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Miss USA vs. Miss America rivalry even in San Diego

Donald Trump is the enemy

Image by Andy Boyd

Fifteen young women in short black dresses and nude heels rehearse a dance number to the song “Beautiful Now” in the Lincoln High School auditorium. Tomorrow one of them will be crowned Miss San Diego and the other Miss Outstanding Teen San Diego.

Princesses are also in attendance, girls ranging in age from 4 to 12 years old. They don frilly pink dresses. A sticky-faced princess has stripped off her itchy taffeta gown and is sprawled across her mother’s lap wearing only her underwear. She yawns while watching the dance number.

At tonight’s dress rehearsal the contestants are buzzing with nervous energy. Tomorrow night’s winners will go on to compete for the Miss California crown, one of the most coveted pageant titles in the country. Whoever wins will continue on to the Miss America pageant. In the 97-year history of the Miss San Diego pageant, 11 title-holders have gone on to become Miss California and Miss California Outstanding Teen.

Marina Inserra is among the lucky 11. She is the stage manager and in charge of the dress rehearsal. Even in black yoga pants and a T-shirt she screams “beauty queen.” Twice she has introduced herself to me by offering a firm handshake and saying, “Marina Inserra, former Miss California.” Her mother, Issie Inserra, is the pageant director. While Issie gives me a tour behind the scenes I ask her what it was like watching her daughter compete in the Miss America pageant and whether or not she met Donald Trump. She grimaces at the question, quickly correcting my faux pas by explaining, “Trump is connected to the Miss USA/Miss Universe organization. Never confuse the two. Donald Trump is the enemy. They are two very different organizations. Miss San Diego is a Miss America pageant. We are the largest scholarship program for women in the world!”

Back in the auditorium, one of the pageant moms attempts to elaborate on the differences between the two organizations: “Miss USA does not have a talent portion. A simple way to explain it is that Miss USA girls want to grow up and become lingerie models. Miss America girls want to be doctors and lawyers.”

On stage, the former Miss California is joined by her assistant stage manager and former Miss Green Bay Area, the bleached-blonde Jenny Thomas. The two women prep the girls for the talent portion of the night. They usher the ladies on and off stage using headsets to communicate with the sound booth to dim the lights or to turn up or down the music. They offer tips and helpful critiques of each talent routine.

Prior to tonight’s dress rehearsal I have already meet three out of the nine Miss San Diego contestants. Up on stage they morph into different people from the ones I sat down with a few days ago. Chelsea Magracia, with her chestnut-brown hair and petite frame, was optimistic and bubbly when I met her at a coffee shop near her Chula Vista home. Now she appears intense and introverted. She stands apart from the other girls. Stone-faced, she practices a section of the opening routine over and over again, making sure that it is just right. She was the last of the nine women to enroll in the pageant. She joined the girls three weeks earlier, while the others have been practicing together for six weeks.

“Do you think the other contestants hold your late entry against you?” I asked Magracia during our interview earlier in the week.

“I couldn’t say. I barely know them.” She pauses for a moment before adding in her best pageant voice, “They are all terrific and talented girls.”

Kirstin Roberts

The porcelain-skinned beauty, Kirstin Roberts, whom I met three days prior in Mission Hills, looks like a ball of nerves on stage. She was so polished during our conversation that her answers seemed scripted. Roberts is the youngest of seven children. She comes from a pageant family. She grew up in a home whose closets were stuffed with formal gowns. Her older sisters competed in the pageant circuit. One of them was crowned Miss Oregon. Roberts feels a tremendous amount of pressure to win the crown. That pressure is palpable as she moves around onstage.

Mallory Murphy

Mallory Murphy is the only one who appears totally herself on stage. She talks and laughs with the other girls. She exudes confidence. I met Murphy five days prior in Solana Beach. She was sitting at an oblong table in a dimly lit Starbucks. I walked past her several times, scanning the room for the blonde whose photo I saw on the Miss San Diego website. Magracia and Roberts showed up to our interviews perfectly coifed, their hair curled, makeup expertly applied, each one in high heels with teeth so white they glowed. Murphy is different. On the night of our meeting, Murphy’s blond hair is frizzy and damp. It is thrown into a sloppy low pony tail. She wears sweats paired with boots. Her oversized sweater is pilling.

