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The Origin Story of 420 and Cannabis Culture

The missing link in the story of how ‘420’ began

Waldo Dave has just settled into a corner table at Mill Valley’s Depot Bookstore & Café, 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 contorted imprint over the drizzly April morning.

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 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 at 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 U.S. coastguardsman named 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 4:20 p.m. 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.”

As the story goes, in the fall of 1971, five wise-cracking friends were given a hand-drawn map to a secret patch of cannabis in Point Reyes. The Waldos were determined to find the patch. Week after week, they planned to meet at 4:20 p.m. at a campus statue of Louis Pasteur.

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-friendly” real estate ads, even California Senate Bill No. 420.

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 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, have 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 L.A. 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.

The two men 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,” they say, is preserved in a high-security bank safety deposit vault in San Francisco’s Financial District.

“It was an original little joke that turned into a worldwide phenomenon,” Waldo Dave says.

Cannabis Culture

“In about 1995 or so we started seeing ‘420’ carved into benches and spray painted on signs, and we said, ‘Hey, what’s happening here?,’” Dave says. “This is starting to evolve. We’ve gotta start looking into this thing, you know?”

Waldo Steve remembers Waldo Larry telling him that he was seeing more and more 420 paraphernalia— “more hats, more T-shirts, more everything.” “I better get the story straight,” he said to himself.

A late ’90s phone call to High Times magazine resulted in the publication’s editor immediately flying to California to meet the Waldos and verify their claims.

Following the original 1998 article in High Times, the story of the origin of 420 spread to other publications, one by one. “I think after the Internet became big around 2000, then it started snowballing,” Waldo Dave says.

Ever since, the Waldos have fiercely defended their story, agreeing to meet journalists at their vault, get on camera and trek out to Point Reyes.

When asked how many hours they’ve devoted to documenting their story, Waldo Steve answers quickly and assuredly: “Thousands.”

“People keep trying to twist the story,” Waldo Steve says, noting the naysayers “come out of the woodwork” each year to attack and discredit the Waldos’ story, or claim to have coined the term themselves.

“There’s so many of ’em you can’t keep track of ’em,” Waldo Dave says. “It’s pretty hilarious. We’ve created a whole generation of 420 claimers now.”

“It’s such a fabled thing,” Waldo Steve adds. “People want to be part of a fable.”

“We’ve had people saying they thought our story was a fairy tale,” Waldo Dave says, noting their latest search for the Point Reyes coastguardsman. “So we said, ‘Hey—we’ll go find this guy. We may not be able to find him, but we’re gonna try.’”

The Missing Link

The search for Gary Newman, the planter of the elusive crop that started it all, began six years ago. It was never easy. There were false starts, dead-ends, unanswered phone calls, unanswered letters and “no-show” meetings in San Jose, where the Waldos had leads that the coastguardsman could be living.

“I was getting worried,” Waldo Steve says. “I was thinking, ‘God, this guy could die, and I’ll never get his side of the story.”

Months later, Waldo Steve was traveling in a Texas “ghost town” near Big Bend National Park. “Big thunderstorms,” he says. “Cracks of lightning.”

He and his brother Norm were the only people in a little emptied-out Mexican restaurant and saloon. “And between cracks of thunder, I get a phone call,” says Waldo Steve.

Who could be calling me in the middle of nowhere, he thought to himself.

“This is Carol, I’m Gary’s caretaker,” the woman on the line said.

“And I could hear Gary goin’, ‘I can remember everything about the Coast Guard!’” Waldo Steve says. “It was like, ‘Whoahh!’”

“Major breakthrough,” Waldo Dave says. “He’s aliiive!”

What seemed to be a hot trail led to months of more unreturned phone calls, unanswered letters and no-show meetings. And then, suddenly, everything changed. There was a date, a meeting spot and a time. Gary showed up.

“Gary, we’ve been looking for you for so long!” Waldo Dave yelled when he first saw him.

As it turned out, the coastguardsman who had played such a large role in the Waldos’ past, and in what developed in following years, was homeless and living on the streets of San Jose. The Waldos paid for their new friend to stay in a San Jose hotel during the Super Bowl so that he could watch the game. There, they interviewed him to make sure that all records and accounts matched up.

“Gary had no idea what he started,” Waldo Steve says, referring to 420. “I thought it’d be better for him to show us everything.” He rounded up the Waldos, Gary, Carol, Jackson, Patrick McNulty (brother of the late Bill McNulty), and headed out to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, where Gary had been stationed. In a short video made by Waldo Dave, Gary talks passionately about his time there.

The official Coast Guard records that the Waldos sent away for and received three weeks before we meet in Mill Valley, describe a decorated, life-saving coastguardsman. Finally meeting him after 45 years, the Waldos say, was like a reunion with a relative they never knew. And through the kindness of someone who Waldo Dave describes as “having a heart of gold” who heard of Gary’s 420 connection and offered him a place to live on his property, Gary is no longer homeless.

“And now we’re like some big, happy family,” Waldo Steve says.

Waldo Steve says that with Gary Newman’s official Coast Guard records in hand, and an eyewitness account of his time at Point Reyes, the 420 naysayers of the Internet will hopefully be silenced.

“I don’t think it’ll be finished,” Waldo Dave says. “There’ll still be people saying, ‘Oh, that’s not true.’ But you know, they’re entitled to their own opinions; we have the facts.”

 

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