A new feature article published by Insider offers an exclusive first preview of Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia‘s new memoir, in which the ex-wife of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia explores her life with the Dead and the dark side of the ’60s counterculture in candid detail.
Born Carolyn Adams in 1946, Mountain Girl fled her hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY for San Francisco, where at just 19 years old she became the “‘it girl’ of the nascent psychedelic underground” and “matriarch for the counterculture’s most celebrated influencers, the Merry Pranksters,” from whom she received her nickname. She took guitar lessons at Dana Morgan’s Music Store in Stanford, CA, where met Jerry Garcia in 1964 after hearing his voice coming from the next room. “I could hear his voice and somebody else’s voice,” she said. “They were talking about chord progressions and all this interesting stuff.” She was 19 and he was 21.
The two did not immediately couple, and Mountain Girl went on to have a daughter with author and Merry Pranksters leader Ken Kesey, who was married at the time. She reconnected with Garcia a couple years later after leaving Kesey in Mexico, where he was hiding out to avoid U.S. drug charges, and returning to San Francisco with her daughter Sunshine.
“I’m so glad to see you!” the young guitarist exclaimed when she got off the bus in October 1966.
Although they had always been just friends, Mountain Girl said that changed in a flash when they hugged that day. “I was like, ‘Whoa, that was a really electric moment!'” she recalled. “That was just a zap! What the hell just happened? He put the mojo on me. I got a huge jolt, and I had a very vivid image of us being together.”
“Well, what are we going to do?” she asked him.
“You could come stay with me,” he replied, and so they did.
After moving into 710 Ashbury Street in San Francisco, Mountain Girl became the “den mother” of the Grateful Dead, as she put it, handling the bulk of the cooking and cleaning and rustling the band out the door on time. The Dead was starting to make a buzz in the Haight at the time but hadn’t yet recorded an album. In her unpublished memoir, she writes:
Jerry and I were head over heels in love, and radiant with happiness. Our room at the top of the stairs was small, a comforting retreat, with a huge flag covering one wall, and a window looking out over the weedy garden. His pedal steel and a chair the only furniture. The tiny kitchen downstairs was the crossroads, we jammed in there for morning cornflakes and conversation. I jumped in to make a few dinners and keep the pantry stocked. We cleaned our grass in an old aluminum colander, and stored the kilo of Acapulco gold in a kitchen cupboard. The tiny sink was a hazard zone. We tried to keep the mess to a minimum.
As the magic of the ’60s started to peter out at the end of the decade, Mountain Girl and Garcia sought to revitalize California’s hippie counterculture with the Altamont Festival, a free festival billed as “Woodstock West” that hosted performances by the Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones. The event famously ended in tragedy when a member of the Hells Angels, who were hired to provide security, stabbed 18-year-old Meredith Hunter to death in front of the stage. “It was awful,” Mountain Girl reflected. “Everybody was really depressed. It was all over the newspapers, and it was a huge story, and we felt guilty at having called for this.”
The couple retreated to Stinson Beach, CA to raise their daughters, and the Dead began to put out records. As Garcia started spending most of his time on the road, he fell into cocaine and heroin addiction, which Mountain Girl speculated may have stemmed from the trauma of seeing his father, Joe, drown on a fishing trip when he was six. “That left a giant hole in his personality he was constantly trying to fill,” she said. “He’d fill it with music, drugs, girlfriends, whatever. The loss of his father was absolutely devastating for him as a little boy.”
Garcia and Mountain Girl were finally married by a Buddhist Monk backstage at the Grateful Dead’s 1981 New Year’s Eve concert. After Garcia’s addiction worsened, though, Mountain Girl took their daughters and moved to a farm in Oregon where some of the other Pranksters were living. They divorced in 1993, two years before Garcia died of a heart attack at a drug treatment facility at the age of 53.
“I was totally devastated,” said Carolyn, now 76. “I went down for a long time,” she added with tears in her eyes. “I haven’t had another relationship really since then. Nobody can measure up.”