Going Down the Road Feeling Bad – The Last One

This morning I received this post from a new contributor. Today, of all days, I wasn't looking
for a guest blog but I couldn't resist the opportunity to share this with you all. - rj

[audio:http://www.archive.org/download/gd1973-06-10.sbd.miller.tobin.patched-89730.90979.flac16/gd1973-06-10d2t04_vbr.mp3|titles= Grateful Dead 1973-06-10 – Stella Blue]
When there are great upheavals in our lives, our culture, or our nations, they indelibly mark the calendar of this eternal time line that is the human race. For instance, anyone in the United States over the age of fifty could probably tell you where they were and what they were doing the day John F. Kennedy died. If they were forty or older, most could probably recount how they woke to the news that John Lennon had been shot. And of those, I would hazard a guess that many could probably recount how they went on to spend the rest of that fateful day. Some might even be capable of dialing in to the minutiae of the day, what they ate or the weather. These events do not have to be deaths either; they can be joyful celebrations, such as the first man on the moon. Or they could be somber reflections, such as those that settle at the conclusion of a war. Fifteen years ago today, one of these very happenstances marked a great many people, those that considered themselves part of a magical Tribe. That wonderful family carved out of chance, hope and the love of the unknown; these were Deadheads. And of course, you now know I speak of the passing of Jerome John Garcia, or as we affectionately call him, Jerry.

On that fateful day, fifteen years ago, I found myself running around Vancouver with my girlfriend, picking up groceries and supplies for a trip out to one of the islands. We had recently come off that summer’s Grateful Dead tour, one that, now looking back, had been marred with incidences and bad omens at every stop; a dark storm had been brewing. As I flicked on the radio, now stuck in rain and traffic, to my surprise the Grateful Dead’s Trucking came blaring out off the FM dial. I say surprise, because the Dead were not your radio friendly staple, especially around these parts. At its conclusion, another Dead song, Sugar Magnolia, came crunching out on the airwaves. Well, this was odd, but I chalked it up to the “daily double shot” or some other new fangled radio marketing lingo used to rile up daytime callers. But when this was followed by the tenderness that is Box of Rain, the signal rang true.

Without saying a word, I reached down and turned the tuning knob. Sure enough, the next closest rock station was playing the Grateful Dead. So this is how I would learn of Jerry’s passing, not with words but with song. Appropriate, for honestly, who would want to hear that a member of their family has passed while watching a news channel’s talking head read a teleprompter. I turned to my girlfriend to ask if she had her passport, which was needless as the entire contents of our lives were packed away somewhere in that van. Maybe I simply needed confirmation of our next move. Her welling eyes directed me to the next exit off the highway and there we were, headed for San Francisco. There had to be one last show, one last celebration; please, just one last ride………

Shortly after deviating from our morning grocery trek, we were greeted with the unexpected jovial smiles of US Customs. This was particularly odd, for, back in those days, Deadheads in the eyes of the “straights” were to be feared; drug addled freaks, the LSD maniacs. And parked there at Customs, we certainly weren’t helping dispel the myth: long hair, Guatemalan hippie clothing and a van that had served as that summer’s impromptu advertising billboard for every hippie sticker vendor on the Grateful Dead parking lot.

As I rolled down the window to offer my passport, the agent immediately stuck out his hand from the little booth in an attempt to shake mine, to which I recoiled in shock. “I’m truly sorry for your loss” he said. My jaw nearly hit the ground. I half stammered a thank you and mumbled that we were headed to San Francisco. “I know where you’re going” he continued, “please give my respects to Jerry” and he waved us through. Ah, the wonderful unexpected was unfolding before me one last time.

From the border we headed down to Seattle and immediately struck out to the old 101 Coastal Highway, a drive I had made countless times, the most recent six weeks prior when we had descended for what was now the last three night Grateful Dead stand at Shoreline Amphitheater.

The open road. There is truly nothing like it if you are a deadhead. You see, if being a deadhead meant one thing, it was that you were a willing participant in the majestic adventure that is life. Consider that many of us that compose this tribe were raised on adventure books, wild stories of being shipwrecked on islands, spies behind enemy lines in some far away land, or prisoners long forgotten in the Bastille. But alas, like Quixote and the many before him and the many after, we learned quickly as we “matured” that these were but flights of fancy, realms to be left only to our dreams. Reality was deadlines and commitments for plastic and concrete.

But what exactly is adventure? Quite simply, it is taking a chance without knowing the outcome. The very thing society tries so hard to extricate from our daily lives. For in chance, while there may lie immense gratification, deep failure lurks nearby. And pity the fool who should lean over the edge. The Grateful Dead knew this better than anyone, sitting there on the periphery of it all, beckoning us, much like Quixote’s windmills, with songs of trades gone sour, death at one’s door, gold just beyond our grasp and deals with the devil and fair ladies aplenty. Four hundred years ago, we the Deadheads would have been those lining up to board ships setting sail for the edge of the earth. Is there really any wonder then that the last half century we have been found careening from spectacle to spectacle, tripping light fantastic from the Great Empty’s wheat fields to the Rocky Mountains, from coast to coast and back again? And so there I was, sailing down the 101, the majestic Pacific on my right, soothing my aching soul for the loss – not of a man – but of the adventure.

