A Wild Monkey Chase: Do Ken Kesey’s LSD-Dosed Apes Still Roam La Honda?

For years, rumors have circulated in La Honda that Ken Kesey helped to release a group of LSD test monkeys into the mountains there. It turns out, at least some of the elements of the tall tale are true. (All illustrations by Tom Beland / Ken Kesey image by Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images)

L

ast month, I found myself in La Honda for the very first time. This cozy corner of the Santa Cruz mountains is best known for providing safe havens over the years for the likes of Steve Jobs, Neil Young and Ken Kesey. I was there visiting friends who’d recently purchased a house nestled—as is the entire town—in a vast sea of towering redwoods.

As I stood on my friend’s deck, drinking tea and admiring the view, a strange noise interrupted the chorus of birdsong.

“Ooh-ah-ah-ah-ah!”

“What the hell kind of bird is that?” I laughed. “It sounded exactly like a monkey!”

“Well, it might be a bird,” my friend replied. “Or ... it might be the offspring of one of Ken Kesey’s LSD test monkeys.”

There is a story here, of course. And it’s a very good one. But before I go any further, I need to explain a few things about La Honda. La Honda is no ordinary countryside community. Hunter S. Thompson once referred to it as “the world capital of madness.” Of his time hanging out there he said, “There were no rules, fear was unknown, and sleep was out of the question.”

In 1962, after the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey moved to La Honda in pursuit of both privacy and freedom. He lived there for over a decade before renting his house out to various tenants and selling the home in 1997.

Kesey was infamous in the '60s for regularly throwing LSD-laced ragers there. Frequent guests included the Grateful Dead, Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters, and an abundance of writers including Thompson, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Wolfe and Frank Reynolds. In 1965, Ginsberg wrote the poem, First Party at Ken Kesey’s With Hell’s Angels about a night at Kesey’s La Honda home. Wolfe later wrote about hanging out there in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Today, a sense of paranoia imbues the very bricks and mortar of the town. I cannot find one person from La Honda who will do an interview about La Honda without the cloak of anonymity. “It’s like a village,” one man who grew up there told me. “It’s really tight, isolated, everyone knows each other—but it’s got a lot of fringy, eccentric people in it and they don’t necessarily want outsiders knowing their business.”

M

y friend with the new house wasn’t clear on some of the details of what exactly happened with Ken Kesey and the LSD monkeys, so he directed me to a friend of his, who we’ll call Clyde. (This, of course, is not his real name.) Clyde grew up in Half Moon Bay but spent most of his youth in La Honda, hanging out with “the offspring of the Merry Pranksters.” Clyde says that, in the 1980s, sightings of the monkeys were so common, kids in La Honda had a nickname for them: “The Shaved.”

“Kids I knew talked about The Shaved,” Clyde explains. “Some had seen one. At first they thought it was a little kid—a lost kid or something. Because it was a little bit taller than knee-high and it was bald. Or at least kind of patchy—a little mangy, right? And so at first they would talk about this lost kid. But then other people said, ‘No, that’s a monkey.’ Because other people had seen this patchy, mangy dog-monkey too.”

Clyde’s version of how The Shaved came to roam the hills of La Honda is rooted in what he refers to as “lore” and “legend.” But he is convinced most of the rumors are true because of how many sources he’s heard them from. “I got the puzzle pieces at different points in my life,” he says, “from different people who weren’t connected.”

Clyde says that in the 1960s, Stanford University was receiving money from the government to conduct research into the effects of hallucinogens. This element of the story is almost certainly true. In fact, Ken Kesey’s first introduction to LSD happened in 1959, while studying at Stanford. He was given the drug after volunteering as a research subject at the university. Kesey’s experience of being drugged and studied at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital famously provided him with the inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Clyde says that the research involved testing drugs on monkeys too, and that one of the “three or four professors” conducting the Stanford research was a man named Bill Marquis. Marquis remains legendary in La Honda, and is referred to exclusively by locals as either “Monkey” or “Monkey Bill.” One man in a 2006 LSD documentary by Aron Ranen notes that Monkey Bill “never [gave the monkeys] one thing that he didn’t try first.”

