had decided to share her memoir with me. Along with the stories she told me over hours of interviews, it's a monumental lost chapter of American literature — a funny, vivid, heartbreaking account of an indelible time and place, as told by the woman at the center of the wildness. MG, as her family and friends call her, is finally ready to be the author of her own story.

"I always wanted to be a writer," she tells me with a sly smile. "That was my golden destination."

For Carolyn Adams, the trip to wonderland started when a famously Mad Hatter offered her a ride. It happened in the summer of 1964 at St. Michael's Café in Palo Alto, California. Adams was 19, dark-haired, big-eyed, and broken-hearted, consoling herself over a double espresso and ice cream after her boyfriend had abruptly split town. She'd also just lost her job, and was going broke. Pretty much all at once.

Things weren't supposed to work out this way. She'd hitched a ride out west with her older brother, Don, determined to leave square old Poughkeepsie far in the rearview. With an entomologist for a dad and a botanical illustrator for a mother, Adams had grown up a brainy bug-lover with a mind for science and a passion for nature. "I was taught every plant name as we passed it on a hike," she says. "I was a total tomboy. I couldn't understand why I was born a girl. What the hell is going on? I want to carry a knife! I want to be lighting fires with a flint and steel! I want to be a pioneer!" She craved acceptance but couldn't seem to fit in. In her senior year of high school, she got expelled for sneaking into the boys locker room to see their new Nautilus machine.


She arrived in California, like many at the time, eager to bloom. Palo Alto in the early 1960s was a dynamic crucible of the radical changes to come. At Stanford University, researchers were exploring the potential of psychedelic drugs. Nearby, the CIA was conducting early experiments with LSD under the MK-Ultra program. (Kesey had been a participant in 1959). Adams was offered a job in the Stanford cafeteria, but drawing on her knowledge of science she hustled one in the organic-chemistry lab instead. "The job was to run the mass spectrometer on the night shift," she writes in her memoir. "I accepted the position without really asking what it would be, because it was in a lab and I felt at home there."

Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (4)

Flush with cash, she bought a white Honda 50 scooter and took to riding up and down the coast. Beatniks and folk musicians were flocking to the area, and Adams fell in love with the music scene. She saw Joan Baez at Kepler's, a local bookstore, and started taking guitar lessons at Dana Morgan's Music Store. The guy teaching in the room next to her was a 21-year-old named Jerry Garcia. "I could hear his voice and somebody else's voice," she tells me. "They were talking about chord progressions and all this interesting stuff."

Late one night, alone in the Stanford lab, she decided to try some other interesting stuff. She sampled ibogaine, a powerful psychoactive being studied by the researchers she worked with. Until then, the strongest drug she'd ever had was coffee. She hallucinated "pyramids and parrots and lush jungle vegetation," she says. "It was not a fun trip, let's put it that way." When her boss found her slumped over her desk the next morning, he fired her.


Adams soon lost her apartment and boyfriend as well. So when a guy named Bradley and his fast-talking friend Neal approached her at the café and offered her a lift, she decided to see where the adventure would lead. What she didn't realize, until Neal had peeled off the road and started driving the wrong way down a railroad track, was that he was none other than Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Jack Kerouac's 1957 Beat classic "On the Road."

She wrote about the ride, and reads it to me:

Meanwhile, fumbling in his pocket, he produces a handful of pills, and an assortment of newspaper clippings and matches. "Leaper?" he says to me, looking out, holding out some grimy bennies in his palm. I look carefully and ask for a quarter of one. "Now what will that do?" he asked me. "Just about nothing. Why, I take four or five to go to sleep!"

Readers have been afforded plenty of accounts of riding shotgun with Cassady, but never from the perspective of a hitchhiking woman. She reads on:

The car is lurching and leaping up the mountain road with its hairpins and overhanging trees, shrieking around the blind curves and cliffs. Neal is oblivious to any obstacles of destruction, and hogs the middle of the road, rocketing from one side to the other as the demands of the road dictate. Bradley clutches my arm, massaging my knee and rubbing my ankle and chuckling to himself. The middle is a lousy place to sit. One must brace against the turns to avoid sliding into the driver. I was obliged to hang onto Bradley. His smile looms like a half moon that spins along with us through the trees.