Inevitably, at each stop along the way, we would be recognized and then regaled about some treasured adventure relating to the Dead. Seemed like everyone had a magnificent tale to tell, and always one of chance and magical serendipity. For if they weren’t Deadheads themselves, they knew one or had a close relative who had run away with the circus. And so our van began to slowly fill with peoples’ precious treasured memories, all being taken back to that special place where it all began. And then there was the gracious help. The grocery store owner who purposely left items off the bill, told us some items in the store that day were free. Or the gas station attendant who refused to take our money. But these acts of kindness were always accompanied with another story.

Having had to cross the border, it didn’t take long for it to dawn on me that there was a serious shortage of fine herbs on board. But I needed not worry, for now, loaded down with our special cargo, it would be seen that we were taken care of. That evening, well past midnight, as we were cooking supper on a tiny kerosene stove in the middle of a strip mall parking lot, a polished sports car pulled up alongside us. From its cockpit stepped a well dressed gentleman, introducing himself by declaring that only Deadheads would be cooking supper in such a godforsaken place. Laughing, we offered him a grilled cheese. And so there we were, in the middle of this concrete expanse, leaning over a gas stove breaking bread and processed cheese, all the while sharing memories of the Dead.

With supper done and standing up to say our goodbyes, he broached the subject that had been turning around in head. “You got any smoke man?”. “Nah, sorry” I said crestfallen, “we’re Canadian remember, we just crossed the border”.“No, I don’t want smoke” he replied, “I was wondering if you needed some”. Destitute travelers that we were, and unsure of even being able to make it back from California, I turned down what I thought was a sales pitch. “No silly” he said, “I have a gift for you, on the condition that you save at least one joint for when you get down to Frisco. And don’t smoke it, it’s for Jerry”. Keep in mind, at this juncture in our adventure we had no idea what might await us at our destination, this could all be for naught. So I nodded uncertainly, only to have him return from his car with two of the largest marijuana colas I have ever seen. One of them must have been about the size of my forearm. I was speechless. So we shook hands, exchanged hugs, and off we went in a puff of smoke, another treasured memory on board.

San Francisco. Where it all began. I’ll never forget coming out of the California hills and dropping down onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Driving across sent me back to the numerous times as a youngster, when I had huddled in some friend’s basement, tripping while watching the Grateful Dead’s crew drive their trucks across the Golden Gate to the soundtrack of Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. But where to now? We figured people might be gathering at Golden Gate Park, so why not pull up there and let chance take over.

As we approached the entrance to the Polo Fields, we soon found ourselves in a small traffic jam held up by a security contingent at the gate. “Uh oh”, I wondered aloud to my girlfriend, “I guess they are trying to keep Deadheads out”. But what happened next was….well, unexpected of course. The car in front us, clearly out of town tourists, was turned away, informed that the park was closed for a special event. Expecting the same response, we pulled up to be told that for two days the park would be open for Deadheads and that the city was allowing us one night of camping with an event planned the following day. It’s on. One last show, one last celebration.

After parking on the side of the road leading up to the fields and setting up our tent, we headed to the grounds. This was no time for mourning, and if you thought the Irish knew how to throw a wake, well the Deadheads were going to give them a run for their money, psychedelic style. We found the field packed with wonderful weirdness lurking at every turn. Some had set up living rooms with couches, lazy boys, lamps and carpets. Shakedown Street had landed smack dab in the middle of San Francisco’s hearth. So my girlfriend and I played social butterfly, dropping in on groups of revelers, and with each passing, leaving behind one of the great stories that we had come to deliver for those we had met along the way.

As the night wore on, we gradually made it back to our tent for some shut eye, but who was I kidding. No sooner had our heads hit the pillow, the bellowing of air horns shattered the night. They had arrived. And as we all stepped out of our tents, rubbing bleary eyes, we were greeted by the fleet of Grateful Dead gear trucks coming up the hill. Slowly groaning forward, blaring their horns and waving with joints a blazing. And the tribe went bezerk; this was our cortège, the funeral procession was here. Truck after truck crawled in and, like loyal soldiers, we lined the road on both sides, offering cheers, swigs and tokes, as every now and again a tribe member would jump up to hang off a truck and rattle off a memory with its driver.

It was not long before the California sun was raised on the polo fields. There, at one edge, stood a stage decorated with Grateful Dead props from tours past. And yet no band would grace it on this day. Instead, a ceremony was held, with numerous speakers including all the Boys and a eulogy by Hunter. At its conclusion, we were informed that they would play live Grateful Dead recordings all day and that we were welcome to stay, dance and enjoy each other. And that is exactly what we did, underneath that golden California sunshine, just as they had three decades earlier when this trip began. One last show, one last celebration……one last ride.

Not a day goes by that I don’t miss it. Rest in peace Jer.


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