Walking the way of the Waldos: exploring the legend of 4/20

Bolinas Ridge at Mt. Tamalpais - Walking the Way of the Waldos

The origins of 420 are hazy, with a swath of theories on how the number became ubiquitous in cannabis culture. Some believe it was police code for a marijuana bust in progress, others theorize that folk legend Bob Dylan’s 1966 tune “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” was code for 420 (12 multiplied by 35 is, you guessed it, 420). After all, Dylan crooned, “Everybody must get stoned” in the song’s chorus.

Nowadays, the infamous digits are generally attributed to a group of friends from San Rafael, California, known as the “Waldos.” According to legend, the buddies were given a map of a secret cannabis field and would try in vain to find it, commencing their search at 4:20 p.m. after an epic smoke. It was a story that would live in infamy.

Last year on 4/20, Ellen Holland, my good friend and editor-in-chief of High Times, invited me to “walk the way of the Waldos.” It was a day that will stay with me forever.

“Meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing…”

In the 1970s, the Waldos would meet at 4:20 p.m. near a statue of Louis Pasteur on their high school campus for a smoke sesh. The pals would allegedly say “Louis 420” to one another in their halls as a reminder of their agenda. The meetings were low profile enough, but decades later, the Waldos still found themselves at the center of 420 lore.

In December 1990, Steve Bloom found an eye-catching flier outside a Grateful Dead concert at the Oakland Coliseum. It outlined the alleged origins of 420 and offered instructions for celebrating cannabis in the ways of old.

The note read:

420 started somewhere in San Rafael, CA in the late ’70s. It started as the police code for Marijuana Smoking in Progress. After local heads heard of the police call, they started using the expression 420 when referring to herb — ‘Let’s Go 420, dude!’ After a while something magical started to happen. People began getting stoned at 4:20 am and/or pm. There’s something fantastic about getting ripped at 4:20, when you know your brothers and sisters all over the country and even the planet are lighting up and tokin’ up right along with you.

Now there’s something even grander than getting baked at 4:20. We’re talking about the day of celebration, the real time to get high, the grand master of all holidays: 4/20, or April 20th. This is when you must get the day off work or school. We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais. Just go to downtown Mill Valley, find a stoner and ask where Bolinas Ridge is. If you make it to Marin, you will definitely find it.

At the bottom, the tattered piece of paper held some essential tips for those who want to get the most from their 420 experience:

HELPFUL HINTS: Take extra care that nothing is going to go wrong within that minute. No heavy winds, no cops, no messed-up lighters. Get together with your friends and smoke pot hardcore.

Bloom, a news editor for High Times, published the note, bringing 420 into the public consciousness. A few years later, then High Times editor-in-chief Steve Hager investigated the story further. While they didn’t take credit for the Dead show flier, the Waldos did confirm the tale it told (minus the part about the police code).

When I asked Bloom about the evolution of 420, he laughed, saying, “It’s cool to see how far it’s come.”

Walking the way of the Waldos

Fast-forward to 2022. Ellen and I met at the base of the Bolinas Ridge trail, excited about our adventure. Ellen told me she had attempted to visit the statue of Pasteur, where the Waldos initiated their journeys, only to find out that the stoner icon was currently in storage due to construction.

We saw banana slugs and babbling brooks on our hike while a cool mist kept our bodies moving to the famed sunset spot. As we hiked, I felt inspired to take out my new Puffco Cupsy, a coffee cup with an integrated water pipe, and poured in a small sample of the flowing water that cascaded down the mountain to invoke Mt. Tam’s tremendous energy.

Finally, we emerged from the mighty redwoods into a clearing we were certain had to be the majestic place described in the note. We could see San Francisco in the distance, a gentle fog rolling above that Ellen joked was weed smoke. As we sat on the grassy knoll where generations of cannabis enthusiasts had been before, we waved to our friends celebrating down at Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park, hoping they could feel our vibes.

We waxed poetic about how far the culture had come, pondered what the weed was like back in the days of the Waldos, and gave thanks for the ability to freely walk in their way. After nearly 20 years of consumption, for the first time, I felt like I truly grasped the ethos of 420: it’s about connection, communing with the plant, and celebrating our community.

The story of 420 is one that continues to unfold as cannabis history is still being written. The Waldos could not have predicted their smoke seshes’ impact on the culture or that mainstream America would one day embrace their code. It’s a magnificent reminder to always live your truth and celebrate your passions. Who knows—they may become legends themselves.

Rachelle Gordon is a cannabis journalist and Editor of GreenState.com. She has been covering the cannabis space since 2015, and has been featured in High Times, CannabisNow, and many other niche publications. Rachelle currently splits her time between Minneapolis and Oakland; her favorite cannabis cultivars include Silver Haze and Tangie. Follow Rachelle on Instagram @rachellethewriter

Rachelle Gordon