San Francisco, California
In San Francisco's Union Square, out-of-towners queue at a ceaseless procession of tour buses: double-deckers, hop-on/hop-offs, movie site vans. Then, from around the corner, approaches a vintage, psychedelically painted passenger bus, soap bubbles blowing from a window. It's the Magic Bus!
Tripping since 2010, Magic Bus sets out to connect San Francisco's hippie past to its stark present with an assist from 21st century multimedia technology. On a bus. It's the clever creation of Chris Hardman and Antenna Theater, in collaboration with Teacher Bus. The 90-minute long backwards-in-time tour costs about 50 bucks -- a concession to modern realities (and the price of gas, fancy electronics, and an on-board staff of three).
Our Time Traveling Trip Guide is young, tie-dyed "Gaia," who laments not smoking enough weed when she got up today. "The bus runs on our positive energy," Gaia says. "As we sing, our joyous energy propels us across space and time." We climb aboard, nod to our groovy driver, and sit on the padded bench that runs down the center of the bus, facing the windows.
Screens lower, covering the windows, and micro video projectors show a dizzying array of photos and films -- a series of "communally produced" videos. We watch projections in the darkened compartment for at least half the journey. As 1960s rock music blares, the living voice of the Magic Bus tells us where we're going.
First leap is to Chinatown. It's "where East merged and mingled with the West," the Magic Bus tells us. "Kids were wearing beads, playing sitars. Third eyes and Nehru jackets became commonplace." The bus next stutters to the 1950s: beatnik writer haunts near Jack Kerouac Alley. Gaia sez: "If we all go to our spongy listening places, we can experience the Beat Generation."
Then we lurch into the city's financial district, home base of the older generation. A recorded early 1960s teen observes: "Most of the time, when you see grownups, they're working." The Kinks' "Well-respected Man" plays while clips from black and white industrial films and Metropolis recall the drudgery of pre-hippie America.
On Market Street, racism and Civil Rights injustices are downers, until vanquished by picket lines, sit-ins, and M. L. King Jr's "I have a dream" speech. Then we're at the location of the Fillmore Theater, where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin rocked in the era's legendary concert venue. The main part of the building is a car dealership, the Fillmore long gone. Shedding a bit of her space cadet glow, Gaia says: "It's sad, but we can imagine it." Cue Hendrix.
Ground Zero for the consciousness gold rush is next. "Kids know Haight-Ashbury all over the country," says the voice of what sounds like a Midwestern teenage boy. "Wow. I'll go to Haight-Ashbury. They'll put me up." Onscreen, the hypnotic wheel of the Twilight Zone becomes the swirling walkway of the Yellow Brick Road, as America's youth flees Kansas and heads west.
Throughout the trip, Gaia hands out "goodies," such as a 3D souvenir program and glasses (which also extrudes the bus interior). The booklet notes that thousands of America's old school buses were "transcendentally transformed into multi-colored rock and rolling rockets heading for the ultimate galactic Camelot which was for most folks -- Frisco."
One obstacle to recreating hippie S.F. for tourists is that modern San Franciscans on the street simply refuse to dress up for 1967 and help with historical interpretation. You'll be lucky to spot an authentic longhair beardo or sketchpad-toting underground cartoonist. The view out bus windows is mostly of regular urbanites -- on cell phones, sipping Starbuck's. Some smile at the sight of the Bus and its stream of bubbles, while others clearly view it as an irritant in their workday reality.
Crazy Gaia slides down a window and screams at random pedestrians: "Peace and love! You're beautiful!"
As the Bus transports us to ever-spongier places, all of its passengers -- including aging Boomers, teens, and even a 6-year old kid -- receive a sample "LSD," which resembles a wrapped after-dinner mint. A knowing voice tells us that LSD is "a godsend, a great gift." We drop our acid while liquid light show imagery blobs and gyrates. The music: Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the British Invasion and Psychedelia. Gaia leads one rousing sing-along after another.
Suddenly the screens slide away and we're staring at a forest. "I speak Tree when I'm trippin'," says our guide, and promises we will, too, once the LSD kicks in. The bus tells us the "the first Earth Day flag was flown in Golden Gate Park." We pull up outside the park's Conservatory of Flowers, a botanical garden and "dynamo of biological energy," where we can absorb Flower Power. And use the rest rooms.
The Magic Bus goofs on our sense of order, creatively shuffling and recombining, bouncing between decades and events to mesh with a modern traffic schedule. The race to the moon is absurdly tied to San Francisco (a famous photo of the world from space "expanded our consciousness," and "was the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog"); one section of town is declared to be more like Haight-Ashbury than the real Haight; in another, every political assassination in a ten year period occurs in one brief bummer of a montage. There are plenty more surprises on the tour before the klaxons of the status quo go off.
The souvenir program timeline ends in 1980 with President Reagan's election and John Lennon's assassination. The hippie dream fades, but the enduring contributions of the Summer of Love are listed for our benefit, from ecology to herbal medicine.
Gaia bids us peace.