Dawn was breaking as they arrived at a ranch in La Honda. Surrounded by towering redwoods, the place seemed to be recovering from an epic bender: cars and motorcycles everywhere, the ground littered with assorted detritus. The mist was coming through the trees, and Adams made out a large vehicle in the distance, painted like a kaleidoscope.

Looming out of the deep shadows across the yard was an enormous painted bus, dim and bulbous and mysterious as Moby Dick. I walked over to look, amazed. Written in red paint, the front bumper proclaimed "CAUTION WEIRD LOAD."

Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (5)

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It was her first glimpse of Furthur, the bus Kesey and the Pranksters had just driven to and from the World's Fair in New York, becoming poster children for the promise and perils of life, liberty, and LSD. Adams, who had been a bus monitor in elementary school, had a soft spot for the rides, especially a vintage 1939 International Harvester like this one. "I'm standing there, it's like 6 in the morning," she recalls. "And I was like, 'Oh, my God!' It's got little mottos written all over it." When she came to the one on the door that read "Nothing Lasts," she stopped in her tracks. "My heart opened," she says. "That's the coolest thing I ever saw. It was like permission to make something new out of the old stuff, which the bus kind of represented."


Cassady roused the owner of the bus and the ranch, the man he called the Chief: Ken Kesey. With bright blue eyes, blond curly hair, and a wrestler's build, the famous young novelist glowed with authority and mischief. Adams felt, as she puts it, "in a juvenile state of admiration for a good writer, for a famous person who is now taking me into his scene."

Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (6)

Ken Kesey's ranch in La Honda, California, where Mountain Girl joined the Pranksters. Bob Campbell/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

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Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (7)

Kesey (left) with Neal Cassady, who introduced him to Mountain Girl when she was 19. "Neal basically dropped me off like fresh meat," she recalls. The Estate of David Gahr/Getty Images

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Kesey seemed weary, a cruise director at the end of a long and tiring voyage. With the New York trip done, he was planning what he called a "Prankster Farewell Party," a send-off for those who now had to return to their jobs and lives. "It was the end of their chapter," Adams says, "and the beginning of mine." Cassady, she learned, had come across her at the café while he was making a drug run to pick up the amphetamine pills Kesey needed to stay alert. But she felt as if he'd scored Kesey something else as well: this plucky 19-year-old from Poughkeepsie. He stood there eyeing her up — her long dark hair, her big bright smile — the latest Alice to have fallen through the rabbit hole. Looking back on it, Adams realized that Cassady was handing her over to the Chief, along with the drugs. "Neal basically dropped me off there like fresh meat or something," she says.

A few days later, Adams rode her white Honda 50 back to La Honda for Kesey's party, where she accepted his holy sacrament: LSD.

"It was fall. It was warm," she recalls. "I was sitting on the ground, and all of a sudden the redwood needles started to rearrange themselves. I was hallucinating. They were moving around, and I go, 'Oh, isn't that cute?'" Tibetan monks sang in strange, low tones. "I had never heard any of that before," she says. "I was mind-boggled and yet, there it was, happening inside my head." This is absolute magic, she thought.


Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (8)

So too, she thought, were Kesey and the Pranksters. The group, she realized, "was his version of the nuthouse. And his nuts were actually well-educated college students with athletic prowess — mostly pretty, athletic people." The others quickly took note of this dynamic new girl in their midst. Adams was "willowy, with long, black hair, a bright smile and sharp mind," as Prankster Ken Babbs describes her in his new memoir. "As the new attraction, I was getting a lot of interest from the unattached males," Adams recalls.

"Where did you come from?" another Prankster, Mike Hagen, asked her.

"Oh, I came from up on the mountain there," she said.