While Magracia and Roberts tend to pause before answering my questions in order to formulate answers, Murphy dives right in, often oversharing. Within 15 minutes I have learned that her boyfriend frowns upon the Eiffel Tower tattoo she got to commemorate the four and a half months she spent studying in Paris. She explains that to guys it symbolizes something unsavory. “Don’t Google it!” she tells me with a laugh. I also know that she is hoping the conservative judges don’t ask her opinion on Planned Parenthood because she is a passionate supporter of their programs. She used their services after she was drugged and date-raped in college. I also learn that she is existing on a strict daily diet of one slice of toast, one cup of black coffee, a single grapefruit, a hard-boiled egg, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream during the last five days leading up to the pageant in order to maintain her svelte figure.

“I have a four-pack,” she says, lifting up her shirt to reveal her toned tummy. “I tried for a six-pack but that bottom part of your stomach is so hard to tone.”

When I asked Magracia and Roberts if they thought they were going to win the Miss San Diego pageant, both played it safe. Roberts responded, “I’d like to win but everyone is so talented, smart, and beautiful.”


Murphy didn’t hold back.

“Yes, I think I will win. Whenever I put my mind to something it always happens. I am going to put everything I can, all my heart into this. Whatever happens, happens. But I am going to win.”

Mallory Murphy answers a question asked by Diamond Alexander.

Back onstage at the dress rehearsal, Murphy is the first to perform her talent. Days ago she told me that she is most concerned over this portion of the competition.

Taking on a serious tone, she says, “I am not a performer, I am an athlete. I am doing a jump-rope routine to Taylor Swift’ ‘Shake It Off.’ I am wearing Tiffany blue because I am supposed to be Taylor Swift and that is her favorite color. Miss Hawaii won her crown doing a jump routine.”

Tonight, she appears onstage in a pair of boy-cut sparkly spandex shorts and matching blue sports bra.

“Shake It Off” blares through the speakers. Murphy jump-ropes along. At times she sashays the rope around as if lassoing an invisible bull. Her feet get tangled in the rope a few times. She does a move during the chorus where she sits on the floor and uses her behind to bounce in a circle, sweeping the rope underneath her with each turn. She executes the move flawlessly and follows it up with a backbend. With her legs and crotch her only visible body parts the audience can see, Inserra halts Murphy’s routine and whispers to her. Murphy nods her head and redoes the move, this time with a more discreet backbend.

“Better!” Inserra says.

Next up is a baton-twirling number. The contestant, Stivani Athnniel, wears a kitschy white bedazzled leotard with cutout stomach panels and a whole lot of fringe.

Roberts takes the stage afterward. She wears a golden sparkly gown once belonging to her sister, the former Miss Oregon. It has been tailored to Roberts’s liking. She has transformed it into a two-piece with a tight-fitting floor-length skirt and matching midriff-baring top. In a Marilyn Monroe–inspired move, Roberts starts out with her back to the crowd. She sings a karaoke version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Her performance is followed by a few other dance routines, including a sleepy hula number and a pitchy rendition of Julie Andrews’s “My Favorite Things.”

Midway through the talent portion, the princesses pack it up to head home. It’s close to their bedtimes. One of the moms turns to her young daughter and hisses, “I hope tomorrow night you show a little more enthusiasm on the stage than you did this evening!” The little girl scowls at her mother.

Chelsea Magracia

The last Miss San Diego contestant to take the stage is Magracia. A hush falls over the pageant moms when she walks onstage in a regal-looking white leotard and matching tutu. The room fills with a deafening silence as she performs a flawlessly on pointe to the “Sugar Plum Fairy” variation from the Nutcracker. She is the picture of elegance.

I overhear one pageant mom say to another mother, “Being on the San Diego Socker girls’ squad gives her an advantage. She really knows how to dance.”

The talent continues with the teen contestants. A lanky young woman does a color-guard routine wearing a black-and-red spandex leotard paired with black sneakers. Another girl takes the stage to perform an off-key rendition of the song “Riptide.” A nearly six-foot-tall 14-year-old sings “Hallelujah” self-accompanied on guitar. Her voice is beautiful. Afterward she has a minor meltdown over the quality of the sound. “My guitar sounds twangy!” she whines. Next, Angela Arce, who is 13 but looks years younger, sings an animated Broadway song in a booming voice. Marina is nearly brought to tears. “I am so proud of you,” She tells the little girl afterward. “We scouted her at a festival in Bonita,” Issie Inserra tells me of the pint-sized performer.

