The Waldos invented 420 and they want you to know.
It’s hot in San Francisco when I get into a sidecar at City Hall and ask for a ride north to Marin. “Why did you go to San Rafael today?” asks the driver.
“Do you know the number 420?” I answer.
My driver is sober as a judge and does not use cannabis. He still suspects, correctly, that my mission must have something to do with “that marijuana,” as he puts it.
This casual conversation is proof that the number 420 is synonymous with weed worldwide. Less clear is why. And how?
Urban myth obscures the origin of the code word. There are many origin stories, from Bob Marley’s birthday (wrong, it’s in February) to unclear police codes (wrong again; in San Francisco, at least a “420” is “youth disorder”). But there is only one true story.
In late March, a group of middle-aged men in Marin County, long said to be the creators of the magic number, made their strongest claim yet. It was they who invented possibly the world’s most pervasive slang word for smoking weed as teenagers – and they just launched a new website to prove it.
That’s why I’m crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, I tell my driver. In San Rafael I meet the founders of 420: The Waldos.
44 YEARS 420 LOUIE
I’m not sure who to look for as I rush through the yard of San Rafael High School to our prearranged meeting place: a ten-foot statue of chemist Louis Pasteur. This is the place where five teenage friends met to get high 44 years ago, accidentally coining an eternal counterculture term.
As I approach the site, I see five middle-aged men, dressed in denim and tucked-in shirts, the suits of their age. It’s them, hanging by the wall that gave them their name: Waldo Steve, Waldo Jeff, Waldo Larry, Waldo Mark, and Waldo Dave.
Their surnames are guarded secrets, a move to avoid the fame that would otherwise haunt them in their current adult, straightforward father life. But at least with me they act like teenagers and non-stop pranksters.
“I’m sorry. Sorry Siri!” Waldo Dave says to my iPhone, after forgetting to verbally identify himself for my voice recorder notes.How else am I supposed to know who’s saying what, I scold, trying to keep up.
Then Waldo Steve, the leader, adds, “Siri, find me heroin!” Siri kept quiet about that. The Waldos fill the silence with their story: 420 all started in 1971, right here.
It started with a treasure map given to Waldo Steve by a friend, given to him by his brother-in-law, a Coast Guard officer. The figurative X marked the spot for a small patch of cannabis that had supposedly been planted – and then abandoned – in the West Marin countryside by shores wary of their superiors.
Fascinated by the promise of free weed, the Waldos gathered at the statue of Louis Pasteur outside school at 4:20 p.m. each week. They’d make a stop here, before taking off hazy in Steve’s ’66 Chevy for the Point Reyes Coast Guard Station, in search of the sacred field of greenery.
There was a need for secrecy. Waldo Jeff’s father was an SFPD narcotics officer. So they came up with a code to discuss their degenerate acts in front of their family: 420 Louie.
“Once a week everyone would walk around high school and say ‘420 Louie! 420 Lazy!’ to go out and find [the patch]Waldo Larry says. “We never did.”
They eventually dropped the “Louie” from the code word and gave up the search. What was left was “420”, to get high.
But how did 420 spread into a global counterculture codeword?
BIRTH OF A NOMENCLATURE
The Waldos happened to know a few rock groups, one of which happened to be a local band with an avid worldwide following.
Waldo Mark’s father handled real estate for The Grateful Dead. And Waldo Dave’s brother, Patrick, was good friends with Dead’s bassist Phil Lesh. The band used the term on stage. Deadheads picked it up and eventually 420 made the pages of High Times.
Lesh confirmed to The Huffington Post in 2009 that Dave’s brother, Patrick, was indeed a friend. Lesh said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if The Waldos invented 420, but he couldn’t remember.
The legacy lives on with current San Rafael High students (some of whom could be the grandchildren of the Waldos). Before meeting the Waldos, I meet Kai, a sophomore. Earlier this year, the statue of Louis Pasteur was colored red, gold and green, Kai tells us — a Rastafarian shout out to the famed alums’ 420th feat.
