It was getting late last Thanksgiving, all of us wine-dulled and wilting in our chairs, when my mom started in on one of her stories. “I was a chemistry major, and my classmates used to steal laughing gas,” she said. “Then we used to sit in the dorm and laugh and laugh.” That reminded Doug, who is married to my husband’s sister, about something he’d done, once, in chemistry class: “In high school, Martin Muldowney and I stole a beaker with a rubber hose and holes in it, and we used it to make a pipe. I brought it home and left it in the hallway, and my dad found it, and I got hugely busted. He was like, ‘What is this?’ I was like, ‘Uh, my chemistry bong?’” Doug’s father is a former officer with the Marines. “I had to smash it with a sledgehammer,” Doug said.
My family doesn’t usually meet up and tell stories about thieving and getting high, but it made sense that night. My husband, Andrew, and I had just moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, with our seven-month-old, and we were living in a dim, cramped apartment. For dinner, we’d all sat around the coffee table with our plates on our laps and our wine glasses on the carpet. But we’d really wanted everyone to visit—my mom, and Andrew’s parents, sister, and brother-in-law—so that they could see our new life. And we’d wanted them to like it here and return often. We’d gotten the sense that some of them considered Fort Collins boring in comparison to the places Andrew and I had lived before—San Francisco, New York. So in preparation for this Thanksgiving, I’d searched online for really exciting Colorado experiences. At first, everything I’d turned up seemed kind of pedestrian. Beer gardens. Rivers. And then I’d found out about weed tourism.
In 2014, Colorado and Washington became the first states to allow recreational pot. Oregon and Alaska followed in 2015 and 2016. Danny Schaefer, a young, amiable pothead I had contacted, is a pioneer of the burgeoning weed-tourism scene by virtue of having been in the right place at the right time. Some years ago, one of Danny’s buddies from high school, a kid named JJ, opened one of the first weed dispensaries in Colorado. There was no such thing as pot tourism at the time, and, after a while, JJ had an idea to take tourists around some local dispensaries, grow houses, and so on, to help newcomers navigate what might otherwise seem like an impenetrable scene. He started a tourism business called My 420 Tours. Danny became his chief executive officer and one of his most trusted tour guides. “I don’t care what you’re here for,” Danny told us when we climbed into a Ford Excursion stretch limo the morning after Thanksgiving. “I hold no judgment. We’re here”—he and his brother, Joe, who had also come along—“for your purposes.” He asked how many people planned to consume cannabis, and all but one hand went up. The missing hand was mine, because I’m breastfeeding, and I didn’t want Danny to judge. “I have some quick waivers for you to sign,” he continued. “Basically, if you have too much fun, we’re not liable.”
I’ll admit I was hoping that some among us would have too much fun—or at least a good amount of it. Lately, I’ve been aware that our opportunities for uninhibited amusement have become rarer. At the last party Andrew and I attended, the children seemed to outnumber the grown-ups, and the funnest thing about it was that everyone brought a different kind of pie. My mom once rollerbladed and skydived; now in her mid sixties, she spends her vacations traveling here to help feed and clothe and read to the baby. Andrew’s parents, Fred and Susan, are in their late seventies, and a couple of years ago, Susan was diagnosed with early dementia. Andrew’s sister, Alyssa, and her husband, Doug, are musicians and spend much of the year touring around with their labradoodle in a pickup truck, and while Doug is the biggest stoner I’ve met, neither of them will let you pour them a drink while they’re on tour, lest it ruin their voices, and in any case, they have to get back to Eloise, the labradoodle, who is old and has a bad hip. No one among us has stolen laughing gas in a long time. No one has built a bong out of a beaker. When we get together for holidays, we open some decent wine, change into our PJs, press play on Netflix, and fall asleep, one by one, before the credits have rolled. At times I’ve even noticed a certain fatigued conservatism in our interactions. It’s as if something might break.
