Sam McManis

Discoveries: Travel back to the 1960s aboard the Magic Bus

Before our groovy guide, Gaia, handed each of us a tab of “acid” that looked and tasted suspiciously like an innocent breath mint, before she told us about the Dead and Janis and the spot where members of the Airplane swore they saw a white rabbit, before the bus’s shades went down and swirling, ever-morphing psychedelic images enveloped our senses — before all of that — the first thing she did was put a flower in our hair.

You know, just like the song goes.

If you’re going to San Francisco

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

Mine, I stuck behind my right ear. Just to get into the spirit of the thing. Because if you’re going to shell out $50 to take a two-hour tour on The Magic Bus, where you are hurled back to 1967, you’ve got to immerse yourself in full hippiedom. Otherwise, what’s the point? Go take any number of the open-roof tours if you desire the “official” version of The City.

The Magic Bus, conversely, gives you what founder Chris Hardman says in the recorded introduction is “not a timeline of what happened to reality. It’s about the dream, the dream of the ’60s, about the things that should’ve happened, could’ve happened, as well as the happenings that actually happened.”

That doesn’t just mean that it will stop along the way at every Haight-Ashbury spot where Jerry lit a doobie, or Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. No, this bus is pimped out to the psychedelic max, brotha. Hardman is a celebrated multimedia artist whose work has appeared at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., MIT’s Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., and the American Cultural Center in Paris, and his vision for his hometown was to create a rolling, faux-lysergical interactive museum in which the bus windows could project images of the past at the precise locations where they took place decades ago.

Unveiled in 2010, the bus is wired with micro-video projectors pointing at each window, a killer surround-sound audio system to blare ’60s rock classics and play sound clips from the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Ronald Reagan, and a bubble machine that constantly wafts the soapy creations out the tail pipe onto unsuspecting pedestrians.

All that, and Gaia, too.

Gaia claims not to be a ’60s throwback; she swears she’s from the ’60s — transported here by love and good vibes.

(OK, her real name is Sophia LaPaglia, 27, an actress who grew up on a commune in Vermont’s Green Hills and eventually made her way to San Francisco because “this is where I belong.”)

But, for our purposes, she is Gaia, “the mother goddess here to take care of all of you.” A flaming redhead with a cute, gap-toothed grin and a horribly mismatching tie-dye top and paisley peasant skirt, Gaia emoted with the raspy voice of a young Janis Joplin and exuded a Robin Williams-like manic energy.

In addition to providing comic relief, Gaia has to commandeer the video with a remote control, making sure the scenes on the screen correspond to where the bus is headed, be it Chinatown, North Beach, the Financial District or hallowed Haight-Ashbury.

Passing through Chinatown, Gaia guides us in deep-breathing meditation while the image of a hirsute Ginsberg intones, “We are all beautiful golden sunflowers inside.” After the breathing work, the screens go up and we see the Chinatown of today. People are taking photos of the bus, while people on the bus are taking photos of those photographers.

Gaia apparently is into delayed gratification, because she kept hinting that we’d have a mind-blowing experience once we hit the Haight. But that was still a good half-hour away. We had to content ourselves with a spin around the Financial District, which actually was a hoot. With windows open, the Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man” blared (“And he plays the stocks and shares/And he goes to the regatta”) as we passed the Transamerica Pyramid.

“Look at it (the pyramid),” she said. “We’ve got all the little people working at the bottom and then just a few people at the top making all the money. It’s the perfect shape of corporate America.”

Then the screen descended and an ironic collage of conservative corporate images filled the screen, like outtakes from an old industrial film. It showed a clean-cut young man in a suit with the basso-profundo voice-over, “Working is part of growing up. You will all grow up someday. What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Then, a quick cut to Orwellian footage of factory drones, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” as accompaniment, followed by a montage of corporate slogans, such as “What’s good for GM is good for America” and a commercial for Barbie’s dream house.

The segment ended with Hardman, the narrator, saying, “The Magic Bus reminds us that the kids of the ’60s didn’t see these businesses as attractive but instead as prisons. When you got on a hippie bus, you weren’t just a commuter. Buses were communes. You traveled by tribes, communed with nature, unlike city buses.”

At this point, inching closer to enlightenment in the Haight, the bus pulled over to show the tribe … a Honda dealership?

“See the second floor?” she said. “That was the Fillmore West. The music scene: Jimi, Santana, Janis, the Dead. You paid $10, saw at least four bands, at least one a headliner, and you enjoyed unlimited free beverages provided by the audience.”

Speaking of free nourishment, after we climbed Hayes Street and headed into the Haight, Gaia emerged with an Easter basket filled with colorful, individually wrapped fingernail-size “LSD tabs.”

“Clear your mind, everyone, with this ‘special candy,’ ” Gaia said. “Now, if this is your first time or it’s been a while, just maybe start with just one; see how you’re feeling before taking another. Of course, this is the Magic Bus, and you can do whatever you want.”

Everyone aboard, even kids, slipped the candy under his or her tongue. Tasted like wintergreen. But if Gaia wanted us to pretend we were dropping acid, heck, why not play along? She lowered the screens and we saw vintage “testimonials” from LSD takers, first hyping the mind-expanding coolness of a trip then turning darker, with one hippie-chick saying, “After a while, things started to get crazy and my consciousness started to fracture apart …”

Our tribe seemed unfazed by the “candy.” But Gaia apparently had to make sure, and she pointed to a colorful mural depicting Janis, Jerry and Jimi jamming.

“We have our first acid test: So this was a white wall this morning. But now, I see Jimi, Jerry. If you still see the white wall, let me know and I’ll bring you more candy.”

After a pit stop in Golden Gate Park — hey, even tripping hippies need to use the facilities — the tribe celebrated the free-love era by … well, watching footage of hippie hookups. The tribe laughed out loud when one girl told the camera, in all seriousness, “We had wonderful love affairs that lasted an hour.”

Later, the mood turned darker, as Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” droned on. Gaia exclaimed, “Hold on to your good vibes. We’re going into a bummer tunnel.” The voiceover then told of peace and love turning to violence and the “scene” dissolving. Images of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shown as the bus passed City Hall, with John Lennon singing “Imagine.”

Despite the buzz kill – more candy, Gaia, stat – the tour ended with a rousing reprise of Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.”

Gaia bowed and thanked us, then awaited her next tribe.