You already know that April 20th—otherwise known as “420”—is a special day for our kind.
You might even know the history of 420 and how it came to stand for the ultimate cannabis code word. Erroneous rumors still abound that “420” originated as a phrase used by the police or is the number of molecules in THC, but the totally true 420 origin story is so much radder, and there’s documented proof: It begins in 1971 with a legendary group of high school dudes known as the Waldos in Marin County, California, back when the term “hashtag” meant you had a crumb of Afghan kush stuck on your lip.
The Waldos would meet up every day at 4:20pm next to their school’s statue of scientist Louis Pasteur for a sesh, and they’d often go on a scavenger hunt for a hidden pot patch in nearby Point Reyes Station (which they apparently never found, but they had a lot of fun looking.) “Four-twenty-Louis” became their clarion call for adventure, which was soon shortened to simply “420,” as in “420 at the Louis statue after football practice, bruh?”
That’s right, kids: Long before there was an internet, the best buds’ secret slogan somehow went viral amongst burners around the world.
If you’re a proud partaker, you surely have a 420 origin story of your own, probably a few: The first time you blazed, how you acquired your first piece (and how you lost it/broke it/had it confiscated) and the freaky friends you’ve made along the way.
My favorite personal 420 origin story also happens to take place in Marin County, just mere miles from the original 420 story and a couple of decades later. Actually, this entire phase of my life could be considered a 420 story since I ended up in Marin—homeplace of the Grateful Dead and one of the country’s first medical marijuana dispensaries—when my Volkswagen Westfalia broke down in San Anselmo in the mid-1990s, but I’mma stay focused.
On one particular afternoon in the early summer of 1997, a guy I knew from hanging around the Depot coffee shop in Mill Valley (wake and bake, anyone?) asked if I wanted to join him after work for a j and a hike. He was a garrulous grad student from the deep South, not really my type (I prefered brooding unemployed musicians back then.) But he seemed harmless enough, plus he already had the fattie rolled, so we jumped in my van and headed up the mountain (the sticker on the dashboard read “Ass, Gas or Grass: Nobody Rides for Free.”)
One of the things that makes Marin so magical is that when the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area is blanketed in chilly fog, Mount Tamalpais and its glorious redwood stands remain sunny and warm, the expansive view of the ocean visible from the crooked spine of Bolinas Ridge. We cruised up to the Rock Spring trailhead with the idea of looking for a secret stone chair I’d heard about from a seasoned 420 Mount Tam explorer, and after sparking up near a pile of lichen-covered rocks, we set out into the woods.
*San Francisco seen from the top of Mount Tamalpais. Photo by Martha Ture
At first, all was well as we traipsed along, mesmerized by the sunlight dappling onto the dirt trail. A gentle breeze tickled the tops of the redwood trees where red-tailed hawks alighted between flights, and wild purple irises dotted the hillsides. The golden glow of the afternoon flattered my new friend, and if I ignored his rambling about his unfinished thesis I thought he might be pretty attractive.
But between the doob and the waning daylight, I was having trouble recalling the sketchy directions I’d received from my explorer acquaintance, which in retrospect may have been purposefully incomplete. After leading us over a small brook, we veered off into a grove of gnarled cypress trees and the path disappeared. Though we tried to keep the orange disc of the sun in our sights, it wasn’t long before we were definitely, maddeningly, hopelessly lost.
Encompassing around 100 square miles of pristine wilderness north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Mount Tamalpais area is blissfully uninhabited except for a glorious array of wild creatures, mostly sweet-face deer and herons but also snakes and mountain lions. Since this was the ancient time before cell phones, we had no flashlight, no GPS, no one to text for rescue, and I was starting to feel a little panicky.
“I think we should head back the way we came,” I suggested.
“We’re too far out,” disagreed my companion. “We should just head towards the ridge.”
“Sure, which way’s that?” I snorted, aware that we had passed the same clump of lupine bushes three times. He stared into space so long I thought he’d fallen asleep. “Fine,” I said. “Let’s go up this hill and see.”
“Nope, nope, you’re wrong. Has to be that way,” he said, pivoting on his toes and striding in the other direction. He was becoming more unattractive by the second.
“But I can still see sunlight through those trees,” I called after him as the darkness swallowed him, trotting towards the noise of this footsteps.
“That’s just the sunset reflecting in the clouds,” he said when I caught up with him. “There’s a storm front coming in from the north, so it just looks like the sun is setting that way—”
I never did deal well what we now call “mansplaining,” and I stopped in the middle of the glade and planted my feet.
“Y’know, you’re pretty annoying,” I informed him. “I would never want to be your girlfriend.”
He turned around and raised his eyebrows. “Ain’t nobody asking, sister.”
We crunched along in silence for a few minutes. I was trying to figure out how to build a campfire out of damp wood and my socks in case we had to sleep in the forest when we reached an intimidating incline. We stood gawking at the straight-up vertical face, hungry, thirsty and totally buzzkilled.
“No place to go but up, I guess,” he said, offering his hand.
I shrugged at it and began powering up the hill like an angry goat, glad I’d worn my boots to work. We raced side by side, both of us grunting, though when I looked sideways I swear I saw him grinning.
At the top of the steep ravine, we were greeted by the welcome sight of Highway 1’s double yellow line, the navy gleam of the Pacific Ocean twinkling beyond. We emerged from the redwoods high-fiving each other, and I was relieved I wouldn’t be spending the night stalked by mountain lions and pretending I hadn’t noticed how muscular his arms were.
“You were right, man, sorry,” I mumbled, toeing the pavement.
“Your way would have probably put us just a little further down the road,” he said apologetically, pulling a peace pipe from his pocket as the crickets began to chirp.
We flagged down a car full of sunset sessioners on their way back from Stinson Beach who dropped us back at the van. After stopping for Chinese takeout, we made it back to his place just in time to watch the newest episode of Friends.
Twenty years of marriage later, he’s still my favorite 420 companion. But we're still looking for the chair, and we’re still arguing over directions.
We want to hear your favorite 420 origin story! Leave yours in the comments through 4/25/18 and you could win one of Smoke Cartel’s artisan-crafted hand pipes.