After all 15 young ladies have completed their talents, Marina Inserra tells the girls it’s time to pack it up even though they have yet to rehearse the swimsuit, teen-fitness, or the formal-wear portions of the pageant. The 14-year-old who sang “Hallelujah” screeches at her dad to help her carry her guitar. “Argh! This is so annoying!” she says, her voice echoing through the auditorium.

“Teenagers!” one of the moms says, winking at the embarrassed father.

“Nerves,” he says with a shrug.

“They haven’t gone over everything yet. Will they be prepared for tomorrow?” one of the teen’s moms asks Marina.

“Believe me, if I don’t end this now we’ll be here until 2 a.m.,” she responds. “We can go over all that during tomorrow’s dress rehearsal.”

Before the auditorium empties, Issie Inserra adds, “No mothers tomorrow at the dress rehearsal, only contestants! We love how much you support the girls but you are not allowed to watch tomorrow. You may drop your daughters off but you cannot stay. We will see you again at 6 p.m. for the pageant.”

During the following day’s pageant, the winner of Miss San Diego and Miss Outstanding Teen will be decided based on their scores in five categories: interview, onstage question, swimsuit for the Miss San Diego, onstage fitness presentation Miss Outstanding Teen, talent, and evening wear.

The contestants are scored most heavily on their interview. Their interviews take place the morning of the pageant at a hotel in Mission Valley. Each girl meets privately with the six judges. They grill her on current events, personal questions, and the platform they have chosen to represent, often something like arts in education or breast-cancer awareness.

Miss San Diego judges

“They can ask us anything, so it is really hard to prepare for,” Kirstin Roberts tells me. “I am trying my best to prepare for that. I have been keeping up-to-date on current events.”

Magracia prepared by installing an app on her phone called Skim that gives her a brief description of all the latest trending news topics. “In the car, instead of listening to music, I listen to AM 1070 news so I know what is going on,” she says.

Murphy isn’t as concerned as the other two. She explained, “I work for corporate America. I have had multiple jobs and multiple job interviews. My boyfriend’s sister is the executive director of Miss Southland and Ms. Hollywood. She is working with me. I think I’ll do great.”

On my way to the second dress rehearsal Saturday afternoon, a few hours before the pageant, I spot Murphy sitting in her mini Cooper in the parking garage, her golden hair in curlers. Her judges’ interview was earlier that morning.

“How did it go?” I ask.

“Not so great,” Murphy admits, “They asked me what two senators, one from California, were debating about. I had no idea. I even got her name wrong. I said Diane von Fürstenberg, you know, the designer, instead of...what’s her name?”

“Dianne Feinstein,” I offer.”

“Yeah. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I still don’t,” she says, looking deflated. It gets worse. Murphy tells me, “I tried to be really funny and charming but I think I came off as dumb, not funny. They were, like, ‘You lived in Paris for four and a half months. What did you miss most about home and how did this help you find your way as a young woman?’ I was, like, ‘You know what, they don’t sell peanut butter in Paris and I really love peanut butter.’ I went on about how much I missed peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches,” she says with a laugh.

Inside the auditorium I run into teen contestant Jena Marie Mafnass-Serran. I ask her how her interview went.

She shrugs. “I think it went well. I got stuck on one question. They asked, ‘If you could change one law what would it be?’ I didn’t know what to say,” she tells me.

Kirstin Roberts is equally disappointed after her interview. She was asked to describe the Republican and Democratic parties without using adjectives.

“I don’t think that is even possible,” she says. “I just said, ‘I will get back to you on that one.’”

When 6 p.m. rolls around, the start time of the Miss San Diego pageant, Marina Inserra is still in sweat pants and the contestants are milling around. People line up out front to get inside. A pack of Boy Scouts stand in one corner ogling the contestants. They are set to do a color-guard presentation at the start of the pageant. Their pack mother is upset that the pageant has yet to start. “One of the moms is saying if her son doesn’t go onstage soon, she is taking him home,” she complains.

At around 6:30 the doors open and people begin filtering in. Anxious loved ones and dozens of crowned beauty queens from all over Southern California enter the auditorium. The beauty queens usher people to their seats. Some sell raffle tickets. Others sit in the audience poised and perfect-looking. Many of them are making an appearance to fulfill mandatory community-service hours required in order to keep the crown and cash prizes that came along with their titles.