All the Pranksters had nicknames — the Chief, Slime Queen, Intrepid Traveler — and now Hagen gave one to her. "Well," he replied, "you must be Mountain Girl."


When I ask her how she felt about the name, she tells me she didn't like it because she didn't choose it. But she embraced it nonetheless. After so many years of struggling to fit in back in New York, she had finally found a place where she could be whoever she wanted. "It worked for me to have a different identity," she says. "I could play with that."

Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (9)

As Mountain Girl, she fit right in with her new tribe — eating acid, painting the bus, and, with her mechanical know-how, running the light-show projectors at the Pranksters' bacchanalian revivals. Kesey dubbed them the Acid Tests. Everyone would drink the LSD-spiked Kool-Aid and dance under the kaleidoscopic lights to their very own house band, the newly anointed Grateful Dead. The bassist Phil Lesh considered Mountain Girl "the Prankster Queen," as he wrote in his memoir. "She ended up being responsible (if that concept is even thinkable in this context) for mixing the multiple mutable audio loops connecting every part of the space with every other. Occasionally, her voice could be heard floating — the sound actually moving through the hall — with a loving and humorous commentary on some piece of the action." Mountain Girl had seen the Dead in its earlier incarnations, but she didn't take special note of Jerry. "He was just the guitar player," she says.

Self-reliant as always, MG constructed her own little home in the woods:

I had built a small shelter in a grove of trees by the creek. I had three old couch pillows and my sleeping bag, with a tarp tacked up overhead for the few rain or fog drips that penetrated the treetops. It was cozy enough, and I felt perfectly safe. After an acid trip, it's always desirable to have a cozy warm spot to retreat to and sleep, even outdoors.


However out of step she had felt among the kids back home, she now found her place among the generation's leading artists, writers, and radicals: Timothy Leary ("I thought he was kind of an actor — he was busy playing a role"), Richard Alpert, the LSD researcher and guru known as Ram Dass ("a saint and a mystic, and a gay man, just a sweetheart"), Hunter S. Thompson ("an important guy for the country"). When Thompson and the Hells Angels showed up for parties, Mountain Girl was soon giving them rides on the back of their own Harleys. But she turned down their offer to become a member. "They were a gang of brutes who beat up each other for fun," she says with a smile, "but they were nice to me."

Her affair with Kesey happened fast. Mountain Girl found the celebrated writer, who was 29, to be dynamic, intelligent, and playful. Kesey dug how she spoke her mind, made him laugh, and dazzled him with beauty. In a loosely autobiographical screenplay he wrote called "Over the Border," he rhapsodizes about "her big brown eyes made even bigger by the electricity of the warm autumn night with the stars above and her man beside her."

But as much as the Chief held the power in the Pranksters' fold, Mountain Girl maintained her own. "I wasn't a hundred percent Ken's girlfriend," she says. "I slept with some of the other Pranksters from time to time." Despite the free-love ethos of the Sixties, she could feel the tension her affair with Kesey generated in the group. Faye, Kesey's wife and the mother of their three young children, barely talked to her. "She didn't say anything of any note except to acknowledge my presence. So I never really knew where she stood on anything."

Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (10)

It didn't help matters when Mountain Girl made an alarming discovery: She was pregnant. "I was mortified," she says. "I had been taking birth-control pills, but then I ran out, and we were up there on the mountain, you know what I mean? I just had to go with it."


When she broke the news to Kesey, he seemed nervous. "He wasn't super happy about it," she recalls. "He knew it was going to cause trouble." Mountain Girl had already had one abortion, during which she vividly recalls tripping on ketamine, which was used as sedative. "They gave you enough so that you were transported to the geometrical universe where everything was in squares and triangles," she says. But she didn't have the money for another one, and she was almost entirely reliant on Kesey, who wanted her to keep the child. "He went with it," she says, "and made sure that I had a place to sleep and food to eat."

