28 Days and 28 Dead Quotes: My Musical Journey on the Colorado Trail

Introduction

Many different forms of media informed my experience on my Colorado Trail thru-hike: while I walked hundreds of miles without any form of auditory stimulation, I also consumed too many episodes of Radiolab, other podcasts, and listened to the 50-hour audiobook of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (holy macaroni, was it incredible). But the single-most impactful thing—that, without fail, drew a huge smile across my face, inspired me to live, and brought me to tears—was all of the Grateful Dead to which I listened.

Any fellow Deadhead will understand when I say that the music never stops running through my mind. And the lyrics speak to my every experience in life. Each night, as I began my 1,600-word (on average) journal entry, I picked one lyric to which I listened that day or that I had running through my head and reflected on it. Enjoy these 28 reflections. Some are longer than others, and some speak more to trail life than others. Each stands independently with strength. But when placed together, the reflections craft a wonderful mosaic of my thru-hike.

A picture that I took at the top of ride in the San Juans, with an added bolt.

Week One: Trials and Tribulations

I spent my first week on trail struggling with intense bouts of anxiety that left me questioning my decision to attempt another thru-hike and my dedication as an outdoorsman.

“Wheel to the storm and fly” – Cassidy, 3/20/77. This quote elicits for me the stunning imagery of a motorcyclist pointing his wheel upward and confidently shooting into portentous clouds. It inspires me to do the same on trail.

The musical transition between the penultimate verse of Lady With a Fan into the final verse (that preceding “Inspiration, move me brightly) – Terrapin Station, 5/28/77. Wow. This solo brought me to tears this morning. Something unusual happened when I listened to it, and I felt connected. It was magical.

“Laugh in the sunshine/Sing, cry in the dark/Fly through the night” – Bird Song. This line bounced around my head a bit as I plodded up and down the hills. Jerry sings with energy and soul; I needed that today. I visualize these lyrics like an object moving downward along a semicircle and then up again, like my body waking down and up a little dip (a dry rivulet-bed, for example) on trail. The lyrics move with me.

“The grass ain’t greener, the wine ain’t sweeter/either side of the hill.” – Ramble on Rose, 3/29/90. These lyrics speak volumes to me. I shouted them at the top of my lungs today while hiking; I whispered them in thoughtful response. Because, in some way, they are my thru-hiking journey. It always seems like my other life—the one that I could be living instead of thru-hiking—is better, more whole, more happy, more content. And there may be some truth to that. But there may also be some truth to the fact that I, Samuel “Prom King” David Cooper, always want what I can’t have.

“Faced with mysteries dark and vast” – Terrapin Station, 3/20/77. What a show. I mean, it has to be one of the greatest Dead shows of all time. Jerry is on fire for the more chill guitar solos (Row Jimmy, Stella Blue, etc.), and it warms my heart. I, too, am faced with dark and vast mysteries of trail, of injury, of life, of love. I ponder them while I walk. And I don’t come to conclusions.

“And brave the storm to come,/For it surely looks like rain.” – Looks Like Rain, 4/8/72. This is just the best version of Looks Like Rain out there. It’s perfect. And when I was walk-crying today, it hit the spot. At points, when I thought that I was done crying, Jerry’s guitar would bring me right back to tears. Magical.

“You were gone…” – Looks Like Rain, 1/11/78. Trail is gone. Or my gap year is gone. Or my mental stability is gone. Something is gone, and I hate that. It terrifies me. When mom broke the news today, all I wanted to do was hang up the phone on her. I was irate. I’m taking my anger out of her, but she is just the messenger. I shouldn’t be mad at her, but I am. I put on my angry song, Looks Like Rain from 1/11/78, and just screamed.

A picture I took of the sunrise on the hike up the pass coming out of Copper Mountain.

Week Two: Settling In

An understanding of what the Colorado Trail was and how I would approach each day with confidence colored my second week; and for the first time on the CT, I found friends with whom to hike.

