If you squint hard enough, at the right places, Marin County, California in 2018 can resemble the Marin County, California, of the early 1970s.
If Hunter S. Thompson was right, and the ethos of “San Francisco in the middle sixties” was a great wave of different, resistant energy that would break, crash and recede into the hedonism, selfishness and cynicism that marked the decades to come, at least some of the refugee flotsam from that idealist crest survived. And it did so by clinging to the hills and redwoods located just north across the Golden Gate Bridge.
There is evidence that this happened. Richard Brautigan fled to Bolinas. Unironic tie-dye is found in Fairfax. What “counterculture” our society produces ends up commercialized to a degree, sure — and sometimes obscenely so — but what’s not marked for sale in a market economy?
At the least, when you drive away from the Best Buys and the Peet’s coffees and the other trappings of 21st century suburban life in America, away from US-101 and up St. Francis Drake Boulevard, going west, up narrow country roads winding through the green hills spotted with dairy cows, you get an idea of what it might have felt to be here, then. Physically, much of the landscape is the same: cows behind ancient rail-and-wire fences, period farmhouses, rustic cottages.
The setting is a key part of the ethos, and is part of the idea (I assume) as a school bus full of beer, weed, me and some new friends chugs, wheezes, but rolls nevertheless inexorably up and through the hills towards Point Reyes, the coast, the essence of 420 culture and its headlong collision with mainstream consumerism.
Perhaps I should explain. I don’t fully understand myself, but here goes. Lagunitas is a beer brand that got its start in Marin County. Lagunitas is probably the most marijuana-friendly beer brand in America — a fact that would be evident even if someone hadn’t just handed me a Lagunitas-branded bottle opener that also has a roach clip on it. Cannabis still would be part of the company’s aura, if not its stated corporate culture, even if Lagunitas weren’t preparing to market its beer, internationally, with 420 (itself an old Marin County legend) as the hook.
420. Right, everybody knows, but here goes, again: 420 is cannabis, cannabis is 420. This happened because the Grateful Dead and because legalization activists hijacked a Kinko’s and leafletted most of the United States. However, before that sometime in the early 1970s, a pack of teenage goofballs at San Rafael High School (their parents and older siblings being exactly the kind of people who surfed Hunter’s wave before and during raising children) would gather after school at a statue of Louis Pasteur, at twenty minutes past four p.m.
Part of the legend involves a guy who worked for the Coast Guard, planted a plot of weed, and made a treasure map marking the spot. The group was named the Waldos because they used to hang out by a wall. They then loaded into a smoke-filled car and went on long drives looking for a plot of unattended, illicit pot. Through this, 420 became the call sign to gather and venture forth, but then became shorthand for gathering and getting stoned. Then it became the code for weed — getting some, smoking some, whatever.
It’s a good thing I know this already, because the adventure Lagunitas has devised and lured us on, is to follow in the Waldos’ footsteps on a sunny Saturday morning (I note with concern as a bottle of far too delicious bourbon is passed my way, before we’ve left the San Rafael High parking lot). This idea is based mostly on theory, for there are no Waldos here. They’re all still around, just good old dudes in their 60s now, mostly in and around Marin, but they’re not on this bus. They also aren’t at the bars and restaurants we spend the next few hours visiting, in between beers and dabs and pulls of CO2 cartridges infused with hops on the bus, a cross-promotion between Lagunitas and a local cannabis brand, AbsoluteXtracts.
Right. The beers. At least some of them are Waldos’ Special Ale, a limited-release “one-hitter” (the company’s description, not mine) that is as close to officially sanctioned Waldos merchandise as this universe will get. It is also an 11.3 percent ABV monster of an Imperial IPA that renders observation-making and note-taking all the more challenging. What I can assure you is that it is strong and it is good.
In addition, the arrangement between Lagunitas and the Waldos for the use of their name sounds like vintage Marin. Lagunitas asked one Waldo if the company could use the name. “Sure, sounds good to me, but I better ask the others,” went the reply. A few phone calls, and unanimous assent — with the only compensation a promise to drop off a few cases, according to Ron Lindenbusch, Lagunitas’s chief marketing officer. He is the company’s third employee, and has been aboard since 1995.
There is nothing but beer in it for the Waldos, a pretty good payoff for silly teenage hijinks 46 years in the rearview. And for Lagunitas? “We don’t make any money off of this,” insists Lindenbusch, making the argument that the effort and costs required for a limited-run craft brew named far outweighs sales. He says this before (or after, I really can’t recall) noting that Lagunitas is seeking to do for April 20 what Guinness did for St. Patrick’s Day, wrapping its branding and its messaging as closely around cannabis as an alcohol brand will go.
There will be Lagunitas-themed parties in European cities on 420 this year. There will be marijuana-themed swag like the roach-clip-bottle-opener keychain and the Lagunitas-branded rolling papers someone sticks into my hands somewhere between the Old Western Saloon (one of Lagunitas’s very first accounts, itself a carefully preserved time capsule that manages to feel like the Gold Rush and the counterculture revolution all at once) in Point Reyes and the Paper Mill Creek Saloon in Forest Knolls (a tiny village located along the Lagunitas Creek, the brewery’s original water source before it moved to Petaluma).
The rolling papers, I want to note for posterity, have a prohibition printed on them — “Not for tobacco use” — but don’t seem to complain when I beg one of Lindenbusch’s co-workers for the tip of an American Spirit to roll into the afternoon’s final joint (a desperate and unhealthy grasp at reclaiming some of my faculties).
Some of the party peels away at the Paper Mill Creek and escapes back to San Francisco. I do not. I am pulled onto the bus, and the bus pulls away from the past, towards Petaluma and Lagunitas’s present. I make only the briefest of cameos here before mumbling my thanks and goodbyes.
Yes, Okay: The Waldos beer is the commodification of hippie culture. But can it really be called “commercialization” when the organization is so… well, non-commercial? Lindenbusch, is from Marin, not Madison Avenue.
I am reminded that it was Lindenbusch — whose entire countenance emits “good times,” with a shrug and a wink and not a shout — who helped marry Lagunitas with marijuana forever in 2005, after his setup and arrest by agents from California state Alcoholic Beverage Control. This story is also too good not to relate in part: after hearing reports of marijuana smoking at the brewery’s patio parties, ABV officials had been staking out the brewery for weeks, sending underage kids towards brewery employees trying to buy weed, before finally arresting Lindenbusch and shutting down the entire operation for a period of time.
The company learned from the incident, by brewing and marketing “Underground Shutdown Ale,” and upping the ante with antics like what I described above. It’s not really shameless so much as guileless, as there is no cynical ploy or Wall Street-level appropriation. It’s a wink, a shrug, and a straightforward embrace. Someone was going to do something like this, eventually. Why not these somebodies, from here, with this and these values?
TELL US, have you tried the Waldos beer?