One night in San Francisco, four months after the Beatles show, Kesey and Mountain Girl were up on the roof of a home in Telegraph Hill, smoking a joint. By then she was five months pregnant. Kesey had just been sentenced to six months on a work farm for marijuana possession, and the Pranksters were two days away from staging their biggest Acid Test yet. Billed as the Trips Festival, the immersive, three-day event would draw more than 10,000 people to revel in the city's underground art scene, from light-show artists and experimental theater troupes to bands like the Dead, which gave its first major performance in San Francisco. It would prove to be a pivotal moment in the history of the counterculture. "The Haight-Ashbury era," as Tom Wolfe later wrote, "began that weekend."

Suddenly, as Kesey and Mountain Girl were sharing the joint, they found themselves surrounded by a phalanx of cops. Someone had alerted the police that America's Most Wanted Acid Preacher was up on the roof getting high with a girl.

At the police station, speaking with a reporter, Kesey suggested that he was being persecuted for his role in the counterculture. "It's a perilous society if you don't look a certain way," he said. Mountain Girl was equally defiant about their arrest. "I'm not sorry about it particularly," she said. "I'm not weeping with remorse."


Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (11)

But after spending a night in jail, she soon had another reason to weep.

The Chief was gone.

The week after the Trips Festival, on January 31, 1966, Furthur was found abandoned on a cliffside road, high above the crashing shore of Eureka. Inside was Kesey's suicide note: "Ocean, ocean, I'll beat you in the end," it read. "I'll break you this time. I'll go through with my heels at your hungry ribs."

As most suspected, it was yet another prank. Kesey wasn't dead. A friend had smuggled him across the border to an undisclosed location in Mexico. But his antic exit was no joke to the broke, homeless, pregnant teenager he had unceremoniously left behind. The father of Mountain Girl's baby was now a fugitive.


"I was very upset," she recalls. "Not just a little upset. I was way upset. I was floored. I couldn't believe it."

Her parents didn't know she was pregnant, so she was stuck with the Pranksters. She took command of the situation, telling them that they were now the only family she had. "I wanted to stay on the bus," she says. "I wanted to stay with my Prankster buddies. That was home for me, I made that abundantly clear." But she wasn't looking for another man to step in. "I was a strong suit," she says. "I didn't want any whinging."

With Cassady behind the wheel, the Pranksters rode the bus down to Los Angeles for a series of Acid Tests. Mountain Girl kept her gig as the projectionist, painting the walls with colors as the trippers danced to the Dead. She'd gotten to know Jerry a little better, having spent a cold night in the bus platonically huddling between him and Pigpen, the Dead's keyboardist, for warmth. She was still dropping acid before the shows, albeit in smaller doses. ("I was taking just enough to get my job done," she says.) But being pregnant changed her outlook on life. "It took the edge off me, to be carrying a kid," she says. "I wasn't quite as daredevil as I had been."

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Still facing pot charges in San Francisco, she had to hitchhike up and down the coast for her court appearances, five hours each way. "Crazy," she recalls. "Hitchhiked up I-5, pregnant with no money whatsoever, begging cups of coffee off of people." But facing the judge, she was sharp enough to know who they were really after: Kesey. "They pressured me to tell them where he was," she says. "I just said, 'I have no idea — he disappeared.' Which was true."


One day, when she was up in San Francisco, her attorney got a call. The Pranksters were gassing up the bus to head to Mexico. They were going to look for Kesey. If Mountain Girl wanted to come, she better hitchhike down to LA fast, before they split. "I got comfortable, as much as possible, on the overloaded bus bunk with my very few possessions," she writes. "I was more than seven months pregnant and I didn't have sh*t. No money, hardly any clothes, and no real concept of what was coming."

Any hopes she had of a joyful reunion were dashed the moment they found Kesey. He was living in a cheap motel in the beachfront town of Mazatlán, conferring with his lawyer and looking jittery, skinny, and paranoid. "He was not happy to see me," she says. His life as a fugitive seemed to be taking a toll on him, along with his seemingly unlimited intake of speed. "You could buy bennies over the counter in Mexico, and I think he'd been doing more than his share," she says. "He was kind of a wreck."