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I can find no online record of a Bill Marquis ever working at Stanford, but a 2001 article in the Half Moon Bay Review states that he did. It also quotes Monkey Bill as saying: “Kesey is kind of why I came to La Honda [in 1968]. That group had a similar attitude to me on the benefits of LSD. I decided to go and see where Ken Kesey and the Pranksters did their work.” With this in mind, especially given the size and insularity of La Honda, a friendship between Monkey Bill and Kesey lives within the realm of possibility.

One woman who lived with Monkey Bill later in his life says he performed the tests on monkeys “in the early ’60s at Stanford.” In Clyde’s version, Monkey Bill had “25 to 35 primates” in the backyard of his home on Redwood Terrace that decade. If you ask the bartender of Apple Jack’s (an inn just down the hill from Ken Kesey’s old house), the monkeys were kept in Pescadero in a building that now houses the local coffee shop. Though the locations differ, no one disputes that Monkey Bill housed and regularly fed LSD to primates.

Clyde says those tests came to an end when the government shut down the research, and gave orders to euthanize the animals. But by that time, he says, “the amount of LSD everyone was taking was starting to take its toll on egos and psyches.” And so one night, Clyde says, “in a fit of compassion,” while Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and Monkey Bill were “really high on LSD,” they released the primates into the wild.

In the months that followed, sightings of The Shaved were, according to Clyde, rampant. “They were finding monkeys snooping around in people’s houses,” he says. “They were finding them in their driveways, they were finding them dead. And these monkeys are living off people’s garbage. I heard they were friendly to humans. Some people would feed the monkeys and leave food out for them. And I was given the impression that Ken Kesey kept one of these monkeys.”

(This wouldn’t be terribly out of character. Kesey was a well-documented animal lover, keeping dogs throughout his life, as well as a pet parrot in the ’60s. In the ’90s, he kept kangaroo rats. Sadly, I can find no photographic evidence of Kesey with monkeys of any description.)

I ask Clyde if he knows whether Monkey Bill is still around. “I don’t think so,” Clyde shrugs. “By the ’80s, he was this crazy old hermit who never came outside. He was crazy. Like, babbling crazy.” The Apple Jack’s bartender backs this up. “Monkey Bill used to live about four miles up the road from here,” she told me. “He’s gone now. He went a little ...” She taps the side of her head as she says this.

The woman in the 2006 documentary said Monkey Bill had gotten better later in life. “He went crazy for a little bit and then he had to stop his work,” she said. Still, in the same video, Monkey Bill was well enough to speak on camera. Unfortunately, the information he offered up through a straggly beard, between drags on a cigarette, ultimately creates more questions than it answers.

“I had contracts with the DEA in case they found a drug on the street that they couldn’t identify,” Monkey Bill says in the video. “They’d run it through the behavioral tests that I’d set up.”

Monkey Bill confirms that he kept the monkeys in his backyard—but that it happened between 1974 and ’76. “Eventually I brought the monkeys out here. We had a huge facility for them,” he says. “I had, I think, six monkeys and we were giving them various psychedelic drugs at that time, that the government was synthesizing and sending to me. [The monkeys] would get very still on the psychedelic drugs. Higher doses, their eyes would dart back and forth.”

In the clip, Monkey Bill doesn’t confirm where earlier tests took place, nor does he mention Stanford University. Crucially, he doesn’t admit to freeing them either—but who would? Though Monkey Bill’s dates don’t line up with Ken Kesey’s LSD party heyday, estimations still put Ken Kesey in La Honda at that time. Now that both Monkey Bill and Ken Kesey are no longer with us, it’s almost impossible to verify what fates the LSD test monkeys met.

On my visit to Apple Jack’s, I asked one local biker if he had heard the rumors. “I never heard anything about monkeys,” he said, “but I’ve only been here three years. To be honest, I would not be surprised if they turned out to be true.” So I told him the thing that started this story in the first place; the thing I keep going back to as I try and make sense of decades of La Honda secrets.

I definitely heard a monkey.

The original text of this story stated that both Allen Ginsberg and Hunter S. Thompson had lived in La Honda. Details were amended after Lee Quarnstrom, one of the Merry Pranksters, contacted KQED Arts to clarify that, while both writers were frequent visitors, neither of them were ever residents of La Honda. 

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