In this installment of “It Must Have Been the Roses”, we find our main character George, now a year into being a deadhead, trying to catch his 14th show 3,000 miles away in Donner’s Summit, California on August 24th, 1985. And as you will see, he still has a lot to learn…
Saratoga, Hershey, and Merriweather were so far out there that it felt we’d just re-entered earth’s atmosphere when we landed back in Jersey. And nothing my friends and I did in the weeks that followed could compare to it, even Live Aid. So naturally, I wanted more. Restless one morning in early August, with the summertime blues weighing down on me, I pick-up the phone and dial the west coast dead hotline and quickly learn they’re playing a one-off date in the Sierra Mountains, near Reno in late August… Very interesting.
In 1980, during my sophomore year of high school, I picked up a book by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman called “No One Here Gets Out Alive”, a biography of Jim Morrison and the Doors. The words jumped off the page at me, painting a vivid moving picture of what it must have been like to become a rock legend in southern California during the late sixties. The story of a shy rebellious boy that moves around the country with his military family and ultimately becomes the lizard king still charges my imagination and drive to this day. Deep inside I want the same kind of thing to happen to me, but how? Morrison attended UCLA film school in LA, so I figure that might be a good place to start.
While applying to colleges a couple of years earlier I read somewhere that state colleges in California are inexpensive and easier to get into if you’re a resident, which takes two years. So, with that in mind, I make a call to our friend Ricky who knows people living in Citrus Heights, near Sacramento, and I ask him if he would be willing to ask them if I could use their address to establish residency. Within twenty minutes I’m given the green light. Thank you, Ricky!
Unsure and seeking guidance, I involve my old buddy Tom in my scheme. He tells me he’s happy with Montclair State but likes my idea of going for something other than a played-out business degree in these times when Michael J. Fox’s character in Family Ties and Reaganomics are the norm. After a few more minutes of speaking, he tells me he wants to go anyway and may even get a state I.D., just-in-case he wants to head west someday too.
With Tom on board, we need to make some quick arrangements. My father can book our flights on Newark based Continental Airlines into Oakland with his credit card for only four hundred dollars round-trip, per seat. Both with summer jobs, there’s no problem paying him back. The unforeseen difficulty is reserving a car. No company will rent to a nineteen-year-old. I’m frustrated for days. With no wheels, there’s no trip. A few days later my father comes home with great news. After arriving from an earlier flight into Newark, he combed the airport rent-a-car booths asking questions until he discovered Enterprise, who will rent to us with his signature. He signed us up on the spot. Thanks, Dad! We’re all set to spend five fun-filled days in northern California.
Once again, as usual, we don’t care much about traveling to the concert without tickets. This is going to be a general admission show on a mountainside. No sell out here. With a week to go my expectations are growing. I keep picturing myself looking down on a dark stage basked in orange lights, with them playing “Fire on the Mountain”.
A couple of days before leaving, I’m summoned by my mom’s parents to come up to their home for dinner. I go figuring it will be a light, business as usual meeting with my loving nanny and pop. But I couldn’t be more wrong. Nanny really drills me, but no matter what I come up with she keeps repeating to me that California is a bad place, with weird people everywhere. They question my motives and tell me straight out not to go. I heard my grandfather wouldn’t let my mom’s sister go to Woodstock, so I’m not that surprised to hear this coming from them. Much of my extended family who has witnessed my one-eighty turn-around from trendy to groovy is beginning to question my craving to leave New Jersey for Los Angeles as well. Despite their concerns, with hopes and reservations already set, I ignore the warnings and ultimately wind up leaving in defiance.
My father George, who is more sympathetic about my need for discovery, drops Tom and me off at the Newark Airport on the Friday morning before the Saturday night show. Tom is insistent on partying right before the flight, so he can listen to Zeppelin’s, “Going to California” on his Walk-Man as the jet roars down the runway. So, before going through security, we stroll inside a men’s room and into stalls beside one another. Tom lights a big bone of Thai weed, takes a hit and passes it underneath the divider. We blow the lavatory out with smoke and split as fast as possible for the terminal gate. We arrive undetected, then walk down a long corridor into our jet to the “Promised Land”. Tom gets his wish, cranking his way into the heavens with Led Zeppelin, while I, dazed and confused ponder my love for a place I’ve never been.