The Pranksters, ever dutiful, came to his aid. They rebooted their commune around him, reassuming their established roles. Mountain Girl, eight months pregnant, hitchhiked to get groceries. But to her, it didn't feel like the same party anymore. While she was fast approaching her due date, Kesey was off dealing with his lawyers. Other Pranksters went back and forth to America, but without money or means Mountain Girl felt trapped in Mexico. "I really would have liked to have gone," she says, "but I didn't have any way to go."

She gave birth in the charity ward of a Mexican hospital in May 1966. Kesey didn't show up, even after the birth. "I was glad he wasn't there," she says, "but I was a little hurt he didn't come to see me." She named her baby girl Sunshine Kesey. Mountain Girl had to "marry" her fellow Prankster George Walker to get the birth certificate.


Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (12)

Despite the new light in her life, a darkness set in. After a harrowing experience nursing the baby while on acid — "it magnifies the suction sensation to the maximum, like whoa!" — she realized she needed to make a change. "I couldn't freak freely and stay up all night and run up and down the ladders," she says. "I had to take responsibility for this child." She quit LSD, but she fell into a postpartum depression as her reality came into focus. It had been only two years since she'd met Kesey and taken up with the Pranksters, but it felt like a lifetime. "I had disempowered myself by joining this group," she says. "I was no longer in charge of my own destiny."

She decided to take the wheel again. In October 1966, with her visa up, she rode back to San Francisco with her baby and the Pranksters. But in the six months they'd been gone, something had changed. Through her window she saw legions of young people with long hair and colorful pants, smoking, dancing, playing guitar. The seeds she'd helped sow were beginning to bloom. When she stepped off the bus holding Sunshine, she recognized a familiar face coming up to greet her. "I'm so glad to see you!" Jerry Garcia exclaimed.

Until then, Mountain Girl had always considered their relationship to be "buddy-buddy." Jerry was married with a daughter of his own, but they had moved back to Palo Alto without him. Like her, he was looking for family.

The moment she hugged him, she felt a flash. "I was like, whoa, that was a really electric moment!" she recalls with a laugh. "That was just a zap! What the hell just happened? He put the mojo on me. I got a huge jolt, and I had a very vivid image of us being together."


She addressed it head-on. "Well," she asked him, "what are we going to do?"

His eyes smiled. "You could come stay with me," he said.

Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (13)

After moving in with Jerry, the teenage matriarch of the Pranksters became the "den mother," as she puts it, of the Grateful Dead: cooking, cleaning, rustling them out the door on time. The band, which was making waves in the Haight but hadn't yet recorded an album, shared a rambling Victorian on 710 Ashbury Street in San Francisco. With Sunshine slung to her hip, Mountain Girl fell into communal living again. Their pad had become a hub for the burgeoning scene around the Dead's extended family of dealers and musicians and psychedelic poster artists. She and Jerry lived off his $50 a week in gig money.

Jerry and I were head over heels in love, and radiant with happiness. Our room at the top of the stairs was small, a comforting retreat, with a huge flag covering one wall, and a window looking out over the weedy garden. His pedal steel and a chair the only furniture. The tiny kitchen downstairs was the crossroads, we jammed in there for morning cornflakes and conversation. I jumped in to make a few dinners and keep the pantry stocked. We cleaned our grass in an old aluminum colander, and stored the kilo of Acapulco gold in a kitchen cupboard. The tiny sink was a hazard zone. We tried to keep the mess to a minimum.


Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (14)

MG cherished the quiet moments with Jerry in their room, nursing Sunshine in bed as he noodled her favorite tune, "Viola Lee Blues," on his guitar. "Ooh man," she told him, "there's something. That is really something." He could see the musical notes, he told her. It was a form of synesthesia: little notes with different little cartoon beings, each with its own personality. "He was aware of all this extra stuff going on in the music," she says, "which is one of the reasons it had so much power to move people. Because for him it was a living fluid."

