EDITOR’S NOTE: All photos that accompany this story were taken Friday, April 3, 2009, a different night from which most of the reporting in this article was conducted. The photos are paired with this story to illustrate an average bus ride, not to portray a single night’s events. Each ride is unique and no single one is indicative of every ride. Reporting was conducted both before and after the March 21 bus ride depicted in the article, for which the reporter was present in its entirety.
As “The Warrior” bus glides south along I-25 to the night’s gig, those who share the road with the city transport-turned moving drug den don’t suspect they’re next to a living acid flashback — a modern day manifestation of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.
Inside, short green sticks of “Special K” — a horse tranquilizer called ketamine — are pulled from a floss box and coolly passed at no charge among the spread of twenty-somethings who have no reservations with shoving the hallucinogen up their noses.
“Good drugs up here, weird drugs in the back,” yells Jonathan Taylor, a passenger from Fort Collins sporting only blue boxers, a T-shirt and hiking boots. He’s in the “good drugs” category – only on a lot of LSD, he says.
Hiding behind clouds of spent pot, high passengers fill couches and love seats sewn with patterned and stained maroon slipcovers. Those intent on drinking meander to the keg of Rolling Rock beer in the back, just feet away from a DJ blasting electronica music, or “glitch hop.”
Housed above them are loft beds constructed of foam in slipshod wooden overhead hangars, and the ceiling is decorated with hundreds of jumbled song lyrics and signatures of previous passengers in permanent marker.
Hardly noticeable next to strewn bongs, pipes and bottles, six rainbow-striped captain seats and a narrow, foot-wide aisle are the only indication that the bus once held passengers from the outside world, those not privy to the underground.
Dubbed the The Warrior by its owners, the bus has a following all its own.
It’s the moneymaker brainchild of CU-Boulder senior Charlie Kern and alumnus Dustin Huth, who kick-started their own non-profit organization, The Basics Fund, to give kids a ride to and from concerts throughout Colorado at $25 a pop.
“People who know what’s up can just get on,” says 22-year-old Charlie, who lived on The Warrior for three months during summer 2008.
“That’s what you expect from your friends,” the philosophy major says. “The bus provides; I just chill.”
Fueled as much by drug-using musical savants as bio-diesel fuel, the company’s three buses attract young students and fans to contribute directly to the scene — the proceeds are donated to help provide local artists with health insurance and as many other commodities as they can afford.
CSU party enthusiasts who boarded The Warrior outside the Aggie Theatre to the March 21 O.T.T. show at Boulder’s Fox Theatre travel with the mobile party for what they call “a safe and sober ride home.”
Beyond the white line
Once past the white line that separates the driver from what used to be mass transport seating, Charlie says passengers enter at their own risk.
“If you’ve got it, it’s your problem. Smoke whatever you want,” he says, noting that he checks IDs for access to the keg “if anyone asks.”
Charlie misses out on tickets to the show that night, but waiting for his passengers, he says, is what most nights look like.
In the moments before the next random group of stragglers will wander in during show intermissions to light up and dance along to Sublime’s “What I Got,” he rests his bandanna-clad head and mustached face against his seat.
What is everyone else’s night off is, for him, an eight-hour shift spent filling keg shells, checking-in swarms of people to verify they’ve reserved their spot on the bus and, on most nights, doing homework during downtime.
Everyone knows his name.
“A lot more people know me than I know them, and it’s because of the bus,” he says, walking into the late-night deli across the street for a sandwich. “It’s weird.”
The Basics Fund is more a lifestyle than a transit system, though it’s seen its share of cross-country shows and, most notably, took almost 400 passengers to the Sound Tribe Sector Nine electronica concert at Red Rocks last September.
Since meeting through CraigsList in a mutual effort to find a ride to Tennessee for the 2007 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, Charlie and Dustin have worked to keep the fund “in the family,” employing only friends, most of whom are students. They outsource nothing except automotive repairs in keeping the bus running to an average of two shows a week.
The Basics Fund pays out five artists currently, and to be selected, they have to be deemed as contributing to social good instead of “just being some kid playing in his mom’s basement,” Charlie says.