“Long-distance runner what you standing there for?” – Fire on the Mountain, 5/8/77. I put on this Scarlet Fire when descending from Kokomo Pass today and enjoyed the transitional jam. For the first time, I connected to it.

“The bus came by, and I got on.” – The Other One, 9/17/72, Dick’s Picks 23. I’m on the bus of joy, of pursuing dreams, of kindness, of thru-hiking, of the Dead, of life. And I’m on it for good.

“Well, the first days are the hardest days,/don’t you worry anymore.” – Uncle John’s Band, 5/19/77. What a great song and what great wisdom. It sure is true. Today was my best day yet on trail, and it took nearly 200 miles of suffering and serious struggle to get here. But now I’m calm, happy, and better than ever. The Collegiates are going to be amazing! I almost forgot about this lyric, and I was reminded of it when browsing the Grateful Dead subreddit today. It hit me like a truck. I’ve always had an incredibly soft spot for Uncle John’s Band.

“There was cowboy Neal/At the wheel/Of a bus to never-ever land” – The Other One, 9/17/72, Dick’s Picks 23. This hike started with Cowboy Neal Cassady at the wheel of my mind. I couldn’t get Cassidy, a song named after him, out of my head. And often when I’m struggling, I think of putting a wheel to the storm and flying—going into the struggle with flight. That connotes power, strength, and confidence. I fly into challenges. After all, I must brave the storm to come, for it surely looks like rain.

“Quick beats in an icy heart” – Cassidy, 10/19/89, Without a Net. I could have misheard this lyric (I did not), but it sure does speak to me. Let’s be honest: every Dead lyric speaks to me. Each time I can feel my tendonitis or feel a compensation injury or feel something similar to tendonitis, I freak out. My heart beats quicker. I think about having to come off trail, and my heart turns to ice. Quick beats in my icy heart.

“Hurts my ears to listen, Shannon/Burns my eyes to see” – Jack Straw, 8/27/72. I’ve been thinking a lot about motor vehicles and their presence in the backcountry recently. And being camped beside a popular, trafficked ATV site has brought those thoughts to the forefront of my mind. More than anything else, I dislike their power. Their motors growl unnaturally in this natural place; they are the epitome of human impact on the wilderness. Nobody needs such power. Nobody needs to disrupt nature.

“Faring thee well now./Let your life proceed by its own design” – Cassidy, 10/19/89, Without a Net. Wow. What a complex, powerful lyric embedded in an ostensibly simple frame of saying goodbye to a daughter, allowing a bird to take flight and follow its path, learning to let go. The next line—“Let the words be yours…”—acknowledges that one must take control of their life once the parents have parted, that one cannot just let life proceed by its own design. It nearly has me in tears right now. The idea that my life’s path is both inevitable and under my control. Wow. Perhaps the words are how I accept the hands dealt to me; maybe they even affect the next hand.

Smoko, a dear friend of mine with whom I hiked of 300 miles of the CT, posing for a picture after donning his rain gear; thunderstorms rolled in as we neared the end of a 20-mile above-timberline section in the Collegiate West.

Week Three: Turning Around

Week three was filled with rain, wet footsteps, and a shivering cold that I could not seem to shake. Despite all of that, however, I found myself thinking deeply about how I could turn my life around, how I could reevaluate how I face challenges.

“Fare you well my honey” – Brokedown Palace, 9/27/72, Dick’s Picks 11. What a song. I woke up this morning with this lyric bounding through my mind, and I had to turn it on. Perhaps my thru-hike is coming to an end. In some ways, being just over 220 miles from Durango makes it feel that way.

“Please forget you knew my name” – Sugaree, 5/28/77. I just want to fade away. I want to be done with my stomach pain and move on. I want to absorb the rest of this hike. I want people to forget my name, forget who I am.

“Just like mamma and papa, just like Jack and Jill.” – Ramble on Rose, Europe ’72. This lyric, accompanied by the second half, “The grass ain’t greener…”, bounced around in my head all day. It spoke volumes about my love for the Dead and my newfound independence as a thru-hiker and adult. I can make doctor appointments, among other responsibilities, and I can be self-sufficient. I can be like mamma and papa.

