“The Wheel”: Photo by David J Warrington.
The Photo Eye: The Photo Eye Archives Since 1979.
Forty years after an eighteen-year-old Grateful Dead fan snapped what would become an iconic festival photo, the author tracks down its photographer, subjects, and the unlikely impact of the Dead and the 1970s and 80s counterculture on a small Oregon town.
Around three or four in the morning on August 28, 1982, eighteen-year-old David Warrington of Portland, Oregon, catches a lift with his friends Keith and Sue. They drive south to Eugene and head west to the small town of Veneta where the Grateful Dead are scheduled to play a benefit concert later that day.
It is still early when they arrive. They hear geese overhead and watch the fog burn off as people begin to emerge from their buses and tents. In a few hours, everyone will be, as they say, trippin’. Bright, multicolored kites will fly in the distance. People will parade around on stilts. Bales of marijuana delivered just outside the festival grounds will be rolled into joints and given to all who ask. Time will blur, and before David knows it, the Dead will be in the middle of their second set and playing their eighteenth song of the day, “The Wheel.”
“You can’t let go and you can’t hold on,” Jerry Garcia sings in that song. “You can’t go back and you can’t stand still.” People dance in circles, the world swirls, and David wants to capture the moment.
If he were at a festival twenty-five years later, David might have raised his cell phone, turned the lens around, and taken a selfie—maybe of himself, maybe with Keith and Sue, maybe with some new friends. But it’s 1982, and he only has a Minolta SR-T 101 manual focus camera loaded with the 35-millimeter Kodachrome 25 film that he prefers in situations like this because, he explains, it “leans towards yellows and oranges and reds and warm colors.” So, he points the camera away from himself, focuses, and shoots.
The August 28 show was not the first time that the Dead had played in Veneta. Almost exactly ten years earlier, in 1972, they’d played at the same spot at the invitation of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a longtime Oregon resident. At that time—a decade after the novel’s publication and three years before the film would win five Academy Awards—Kesey was working at his family’s struggling creamery in the nearby town of Springfield, and to help subsidize and promote their signature product, the Dead answered Kesey’s call and came to town. Twenty thousand concert goers would follow, raising thousands of dollars to support the first yogurt in the United States to be made with the live probiotic acidophilus.
We can’t expect eighteen-year-old David to know or think much about this history, however. Nor does he think much about how the Dead are back for yet another benefit show— this time to help the Oregon Country Fair raise money to purchase the land on which the annual music and art festival is still held. If anything, he is perhaps remembering the last time he saw the Dead play, on June 12, 1980, in Portland, shortly after Mount St. Helens erupted. According to Dead mythology—and to the story David tells—the volcano would erupt again during that show, just as the band launched into “Fire on the Mountain.”
David talks about that day in Veneta as if he wishes to have it back, but photo or no photo, there is no stopping it from coming to a close. Although the Dead want to play longer, Garcia will have an asthma attack and be taken to the hospital, bringing the music to an end. David will lose track of Keith and Sue, but he will spot the yellow Ford Maverick that his friend Tim drove, and he will catch a ride with Tim, who will drop him off to stay the night with family friends in the state capital of Salem. “I remember showing up at their house,” David explains. “Everything was glowing.”
Magic doesn’t always stop at the end of the night, however. Nor does it move in straight lines—not for the famous, not for the ordinary, not at a hospital in Eugene, not in a yellow Ford Maverick. Sometimes, as Garcia sings, the stories it starts will “cover just a little more ground” than one imagines.
In the photo he takes, David will capture more than the dancers and that alluring triangle of open hayfield in the foreground—space that begs for the viewer to step in and take part. He will also manage to capture what legendary San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham would later describe in a letter he wrote to David as “that magic spirit of the sixties that has survived through the decades.”
Graham liked the photograph enough to order ten poster-sized copies, some of which he displayed on his office walls in San Francisco and New York, and one of which he gifted to Oliver Stone when the two of them were working on The Doors. Graham wasn’t the only person for whom the image captured the counterculture’s ongoing “magic spirit,” however. As Warrington followed the Dead from show to show, he traded thousands of prints for t-shirts, tickets, “sheets,” and food, and, over the next two decades, the image would travel the globe, informally becoming known as “The Hippies in the Hayfield.” Later yet, he would discover it commercially reprinted without his authorization, and what he calls “The Wheel” would become the subject of a $20,000 settlement.
The Dead had planned to return to Veneta a decade later, in 1992, but they canceled when, according to the band’s publicist, Garcia got stung by a jellyfish while celebrating his fiftieth birthday in Hawaii. They would never play Veneta again, but people attending the Oregon Country Fair now park their cars in what’s known as the “Dead Lot.” The Kesey family business would eventually move to Eugene where it now manufacturers more than a hundred dairy and soy products and is partly powered by solar energy. Longtime bookkeeper Nancy would retire, but the yogurt to which she lent her name—Nancy’s Yogurt—is now distributed nationwide.
David would follow the Dead and eventually make a living as a photographer with special interests in live music and sports. None of his photos have circulated as widely as “The Wheel.” When he took that snapshot, he didn’t know Mark Schrier or Dave Breckler, the two shirtless young men forever dancing in the snapshot. Eighteen years old and just two months out of high school, Schrier is on the right, wearing strings of beads and baggy pants or maybe, he says, a skirt. Breckler, on the left in shorts and an untrimmed beard, is twenty-three. Because of the photo’s popularity and the nature of the festival scene, they were eventually introduced to Warrington, and the three are in touch today.
