Dead Head

When I was 14 my dad took me, along with my older step-sister Erin, to see the Grateful Dead. He’d asked Erin if she could score some pot for the show, which she did. He then gave her a joint to share with me, having asked me beforehand if I’d ever smoked. I’d truthfully told him no, making this an opportunity for him to witness a small slice of my coming of age, something he didn’t get a chance at very often. As it was, he only glanced back when I awkwardly lit up for the first time, giving me a knowing look, then turning again toward the amphitheater, never ceasing his blissed-out hippie dance.

I never took to pot the way many do, I found it boring and inconveniently sleep-inducing. I always felt like I was the only person in the crowds of thousands all those years who wasn’t either on drugs or drinking heavily. But those annual summer trips to Deer Creek to see the Grateful Dead were still instrumental in the shaping of who I am today, just as I imagine my dad hoped they would be.

The freedom of spirit I felt at Dead shows – the encouragement for movement and unconditional love I felt surrounding me – created a space for me to grow in a positive way. Where else can a young girl just learning about her body find such a welcoming space for dancing? There was no need for repeated droning beats or knowing the perfect, pre-rehearsed steps. I learned to dance by listening to the music and letting my body follow however it wanted. This is a dance floor skill that I carry with me to this day.

At Grateful Dead shows I dressed however I wanted, smiled at whomever I passed regardless of size or shape or age, I held hands with strangers and accepted gifts of food, bead necklaces, and seats by late night bonfires from people I’d never met before. We loved to share stories and theories. We discussed philosophers and lyrics and riffs and writers. We played chess and tag and frisbee. For the record: I never hacky sacked.

I feel so lucky to have spent these developmental years around groovy free-spirited hippies instead of a group of my own peers – a bunch of small town kids pretending to be cool but not knowing how, yet chastising each other about not knowing, either.  It paved the way for me to survive a lot of years filled with a complete lack of self recognition that would otherwise have surely done me in. I often had Dead lyrics rolling through my brain as I walked through the halls. Truckin’, Ripple, Samson and Delilah, (for some reason I especially loved Casey Jones)…snippets of long jams I’d napped during or flailed through found their way repeatedly in my every day as I maneuvered around kids and life and school and disappointment. Through it all, I repeated to myself:

Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey. 

I will get by,

I will get by,

I will get by.

I will survive.

Immediately after graduating from high school, my friend Brian asked if I’d like to go with him and some friends on a road trip east to follow The Dead. I took an absence from work and became a Dead Head – for two weeks (which goes against the whole point of being a Dead Head…but I was too responsible to really embrace that lifestyle). After touring Vermont, New Jersey and New York (where I saw Bob Dylan open for them, a surprising gift which I am still so grateful for to this day), I caught a train in Albany, NY to Kalamazoo, MI, where I resumed my paycheck life. Those were the last shows I ever saw.

A few weeks later, I took my good friend Nayt to Deer Creek to see this band that had influenced so much of my adolescence. He wanted to experience firsthand what I’d been describing all those years. As we drove down, I was feeling unnervingly ‘off’, and the road trip was not the most jovial we’d ever had.

When we arrived, we walked around looking at food and wares and people, and then walked toward the show. At the gate, we were told that the performance had been cancelled due to a bunch of douchebags crashing the gate the night before. Over the years, douchebags were an irritating and rapidly growing sub-genre of attendees at Grateful Dead shows. Frat boys looking to get high, mostly. But before the riot, I accepted them right along with everyone else. Click here to hear how I feel about them now.

That night Nayt and I kept our spot in the campground. He wandered around talking to people, playing chess, having a Dead Show experience all his own, minus the show. I simply went to sleep. I felt exhausted and let down, as if knowing that a significant change  was coming in my life.

A month later, I was napping in my bedroom just weeks before I moved out of my childhood home, and my mother called up to me to turn on the news, shouting “Jerry Garcia died! He died!” I lay in my bed, blinking at the ceiling, feeling like I’d known something big was coming, and this had been it. The end of an era.

Given all of the wild directions my life has taken that have led me so incredibly far away from this way of being – I really think its been too long since I blissed-out hippie-danced in my living room.

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