How Marin County’s refusal of BART sparked 4:20


While it’s common knowledge all the clocks in Pulp Fiction are set to 4:20 and California’s first medical marijuana bill was SB420—not many connect the ubiquitous code for smoke and smoke-friendly folks to Marin County’s rebuffing of public transit in the ‘60s.

By Andrew Pridgen

The Waldos, the group credited with creating 4:20, are the third-coolest thing to ever happen in San Rafael, California.

A once working-class and now upper-upper-upper-middle-class berg 20 miles north of San Francisco, San Rafael is marked by dueling landmarks on The 101. As you’re crawling south toward the Golden Gate Bridge on your left, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin Civic Center which looks like someone coated Space Mountain with a golf pant-friendly shade of salmon. And on the right, an original geodesic A&W hut which currently houses…an actual A&W (it’s delicious by the way).

The three coolest things to happen San Rafael ever. In order:

  1. The video for Night Ranger’s Sister Christian was filmed at San Rafael High School: Unless your school was the backdrop for Ridgemont High, there’s no better California school claim than this classic. Not only is the video 4 minutes and 20 seconds but YouTube embed code is also, you guessed it, 420.
  2. Cruising scenes for American Graffiti were filmed on San Rafael’s 4th Street: Though Lucas wanted to do the entire shoot of his original Star Wars prequel in San Rafael, downtown Petaluma’s wider streets and historic backdrop (20 miles north) got the nod for many of the exteriors. The Mel’s Drive-in location was South Van Ness and Mission Street in San Francisco and the Alma mater of Curt, Steve, John, Terry, Laurie and Debbie was Tamalpais High School (one-time stomping grounds of Tupac Shakur) in nearby Mill Valley.
  3. 4:20: Five San Rafael High School friends called themselves the Waldos because they hung out and smoked by a wall (get it?) outside campus. In 1971, the quintet got together to check in on rumors that a plot of marijuana plants was abandoned at the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station. The group agreed to meet for a search at 4:20, the first possible time directly after school and after practice, to hunt down the crops. Though the mystery yield was never found, the Waldos’ meeting time stayed and spread.

San Rafael anchors the archipelago of Marin. With the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais protecting it from scrutiny and hustle, the bucolic enclave’s downtown is still alight with local theaters, eateries and bars. Yet San Rafael and its too-laid-back even for the laid-back culture was almost as populous a part of the Bay Area as the overrun, frosted-tip sprawls of Livermore and Pleasanton.

During the 1950s, the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s (BART) master plan called for stops in  nearby Sausalito, Mill Valley, Corte Madera, Santa Venetia with a possible extension north to Ignacio. A 1956 poll revealed almost 88 percent of Marin residents favored the transit system which would affix the commuter trains to the lower deck of the Golden Gate Bridge.

But public approval and funding for the transit connection began to erode in the early 60s. First San Mateo County, Marin’s intellectual equal on the south side of the city, pulled out. Both Marin’s taxpayers and supervisors thought the county’s small population (fewer than 200k) could not foot the bill. Marin withdrew from the plan in May 1962.

The Marin hippie and hot-tubber invasion wouldn’t come for another decade and contrary to local isolationist lore, vocal residents and representatives did want to get BART back on the ballot that November. But by then it was too little too late for the transit district and Marin was cast off as an island.

But people still came. The outpost of Marin grew in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s into a rolling-hilled patchouli-and-saldalwood bedroom community. While the slowest-ever ferry and bus systems came to be, tens of thousands of Marin children, like the Waldos, were raised by parents who spent their late-afternoons listening to sports talk radio and the traffic copters as their charges attended school, played sports and had a little free time around 4:20—the magic hour for Marin’s autumnal sunsets over the bay leaving plenty of time to beat the folks back for dinner.

Who knows whether the Waldos’ parents—planted firmly back in the family Eichler by dusk courtesy a speedy urine-soaked bullet train—would’ve have gotten wise to 4:20 with a faster ride home. Ditto the three generations of commuter’s kids to follow.

To me, 4:20 is not just a code for sparking up while the rentals jump on the last conference call of the day, it’s the time every latchkey kid feels that absolute joy of late-afternoon freedom combined with the crippling notion that someday, that’s going to be you trapped behind the desk, behind the wheel.

4:20 indeed, is precious time.