With the three-hour time difference, we arrive at the Oakland Airport during the early afternoon. From there we jump on a shuttle bus over to San Francisco International where our Enterprise rent a car is waiting. The girl at the desk seems to like me and sets us up with a red Camaro at the price of a compact. Cool, we figure. But when the car rolls up, we see it’s completely dirty, with lots of miles. I complain and they come up with a brand new black one. Once inside, with nowhere to go, Tom suggests the Psychedelic Shop on Market Street to look around and see if anything is going on tonight. The shop is a small, thin place with a lot of cool dead posters covering the walls like wallpaper. We ask how far the show is from here and if anything is happening later, but nobody who worked there seems to know or care. We buy a “Steal Your Face” decal for the car’s glass hatchback and take off.
Next, we take a ride over to the famed Greek Theatre, on the campus of UC Berkeley. We go through the gates of the university and up to a steep winding road to a street that runs parallel to the campus hill. We park and make our way up passed the Pink Floyd mural and into the empty theatre. There are Sting tickets stubs on the ground from the night before. We jump up onto the stage and take photos of each other as if performing live in front of thousands. Then we get stoned in the stands that circle the stage. Now baked, I began to feel nervous, like a fish out of water. Hours later I realize I’d zoned out and left the camera behind. The whole California experience becoming a real-life landscape is both good and bad to me. I’m in love with the look of everything, but don’t feel like I belong, even though I’ve just gotten here. Am I cool enough to live here is my main question?
After our visit to the Greek, we make our way east towards Sacramento. On the way grabbing some pizza with pineapple, before getting a cheap motel room for the night. We wake up Saturday morning early and drive over to the DMV where the people are a lot more helpful than they ever were in New Jersey. Within fifteen minutes, we both have laminated photo California State I.D. cards. Now it’s only a matter of time before I can follow my dreams out west. From the DMV we motor back to the motel, pack our stuff and check out. We stay in town for breakfast, then stock up on supplies for the 100- mile ride east on I-80. We take our sweet ass time along the way while nursing our hangovers with multiple Thai bones. The terrain becomes extremely scenic as we start our climb into the mountains. There isn’t a cloud in the sky, with temperatures in the eighties and very low humidity. The kind of day we’re lucky to get ten of a year back east.
When we’re about five miles away from the Boreal Ridge Ski Resort, I start to wonder why we haven’t seen any deadhead stickers on the road. Was it different out here, I wonder? A few more miles down the road, on a curvy hilly part of the highway, we come upon a veteran head in the shade holding up two tickets. We pull off to the shoulder and roll down the window to start bartering. I say how much. He says $10.00 each. I say okay and hand him twenty bucks. Tom who’s in the driver’s seat immediately goes, what time does the show start? I look down to see 2:00 PM. Gates open at 11:00 AM, AM??? “Tom!” “Oh my God it’s 2:30, the show already started!!!” “How could this have happened!?” Tom’s calmer than I. He’s not happy either, but seems much less surprised.
We’re guided into a dirt lot near the highway with no idea where to go. The lot’s full of funky vehicles but nobody’s home. We ditch the car and run towards a big yellow school bus that’s off in the distance. We jump on board and take seats in the back. We pull up near the Boreal Ridge base lodge about ten minutes later. The mood on the quarter filled bus is tense as we creep closer. I can hear Garcia’s voice singing “Friend of the Devil”. As the bus slows down, I open the emergency backdoor and jump out. A dozen or more are on my tail. Then as Jerry’s singing, “I lit out from Reno, I was trailed by twenty hounds” we’re all booking as hard as we can towards the entrance as if being trailed by those same twenty hounds. We get to the turnstiles within seconds. Out of breath, I hand my ticket off to be ripped, then enter into the alternative realm… Well, here I am, at the summit of 70’s style coolness, the highest Grateful Dead concert in the world. Only one small problem, I’m completely straight! My worst nightmare has come true. Late to a show, I traveled across the country to be at and still digesting breakfast. The Dead are already well into the first set and if not for a half hour equipment breakdown, it would be intermission.
Everything seems way too normal to me now and these California deadheads look seriously fucked up in the daylight. Tom and I begin our ascent up the mountain in search of, “whatever they’re on”. I begin to realize that it’s a really cool atmosphere as we walk, with everyone dancing, frolicking and gliding down the alpine slide aptly named, “Trip and Slide”. On the grassy ski trail next to the main bowl, there are hundreds of people playing frisbee and hacky-sack, or just kicking back. The main crowd though, for the most part, has their heads down as they groove slowly to the music, making it hard to get eye contact and impossible to find trips. We make it to the top of the bowl and turn around to look down on the scenic mayhem below. The set closes with an under-whelming “Hell in a Bucket”, “Don’t Ease Me In”.