Our first stop was a dispensary called Mindful. It recalled the inside of an Apple store—the whiteness of the walls; the uniformed, evangelistic employees; the well-organized arrangement of products. A young “budtender” named Colby launched into a somewhat confusing lesson. There were acronyms with numbers attached to them—THC levels, CBD levels—which were supposed to tell you how high you’d get and how much pain relief you’d get; there was talk of indica and sativa and flowers and buds and edibles and concentrates and shatter and wax and topicals and tinctures and strains and landraces. Colby held out what looked like an adorable little pot of lip gloss—live resin, he explained. “You eat it?” my mom said, perplexed. “Did you say chocolate earlier?” Susan said. No, you didn’t eat it, and, yes, he’d said chocolate. Here was a familiar term, and everyone latched onto it. Soon, Fred and Susan had chosen a chocolate bar, and Doug was getting a chocolate-chip cookie, and my mom was buying a cylinder of pot-infused Tootsie Roll knockoffs.
Danny showed Fred and Susan a deodorant-shaped dispenser of an “infused therapeutic pain solution” called Angel Salve. Its logo was a halo floating over angel wings, and its packaging suggested it be used to relieve pain, bruises, cramps, joint and muscle aches, dry skin, swelling, and muscle spasms. “What about for the back?” Fred said. He’d been having problems. This was not good for his golf game.
“Magic,” Danny assured him.
“If this is so curing—I mean, if this is so good for your health—why wouldn’t it be legal elsewhere?” Fred is a retired lawyer.
“Because it’s a Schedule 1 narcotic,” Danny said, in the what-have-we-come-to tone some people use when discussing police violence or Donald Trump.
But Fred and Susan hadn’t come here for the politics. “If I put it on his back, and then I lean over and sniff his back, can I get high?” Susan said.
“If you ate this whole thing, you could get a slight high.”
“Why don’t you just have one, in your possession?” Susan murmured to Fred—just in case it came in useful, like an EpiPen.
“Do you suggest that I take this out of the state?” Fred grumbled.
That would be an ill-advised suggestion, which is, of course, the whole predicament that pot boosters like Danny face in trying to make weed mainstream. It’s legal in Colorado and some other states, but try to cross a border with it, and you could be detained or at least fined. Danny acknowledged that it was possible, though unlikely, that you could get in trouble if a TSA agent found Angel Salve in your fanny pack. But if pot has such great health benefits, Susan said, shouldn’t people be trying harder to make it legal all over the place? Danny perceived another opening. “We’re working our asses off,” he cried. He turned to Fred. “It starts with people like you—an attorney from another state—going home and calling their politicians.”
Danny’s campaign to turn his tourists into weed activists, awkward as it might seem, is not without precedent. Soon after Prohibition ended in 1933, the California wineries that had survived it started experimenting with tourism. One of the first tasting rooms was inside a 25,000-gallon wine cask that a vintner named Isabelle Simi Haigh placed near a busy Sonoma County road. At the time, high-end restaurants and hotels served wine, but because Prohibition and the Great Depression had just ended, the notion of sitting down to dinner at home with a bottle of wine was foreign to regular people—the sort who might be driving down the street on a family road trip and come across Haigh and her wine barrel. Soon it became common for wineries to feature tasting rooms and tours. Fred Abruzzini, a pioneering manager of Beringer Brothers, one of California’s oldest wineries, later recalled, “Nobody knew anything about wine.” You had to get people used to it. “And there was only one way: to show people the winery, where it’s made, how it’s made.”
The Mindful dispensary we visited is sort of like Isabelle Simi Haigh’s wine barrel in the 1930s. Many of the cannabis products sold there are grown in a different Mindful location, a 44,000-square-foot grow house. This was the second stop on our tour, where we were greeted by Mindful’s CEO, Meg Sanders, an attractive, late-40s blonde wearing a white lab coat, thick-rimmed glasses, and Uggs. She reminded me of those stock photographs of healthcare professionals that you see on doctors’ websites. For that matter, the entrance to the grow house could have been the waiting room of a medical office; on a table next to a couch, a fan of magazines included Family Circle.