Nationally and locally, this 420 origin story has unfolded in countless newspapers and on television. But never quite on the terms of the Waldos.
“We keep repeating the same old story over and over,” Waldo Steve tells me. “It’s time to come up with something new, to tell people the backstory.”
That’s why they launched their website 420Waldos.com. As Waldo Dave says, “It’s about the truth.”
Truth – and a lot of craziness.
GAMES PLAY WALDOS
“Steven had a ‘safari field’ if you will,” says Waldo Jeff, who uses the group’s preferred term, safari, to describe their adventures.
Steve was the main instigator of their mischief – and smoking herbs was central to their ‘Steve safaris’.
“We would have something unique to do and there was always a plan and a purpose, and it always involved smoking,” says Waldo Jeff.
Waldo Steve puts it more honestly: “I was always at the forefront of stupidity.”
Some of the jokes were simple, like bouncing in the painter’s safety nets under the Golden Gate Bridge. Or their habit of picking up hitchhikers, driving through an automatic car wash, and lowering the windows just in time to take in the deafening breeze from the air-drying section.
During these outings, The Waldos stayed high. They smoked in various ways, even once using a manzanita tree branch, which they described as the “good, hard wood.”
When I ask which accident is their favorite, most of the group immediately says, “Patty Hearst!”
It goes like this: The Waldos planned a stoner’s trip to Disneyland.
Four of the Waldos and their tall, brown-haired friend Laura drove south on Highway 101 in their Safari mobile, a ’66 Impala. They planned to reach Burbank in time for a live recording of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
But before you could say, “Here’s Johnny!” three police cars blared sirens behind The Waldos. Ahead, three more police cars cut them off.
This was not a routine stop.
When the Waldos stopped, the police “all pulled their guns!” Steve tells me. The police thought the girl in the car was Patty Hearst, and that The Waldos were the Symbionese Liberation Army, her captors.
Guns be damned, the crew kept calm. After all, “We were ripped off,” explains Waldo Dave.
The officers checked the identity documents of the group and their passenger and gave them a suicide note.
Such was life with the crazy Waldos.
Aside from trumpeting their strange tales, The Waldos’ new website provides proof that they spawned the 420 codeword to ward off any pretenders to the 420 throne.
“We have created a whole culture of 420 claimants!” says Waldo Dave. “But there is evidence.”
The evidence comes in the form of letters postmarked in the 1970s, one in which Dave Steve writes with a postscript: “A little 420 boxed in for your weekend, Dave.” There’s also Waldos’ bona fide freak flag: a cloth flag a friend knitted, emblazoned with “420.” The Waldos invite doubters to test the flag’s material, to make sure it was knitted and dyed in the 1970s.
There is also a pressure proof. The San Rafael High School newspaper interviewed a Waldo in the 1970s. The Waldo had a Marshawn Lynch-esque one-word answer. He simply said to his interviewer, “420.”
WALDOS ALL ADULT
Part of the legend has been lost through time.
Waldo Steve has long tried to track down the original Coast Guard who passed on the treasure map. Just last month, he tracked down the agent’s name, but not the correct spelling.
The map itself is also gone.
The Waldos smoke much less now, they said, because they are older and stiffening.
Steve owns a specialty lending facility, where Dave works in between his stints as a filmmaker. Mark is a real estate photographer, Larry is a project manager in a print shop. Jeff is a marketer at a winery in Sonoma County.
“We all live in a scaled-down version of the American dream,” Steve says as they all laugh.
Despite this, the Waldos say they are satisfied. In between jokes, the merry pranksters philosophize about how their stoned teen I accidentally created a marijuana phenomenon.
“Can you imagine making a joke that went all over the world, and everyone in the world told that joke at least once, and laughed at it and enjoyed it?” Waldo Jeff asks me.
He smiles at the thought.
“It’s a beautiful thing.”