After an intermission attitude adjuster bone, I feel more in the spirit of things, and we resume our search. Our descent begins with ears open for anybody saying “Doses”. Thirty yards later, with no positive results, Tom starts calling out “Doses?” “Anybody got any doses?” To nothing but blank stares. When we get to the bottom, I panic again. I’ve surmised that everybody’s just too high to deal during the show, a major rookie mistake. Then suddenly out of the corner of my left eye, I see a familiar face. It’s the same blond-haired dude from Merriweather with the “Goony Birds”. We run over before he gets on the “Trip and Slide” chair lift. He remembers us and has! This time, it’s purple gels. We buy four, each take one and save the rest for later.
From there Tom and I blend our way deep into the “Phil Zone” where we find a good area twenty feet out from the mics. Butterflies startup as the band takes the stage for the second set. After some tuning, they march into a relatable “Feel Like a Stranger”. I’m not peaking just yet, but know we’re well on the way. The tempo picks up during “China>Rider”, and gets the dust bowl effect going from all the dancing feet on dusty terrain, which gives rise to brown clouds of dirt that you wind up breathing in. During “He’s Gone” the audience slows back down to lackluster and the dust settles. Then from out of nowhere a tall attractive brunette stands up on the rail of the stage right in front of Bob Weir completely naked and raises her arms out like an angel for a few seconds until she falls slowly forward into the audience below. Things are getting weirder by the minute and I’m digging it. We stay put through drums and space. Then into “Truckin”, which sounds routine. The gel is working, but the band isn’t pounding me. When Jerry strums the opening notes of “Black Peter”, Tom and I look at each other and head for the hills. We’re both in need of a rise and can’t find it thus far in this mediocre set. We take a position about 35 yards up the trail then turn and gaze back down as Bobby continues with a typical “Around & Around” into “Lovelight” closer. Well, that’s it. I figure we’ll get a “One More Saturday Night” or “Day Job” encore and be on our way. I turn to the mountain face behind me and see all these ant-sized people gathered mid-way up on a ridge looking down cheering. It’s still very light out, but there’s a visible full moon rising above the mountain and I’m finally tripping super hard. I stare back down at the stage to see they’re back already. Without much tuning they break into “Day Tripper” and the place goes wild. Its three and a half minutes of pure bliss that makes the trip totally worth it.
For Tom and I, the fun is just getting starting. Even though we’d missed what would have been our first “Alabama Getaway”, we’d surely caught the best part of the concert. It’s time to celebrate. We wait a few minutes, then walk down the emptying slope to the side stage area on Phil’s side where we see a ten-foot-tall brick red slated chain-linked fence that runs from the stage to the ski lodge. We both move closer and peek in between the slats. I see a lot of beautiful people in a one hundred square foot lawn area that’s considered to be backstage, and judging by the freewheeling environment I can tell it’s everything it’s cracked up to be. After peeping in for several seconds the gate next to us suddenly opens wide and a pretty sun kissed blond appears wearing nothing but a backstage pass above her right nipple. She slinks past us and down into the exiting crowd below untouched as if she’d done this before, and nobody’s even phased. Wow, she’s a vision of beauty and freedom that I’ll never forget.
It’s around 6:00 PM now and we want to get back to the car for food and beer, so we jump on the first bus that comes by. Tom is sure we’re somewhere near the Truckee exit sign off I-80 and sure enough, he’s right. We’re back at the car within thirty minutes. The lot clears a bit right off the bat, so we move the Camaro to a choice spot under some trees and start drinking Budweiser one after the other with some food thrown in there somewhere. An hour or two later and it’s clear neither of us should drive. Two guys then come by offering us kind buds. We buy what they have, which isn’t much, only about an eighth. Afterward, they walk off into the wide-open wilderness next to our car. One turns to the other and asked, “Is there any poison out here”? The other says, “Yes”. Stop the presses! I know what that means, rattlesnakes. Not my thing. I don’t leave the immediate area from that moment on. Sitting safely in the passenger’s seat I find myself staring off at the custom school buses with their tops cut off and VW microbus shells welded on for a neat-o sky roof look. From my vantage point, it’s very easy to see that being a gypsy adventurer has always been more a way of life out here. I just hope they’re cautious when driving under overpasses.