I am wedged between Roberts’s and Thalia Maigue-Bendorf’s family and friends. The Roberts hold cut-out signs of Roberts’s face affixed to yard sticks. Thalia’s loved ones whoop and holler and chant her name.

I can’t help feeling nervous for Roberts, Magracia, and Murphy. I find myself rooting for them.

At around 6:45, Marina Inserra takes the stage. “I am so sorry for the late start,” she apologizes to the audience. “One of our judges got sick earlier in the day and had to go to the hospital.”

The lights dim and all 15 contestants take the stage along with Diamond Alexander, Miss San Diego, and McKenna Faydo, Miss Outstanding Teen 2014. The girls perform their opening dance routine while the current title-holders shimmy around the stage holding their crowns in their outstretched arms.

The evening continues with a few glitches. The music is not queued up for a few of the talent routines. Contestants are left staring blindly into the audience while the problems are fixed. The baton-twirler drops her baton and it rolls toward the back of the stage. She manages to recover gracefully. At one point during Murphy’s talent number she gets wrapped up in her jump-rope.

During the swimsuit competition, Roberts wears a black strappy bikini that looks like something borrowed from the wardrobe department of the Fifty Shades of Grey film set. The most stomach-churning event of the night are the onstage questions. The contestants’ nervous energy is palpable as they pull questions from a fish bowl and hand them off to Diamond Alexander who reads them aloud. They are each given 20 seconds to answer.

Roberts answers a question on student debt gracefully. Murphy stumbles when asked if she supported the Keystone Pipeline. It’s unclear if she knows what it is. She mutters something about climate change being bad before leaving the stage.

Danielle Di Lorenzo is asked whether she agrees with Donald Trump’s idea of building a large wall at the Mexico/U.S. border. In her elegant black gown with crystal neckline, she addresses the audience, saying, “Yes I agree. We are two different countries and we need to be separate.” I expect a reaction. It comes in the form of a man in one of the front rows clapping vigorously to her response.

Magracia is asked about her views on the Confederate flag and whether she thinks it should be banned. “No, state flags represent our communities,” she responds.

The teens are given simpler questions. When Cassandra Shellum is asked what she has learned from being a part of the Miss San Diego Outstanding Teen Competition, the first thing out of her mouth is, “That the way you look really does matter!”

When the pageant has come to a close and the girls have strutted their stuff in bikinis and formal wear, it is time for the judges to deliberate and calculate the girls’ scores. The audience members shift in their seats as they await the crowning.

After about 20 minutes, the 15 contestants take the stage and await their fate. Murphy is in a floor-length red gown. Magracia wears an aquamarine number that looks like something Princess Jasmine would own. Roberts sticks out among the other women. Among the pastels, glitter, and jewel-encrusted gowns, she has chosen an edgier style. Her floor-length dress is royal blue and sea-green. See-through panels begin at her mid-thigh, alternating between blue and green striped fabric.

As the host announces the winners, beginning with the third runners up, followed by the second and first, the contestants not named try their best to remain cool and calm. None of the three girls I interviewed are runners up. By the time the winner is announced I find that my stomach is in knots.

“Our next San Diego Outstanding Teen is Thalia Rose Maigue Bendorf,” The announcer shouts. Her family erupts into madness behind me. Some of them are weeping. When the crowd recovers, the announcer declares, “Our 2015 Miss San Diego is Chelsea Magracia!”

Contestants clap as Chelsea Magracia (far right) is announced as Miss San Diego 2015.

Magracia leans down as Diamond Alexander bobby-pins on her crown. Roberts stands in the background, attempting to remain composed. She is sporting a wide toothy smile. It looks like she is about to cry. Murphy is hiding behind a forced smile as well. Behind the smiles their disappointment is clear. It’s hard to watch. As the auditorium clears out, I leave with the crowd. I don’t have the heart to follow up with Rogers and Murphy.

A few days later I speak to each girl over the phone. Murphy says, “I knew Chelsea was really good at her talent because she is a professional dancer, but for her to win the whole thing… I was definitely very surprised. But, I am really happy for her. I think she is going to do a great job as Miss San Diego.”

Roberts is more emotional. She gets choked up when we speak.

“I felt like I really let my family down. I am disappointed. I think I may have been a little too fashion-forward for the judges. Mallory and I are competing in the Miss Southland and Ms. Hollywood pageant in December. I am going to be a bit more Patty Pageant for those,” she says.