The closer she grew to Jerry, the further she drifted from Kesey. Since coming back to the States, he'd been embroiled in legal battles over his marijuana charges. And he hadn't been supporting her and their child. Despite their open relationship, he was jealous. Throughout his adventures, he had always come back to Mountain Girl. But now that she'd fallen in love with Garcia, Kesey seemed to realize what he'd lost. "Ken was upset that I hooked up with Jerry," she says. "It was written all over his face. He was sad. He was losing me and Sunshine."

Then came the Summer of Love. In the course of a few months, some 100,000 young people from all over the world descended on Haight-Ashbury to get high and make love and protest the war. The psychedelic culture the Pranksters had pioneered — DayGlo paint, jam bands, LSD — had a new name: hippie. There was a Free Clinic for those who were sick, and a Free Store for those in need of basic necessities, and there was music everywhere. And no one defined the scene more than the Dead, whose gigs in the meadow in Golden Gate Park were becoming more and more crowded. With Jerry at her side, Mountain Girl was at the center of it all, counting Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin among her growing family of friends.

As the Dead began putting out records and touring, Mountain Girl, who had a child to raise, began feeling the strain. "God knows what Jerry was doing when they were out on the road," she says. "I tried not to ask too many questions, because I know how it is. I understood men at that point." The band came back from Woodstock in August 1969 "looking like they'd been in a war zone," she says. It felt as though the scene she had helped create was starting to lose its luster, the summer of love devolving into something chaotic and ugly.


"It was a very egalitarian moment — a lot of sharing, a lot of caring," she says. "And then all of a sudden it was too much. There were people everywhere looking for anything, looking for a place to lie down. People were just sleeping on the street in their shorts in the San Francisco fog, and getting terribly chilled. And more and more people were getting admitted to the hospital from bad drug reactions. The dealers were out there spreading bad, bad sh*t, telling them it was LSD, and it would be some nasty tranq from the nuthouse."

Mountain Girl and Jerry moved into an apartment of their own, and she got pregnant again. But they wanted to do something to make things better, to restore new life to the countercultural movement to which they had helped give birth. The Altamont festival, meant to be a sort of "Woodstock West," was organized in their apartment. The free concert, scheduled for December 6, 1969, would include performances by the Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones. But when the day arrived, the crowd of 300,000 grew increasingly unruly as the Hells Angels, who had been brought in to provide security, grew increasingly drunk. Eight months pregnant, Mountain Girl stepped off the Dead's helicopter at Altamont just in time to see Mick Jagger get punched in the head by a concertgoer.

Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (15)

The Dead never took the stage. As the Stones launched into "Sympathy for the Devil," Mountain Girl heard a gunshot and took cover in the back of a tour bus. "It seemed the only safe place," she recalls. "You could tell the number of people was way exceeding the ability of anybody to deal with it." A Hells Angel, she later learned, had stabbed a gun-wielding concertgoer to death at the foot of the stage. Three others died at Altamont that day, including a fan who took too much LSD and drowned in an irrigation ditch.

"It was awful," Mountain Girl says. "Everybody was really depressed. It was all over the newspapers, and it was a huge story, and we felt guilty at having called for this." The concert had been meant to revive the spirit of a generation. Instead, it brought the year — and the decade — to a dark and violent end. But Mountain Girl had been around long enough to know that, in the words painted on the Pranksters' bus, Nothing Lasts. Not even the Sixties.

It's a clear, cold afternoon in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, and Mountain Girl, dressed in a black parka and jeans, is sharing a joint with her three grown daughters. Sunshine Kesey and Annabel Garcia live nearby, not far from their mom. Trixie Garcia, her youngest, has come up from Oakland. We're sitting around the kitchen table in the main farmhouse of the sprawling, rustic ranch where Ken Kesey lived from 1972 until his death in 2001 at age 66. It's still owned by Sunshine and the Kesey family. Over the years it became a bustling hub for friends and family, including Mountain Girl, who moved nearby in the 1980s. The farm hasn't changed much. A large mandala is painted on the living-room floor. A framed photo of Kesey juggling apples hangs on a bright red wall.