As the day turns to night, the beer, kind buds and LSD begin taking their toll. Not wanting to leave the protection of the vehicle, I set myself up in the open hatchback with pillows and gaze out through the glass at a star-filled sky for what seems like hours. I watch the stars mingling with the defroster strips as they meld with our “Steal Your Face” as if I’m watching a cartoon on Saturday morning TV. Tom takes part after a while and laughter ensues. This continues well into the wee hours until I’m eventually passing out in the front seat to the sound of Tommy’s voice echoing, “We don’t have enough weed, weed, weed, weed, weed”.
I awake a few hours later from the hot car interior. The lot is basically empty. Tom’s already up and comes back to the car a few minutes later saying, “Let’s go”. “The cops are here.” We quickly bolt over to a country-style breakfast restaurant where Tom explains how we’re down to three joints with three days to kill. At the moment I’m not too concerned, but I know it’ll become problematic once the deadheads fully disperse. We eat a good breakfast then stick around the parking lot asking cool looking customers coming or going if they could sell us a nugget. After a dozen tries, we accept defeat and set course for Reno to clean up. It’s a 30-mile ride on I-80E. Our plan is to walk into a big casino hotel, find their swimming pool and dive in. We park in front of the Sands and make our way past the lobby and up the elevator to the third floor where the pool sits. We jump right in but are swiftly booted by security and leave with our towels between our legs. Back in the hot car we make plans for the coast and get on 1-80 westbound. It’s a three-hour ride back to San Francisco, which puts us there during the evening hours. We do the windy, cold wharf thing for dinner and find a cheap motel on the outskirts of town for the night.
Monday is another beauty with no clouds or humidity to speak of. Tom says he’s heard of a place just over the Golden Gate Bridge called Muir Woods, which is a redwood forest. “Sounds good”, I say, “Let’s check it out”. We get there quick. What an amazing looking place, worthy of our last fatty. We light her well in amongst the humongous trees and catch a great high while walking through the wonders of nature feeling like gnomes. From fantasyland, we hit “The Haight” with a misguided strategy to cop some weed. Now on the sidewalk at the intersection of Haight and Asbury, we start seeking out headshops. When one is found, Tom says he’s going to ask the guy behind the counter to pull out a bong from underneath the glass, and when he does, he’ll ask where to find something to put in it, sounds simple enough. After being told to leave several establishments we decide to go back to UC Berkeley. Clueless, we walk up to a young couple playing Frisbee on the front lawn of the campus and ask them if they have any buds to sell. A fast “No” is their answer. We then go across the street to a crowded main avenue in the town of Berkeley and ask out loud, “Does anybody have pot?” “Does anybody have any grass”? I realize we’re barking up the wrong tree when I catch a group of preppies laughing their asses off at us. It’s a low moment for us. We give up and decide Monterey could be a wise destination for this kind of thing. So, with Tom at the helm, we hit cruise control for the one-hundred-and-twenty-mile ride down to the Pacific Ocean. Our feet are in the sand by sunset. It’s another stunning California sight, but is all this beauty adding up to be something to leave my friends and family behind for?
After dark, we stroll into a local dive bar for a few beers. On the way out, Tom tells me he has a lead on something and walks me over to an early 70’s model Pontiac GTO with four dudes leaning up against it. One of the unknowns presents himself as the leader, telling Tom its good stuff for fifty a quarter. He looks cool and we agree to buy one. He then explains how he needs the money upfront, but will happily leave a friend behind as collateral. Desperate, we agree. Ten minutes later, now on the side of a dark and dusty road, the Goat appears. It creeps towards the three of us. The high beams go on and our collateral books from our grasp and sprints for the car. We start after him but the GTO has emptied. It’s four against two, no match. We stay our ground. They jump back in and peel off leaving us flat, closer to broke than we were before. As a consolation, we grab a six-pack but decide to sleep in the car.
It takes an hour of looking before we find an area just off route one overlooking the ocean that looks safe. We park and try to relax. At 5:30 AM we’re awoken by the sound of a policeman’s flashlight tapping on the driver’s side window. Tom opens up and explains how we’d come into town late and didn’t want to spend money on a room until the next day. He looks around inside, then asks some probing questions and finally tells us to beat it. We start north on route one looking for a sign to the next cool-sounding destination, which in this case turned out to be Santa Cruz. The sun is just coming up over the mountains as we enter the town. It’s a populated beachside community complete with boardwalk, arcades and a roller coaster. We park and layout on the beach. “Alvin and the Chipmunk’s” even play live for us at noon on this beautiful Tuesday afternoon.