“I think our chances are good in the Miss Hollywood/Miss Southland pageant,” Murphy says. “I am going to do my same jump-rope routine and keep the same wardrobe,” she says before hanging up.

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Cassie and crew at the Las Vegas Sphere.
Cassie and crew at the Las Vegas Sphere.

Basketball great and San Diego icon Bill Walton died on May 27. The next day, sports commentator John Canzano posted an interview clip on TikTok in which he asked Walton how many Grateful Dead concerts he had attended. “Not enough,” replied Walton, before recounting that his first Dead show had been when he was in high school. “I was 15. I’m listening to FM radio and the disc jockey, it had to have been Gabriel Wisdom, that was the guy that everybody listened to, and he said, ‘Boys and girls, that last jam you just heard, that was a new band from San Francisco, and they call themselves The Grateful Dead.’” Wisdom then said that so many people had showed up to the Dead’s recent show in San Francisco that everyone got in free, and that maybe the same would hold true for their upcoming show in Los Angeles. “We said, ‘Yeah, that’s us, let’s go chase the dream!’ So one of the guys stole their parents car for the weekend, right? Nobody had driver’s licenses, nobody had any money, we just went up there in our shorts and our tennis shoes and a T-shirt. We just went up there, got in free somehow, went right to the front, and our lives were never the same.”

“Not enough” Grateful Dead concerts translates, in Walton’s case, to somewhere north of 850. Many of the stories written after his death made mention of his devotion, sometimes to the point where his storied basketball career seemed to be secondary. What were two decades on the court compared to more than five decades in the stands — and on the stage? (Walton famously joined the Grateful Dead offshoot band Dead & Company onstage as a white-bearded, rose-crowned Father Time for its 50th anniversary celebration in 2015.) Drummer Mickey Hart recalled that his dear friend Walton would “regularly send messages that said, ‘Thank you for my life.’ He was the biggest Deadhead in the world and used our music as the soundtrack of his life.”

Three days after Walton’s death, Dead & Company paid tribute to him during a performance of his favorite Dead song, “Fire on the Mountain.” The biggest Deadhead got the biggest sendoff: his image, name, and player number 32 splayed across the gargantuan curved screen of the Las Vegas Sphere, where Dead & Company are in residence until August 10. They started their run in May, after finishing their farewell tour in July of last year, and my wife was in attendance opening night. When she returned, she insisted that she needed to go back — this time, with me. She insisted that Dead & Company was not simply a glorified cover band, rehashing old favorites with the help of relative youngster John Mayer. She insisted that the band was revitalized, in an almost literal sense: the Grateful Dead were alive again, somehow, lo these 30 years after the death of founding member Jerry Garcia.

She knew just what to say. Like many fans, I had thought the Grateful Dead era ended when Garcia died. My wife understood my feeling, if only because she was a little like Walton and other devotees who talked about the Dead — and Garcia in particular — in tones that bordered on the religious.

Garcia was a reluctant high priest — he saw himself as a working man — but that didn’t stop the true believers, even if the best they could offer to explain themselves was, “They are a band beyond description,” one that provided, through their music and the community that formed around it, the closest thing to a religious experience they had ever found. “I am the human being that I am today because of the Grateful Dead,” Walton once said. And like converts, it wasn’t enough for them to attend; they had to tell the world, convince them to come along. “You’ve got to get on the bus, man!” They were friendly, wide-eyed, hopeful you’d join them. But for many, including myself, it felt like they were trying to describe a rainbow to a blind person.

On May 5th, 1990, I got on the bus — or tried to. My best friend at the time was a drummer named Steve Harris. He know I was into progressive rock: polished bands delivering tight performances of frequently complex music. He did not care. He insisted that the Dead were something I had to see, “a band beyond description.” He bought me tickets to see a set of weekend shows in a field at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He proudly declared that these were his first Miracles. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he had a sincerity that was hard to resist, and it seemed important to him that he share this experience with me. Besides: free tickets.

We wound up sitting on the grass, fairly close to the stage. It was extremely hot. A lady seated in front of us said, to no one in particular, “I wish I knew somebody who was at their first show.” Steve quickly let her know that I was just what she was looking for. “Here,” she said, handing me a tiny square of colored paper. “Eat this.” I looked at Steve for reassurance. He was happy to provide it. That set us up for a 16-hour psychedelic ride. But before the acid kicked in, the band strolled onstage and spent what seemed like five minutes tuning their instruments. I had never seen that before, or heard it. It sounded…disorganized. And when they started playing, they kind of fell into the song. The vocals seemed sloppy. I didn’t hear any of the songs I had heard the band play on the radio. The rest of the crowd seemed to approve, but I didn’t get it.

