Today’s winds created a whirlwind of chaos throughout the Baltimore region, with gusts exceeding 60 mph for most of the day. Brush fires, arcing electrical wires, and downed trees kept both police and fire crews running from one crisis to another, virtually nonstop.
We went for a drive to northern Baltimore County, where a 4-acre brush fire had just been brought under control. During the ride up to the scene, I remembered a similar time I was close to the Pennsylvania line, experiencing harsh winds while enjoying a particular version of Dark Star by the Grateful Dead. I wrote a piece about that day, and I include it herein in its entirety.
Enjoy, and keep your feet on the ground…
My Dark Star Trip: 12/18/08
When I bought Steppin’ Out with the Grateful Dead last week, I knew that disc 4 was going to have to wait for a special occasion. There was no way I was going to play a 31-minute Dark Star heading to Trader Joe’s to get some hummus and bagels. The experience had to be unique, uninterrupted, and unplanned.
But that was last week, and yesterday afternoon, around 3, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get into that “Dark Star,” had to find out where Jerry took England for those 31 minutes in 1972. I couldn’t wait for that unique, uninterrupted, unplanned opportunity to arise out of nowhere. Those things just don’t happen too much when you’ve got three kids under the age of 12.
It had rained most of the previous two days, but there was finally a break in the sky, where blue sifted through a diminishing dark of lingering grays still threatening of a last-minute downpour. I was looking for a place to put the Jeep for a good mud run. I took us along the backroads of central Baltimore County, around Loch Raven Reservoir, when I decided to head out to Prettyboy to see if there were any fire roads we could find. We had to make a stop for gas, first, though. And when I got back into the Jeep, with my wife Amy in the passenger seat and my three kids strapped in their seats in the back, I popped out my farewell Fillmore CD (disc 3) from the late April 71 run. I went to put it back into its case, but I grabbed the Steppin’ Out set instead. I put that on the dashboard, dug out the Fillmore case, and put disc 3 in its rightful place.
I grabbed Steppin’ Out and turned it over, looking at the set list for disc 4.
I sure could use a dose of “Uncle John’s Band,” I thought. And “Two Souls” would be nice right about now.
Then I looked at “Dark Star.” I’ll just skip over that when it comes, I thought.
I put the CD in, we hit the road, and God Damn, well I declare, those skies, they started talking.
Uncle John’s did not disappoint, and Two Souls just chokes me up every time, especially thinking about where Pigpen was in his final days. We had traveled along Manor Road during this time, and when it turned over to Monkton, Pigpen was finishing up, ad-libbing as he went along about pillows getting soaking wet.
I just can’t seem to understand,/Can’t seem to understand what’s wrong, fly up, fly home/What I wanna do is take a little ride with you,/On the wings of love, woh-oh one more time, one more time.
I pulled up to a stop sign by an old abandoned antique store and realized Dark Star was next. I looked a little left, a little right, and then made the decision to let it play. It seemed like it was time.
I drove toward York Road as Jerry began, and almost immediately the chatter behind me dulled as one minute passed, then two, then three. I turned right on to York, then left on to Mt. Carmel Road, heading straight to Prettyboy, thankful that this was a trip I had taken enough times to trust the auto-drive that was kicking in me. I was somewhere else by now, going down, deeper and deeper, with each passing minute.
Then, at 14 minutes, 10 seconds into it, Jerry somehow went deeper and left us for somewhere unimaginable, and Amy gasped from the passenger seat. I stirred, and she threw her hand across me and pointed to the sky. The kids gasped as well from the back seat, and I turned to look at this magnificent parting of the grays and blacks to reveal stunning rays of sun shooting to the pastures on my left, a spotlight of divinity that left us all speechless.
And Jerry played on.
As fast as the sun stole the spotlight, piercing the grays above, a sudden whirl of wind wrapped the sun and strangled it. The rays escaping the clouds diminished until the last ray was extinguished, snuffed out, and we were left in its wake, an eclipse of illumination that terrified my 6-year-old daughter. She began to cry, ask for home, plead to go back, turn around as Jerry emerged at 15 minutes, 10 seconds, urgent now, a foreshadowing crescendo of danger ahead.
During the next 9 minutes, we drove ever-cautiously as the sky turned black and swirled from west to east in formations that dipped below the tree line. Rain started hitting the Jeep’s soft top with the erratic rhythm of nail guns in the hands of madmen. We then saw the hail hitting the hood, then the windshield, bouncing off in crazy popping sounds of ice on metal as Jerry played and played and played.
And then the second gasp from Amy and the kids. They saw it ahead of us first, then from the right coming right for us.
It was 23 minutes, 33 seconds since Jerry started, and here was the disaster he foretold, what he saw when he went deep. What he told us was on the way.
Winds that exceeded 65 miles per hour picked up all that was not nailed down or firmly rooted in the ground. Branches became airborne spears; trash cans rose 40 feet into the air; trees swayed, dipped to the earth, cracking, breaking, falling. Crashing.
There was no place to pull over without feeling like we would be a dead-on target for any one of these dangers. There was nothing I could do but drive on while Madelyn screamed and Jerry played. It was as if we were in the core of wherever Jerry took us: a place so alive, so dangerous, so unlike anything we had ever experienced.
Amy, the sudden guard at shotgun, helped me swerve left and then right by telling me what dangers we could avoid. Some we couldn’t, and it is only because of the 10-inch clearance that we survived the debris already in the road. Several times I felt like I punctured my tires, but they kept us moving through the storm as Jerry played on.
And then, four minutes later, it was over. Phil, Bobby, and Bill caught up with Jerry, and they, together, started the slide out of Dark Star and into Sugar Mags. For us, we met the end of Mt. Carmel Road, never turning on Prettyboy in fear of our lives, and headed home by way of Falls Road.
Trees down everywhere the whole ride home. I threw the Jeep into 4WD and navigated around the downed power lines, the mighty evergreens that were now destined to become mulch for somebody’s garden later this spring, the branches thicker than abandoned cannon barrels lay strewn across some old battlefield. It was the aftermath of a storm all right.
But it was something more. For 31 minutes and 28 seconds, Jerry took us all down somewhere that I’ll never forget. There was a reunion of sorts that happened yesterday, one that I can share foolishly with you with mere words. To capture the magnitude and the power of what I lived through will be, I suppose, a lifelong mission of mine to put that into some form where you will know where I went.
Impossible, though, right? How can I describe what I cannot explain even to myself? All I do know is that, to the people who are reading this – most of whom I’ve never even met, I hope you get it.
Which, I guess, is why I’m sharing it at all. Because you understand. I know you do. And thank God for that, right? Because I know a lot of souls out there who will never get it, and my heart breaks for them that, right before their eyes as in front of mine, there was a communion of souls that I will never forget.
Love to all, Rus