No sooner has Waldo Dave settled into a corner table at Mill Valley's Depot Bookstore & Cafe, his back to the windows that separate the indoor tables from the outdoor patio, when a loud thud! behind his left shoulder startles him. He whips around to see Waldo Steve's face smooshed up against the glass. The two men—in their early 60s and friends for more than 45 years—laugh as Waldo Steve peels his face away and heads inside, leaving behind a drizzly April morning and a contorted imprint.
He grabs a chair, sits down and pats an envelope that contains 167 pages of officially embossed United States Coast Guard records. "This was the ultimate goal," he says of the highly anticipated mail that arrived three weeks ago but which took years of searching to obtain.
"This is what slams the door shut on everyone who says that our story is a bunch of bull," Waldo Dave says.
As the story goes, in the fall of 1971, "five wise-cracking friends"—Steve, Dave, Mark, Larry and Jeff, who called themselves the Waldos after a wall they hung out on in between classes at Marin County's San Rafael High School—were given a hand-drawn map to a secret patch of cannabis in Point Reyes. The crop had been planted—and the map leading to it drawn—by a Coast Guard reservist by the name of Gary Newman. Newman, brother-in-law of Bill McNulty, a friend of the Waldos who gave them the map, was said to have been paranoid about getting busted for planting the cannabis on federal property.
The Waldos were determined to find the patch. Week after week, they planned to meet at 4:20pm at a campus statue of Louis Pasteur. They'd get high, jump in Waldo Steve's 1966 Chevy Impala, listen to its "killer" eight-track stereo and head to the Point Reyes coast in search of the treasure. "It was always like Cub Scout field trips," Waldo Steve says of the group's Waldo Safaris. "Except we were stoned."
The Waldos never found the patch. But "420 Louis"—and later, simply "420"—became their secret code for pot. Today, the Waldos' three-digit code has become mainstream universal slang for all things cannabis. 420 (April 20) festivals. 420 races. 420 Olympics. 420 college campus "smokeouts." 420 publications. 420 beers. "420-friendly" real estate ads. California Senate Bill 420. The list goes on.
The Waldos, who describe their high school selves as intelligent, fit guys who were "seekers" rather than "stupid, slacker stoners," live throughout Marin and Sonoma counties and work in fields ranging from financial services to independent filmmaking to the wine industry. Waldo Steve and Waldo Dave, the "talking heads" of the group, agreed to meet me prior to the April 20 worldwide pot holiday to share their story. It's a busy time of year for them.
"By the way, the Huffington Post just called," Waldo Steve tells Waldo Dave as he flips through a heavy-duty blue binder that contains hundreds of references to 420 culture in newspaper and magazine articles from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Time, Esquire and dozens more, records of dissertations on the sociological aspects of 420 and documented proof of conversations, handwritten eyewitness accounts, references to the marijuana map and copies of letters from the early '70s—all supporting the Waldos' claims that they were the very first people to use the term 420.
"Actually, we're the centerfold in this one," Waldo Dave jokes, pointing to a cover of Playboy.
- HAPPY ENDINGS Not only did members of the Waldos say they proved they originated the term 420, their search led them to former Coast Guardsman Gary Newman (center with beard), who was unknowingly the genesis for the stoner code number.
The two men (who could be standup comedians) enthusiastically exchange inside jokes, noises, secret words, one-liners and impersonations. Their banter is a glimpse into the wild, adventurous world of the Waldos—intertwined with the beauty and the freewheeling counterculture of Marin in the '70s. A golden era, they call it.
The Waldos don't know what became of the map that revealed the Point Reyes cannabis patch. But "everything else" is preserved in a high-security bank safety deposit vault in San Francisco's Financial District. One letter, written by Waldo Dave and sent to Waldo Steve after he had left Marin for college, read, "My brother is Phil Lesh's manager, and last weekend I had a job as a doorman backstage at a concert. I smoked out with David Crosby and Lesh. . . . p.s. A little 420 enclosed for your weekend."
Another, from a friend who had also left Marin and was living in Israel, informs the Waldos that there's no 420 here.
"It was an original little joke that turned into a worldwide phenomenon," Waldo Dave says.
It's 4:20pm in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, and puffs of smoke drift from groups of young people gathered on "Hippie Hill," known among potheads as the place to light up. A drum circle provides a fast-paced, background beat, and an older guy dances, hands clapping above his head.
Next to a grove of eucalyptus trees, three friends pass a joint around. When asked what 420 means to them, the one with long, dark dreadlocks proves that he's adopted the Waldos' secret code as his own. "Usually means it's time to smoke," he says with a crooked smile.