A long black van with no telling markings slips through the snow-encrusted streets of Denver. If you could peek through the tinted windows, you'd see Timothy Vee standing at the front of the vehicle, addressing a group lounging on an S-curve of cushioned seats.
And if you could press your ear against the closed door, you'd hear the Colorado Highlife Tours owner informing his fellow pot smokers, "It's time to get stoned now!"
At the start of the tour, the reaction might have been strong enough to shatter the candy-colored glass pipes being passed around. But after several hours of inhaling and ingesting Colorado's new legal high, the most anyone can muster is a tepid "yeah." Stoners aren't known for raucous outbursts and fist-pumping cheers.
And yet cannabis supporters emitted a loud whoopee on New Year's Day, when Amendment 64, which legalises non-medical use, allowed marijuana dispensaries to officially open for recreational business.
Small armies of dudes and dudettes crossed state lines. Residents and out-of-towners of legal age (21 and older) besieged retailers. The victory cry: Light up for liberty!
"We're from Kansas," remarked a woman who had driven over the border with her husband to visit a dispensary in Pueblo, Colo. "We don't have any of these."
News bulletin, Dorothy: At the moment, no one else in the country has these (well, yet; Washington state is up next, with sales expected to start in June). Hence the surge in interest nationwide, from the highest peaks to the lowest valleys.
For Colorado citizens, partaking in the pot culture is easy: They can buy up to an ounce per visit and smoke it in the privacy of their own homes.
Visitors, however, must hop over several hurdles, including a limit on quantity (a quarter-ounce) and restrictions on consumption as dictated by federal and state laws.
At the top of the "no smoking allowed" list: federal land, including national parks, forests, trails, historic sites and ski mountains; establishments covered by the Clean Indoor Air Act, such as bars, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues; and outdoor public spaces.
Dispensaries also post very clear signs about what not to do on their premises. And you can't take any leftovers home.
"You need to come educated about local laws," said Tony Verzura, co-founder of RiverRock dispensary in Denver, "and prepared."
Coming to the rescue, with guiding lighters in hand, are tour operators and entrepreneurs.
The experts, many longtime smokers themselves, are providing chaperoned excursions to dispensaries and growers, much-needed guidance ("Take a puff or two and wait 15 to 20 minutes," Vee recommended) and, most crucial, a safe place where guests can cannibust out without retribution.
"Colorado will be a tourist stop for everyone in the United States," said Mike Stetler, the owner of Marisol Therapeutics in Pueblo, "until it comes to their state."
Dream that little creampuff dream, pot patriots. But until then, Colorado has a lock on the green rush, and so I headed west to claim my quarter-ounce of quarry.
Yes, my mother knows.
When we discussed my upcoming trip, she informed me that I'm an adult and that she trusts my judgment.
Of course, she doesn't know (until now, unless she walked away from this paragraph) that the last time I smoked pot in my very humble history of experimentation was after college. I was living in Colorado, and a friend invited me inside his room-size closet in Boulder, where we puffed like baby dragons among the nonjudgmental gaze of his pants, shirts and coats.
Back then, it was wrong, but today, consuming pot is as lawful as gambling at Black Rock casino and drinking Coors Light at a Denver pub. But it still feels weird.
My initial idea was to revisit my freewheeling days and go counter-browsing in Breckenridge, where I slackered as a liberal-arts grad with a season's ski pass and a breakfast waitress shift at the Gold Pan.
But on the morning of my outing, the great snowmaker in the sky wagged his shaggy head, releasing nearly three feet of white flakes onto the little people below.
After Denver, which I was saving for Vee's Saturday tour, Colorado Springs boasts the largest number of medical dispensaries in the state.
However, Amendment 64 allows each city and municipality to design its own weed landscape.
For now, such communities as Colorado Springs, Vail and Durango have resisted the recreational pull, issuing a moratorium on non-medical sales. Pueblo, a former steel town 112 miles south of Denver, jumped right into the garden.
"They're trying to make Pueblo into the Little Amsterdam of Colorado," Stetler said of local officials.
Stetler's dispensary, one of two recreational sites in Pueblo, opened with a celebrity flourish - a visit by Tommy Chong, the Jester of Stoners. A month later, the large banner announcing the comedian's appearance still hangs on the back wall.
I arrived in the early afternoon and opened the opaque door to find a bulldog-shaped bouncer seated on a stool. He checked my ID, then kindly informed me that the store was selling only edibles at the moment. But, he added, the staff was expecting purple hash within an hour, with a supply of bud, the smokeable green stuff, to follow.
