My Way IS the Highway

By Cynthia Johnston

I’ll Get Up and Fly Away

Between the lyrics and the haunting melody, “Wharf Rat” rips me to shreds.  I can’t tell from the song whether August West ever made it off the docks of the City.  But it takes me back to a time when I wasn’t sure I would.

I’ll spare you the details of my, shall we say, Burroughs Period, and cut to the chase: April 1st, 2023 is my forty-sixth (46th) anniversary of being green and sober.

It’s been so long I sometimes take it for granted.  Listening to “Wharf Rat” reminds me how bad I needed a miracle.  

When I told my neighbor at the time about my struggle, she turned me on to a woman who called herself guru before guru was uncool.  “Deva” offered me a deal.  If I would do AA for 90 days, she would help.  She took me through a guided visualization where I experienced my first trance-induced revelation – a tale for a different time and place.  But we did many sessions and they were all transformative.

As promised, I did AA for 90 days.  I was also smoking pot.  Given AA’s rules, it had to be one or the other.  I chose Other.  I’ve said it before: Cannabis has been my partner in recovery every step of the way.  To each their own, as they say.  And to utterly bastardize a Hunter Thompson quote, “It always worked for me.”

Over the years, I’ve been aware that Wharf Rats was a Deadhead recovery group at shows.  Assuming it was a “clean and sober” situation, I’ve never dropped in.  However, I was just reading a little of their history online and noticed a similarity in that the founders, if you will, didn’t dare disclose that they were Deadheads in their AA and NA meetings.  I can relate.  I did disclose my cannabis use in an AA meeting and was given an ultimatum.  The Wharf Rats have come up with a different rule:

You’re a Wharf Rat if you say you are. 

I like that.  It makes me feel like I belong.  And isn’t that something we all crave at times?  According to Wharf Rat history, they’ve also wrestled with the dueling concepts of clean and sober vs green and sober.  And where does anonymous fit in, if at all? 

Since I’ve been out here on my own with these questions, maybe I’ll look for the yellow balloons and drop in to pay my respects at the Skull & Roses Festival in April.  Little did I know there could be yet another “First Time” for me at a Dead show.

Old man down
Way down, down, down by the docks of the city

But I’ll get back on my feet again someday
The good Lord willin’
If He says I may
I know that the life I’m livin’s no good
I’ll get a new start, live the life I should.
I’ll get up and fly away,
I’ll get up and fly away, fly away….

Songwriters: Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter

In 1980 Cynthia Johnston was NORML’s Marin County coordinator for the California Marijuana Initiative. She needed help producing a concert and met Steve Brown, the new NORML production guy and a former staff member of Grateful Dead Records. They hit it off and for many music-filled years—especially Grateful Dead—co-produced shows at Pacifica Community Television in Pacifica, California. She was an active member of BAWIM—Bay Area Women in Music. Her first Skull and Roses Festival was 2018, and she’s stayed hooked. “It was like the beginning of the whole hippie thing when there was room to dance freely and take pictures of the band close-up. And the music blew my mind! What had been lost was now found. I needed a miracle and this was it.” She began blogging before even hearing the word “blog” and currently has a website, My Way IS the High Way