When you open a 44,000-square-foot weed factory, it becomes very important that people buy a lot of your product. To that end, Meg is obsessed with making marijuana more mainstream. Her company used to be called Gaia, and she changed it to Mindful because it sounded more accessible, less hippie. This reasoning also motivated the Apple-y aesthetic. She told a journalist, “I’ve heard time and time again, ‘I walk into a dispensary and I feel like I’m walking into a stoner’s basement.’ So we really had to think, ‘How do we package our product in a way that wherever we go—whether it’s the most liberal or the most conservative clientele—people look at us and think, ‘I get it. I’m not offended by this.’ It’s not Joey’s weed shop, you know?” It occurred to me that winning over tourists like us—my family and others like it—was crucial for Meg, Danny, and others in their business.
Meg led us into a room filled with young plants and began to describe the life cycle of a pot plant. It started here, with hundreds of plants known as “moms”—the parents from which “clones” are created by snipping off branch tips and replanting them. From there, we went to the nursery—“our neonatal unit,” Meg said—where these clones are nudged along in their life cycles. One of Meg’s employees held up a plant so we could see its roots; they were surprisingly robust-looking. This wasn’t true of all the clones, just the best ones. “If a clone is struggling, we throw it in the trash,” Meg said. “This is a commercial operation.” Her approach, she said, represented a cultural change from the down-home weed operations of the pre-legal-pot age; those growers would get attached to each little plant and coddle them like little babies even if they weren’t thriving—a sentimental, inefficient approach, not one befitting a major commercial operation like hers. “If they aren’t doing what we want, we toss them,” she reiterated. She talked like some kind of hedge-fund manager. It was charming. We laughed.
Meg took us into a large, warm, high-roofed chamber in which the well-behaved plants were growing to adulthood in closely planted lines. It smelled and looked gorgeous, like a greenhouse full of roses. Some of the flowers were so massive that their stalks had begun to bend. Doug stuffed his face into one of them. “Oh my god,” he said. Everyone had their phones out. Alyssa took a photo of her mother with plants in the background; Fred took a photo of Alyssa taking a picture of her mother; Danny took a photo of me and my mom. The grow lights gave the photographs a romantic, golden cast—#nofilter. “Look at those smiles—oh, man!” Danny cried. “Now that is a bonding experience.”
Some people argue that our contemporary obsession with tourism reflects the postmodern condition. Once upon a time, extended families didn’t have to make a point of spending time together; they lived within walking distance of one another and might have even worked alongside one another—grandparents, parents, children—on the family farm. But now that machines have replaced organic, hands-on, shared experiences, we’ve resorted to paying for togetherness. My father and his extended family all grew up together on a coconut grove in rural India; he and his siblings and cousins woke up early to tend to the coconuts before school, and on hot nights, they slept under the stars. Now he lives in a suburb in Florida, where his ties to the land begin and end with his little garden. He came to visit in October, and we all went to a kind of harvest festival north of town where, for $40, we could watch pigs race, wander through a corn maze, and pet some farm animals. We gave my phone to a stranger and asked her to photograph us with one of those wooden cutout boards that made it look like our faces were on farm animals’ bodies. My father, a Marxist, laughed at the thought that we had come to this: shelling out cash to re-create something resembling his own pastoral, communally lived childhood.
One of my favorite pieces of writing about postmodern tourism—that is, about the commercialization of human experience—is David Foster Wallace’s long, lucid, luscious description of a seven-night Caribbean cruise, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” in which he writes, near the beginning: “The promise is not that you can experience great pleasure, but that you will. That they’ll make certain of it. That they’ll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun.” I am 33 years old—Wallace’s age when he wrote that piece—and when I recently reread the essay, it struck me as a beautiful piece of writing, but also a lonesome one; he’s on the ship for a magazine assignment and hasn’t brought anyone with him, and so he focuses on the activities offered by the cruise rather than the companionship these activities provide. He does recount conversations, but most of them are among other people, so that the reader gets the impression of Wallace skulking behind his co-passengers’ beach chairs with a journal in hand, like some kind of vessel-sanitation inspector. Wallace writes that cruising gives him the impression of being part of a “bovine herd.” His perspective is understandable—I’ve been on a cruise, and I’ve seen the shank-ish thighs, the brisketty necks—but I’d venture that it was a minority opinion on his ship. Many of the avid cruisers I’ve met are pleased to be among other avid cruisers; the appeal, for them, is not only about the pleasure offered but the company with which they can partake in it.