Jonson Kuhn, a Denver fiction writer, said the project has helped him with car insurance and book printing costs in addition to his health insurance since he became the Basics’ first funded artist in 2007.
“It’s helped me in the exact way that Dustin’s wanting to eventually help a lot of artists,” says Jonson, who still sometimes rides along for shows.
“This really helps you stay afloat.”
Since its inception, The Basics Fund has tapped into a booming subculture of music and drugs, and the word is spreading into the Fort Collins and Denver areas.
“Fort Collins is an ideal town for us because you have a large population of college-aged people trying to get to shows in Boulder and Denver, and that’s the perfect set-up for us,” Charlie says, though the word-of-mouth marketing they’re used to is just getting started in the area.
Dealing with police
The Basics name is widespread across Boulder, and no matter where it’s parked, it acts as a magnet for those who need a quick hit or a haven for the night.
“When kids are in a desperate situation, they can be forced to do something they don’t want to do,” says 20-year-old Landon Schwindt, the fund’s director of promotions, responsible for recruiting local DJs like Greg Fisk and Evan Lanoil to play during bus rides.
Landon says drivers often make special trips to drop intoxicated riders off at their own front door, and even those who haven’t paid to drain the one keg provided a night somehow seem to find their way to the bus’ door.
Outside the Fox during the show, a Boulder cop wanders over to The Warrior, but because he’s looking for someone who’s been involved in a bar fight, he says he’ll ignore any illicit activity on-board in exchange for the chance to look for his guy.
Maintaining a positive relationship with the police is termed “best policy” among the Basics employees, and when they’re pulled over, Charlie says it’s usually because someone’s got a limb out a window.
As the man in blue ascends the bus steps, those still on-board nonchalantly stow their pipes and bongs as if they’ve done it hundreds of times before.
Once the coast is clear, Charlie says smugly, “(The cops) were here, and we looked good, so now we can get really crazy.”
Keeping it ‘chill’
As the night creeps on, the crowd, weirder and under the influence of an arsenal of drugs, heeds Charlie’s advice.
“Regardless of the drugs, (this trip is) fun, silliness, tomfoolery. It’s a fun f***ing ride,” explains the bearded 30-year-old Taylor, re-entering the bus after dancing in front of its headlights, still in his boxers.
“Socks get in the way of so much dancing,” he adds as his gesticulating silhouette hits the pavement.
The project attracts a certain kind of crowd, and Charlie says he’s aware it’s not for everyone.
“Frat guys sometimes charter us out, and they’re either really lovey, really pissed or really f***ed up,” he says during the downtime between the show and the ride back to Fort Collins.
“They eat a bunch of Ecstasy and then things get weird.”
Stereotypes, he says, hold true.
“(Fraternity guys) don’t understand (the bus), and they don’t understand why people think it’s something special – probably in the same way that some people don’t understand why a frat is special.”
“Chill,” Charlie says, are the passengers they’re aiming for.
“It’s a good cause, but it’s mostly just fun,” says Doug Chesser, a CSU senior music major, as he lights up his light-green pipe onboard. “It’s so much better than driving.”
Savannah Gainsforth, a CSU senior health and exercise science major, says the March 21 show marks her first experience with the shuttle.
“This is what Colorado is about,” she says. “Everyone’s loving everyone. These are the people you should get to know.”
There’s only one rule each night: “No sh**ting on the bus,” says Nicholas Shirley, who’s in charge of some of the fund’s marketing efforts and often builds relationships with venues to get group discounts for show attendees.
Employees haven’t ever had to kick anyone off, Charlie says. The project’s experienced no thefts, and, historically, only one kid’s missed the toilet on his way to puke.
The bus belongs to everyone, he says.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, but it always impresses me,” he says. “Every time, I’m like, ‘Damn, this is so cool.’ We’ve got a bunch of cool people, a DJ and we’re all on our way to a dope show.”
“It’s a secret recipe, and I’m cool with not knowing how it works.”
As the show’s end draws near, he kicks his feet up under the makeshift plywood card table filled with empty Monster energy drink cans and ditched beer cups, and in the dark illuminated by a single green desk lamp, lights a cigarette.
“This is the office,” Charlie says, closing his eyes for a moment’s rest.
News Managing Editor Elyse Jarvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.