Article by Laural Paterini | Photography by Audrey Merkel & Laural Paterini | Owl Staff
I’m surrounded by thousands of smiling faces, more than most people have ever seen. The smells of smoke, food, and earth-scented oils fill the air. Colorful clothes and twirling skirts, handmade art, and even dogs mill around the parking lot. “Strangers stopping strangers, just to shake their hands” because everyone is family.
There’s absolutely nothing like going home to a Grateful Dead family show.
As I walk through the golden gates and into the venue, the smiles are even bigger, and the handshakes turn into hugs. Waiting for the band to start, everyone is like giddy school-age children, cheering, clapping, laughing, and dancing. Packed in like a tin of sardines yet happier than a clam, the crowd’s vibe is overwhelming universal love.
Living in a world with so little of this, it’s no wonder I became hooked right away.
When I hear the music of the Grateful Dead, especially live, something happens to me. I become a molecule of the sound itself, it takes control and guides me. I don’t feel human anymore; I feel like an infinite glowing beam of light bursts through every pore and merges with everyone and everything.
The emotions are pure bliss, connection, and understanding. Whether the tune is uplifting or somber, there is nothing like it. This is my ultimate high, and it’s a nonstop chase.
The Grateful Dead became more than a hippie band of the 1960s, more than a direct aid in the psychedelic revolution, more than a rebel counterculture rock group. They became
“more than words can tell.” The Grateful Dead is a spirit, a philosophy, and a way of life.
I fully believe, considering the destructive path I was on, that if it wasn’t for the Grateful Dead I would not have the life I do now. I might not be alive at all.
Back when I was a kid, my dad was in a band, so live music has always been a huge part of my life. In the eighth grade an older girl took me to see The Other Ones (the remaining members of the Grateful Dead) for the first time in 1998. I’d seen countless live shows, but nothing has captured me like the songs of the Grateful Dead.
Today, I’m working on maintaining my place on the President’s List at HCC for my third semester in a row. However, 17 years ago I was graduating high school with a GPA of 1.7. I had a lot of wild experiences in my childhood and teen years; I seemed to purposefully flock to troublesome situations.
After graduating, I started at Anne Arundel Community College in 2002. However, a dramatic series of events and a longing for purpose convinced me to pack my little red Nissan Sentra and hit 9 5 south just months into my first semester at college.
I was living up the beach bum life along the Atlantic coast. A guy I met in Jacksonville Beach, Florida told me about a place he thought I would like and gave me his number. Later, in Miami Beach, I got that longing again. Miami had gone from new and exciting to grotesque and bleak in a matter of months.
I called the guy and got directions to the place he’d mentioned. I found myself at a Rainbow Gathering in central Florida. The first thing I saw when I ventured into the woods was a big sign saying, “WELCOME HOME.” This was the first place I found other people who were just like me, roaming the country.
The Rainbow Family bases their community on ancient traditions and prophesies. They value love, peace, and respect for all living things, and gather in national forests all over the world.
Rainbow Gatherings are about learning how to unlearn society. They’re about understanding how to live without modern consumption, how to survive without technology, appreciating what you have, and being happy doing it. It was the breath of fresh air I’d been waiting for and I stayed there, in the sandy pines of central Florida, for almost three months.
I finally headed west with a few traveling “kids” (people on the road), driving until my car broke down, then hitchhiking and riding freight trains.
My adventures led me to the beautiful Golden State.
I landed in a small misty town on the North Coast of California. Tons of us were about to caravan south on the 101 to hit the first show of the Phil Lesh and Friends tour in San Francisco, but this guy Sunny and I decided to hang back in town to get to know each other.
After that weekend, we started traveling together. We hit show after show, explored the country, and went to Rainbow Gatherings when the timing was right. Once, on our way to see a concert, we ended up going to the National Rainbow Gathering, where everyone holds hands on the fourth of July.
I’d never felt a feeling like that in my life, holding hands with 20,000 people, all with the collective vision of universal love. It’s what magic is made of, and I give thanks to my concert tours for stumbling upon this enchantment.
While in the isolated desert of Quartzite, Arizona, during the international gem shows, I was feeling nauseous. A friend suggested I take a pregnancy test. After going for my annual visit to Santa Barbara after the gem shows, I got medical confirmation that I was pregnant.
I panicked; I was on foot and had nothing but my hiking pack! Sunny and I went back to the same tiny mountain town where we met and began to start a life there, although we still traveled when we wanted to. I had my first son in 2006 and he went to his first concert at three weeks old.
In 2012, I moved back to Maryland. I wanted my son to know his blood family and have a relationship with my parents. Even though Sunny and I didn’t work out, he moved back to his home state on the East Coast as well. I had my second son in 2013 with my old boyfriend I’d left years ago to hit the road, and things didn’t end up working out with him either.
It was hard making shows being a single mom with two kids. I’d always made my own rules, but now I was living life on life’s terms. In the summer of 2016, I found a way to make a Dark Star Orchestra (a Grateful Dead cover band) con en at Pier Six Pavilion in downtown Baltimore.
At this show I met Adam, my fiance. Adam has the same passion for live music as I do, and we agree that if it wasn’t for the music of the Grateful Dead, we wouldn’t have the life we have right now.
I had my third son in 2017. We named him Hunter after the recently deceased lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter, and one of our favorite authors, Hunter S. Thompson.
Sunny is in a Grateful Dead cover band and he alway puts us on the list to get in for free when he plays a show. My fiance thinks it’s phenomenal that we can all be friends and have our love for our children and our lives through the music we cherish so much. Adam and I took Hunter, when he was three weeks old, to his first concert at one of the festivals Sunny’s band played.
My personal philosophy was transformed over the years by every detail of the concerts, gatherings, and road trips I experienced. Although I chose my own path, the sound waves and tour schedules I followed made me who I am.
Bob Weir, an original founder and member of the Grateful Dead, is spot on in his beautiful description of the Dead philosophy.
“There was music, there was lifestyle, and with that lifestyle came a philosophy that evolved through experience. That philosophy, of course, was different for each individual of the family … the process by which it came into being defined the difference … It continuously evolved and to this day continues to define itself.
I owe the Grateful Dead for giving me the road less traveled, the experiences unknown, and a life you only hear about in fairy tales . Thanks to this phenomenon called the Grateful Dead, the perspective I’ve acquired over the years has transformed me into a person I never imagined I’d be.
I love the life I live and I live the life I love. This drive hasn’t eased up, and I hope it never does. I’ll always be looking for the next show.