One of my earliest memories is of a road trip we took—my parents, my sister, and I—when I was young. We lived in Saskatchewan then, and we drove southwest till we reached California. I always loved spending time with my family, though my parents didn’t get along, and though my sister preferred her friends to us. I remember how blissful I felt on that road trip because everyone was forced to be together. I made up little games in the car, which they, captive as they were, had no choice but to play; I thrilled at sharing a bed with my sister when we stopped for the night at motels, though she erected a barrier of pillows between us to keep me from touching her. My sister died of bone cancer when we were in college, and my parents divorced soon thereafter; what’s left of my family—that earlier version of it—are memories like these.
And that cruise I mentioned—my first—took place not long ago, but before the dementia and the back pain, when my in-laws had been married 45 years. We all went—Fred and Susan, and their children and children’s spouses—and we chose a cruise in part for the built-in togetherness it offered; had we chosen some city and traveled there together, we worried, we wouldn’t all be able to agree on accommodations and tourist attractions and activities and would end up spending most of our time apart. So together we visited the Parthenon and walked upon the centuries-old cobblestones of Dubrovnik. And, sure, each time we disembarked from the ship, we might have appeared to the locals like an invading drove of cattle, and yet it heartens me to look at the photograph taken aboard the Norwegian Jade of the six of us standing behind a plaster facsimile of a Greek pedestal, and to know that all six of us own copies of the same photograph representing the same shared experience. This is our herd.
One of the greatest descriptions of an inexperienced user trying pot while traveling in Colorado is a column Maureen Dowd, of the New York Times, wrote in 2014. It begins: “The caramel-chocolate flavored candy bar looked so innocent, like the Sky Bars I used to love as a child.” It ends with Dowd “curled up in a hallucinatory state” in her hotel room, paranoid, at first, that someone is going to call the cops on her and, later, that she is dead. It turned out she’d eaten more of the chocolate bar than was advisable; as far as she remembered, the label didn’t explain how to consume it. Dowd’s column was widely mocked by people who thought she should have known better. But this year, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that her experience might not have been totally uncommon. It found that out-of-state visitors to Colorado were twice as likely, post-legalization, to end up in the emergency room for reasons possibly related to marijuana use, compared to the year before pot was legalized. (For locals, the rate remained about the same.)
Doug and Alyssa had been getting high all afternoon, but no one else had partaken yet. While Doug is the only hardcore stoner among us, only my mom had never smoked pot; she was also the most judgmental and skeptical of weed and its consumers. Back in the privacy of the limo, Doug loaded a Pax vaporizer and handed it to my mom. She stuck it in her mouth and sucked: “Did I get it?” she said. It was unclear. She tried again. Doug handed her his own vape pen, and she took a tentative drag from that, too. A red light turned on: she’d gotten it. The vape pen went to Fred, who took a gentle puff. “Take a full breath,” Doug said. “I did!” Fred growled. “It’s like breathing—it’s not like taking a hit off a joint,” Doug said. My mom, meanwhile, was sold. “I have a totally different outlook,” she said. “I used to tell people to smoke less. Now I won’t do that so much.” The pen arrived at Susan. “What do I do?” she said. Doug gave his spiel, and Susan sipped on the pen like it was a Virginia Slim. The red light flickered. “Don’t get scared of something that is unfamiliar,” Alyssa scolded. My mom thought she might be getting a little high. Her face tingled. “If we’d done this tour on the first day I arrived,” she announced, “I would have smoked every day.”