Then they took a break, and when they came back, well, only the drummer came back. The drummer played for what seemed a long time, and when the rest of the band came out, they started doing the strangest thing I had ever heard musicians do. It seemed like they were playing badly on purpose, making sounds that did not link together in any discernible way. By this point, I was thoroughly altered, and the discord sounded weird and even ominous.

By way of consolation, Steve leaned over and said simply, “Space.” I was not consoled. I was annoyed. I had heard so much hype about how good these guys were. Then, finally, they started in on a song that the crowd seemed to recognize, and it was like the whole audience exhaled and relaxed in unison. Then this guy who looked more like somebody’s grandfather than a rock and roll star started to sing something about needing a miracle every day. Steve leaned over again, and explained that a miracle wasn’t just a free concert ticket — it was a gift.

By this point, the LSD had taken hold. I had never experienced it before, and after an hour, I found it close to overwhelming. When we left the venue, we were in no condition to drive. So we sat in Steve’s car, and he played his current favorite Dead song on his car stereo — a slower number called “Box of Rain.” He explained that the song was about the bass player’s father dying of cancer. I remember still not getting it. I remember saying that they sounded like a low-budget Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with passable but loose harmonies.

Later, my friend Steve died of cancer. Now, when I hear the song “Box of Rain,” I am taken back to the good times we shared before the sickness blossomed in him like a poison flower, and invariably, I will weep. The song has become a time stamp for a moment in my life. It hits deep. But even so, and even though I saw the Dead again a year after that first “miracle,” I did not become a Deadhead until I saw the band’s current iteration at The Sphere. The Dead are an acquired taste; it took me three decades to acquire it.

My wife kept showing me videos taken of Dead & Company at The Sphere. She told me it was a must-see event, that the venue was as much a part of the show as the band, and the internet seemed to share her opinion. Okay then. But our flight out of San Diego was delayed, and despite skipping dinner and making a mad dash to the venue, we arrived after the show started. I should have been soured on the whole experience, but the experience was too sweet for that.

Trying to describe The Sphere makes me sympathize with Deadheads trying to describe the Dead. I will say this: it feels like the future. There are something like 40 individual speakers per seat, and the sound is focused like a laser beam. One section might receive audio in Chinese and another in English, and there would be no confusion. Despite the sonic excellence, it was hard at first to judge the band’s music, because the visual experience was placing such a massive demand on my attention. The curved screen behind the band was enormous; the graphics, all but overwhelming.

But as I settled in, I found I couldn’t help but be impressed by the musicianship of John Mayer (and the rest of the Dead’s new blood). He was doing Jerry Garcia’s guitar licks, but taking them further. And while he got all the words in all the right places, he wasn’t trying to sound like Jerry. He was doing his own thing, and it was working. In short order, I was dancing along with the rest of the crowd.

Back in my younger days, when the band did their “drums and space” thing, that was bathroom and beverage time. No longer. This giant contraption with dozens of drums and assorted instruments was played by three members of the band — and that’s when I noticed the haptic seats. When the drums hit certain notes, I could feel it through the chair. The sound seemed to be three-dimensional, at times bouncing noticeably off the front, back, and sides of the Sphere. But it wasn’t like panning a speaker left and right; it was all around me. And then Mickey Hart did something with an instrument called The Beam that triggered light effects that were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. A one-hundred-and-fifty-foot brain appeared on the screen, the nerves pulsating as if stimulated by whatever it was he was doing. It was incredible! I would pay the ticket price just to see that one aspect again.

As it was, we came back for the Friday show with better seats, and again on Saturday. Each night, the emotional impact grew. The old favorite songs were new again. I started to get it, to understand why the Dead got so big, so ongoing, and why the scene is still so vibrant today. It’s something profound, something beyond music. After the last show, while we were doing the exit shuffle, riding the escalators down, we found ourselves face-to-face with people on another escalator. Our eyes met, and we started cheering, not for the band, but for each other. That’s the kind of love and goodwill I encountered.