A New Jersey native, Schrier settled for a time in Eugene after traveling with his thengirlfriend, who still lives and runs a bead shop there. He typically hitchhiked to shows, juggling plastic clubs on the roadside to attract attention and then juggling fire in parking lots to raise money for tickets. He also sold sandwiches, t-shirts, and trinkets that he brought back from places like Mexico, Guatemala, or Hawaii, where he traveled in the off seasons on money he saved by juggling at Dead shows. One set of peregrinations funded the other. He was, he says, “as hippie as hippie gets.”
Schrier didn’t have tickets for the August 28 show, but this time, finding security lax at the gates, he just walked right in. “About half of the people did,” he explains. It was an intimate, open event, he says; the space in the hayfield wasn’t staged. And, without my prompting him, he remarks, “I remember dancing to ‘The Wheel.’ I remember everyone going absolutely crazy when the song came on.”
Schrier took a long time to put down roots. He stopped following the Dead and moved for a time to an eighty-acre ranch in northern California where he slept outside on a wooden platform, studied natural and herbal medicines, and grew a little pot on the sly. He worked for a natural foods store and delivered pizzas. And when a fellow juggler invited him to Europe to develop a two-man show, he lit out, and for the next fifteen years worked as an itinerant street performer doing performances in thirty or forty different countries. He started acting, relocated to New York, and then moved to Los Angeles, where he met the woman he’d marry, teacher and novelist Doreen Finn.
A decade ago, worried about the fragile social safety net in the U.S., Schrier and Finn moved to her native Ireland where he now acts, entertains tourists as a storyteller on the Dublin Ghostbus, and helps raise their two children. He remembers the old days with fondness but without a whole lot of nostalgia. “A lot of those shows blend together,” he explains. “Everything changes when you have children.”
For Breckler, the magic of those days is still right around the corner—literally. Born in L.A., he started following the Dead at age seventeen and saw them play over a hundred times. He remembers the “angelic experience” and “spiritual adventure” of their live shows. Like many others, he not only used psychedelic drugs but also had “a super deep transcendental experience” while taking them. For the past twenty-five years, he’s been working for a vitamin manufacturer making herbal and natural medicines. He now lives in Santa Cruz, just down the street from the Grateful Dead archives.
In the summer of 1982, Breckler hopped around a lot. He had a classic green and white pop-top VW camper with louvered windows, and he drove it to Veneta with a few friends. By his own admission, he “looks like a crazy kid” in Warrington’s photo, even though, he quickly adds, “it’s my favorite photo of that whole scene.” Breckler and his friends were “psychedelic pioneers” and “spiritual devotees.” They were interested in the spiritual arts, body cleansing, natural food, and Eastern mysticism as ways “to escape the system and the grind of everyday life,” and the Dead’s music helped lead the way. Even over the phone, he senses my skepticism. “You’re never going to get it by listening to a record,” he explains.
After Veneta, Breckler went to Canada and lived out of the camper by himself. He worked off and on in camera stores. He made and sold peace pipes and once spent a hundred hours beading one for Garcia. He gave it to Garcia’s doctor to pass along and was later told that the singer kept nothing in his bedroom except a pad of paper and that pipe.
Breckler is a father of three kids now. He feels that the first generation of hippies—at least those who followed Timothy Leary—“led astray an entire generation of people.” Leary, Breckler explains, shouldn’t have said, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” He should have said, “Tune in, turn on, and do what you love.”
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest.
I have never seen the Dead play much less followed them. I have never had any inclination to see them play or follow them. I’ve never taken any type of psychedelic or hallucinogenic drug, and I’ve only smoked marijuana a handful of times. About the closest I’ve gotten to that scene, in fact, was about thirty-five years ago, around June 25, 1985, when the Dead came to play at Blossom Music Center, fifteen miles away from the town in which I grew up. I would have been fourteen years old, and I remember a slight panic rippling through town at the prospect of “Deadheads” showing up, getting high, camping in those vans, and littering on the edges of what would become the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Maybe Warrington was there, Minolta in hand. Maybe Schrier was juggling fire or selling sandwiches in the parking lot. Maybe, just for a minute, we nearly crossed paths. Maybe we did cross paths. I imagine Breckler driving his VW camper van into Northfield Center for supplies at the same time that I’m heading to the public library or buying soda from the corner store. If so, I am almost certainly on my bicycle. Think: the kids from Stranger Things but slightly older. I can imagine myself leaning forward to read the only two stickers that Breckler would ever put on the VW’s back bumper—one reading “Oregon Field Trip 1982” and the other quoting from “The Wheel.”
In 1985, I would have had no idea what either sticker meant. I would have had no idea that I would one day end up living in Oregon, or that I would buy and enjoy Nancy’s yogurt long before I ended up moving here for work. I would have recognized Ken Kesey’s name, perhaps, but I wouldn’t come to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest until several years later. I would have been hard pressed to imagine that, decades on, I would be listening to two former hippy deadheads reminisce via video chat and cell phone about a concert photo that another stranger took half a continent away when I was eleven years old.
But that’s not too strange, is it? As Garcia sings, you can’t go back, you can’t stand still, and none of us know, especially now, what lies ahead. Schrier doesn’t know that he will move to Europe. Warrington doesn’t know that he will one day approach Nike about using “The Wheel” in an advertisement, since, among all the other things he captured in his photo, he’d also captured a pair of Nike canvas shoes on a figure in the crowd. And Breckler doesn’t realize that one day he will sell his camper van. Nor does Breckler know that, another day, he will drive by a junkyard in Santa Cruz and see it there, broken and dilapidated, those two bumper stickers still hanging on.
Mike Chasar lives, writes, and teaches in Salem, Oregon. His most recent book is Poetry Unbound: Poems and New Media from the Magic Lantern to Instagram.