A long, strange trip led Mountain Girl to Kesey's final home. At first, in the disorienting wake of the Sixties, she and Jerry had retreated to a secluded home in Stinson Beach, California, where the girls grew up. But much of that time, Jerry was on tour. "I just couldn't deal with it," Mountain Girl says. "It was too much travel." Under the isolation and pressures of the road, Jerry slipped into cocaine and heroin addiction. Mountain Girl believes he was still suffering from the trauma of seeing his father, Joe, drown on a fishing trip when he was 6. "That left a giant hole in his personality he was constantly trying to fill," she says. "He'd fill it with music, drugs, girlfriends, whatever. The loss of his father was absolutely devastating for him as a little boy."

But Mountain Girl and Jerry remained intertwined through it all. In 1980, on New Year's Eve, they got married by a Buddhist monk backstage at a Dead concert. But as Jerry's addiction worsened, MG took the girls and moved to a farm in Oregon, where some of the other Pranksters had moved. Kesey was just down the road, but to Mountain Girl he still felt miles away. "I would go over from time to time and hang out," she says. "But Ken by that time was also aging, not too gracefully, and I don't drink. So that kind of separated me."

Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (16)

"Nobody can measure up," Mountain Girl says of Jerry. Will Matsuda for Insider

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Mountain Girl’s heartbreaking memoir: An icon of the Sixties opens up about Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, and what the age of free love was really like (17)

At home in Oregon, where she's down to shrooming twice a year. Will Matsuda for Insider

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Mountain Girl and Jerry divorced in 1993. Two years later, she got the dreaded call: Garcia had died of a heart attack at a drug-treatment facility. He was 53. "I was totally devastated," she says. "I went down for a long time." Her eyes well with tears. "I haven't had another relationship really since then. Nobody can measure up."

Today, 60 years since she took that ride with Neal Cassady, Mountain Girl is still forging her own path. She visits family and friends, including old Pranksters like Ken Babbs who have made Oregon their home, and spends her days reading, working on her memoir, and gardening. She wrote one of the first books on marijuana farming, "The Primo Plant: Growing Sinsemilla Marijuana," back in 1977. "Marijuana is an ancient plant, cultivated for centuries all over the world for rope & papermaking, for its oil, resin, & seeds," she writes in her memoir. "Old-time farmers used manure, compost, bird sh*t, etc. That was what was available, & it is still the best."


She's still a psychedelic priestess, though she's down to shrooming twice a year. In 2020, as a board member of the Edelic Center for Ethnobotanical Service, a nonprofit advocacy group, she helped legalize magic mushrooms for therapeutic use in Oregon. "Because Mountain Girl went through this movement once before," says Rachel Anderson, the group's cofounder, "she's seen what worked and what didn't work."

Before I leave Kesey's farm, Mountain Girl and I walk outside to the old brown barn where Furthur now rests. The bus is rusted and broken down. The windows are busted. The paint is faded. Nothing Lasts didn't last. But for Mountain Girl, it lives forever, an emblem of everything her generation believed in, and all that they achieved.

"I cry when I see the bus now, are you kidding?" she says with a big bright grin. "I love that bus! I painted that bus!"

David Kushneris a long-time contributor to Rolling Stone. His new book is "Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master: Pong, Atari, and the Dawn of the Video Game."


Correction: March 14, 2023— An earlier subhead in this story mischaracterized Carolyn and Jerry Garcia's relationship at the time of his death. They were divorced; she wasn't his widow. The story also misidentified the year Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" was published. It was 1957, not 1967.

Correction: March 21, 2023— An earlier version of this story misidentified the "saint and mystic" whom Mountain Girl met. It was the LSD researcher Richard Alpert, not the LSD chemist Albert Hofmann. The story also incorrectly stated the Dead's place in the schedule at Altamont. They were slated to appear earlier in the concert, not as the final act.

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