Back home, I sought out the local Dead cover band scene. To my amazement, I found around a dozen. Does any other band have a dozen cover bands in one town, or 1800 nationwide, with at least six being full-time touring acts? Dead & Company called their Sphere residency “Dead Forever;” given what I saw and felt, it does seem like the long, strange trips will be going on for a long, long while.

— Albert Barlow

In 2023, Dead & Company announced that their current tour would be their last. They hadn’t played San Diego since 2021. I had to travel to Los Angeles to see the second show of that last tour at the Kia Forum and then to San Francisco to see the very the last one at Oracle Park. But just because they’re no longer touring doesn’t mean they’re no longer playing, which explains their residency at The Sphere. Or helps to explain it.

I frequent a bar in Coronado. One of the bartenders there is Cassie. She’s tall, with dusty blonde hair, the most beautiful brown eyes I’ve ever seen, and she’s drop dead gorgeous. That aside, she’s got heart and soul and is a Deadhead. One day, I went in for a beer. Cassie gave me a wide smile; her eyes sparkled. “I just got a bunch of tickets for Dead & Company shows at The Sphere.”

My interest was piqued. “How do I get in on that action?”

“I got tickets for the first weekend and second weekend. I think we’re going on the second weekend.”

“That’s the weekend I want to go!”

Buzz began to build within the local Dead community; people wanted to know who was going to which show. It intensified when the first clips hit the internet after the opening show on May 16. I didn’t want my experience to be spoiled, so I resolved to avoid them. But the thing about spectacles is that you want to look at them. Happily, they didn’t lessen my excitement about the real thing.

Cassie, her friend Fil, Evan and I were the Coronado Tribe, headed for the May 24 show. Unlike Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, we opted to fly instead of drive. (Cassie let me know which flight to book and already had a hotel lined up.) Like Duke and Gonzo, we had plenty of drugs to keep us company: eight hits of LSD (4 microfiche and 4 liquid gels), five infused joints with kief and rosin, one pressed Ecstasy pill, sixteen Molly caps, four cannabis pens, one bottle of 1000 milligrams of THC tincture, and a quarter of mushrooms.

That Friday morning, Evan came to pick me up in his golf cart. Golf carts are not uncommon on the streets of Coronado. Evan is 26, and is in the Navy. The Navy promises one sort of adventure; our journey promised an entirely different sort. We met Cassie and her roommate Luke at their place to catch a Lyft to the airport. (Luke was heading to London and his flight was around the same time as ours.) Fil was already inside the airport bar, waiting for us and drinking a beer. Cassie and Evan opted for Starbucks, but I stayed with Fil and ordered a $14 Tito’s & soda on the rocks. I’m not a big fan of flying, so a stiff drink was in order. Fil is 43, svelte, and has eyes that pierce into one’s soul. That gives him authenticity.

We arrived at our hotel around 1:30. Fil had arranged for a suite at the Hilton Grand Vacations Club. After unpacking, it was time to change into our Dead attire and head out to Shakedown Street. For non-Deadheads, Shakedown Street is the designated vending area set up in the parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts. Vendors sell clothing, jewelry, arts and crafts, food, drinks, and illicit items. In this case, Shakedown Street was at Tuscany Suites & Casino, less than a mile away from The Sphere. We arrived at 4 pm, and after we had taken a couple of laps around the lot, we concluded that it wasn’t as robust as others we had visited. (I recently learned that the vendors eventually moved inside the hotel due to the heat.) Fil noticed something odd: “I don’t hear any tanks or see any balloons! Headshops sell tanks here in Vegas, though.”

Cassie bought a hoodie and we decided to walk towards the Sphere. Along the way, we passed by Lawry’s Prime Rib Steakhouse on Howard Hughes Parkway. I was telling my crew that the place was an iconic restaurant when I noticed something else: “There’s a headshop!” Inside, we learned that 2.2-liter nitrous oxide tank prices ranged from $45-$99. We all pitched in for the $45 tank and some balloons. People sell nitrous balloons for up to $20 at shows.

We found a staircase at a shopping center across the street from the Sphere to do our balloons. But we got kicked out by security immediately after doing our first round. We decided to head into the Sphere parking lot to see if there was a space for us to do our thing. First thing we saw were police officers getting ready for their concert shift. We needed a different spot after that encounter. We looped around and found an abandoned parking lot. There, we were free to do our derelict activities: inhaling balloons, smoking joints, and playing music.