“Wo-oh, what I want to know is, are you kind?” – Uncle John’s Band, 5/19/77, Dick’s Picks 29. What a beautiful lyric and song. It is one of the first Grateful Dead songs that spoke to me, and recently I have come to immensely appreciate this line. I no longer feel driven to people for any reason other than kindness. I like kind people. Their auras draw me in. Sunshine is kind. Smoko is incredibly kind. These people, who did not initially strike me as kind, share, think compassionately, and care more about the well-being of others than their own. I aspire to be as kind as they. I will make it; perhaps I’m more than halfway there.

“Since it cost a lot to win/And even more to lose” – Deal, 8/27/72. As I listened to the Veneta show with Smoko today, this line (as well as one from Black-Throated Wind) stuck out. It seemed to speak precisely to my thru-hiking journey. It’s harder to quit than it is to remain stubborn and on trail. But staying on trail itself isn’t easy. It all costs a lot, and I need to spend some time wondering what to choose in the future. I’m going to finish this trail, though.

“I’m turning around, that’s what I’m gonna do” – Black-Throated Wind, 5/7/72. I’m going to turn this hike around. I’m done waiting and yearning for the end. I’m done suffering through climbs and wet feet and wet clothes while dreaming of that plane ride home from Durango. I’m going to start enjoying what I have while I have it. I’m going to enjoy the company. I’m going to laugh at my wet feet and clothes. I’m going to be thankful for the climbs that leave me panting, in a bathtub of sweat, and unhappy. Turning around, that’s what I’m gonna do.

“Shall we go, you and I, while we can?” – Dark Star, 5/7/72. This like depicts an image of two people–a couple, perhaps–faced with a storm. One grabs the other by the hand and drags them into the tumult. Strangely, they run toward the weather, not away. And that perverse action speaks to information that I glean from the Dead; their music does not tell me to stagnate, to run away from the challenges that face me. Instead, it pushes me to face that which scares me, that which naturally drives me away. Wheel to the storm and fly. Brave the storm to come. Black-throated wind keeps on pouring in. Through the transitive nightfall, I will go.

Here I am having too much fun glissading on a snow patch 50 yards from the top of Hope Pass, one of the most challenging climbs on the whole CT.

Week Four: Inspired Change

I spent week four, the final week, realizing the change of which I dreamed in week three, all the while thinking about what my next journey would entail.

“‘Cause I know the life I’m/livin’s no good” – Wharf Rat, 4/26/71. I’m trying to turn things around; I’m trying to change my perspectives and attitudes. But it sure is challenging. Today, as I hiked through the biting-cold morning air and my toes and fingers went numb, I began to complain mentally. I wanted to be elsewhere. I was not able to accept my existence for what it was. I’m working to turn things around, to change my wiring, but such change is not immediate; everything requires time. As long as I am aware and actively trying to better myself, I will not stagnate. I must remember my mantra: Every step hurts, but those to nowhere hurt the most.

“Inspiration, move me brightly” – Terrapin Station, 5/21/77, Dick’s Picks 29. Terrapin Station is a sacred song. Within its verses, chords, and jams, it holds extraordinary power. It moves the listener from tears to euphoria to dancing to screaming. It affords a keen listener the opportunity to live. Today, the first chords of this specific Terrapin brought me to tears–it was so unexpected in the show yet completely necessary. This line played for me as I crested the pass, the sun and I began a staring contest, which I lost. By the end of the song, I found myself staring at the valley below, mouth agape, unable to do anything but listen. It was beautiful.

“Ohhh, I’m drowning in you.” – Black-Throated Wind, 5/7/72. I’m drowning in this trail—in the best way possible. It’s consuming me, morphing me into a different person. I’m overwhelmed in all the right ways: with weariness; with euphoria; and with contentment. Oh, I am drowning in this trail. And I love it.