Earlier, Danny had passed around several black bags, each containing a Pax 2 vaporizer, a shiny object that retails for more than $200—a gift from its manufacturer. Everyone oohed, aahed. He’d also handed out goodie bags filled with other swag and imprinted with the words DOPE SACK. My mom had hugged hers. “Next time I go to Safeway or Trader Joe’s, I’ll take this bag!” she’d said. Now, Danny had more products to place. “Dougie Fresh, have you seen this bad boy?” he said, pulling out what looked like a giant aluminum hammer. “It’s called the Titan.” He told us an origin myth. Its creator had been snowboarding with a glass pipe in his pocket when he’d fallen and cut himself. He realized the market needed some more resilient stuff, and his startup, Pyptek, was born. (For what it’s worth—maybe very little—none of this actually happened, according to Pyptek.) Doug took the Titan and passed it around. Fred launched into a bunch of questions about the business of pot. He had heard that cannabis companies couldn’t access the federal banking system and wanted to know what they do with their money. Danny tried to answer, but one of the limo’s green strobe lights kept hitting his face as he talked, which distracted everyone. “It’s cool to watch the lights bouncing off his face, huh?” Doug said. “It’s driving me nuts,” Susan said. “I’m still fascinated by this thing with the federal banking system,” Fred interjected. “So this can be purchased only in dispensaries, right?” my mom said. “Not in pharmacies?” “Off here to the right, in a few blocks, you’ll see a really good view of the Denver skyline,” Danny said. “And here’s a flyer for Leafly”—a Yelp for weed—“which is a really good source of information.” “Thumbu,” my mom said—my nickname. “I’m getting the buzz now.” And we passed a snow-carpeted field beyond which the Denver skyline rose, and the strobe lights leapt across our noses and foreheads, and Doug was bemoaning the mainstreaming of pot culture, and Danny was telling us about a product called Ionix and a product called Ebbu, and then we turned onto Colfax Avenue, because people were getting the munchies, and a place called Voodoo Doughnut could be found around here somewhere.
When we arrived at the fourth stop, Illuzion Glass Galleries, the sky was darkening, and we were starting to feel worn-out. But Fred and Susan love trinkets, the kind you pick up on vacation, and this place was full of them: a pipe in the shape of a Minion, a pipe in the shape of a Smurf, candy-striped pipes, pipes wearing tie-dye, a giant bong resembling some sort of demented monster that, Danny told us, retailed for more than $200,000. The walls were mirrored, so that the glass pieces seemed multiplied many times over. We wandered around pointing at our favorites. Fred indicated one that he thought he might want. Alyssa questioned whether it was the right fit for him and Susan: “That looks like a bong.” Fred shrugged: “So what?” Danny guessed at its price—three to five grand. “Oh,” Fred said. He shuffled off. Danny followed. “You’re just looking for a good all-purpose?” Danny said. “I’m just looking for something to put on a shelf,” Fred said. Fred and Susan flagged down a man behind the counter, with a baggy Illuzion T-shirt and a triangle-shaped head of hair, and asked for his expert opinion. “These water pipes along the bottom—they’re super cool,” the salesman offered. Fred and Susan settled on a little glass piece decorated with multicolored swirls. “Do you have any written material on its origins?” Susan asked the salesman.
Back home, Fred and Susan have shelves full of souvenirs—the miniature jade instruments from Shanghai, the whirling-dervish figurine from Turkey. They don’t serve any practical function, which is, of course, the point. You don’t buy the Japanese sharkskin grater to make wasabi. You don’t sip tequila out of the ceramic cups from Mexico. The pipe isn’t there to be smoked. It’s there so that, at some point in the future, when our memories of this Thanksgiving have mostly faded, it might conjure the spirit of our time together. It will be hard to recall the exact details, maybe, but the feeling might return. And, oh, the materialism of it all. Oh, the consumerism. Oh, what they’d think of us back at the coconut grove. But here we were together. Our herd. Man. That was some bonding experience.
Vauhini Vara is a journalist in Colorado and a regular contributor to the Atlantic, Businessweek, Fast Company, and the website of The New Yorker.
My 420 Tours
Mindful Recreational of Denver
5926 East Colfax Ave., Denver
Illuzion Glass Galleries
238 Broadway, Denver