After our frolic it was time to march to the Sphere (but not before hiding what was left in our tank in the bushes). We found the line to the entrance. While in line, I saw fellow wordsmith Emily Elizabeth Allison from San Diego. I went to say hello and get her thoughts. This is what I got.

Dead Forever

Giant round belly

against the sky,

an egg, giving birth

within itself

to itself.


swirling dervish

calling across dry sun,

an unforeseen spectacle

so full of nothing

but offering something…

spiraling dreams

in a bubble

that no dawn can burst.

You are a memory

of past desert days

and simpler times.

You are the magic ball

of the future

telling fortunes

in rapid blinks,

sensory reminders

of parts of ourselves

that had been forgotten

and now beg to be


You are a balloon

with its exhale

catapulting itself

against hopeful blue

sky water.

You are my bucket of joy

and then my hollow of grief.

I never could have known

how I would be swallowed

into your orbit

and spun within your cycle

of a million stars.

You remain for me

a single planet


like a gift

with no corners

or ribbons

and seemingly no end.


like Christmas,

your smile will subside

and you’ll start a new list

of naughty and nice.

But for now,

you are the wizard

behind the curtain

showing all the love

and unexpected tears

are my own.

Decades ago

I never could have imagined

you are rolling up to my gaze

like God’s spaceship,

offering a portal

that demands no vehicle

but breath.

You, round star,

watch my arrival

then spin behind me

as life pulls me away

back to the sea.

You are indifferent

to my comings and goings

and still, I see your wink

inviting me back

each week

to swim in your sphere.”

Our seats were in the 300 section. Once at our seats, we ingested our LSD. The information I was getting on social media was that the 300 and 400 sections were the best for catching all the visuals of the show, and the floor was good for dancing, spinning and being up close to the band. I haven’t experienced the floor yet. (I stress “yet!”), but confirmation can be provided that the 300 section is good for the visual aspects. Viz: the doors opened to the Grateful Dead House in Haight-Ashbury while the “Music Never Stopped” and then everyone was floating up into outer space. Not to mention standing underneath a waterfall, letting the water run between my fingers and catching the rain with my mouth, only to arrive at that cathartic moment viewing Jerry’s silhouette during “St. Stephen.” The crowd on the floor looked like amoebas moving in their pseudopodal state.

The show ended and it was time to find our tank. Cassie had a pin on it, but wasn’t confident one of our brains would work enough to get us there. Good thing I’ve had children, because my fatherly instincts for finding the child kicked in, and we found our parking lot and continued our derelict activities. There was enough in the tank for two more balloons, and we smoked a joint. That was night one.

Next day was recovery by the pool, drinking beers, hitting the vapes, putting tincture under our tongues and relaxing. At one point, Cassie sat up from her lounge position and declared, “We fucking deserve this! I know all of us work so hard!” After sufficient relaxation, the plan was to get cleaned up and head to the Venetian for the Dead exhibit they had there. When we arrived at the Venetian, we learned the exhibit was (and is )at the Palazzo. Exhibits about the history of the Grateful Dead; I probably don’t need to recommend that. Cassie, Evan and I started eating mushrooms at a microdose pace; we didn’t want to trip out too hard before the show.

The Palazzo connects to the Venetian, and the Venetian connects to the Sphere. Because we were in Vegas with some time to kill before the show, we all splintered off to do some gambling. We set a meeting spot, and after meeting at our designated rendezvous location, we shared our stories of being up and down and happy to lose only around $60. We all considered that a win.

Time to go to the show. Night two was not as intense and I was able to grasp and capture everything better because I was in a more stable state of mind. We all opted to head back to our hotel after the show because we had to wake up at 7 am for a 9:30 flight. Our flight back only took thirty-six minutes, but we were stuck on the tarmac for over an hour because there was a plane with maintenance problems stuck at our gate. That was the worst thing that happened on our trip.

There were firsts for each one of us. It was my first back-to-back shows. It was Cassie and Fil’s first indoor show. It was Evan’s first Dead show ever, and the first time he did LSD. He had moments of going deep inside himself, trembling and being confronted with moments from his youth. He made it out with enlightenment. None of that can explain, nor can anyone explain what happened. As Cassie said, “It’s inexplicable!” Our own experience is the one we have. I got to share and rejoice with my sister and brothers.

As the late Bill Walton (Rest In Power) once said, “We all won, and everybody wins.”

Gabriel Garcia


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