“Tell me all that you know/I’ll show you/Snow and rain” – Bird Song, 8/27/72. What does this even mean? Why are snow and rain the reward for showing the Hunter everything one knows? In my experience, those types of weather are the opposite of a prize. Is this line a reflection that gifts are most-often met with feeble gratitude? When I apply this line to my life, I assume that the singer is the trail—and this application works. I have shown the trail all I know, dripped tears onto it, stomped on it, smiled on it, and laid, weary, on it. And in response, it has whipped raindrops in my face and blinded me with snow, responded with its worst. And I am ever so thankful for that.

“Little bit harder, just a little bit more/Little bit farther than you than you’ve gone before” – The Wheel, 5/19/77, Dick’s Picks 29. I almost forgot about this song. Almost. It’s always spoken to me, talking about an endless cycle of life and society and responsibilities that one cannot shake or leave, a world that is out to get you regardless of how hard you try to run from it. That’s part of why I thru-hike, to get away from the grueling, remorseless world. And today, as I regretted being out here because a climb was tough, the air was hot, and my legs burned, this song came on. The Dead begged me to try a little bit harder, to cover just a little more ground. So I did.

“If I told you all that went down/it would burn off both your ears” – Deal, 9/27/72, Dick’s Picks 11. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what quote I want to be my last. This one has come up often, but I don’t think it fully captures the mood of a final day on a thru-hike, so I have chosen it as my penultimate quote. I’ve often chuckled to myself when thinking about giving this response to my family when, after I see them for the first time in a month, they inevitably ask how my hike was. They wouldn’t understand the reference, but I sure would smile slyly. See, this hike has been so much. It has been brutal, euphoric, tearful, empty endless, and so much more. I can’t explain it to someone who isn’t a thru-hiker. I probably couldn’t even explain it to a thru-hiker, but they would simply understand. Thru-hiking is a beast of a journey. A mythical, magical beast. And those not acquainted with the monster don’t understand it’s majesty or allure; perhaps they can’t understand. A thorough, honest explanation might leave them with crispy holes where ears used to be.

“Gonna get there?/I don’t know” – Row Jimmy, 3/20/77. This is my song. It speaks to me. This version is as perfect as a Dead song gets, and it is undoubtedly my favorite Row Jimmy. I could’ve picked tens of other quotes to finish off this trail (I considered “What a long strange trip it’s been” and “The storyteller makes no choice/soon you will not hear his voice/his job is to shed light/and not to master” and “He’s gone/and nothing’s gonna bring him back”), but I chose not to end with them. They felt too obvious, too precise. Row Jimmy has always spoken to me, so when I heard these lyrics today–when I heard them for the first time–I knew that they would be my final quote. Ending trail didn’t feel like much. I waxed poetic in yesterday’s entry about how getting to Durango would not mean much in the grand scheme of things, how it would only mean that I had achieved some arbitrary goal. And when I rounded the corner to the southern terminus, those words rang true. I felt content, yet I felt no different. The confidence that I dreamed completing a long trail would instill in me did not arrive as a sudden burst of elucidation. That confidence didn’t arrive at all. So will I get there? Will I get to become this person whom I dream of being, this kind, confident, caring, idealistic man? Maybe I will. Gonna get there? I don’t know.

More of an artsy photo of the sunset’s reflection in a beautiful alpine lake at 12,000 feet in the Collegiate West. Smoko and I camped here and breathed in the views.

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Comments 3

  • Avatar
    Daddy Longlegs : Sep 24th

    Hey Now, Prom King!
    Thanks for the interesting post. Just finished the Colorado Trail a few weeks ago and it is an inspiring place. If you keep on Truckin’ and being kind, great things will unfold as you travel this life. Keep Walking!
    Best wishes & Happy Trails,
    -Daddy Longlegs

    (My Katahdin “summit song” was the 5/17/77 version of Terrapin to finish the AT)

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Alicia Pacalo : Sep 26th

    LOVE THIS

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jerky : Oct 9th

    Sweet run down. Was wondering if Wheel would make an appearance – “won’t you try just a little bit harder, couldn’t you try just a little bit more…”

    Reply

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