We’re happy, but still wanting to have one more goodnight before having to leave in the morning. We grab a couple of burgers for lunch on the boardwalk and set our weed sensors to high. Somehow Tommy finds a local blond hair surfer dude who has eighths. We make it clear from the get-go that we need to have it in our hands before giving up the money. He says, “That’s not an issue man”, and tells us to meet him behind the burger joint in five minutes. Cool, we say. We wait a few minutes, and then make our way around the building to a sidewalk that runs parallel to the boardwalk on Beach Street. We can see the guy about twenty feet away walking towards us. Dreams of dancing EZ-Wider packs and skunk buds are filling my head. It’s finally going down. We get to within 10 feet, 5 feet. Tom takes the money out and the plastic bag is presented. The switch is made. Tom looks down and gives me a nod. We have contact. We keep walking for another ten feet. I can see the car. We’re home free. That’s when two undercover cops walking by grab our upper arms and take us off to beach jail. They would later tell us we’d bought from a well-known dealer in the area who was under surveillance. Tom and I are held for a couple of hours, then let go with only one summons for Tom who had possession. We split the fine weeks later.
When we get back to the car emotions are running high and neither wants to give in to the law and let them ruin our last day in California, so we do what any self-respecting deadhead should do in this situation, we dose. Dropping the last two gels we had then driving seventy miles into the mission district of San Francisco. It’s late in the afternoon with Market Street shaded by the tall buildings. We continue driving aimlessly listening to a local rock station when an advertisement come across the airwaves promoting Jerry Garcia live at Wolfgang’s Nightclub, tonight! We quickly find our way back to the Psychedelic Shop where this time they put us on the right path. We make it to Wolfgang’s fifteen minutes later. Within another ten and we have marijuana. Five more minutes pass and we’re stoned, staring out the windshield, when from out of nowhere, comes this trolley car, bells ringing, with “The San Francisco Treat” ad affixed to the back. Without saying a thing, we burst out laughing until tears are flowing. We’re back, and about to see the real San Francisco treat, Captain Trip’s himself, and at a nightclub no less.
I walk into the club feeling awesome, although I do notice a lot of gloomy-looking people outside unable to afford the cover to get inside. Garcia’s already on stage playing “To Lay Me Down” on his acoustic guitar with a stand-up bassist when we get in. We go and kick back upstairs where they have a one-row balcony with stools. It’s a nice setting and the music fits. This is Jerry’s hometown. No hotel room for him tonight. He probably had dinner at his house before driving himself over. Tom and I continue sipping cocktails throughout the night while trying to meet some girls. Not much luck happening with that though, so I eventually make my way to the dance floor, gliding on as they kick into “Ripple”. I get closer and closer to the tiny stage until I’m front and center, within just a few feet of Garcia’s face. His eyes are glued shut as he sings the iconic lyrics. I stay situated in place. He finally opens up and I’m able to make solid eye contact. Grins are exchanged. Then I’m promptly nudged to split by this older woman sitting next to me in her wheelchair. I take a few steps back and enjoy the conclusion of the set.
What a turnaround. What a night. The only thing we have left to do is catch us our 10:00 AM flight out of Oakland on Wednesday morning and we’re all set. Down to forty bucks between us, we get another cheap motel near the Oakland Coliseum costing thirty and we eat food with the rest. It’s around midnight when we get to the motel. We call for an early wakeup call, then laugh at Ted Koppel’s forehead on Nightline for what seems like days before crashing out. The next thing I hear is Tom yelling, “George wake up, we’ve missed our flight!” Turns out we never did get that wake-up call. We quickly contact Continental who tells us to come to the airport the following morning early to be on standby. We then give the front desk guy some shit and relax in the room till noon when penniless and hungry, we set out for Denny’s. The plan is to do two dine and dashes hours apart from each other at two different Denny’s, then sneak into a movie by going in through the out-door, before returning the car and camping out at the airport. We have some dicey moments, but make it through without incident, even catching “Back to the Future” along the way.
I’ll never forget opening my eyes to that harsh Thursday morning sunlight piercing through the airport windows with hundreds of shoes pounding past me as I lay there on the hard-terminal floor, like a bum. I guess its truly time to get back to my hometown to face reality as a New Jersey teen who’s going to try to be a big star someday…
Boreal Ridge Ski Resort, Donner’s Summit, CA – Saturday, August 24, 1985
I: Alabama Getaway> Greatest Story Ever Told, West LA Fadeaway, New Minglewood Blues, Friend of the Devil, Hell in a Bucket> Don’t Ease Me In
II: China Cat> I know You Rider, He’s Gone> Drums> Space> Truckin’> Black Peter> Around & Around> Lovelight
E: Day Tripper*
*last Day Tripper)