still dead after all these years

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The one and only time I saw the Dead, the opening act was the Indigo Girls.

Written in 1993.

Still Dead After All These Years
Part 1 of 2: The Hereafter

We’d driven about 50 miles from Seattle when I took one hand off the wheel and reached into the back seat. I unzipped a backpack, slipped a hand inside, and drew out a little square of cardboard that I’d cut from a box of crackers. Its boldface letters read, “Baked, not fried!” This little item was my bible, my philosophical key that would get us through the weekend. I passed it to Dennis, my traveling companion, and then took it back and tucked it carefully away.

We kept to the straight and narrow path down the interstate until we paused briefly at a rest area south of Chehalis. As we stretched our legs there, a young woman jumped out of a nearby VW van and approached. She wore white coveralls, a nose ring, and a head scarf, and came ready with an opening line. “Hey! You guys look like Ben and Jerry!” Although we didn’t much resemble the famous the ice cream salesmen, it was a good intro. Then came the pitch. “Got any spare change or food or something?” Dennis and I each offered a piece of fruit. Now was the time to stock up on good karma for the trip. Apples were a small price to pay.

The woman stayed to talk for a while and looked genuinely surprised when she discovered that we, too, were going to the Grateful Dead concert. I guess we didn’t look right. My orange and green neon shoelaces were the closest we came to psychedelic. “We don’t have tickets,” she told us. “We’re just going to go down there and pray we can get in. Or we’ll hang around outside and play drums and listen to the concert from the outside.” Many are called, I thought, but only 40,000 or so are chosen for the event inside the stadium. But we’re all humble pilgrims, whether we worship in the presence of the Dead or just in their vicinity. She thanked us for the fruit and returned to the van, where a long-haired young man was kneeling down to stare into the engine compartment.

Our next stop was Portland. We wandered the cavernous halls of Powell’s Books and bought a supply of poetry and science fiction (the mind-altering substances of the Not Fried). Thus fortified, we drove on to a suburb where a kindly woman gave us shelter in her home. It was prearranged. “We’re going down to Eugene tomorrow to do anthropological research,” Dennis told someone at the house. This time there was no skepticism. Though we didn’t look like deadheads, we could easily pass as a couple of nerdy anthropologists. It was a sobering realization, but not surprising. After all, it was 1993 and this was our first Dead concert. The person at the house listened to us curiously for a while, and finally asked, “Are you really on a research project?” Of course we were, but I don’t think either us knew exactly what we hoped to find.

The next day we counted a dozen VW vans full of concert-goers heading south on the highway. Some clichés live on through the decades, but who would have guessed that the hippie van would be one of them? History is full of surprises. The Dead stickers and decals grew thick on the rear windows of these vehicles. There was the classic skull and lightning bolt symbol, the happy bear symbol, and the dancing turtles icon — highway signs wide open for interpretation.

By the time we reached Eugene that morning we were deep in deadhead country: blue sky, peace, love, and T-shirt sales. We parked a mile or so from Autzen stadium. Dennis and I shouldered our supplies and joined the throngs of the faithful converging on the concert site.

I didn’t notice it at first, but as we walked along toward the stadium, we passed through a kind of time warp. Months and years fell away with each step forward, and the 90s gradually evaporated. I was only dimly aware of what was happening until we reached the stadium. Then suddenly we found ourselves on the edge of a free-form tent city and arts fair in 1968 regalia. The fair was a 3-D rainbow splashed onto the dusty fields and parking areas around the stadium. School buses with astounding paint jobs were parked at various angles, and clothing, antennae and unidentified objects of many shapes stuck out of their windows. There were tents and trailers with bright flags. Tie-dyed everything. Entire vintage clothing stores seemed to have been emptied to clothe the deadheads. Love beads were for sale. Paisley caps. Leather vests. It was all familiar, like a memory, and somehow not out of place. A self-contained, timeless universe enclosed the Dead.

Part 2 tomorrow.

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