To bide my time, I perused the items on display, a Willy Wonka-weds-Mary-Jane buffet of cannabis-infused hard candies and lollipops, chocolate pretzels and peanut butter pretzel cups.
A gift shop-style nook displayed glass pipes, dream catchers, beaded jewelry and T-shirts, including one of Popeye breaking free from his shackles. (Really? Weed, not spinach, was the sailor man's secret weapon?) A rope cordoned off the medical section.
"Okay, who wants hash? Just hash," Tracey, a budtender (a bartender of weed), asked the growing crowd.
Silence. Not even a polite cough.
Minutes later, though, the dozen visitors wriggled happily when a manager showed up with more than a pound of Orange Kush, a hybrid strain.
Tracey tried rousing the crowd again: "When I say, 'Yay!' you say, "Yay!"
A small "yay" rose like a soap bubble from the middle of the line.
I didn't buy any bud that day, or hash. But I did drive to nearby Milberger Farms, where I purchased a loaf of bread baked with hot green chilies. After a few bites, I experienced tingly lips and teary eyes, a capsaicin buzz that predated Amendment 64 by many decades.
Hold the groans while you read this: Pot tourism is a budding industry.
Sorry, but the puns are unavoidable. Try talking about Colorado's newest law without making some dad joke about a Rocky Mountain high. It's nearly impossible.
But all kidding aside, the sector is growing, very slowly, like a young plant in a greenhouse.
"We're all kind of making this up as we go along," said David Maddalena, editor in chief of the Hemp Connoisseur, a monthly magazine. "We have no road map to follow."
The state tourism office, for one, is delighted to tell visitors about skiing and snowboarding, beer and bike tours and gator farms. But it zips up on the topic of the newest stream of tourism dollars: "The Colorado Tourism Office has positioned Colorado as a premier four-season destination," reads a public statement, "and the organisation has no plans to use the legalisation of the drug to promote the state."
With tight lips on the official front, tourists must rely on Web searches and local weed publications (curl up with a copy of Cannapages or Hemp Connoisseur) for their travel information.
Chatty insiders are also eager to spread the word. Vee, for one, told me that about a half-dozen companies are offering themed tours, including his own public excursions on the first Saturday of the month (he also arranges private outings).
A company called My 420 Tours recently started multi-day packages that include cannabis-friendly hotels, special tasting events and airport transfers. Colorado Green Tours, a full-service travel agency that has jumped on the bud wagon, quoted me prices for three a la carte tours (sampling, growing or dispensary).
When I was ready to book, I left two phone messages and sent an email. The company never replied; feel free to insert stoner quip here.
Though WeedMaps, an online directory, provides the addresses, hours and menus of the dispensaries, it goes blank on the next step: where to savor your special purchase.
Accommodations that permit smoking on balconies or designated floors are rare. For weed-welcoming lodging, Stetler told me about the Microtel Inn and Suites in Pueblo, and Vee shared the name of the Cliff House Lodge in Morrison.
For smoking spots that don't require pajamas, Maddalena recommended Casselman's Bar and Venue; private clubs such as Club 64; and HoodLab, a hemp clothing retailer that holds art exhibits and cultural events. Smokers are welcome to retreat to the latter's back yard, which is tented during colder months.
"I think Denver needs to provide a place for tourists to smoke comfortably," said Maddalena.
With the law still pink and hairless, the industry is preparing for the moment when pot tourism sprouts some fur and legs - and sprints off like an unleashed beast.
Medically Correct's Incredibles, a line of handcrafted chocolate bars sold in 400 dispensaries, plans to move its kitchen from a cramped room southwest of downtown to a larger space by spring.
The expansion may also include tour opportunities for small clusters of guests interested in learning about the culinary art and science of infused treats.
For the uninitiated, the variety of items on the market can be dizzying.
The sophisticated industry uses inscrutable terms that sound as if the products were concocted in a science lab run by Jeff Spicoli: indica, sativa, dabbing, butane hash oil, vaporisers, couch lock (when you melt into your furniture).
Budtenders often meet with customers one-on-one, carefully explaining the different strains and their effect on the mind and body.
At RiverRock, Verzura will introduce some visual aids when the shop launches its adult-use division on March 1.
He plans to assemble a color-coded chart that will help visitors pair their desired experience (high-energy or low-key, creative flow or deep thoughts, functional or slothful) with the proper product.
I challenged Verzura to a match: I hypothetically wanted to re-create the sensation of sitting in a flowery field beneath a blue sky and a warm sun. I didn't want to sweat or experience an uptick in heartbeats. If possible, mandolin music would tinkle in the background.
