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On the Road in SMA

California Highway 1

Dec. 4, 2022

by Dr. David Fialk, Editor / Publisher

Conde Nast continuously awarding San Miguel its Best Town in the World award comes with consequences. Old-time residents bemoan the dilution of San Miguel's bohemian culture by those moving here only for the weather and to stretch their Social Security check. But the truth is, nonconformity in San Miguel has been diminishing for decades.

Neal Cassady was a beatnik in the 50s and a psychedelic friend of the hippies in the 60s, a major force in both movements. A companion of Ginsberg, Kesey, the Grateful Dead and everyone who was anyone, he was a one-man Who's Who of nonconformity.

Cassady was featured in Kerouac's On the Road and Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. The later chronicles the Merry Pranksters adventures aboard their bus, Further. Cassady drove the bus, often along curving, coastal California Highway 1, with a mountain on one side and an unguarded precipice plunging hundreds of feet down to the Pacific on the other. A dangerous road under the best of conditions, it was especially perilous in a converted school bus with Cassady at the wheel, taking up both lanes while coming around a blind corner. When questioned about the safety of this driving stratagem, he assured his passengers, those not too stoned to be afraid, that he could intuitively sense that there was nothing coming the other way.

Neal Cassady

In the video below Jerry Garcia recounts, still with alarm decades after the fact, driving with Cassady in a car through San Francisco: "You were sure that you were going to die."

I've always been squeamish in the face of such dare-devilry. Such flaunting of rules gets you killed. Government laws are one thing, but the laws of physics are another matter. It's guaranteed; like Russian roulette, if you play long enough, you lose.

Cassady was a huge figure. He grabbed hold of life with both hands and bit into it. He blew through the world like a force of nature. Such self-confidence is very romantic and easy to admire, at least from a distance.


When I lived up in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom my buddy Chris drove the bus, except, in this case, it was my Toyota Corolla. Like Cassady, Chris was larger than life, approaching everything with tremendous gusto. He drove my mildly sporty car everywhere we went: one, he knew the roads better than me; two, he was a better driver than me, three, I like being chauffeured; four, it made him happy, gave him honor. He was a leader, not a passenger in life.

Another member of our Vermont band, a mountain man himself, born in a teepee (with a wood stove) in the Vermont winter, once told me, "When we were kids, Chris was the leader. If he did something, we all had to do it."

Like Cassady, through brawn, smarts and daring, Chris got things done. He was reliable, with a reputation for competency. He knew what he was talking about, or he didn't talk. He was the kind of guy you'd want to have your back. Up there in Vermont, he had mine.

Back here in San Miguel, back in 1968, Cassady and Kerouac were drinking, as they did every night at La Cucaracha. That chilly winter night, already drunk, Cassady left La Cucaracha, walked down Canal and out of town. Getting to the train station, he started to follow the tracks.

La Cucaracha

When you get cold your body shuts down peripheral circulation to keep your torso, and its vital organs, warm. Cold hands make it hard to grasp and manipulate things. But a cold liver is game over. Alcohol frustrates this physiological survival mechanism, allowing blood to flow into your extremities without restriction.

In the short-term, alcohol is an effective strategy to warm up. When the Saint Bernard finds you snow-bound, take the cask of brandy hanging from its neck and have a few gulps. Lasting relief, blankets and the rest of the rescue party, is coming not far behind.

Driving a bus blindly around corners on California's Coastal Highway is suicidal. Lying down for a drunken nap, outside on a winter's night is suicide. Jack London says that Cassady's exit, hypothermia, was a pleasant way to go.

Chris and my relationship was face to face. We dropped out of touch when I left Vermont. Ten years later, two years ago, I heard in a very roundabout way that Chris just disappeared one day. No one really knows how, where or why.

People figured he walked deep out into his beloved woods and shot himself. I like to think that, out in those woods, he was playing a game that he had played before, holding real quiet at the sound of a bear approaching. Only this time, at the last minute, the wind shifted. Physically, a bullet through the head is a much prettier way to go than is surprising a bear at close quarters. It's just that I hate to think of how hopeless he must have been to get to that point. As vigorous and dependent on his physicality as he was, I never could imagine him aging gracefully.

When I got in touch with Nathan, another Vermont friend, he didn't want to talk about Chris' disappearance. He said, "I was hoping he was down there with you." And really, all things considered, in some way he is.

Lake Willoughby, Vermont

There was a lot I admired about Chris, the main things being his confidence. Not one given over to careful planning, Chris would dive into a project, assured that we'd come up with what we needed to make it work. And we did.

The main lesson I've applied from my relationship with Chris, the main gift I've acquired, are his leadership skills. No one had ever accused me of being timid, still I did like to have all my ducks in a line, everything just right. But, as my father told me about business, if you wait until you're certain, someone else takes the deal.

These days I'm feeling more adventurous. My exploits aren't on a converted school bus or trekking through remote forests. My Lokkal project is a great adventure. Local, community-oriented internet is what the world needs now, for so many reasons. Technology that works for the little guy is the antidote to the global commercialism that is turning us into passive, consumer slaves.

In many ways Lokkal is the revolution we were all singing about back in the 60s, the communal alternative running counter to today's mass-culture. The local community is the truest, most basic political unit.

As Lokkal's core team assembles, key players coming into orbit, my planning self would like to have everyone sitting down at the table, agreeing on our way forward. But that's not the way the game is played. The team needs to be inspired. Everyone has an important role, but someone needs to lead the way. And with Lokkal, right now, that someone is me.

Devil's Rock

One summer day, more than a dozen years ago, Chris dove the 25 feet off Devil's Rock into the pure, drinkable, spring water of Lake Willoughby. Choosing to jump myself, I told him later, as we were sunning ourselves on the rock, "Right as you dove, I saw your path like a tunnel through the air. And I felt that I could just dive into it after you." With characteristic brevity he replied, "You could have."

Here goes.

Jerry Garcia remembering Cassady


Dr. David presents Lokkal, the social network, the prettiest, most-efficient way to see San Miguel online. Our Wall shows it all. Join and add your point of view.


Discover Lokkal:
Watch the two-minute video below.
Then, just below that, scroll down SMA's Community Wall.


Visit SMA's Social Network

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