Verzura processed the information and minutes later produced a trio of suggestions: White Widow, Northern Lights and Jack Herer, which was named after the cannabis activist who died two years before Colorado passed Amendment 64.
Maddalena, who carries a medical red card, purchased a gram of Jack Frost, another option that would transport me to my fairy-in-nature setting. He later handed me the container as a gift. I added it to my growing pile of untouched cannabis.
The state had removed all the hurdles expect the one inside my head.
"Do you want me to roll you a joint for the ride?" asked my host, Chastity Osborn, who runs Get High Getaways with her husband, Dale Dyke.
Cannibus as a hotel amenity - how novel.
As part of my bed-and-breakfast stay, the couple provided personalised car service in a black Mercedes sedan. But the perks didn't stop there.
Inside their Lakewood home, I had the run of the entire first floor, which included a living room with HDTV, the kitchen and a pair of guestrooms stocked with salty snack foods, candy and a mini-fridge full of beverages, hummus and veggies.
A hot tub bubbled out back, and a steam room misted downstairs. Chastity is also a massage therapist with fingers like a drill press.
"These will be ready for when you get back," she said, pointing to the homemade chocolate-chip cookies sealed inside a Tupperware container.
Dale, dressed dapperly in an olive-colored suit, drove me to the Colorado Highlife Tours meeting spot near the 16th Street Mall.
On the ride over, we talked about his indoor grow room, which he assembled six years ago, and his new strains (Loud Scout and Grape Twizzler). At a red light, he demonstrated the mechanics of a vape-pen.
In the parking lot, he sat with me until I was ready to board the bus. I felt like a kid on her first day of school, with Dale in the role of protective father. He met Vee and confirmed my return time before driving off.
Vee started the tour with a social smoke, passing around pipes packed with Blue Dream. I declined and waved it over to a middle-age couple from New Jersey. They passed it along to a young duo from the Dallas area, who paid it forward to a New York transplant carrying a stylish Hugo Boss satchel. The pipes eventually circled back to Vee, who exclaimed, "Is that bowl dust?"
Thin puffs of smoke floated over our heads like cumulus clouds. Vee fiddled with the music, which treaded into easy-listening territory. The champagne remained corked. We were subdued, the anti-booze cruise.
"Don't get too zoned," he warned us after our first stop at Medicine Man, the state's largest retailer. "We don't want anyone zombie-ing out on the couch."
At our second stop, 3-D Cannabis Center, I skipped the retail queue and ducked under the Garden Viewing Corridor sign. A row of windows framed a series of cannabis plants - the latest trend, from farm-to-bong.
We were behind schedule because of the 45-minute wait to enter the retail shop. Vee was now moving at significantly higher rpms.
At Illuzion, he herded his little lambs through the glassblowing gallery that specializes in artful pipes and bongs. I blurred past smoking devices shaped like Bert and Ernie, piranhas with razor-sharp teeth and yellow "rubber" duckies that require water wings to float. I reconnected with Vee in front of a giant schooner.
We studied the sails, ropes and decks trying to discern how one smokes out of a ship. Aha, through the mast.
Our final stop, Club 64, was a new addition to the tour. After noticing a significant lull in the energy level of previous guests, Vee tacked on a visit to a private venue. Here, we could stretch our legs, down some barista-made coffee and light up for the nth time that day.
Walking up the narrow stairs, I asked the New Jersey gentleman how he and his wife indulge back home, since that state supports only medical marijuana. "We drink a glass of wine," he said, "and we come to Colorado."
Little by little, our group peeled off. A married couple excused themselves to go check into their hotel; a New York pair skipped the return ride and walked back to their inn. The Jersey husband fell ill and required an ambulance trip to the hospital. The arrival of EMTs can really knock your kite out of the sky.
When we arrived at the original meeting place, Dale was standing outside the car, a chauffeur with a not-so-secret stash.
While I was gone, he'd prepared me a joint, which he'd placed in a glass ashtray resting on the nightstand in my room. It nested with a large bud (there was also one in my bathroom) and a lighter engraved with the inn's name.
Our trio, plus Sydney the dog, gathered around the kitchen table. Chastity poured us each a glass of white wine while Dale rolled a smoke. I twirled the animal print vape-pen between my fingers.
The following morning, I woke to the growl of the juicing machine. Dale handed me a glass of apple, orange and carrot juice and a sesame bagel.
Breakfast was a typical B&B scene, except for the bag of pot on the table, the joint in my guest room and the dry taste in my mouth.
- The Washington Post