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420 at the Clam 

Regional celebrants of 4/20 last Friday may have felt torn between two settings: forest, or beach? Several thousand chose forest, converging upon Arcata Community Forest's Redwood Park - one obvious reason, we'd think, being that apparently the greatest height to which a redwood tree can, in theory, grow before the water poops out is 420 feet. Or maybe it's just a good place to party.

A smaller tribe settled for the Pacific. One guy parked his car on Scenic Drive south of Trinidad to watch the sun slowly rappel to the ocean as whales spouted water and surfers bobbed by the Camel. An artist descended the short, steep cliff path to Luffenholtz Beach to etch a gigantic pot leaf into the wet sand and, for clarity's sake, scratched a big "420" next to it - there, now even the birds soaring over would be in the know. And many went straight to Clam Beach to plunk tents in the sand.

Ah, Clam Beach. Sun, waves, dunes. A mellow crowd. Though it wasn't always so, said Bob Walsh, Humboldt County Parks Supervisor. He stood at the entrance to the Clam Beach campground Friday afternoon, turning away hopeful campers. It was 4:10 p.m., the campground was full, the fees of the lucky hundred-some campers who'd already checked in safely deposited in The Magic Kingdom - a rusty old beat-up lunchbox sitting on a table at the makeshift entrance. A steady stream of other official sorts came and went. "We decided we needed to man the campground about four, five years ago," said Walsh. Things had got crazy - "out-of-towners" burning pallets on the beach, littering, and rattling the nerves of nesting snowy plovers by thrashing about collecting driftwood to burn and letting their dogs galumph wherever.

But all was calm. The park employees had firewood for sale, and they scanned the dunes for trouble. The campers - mostly kids from Redding - sat around in the sand talking, or loafed inside tents. "We're the parents of the teenage kids' party," joked Walsh. A truck from Mad River Biologists came through. The driver stuck his head out the window to natter with the park crew. He was, he said - pinching thumb and forefinger together ironically - "just a little bit" worried about his plovers. "My blood pressure goes way up" on holidays like this, he said.

But the kids, and stray adults, were behaving. At one large campsite, 11 young guys, the oldest maybe 21, sat sleepily in the sand, legs half-curled in blankets, heads tousled, faces already wind-burnt. Dan, their spokesman, said yeah, they'd come here for 4/20. "It's a good place to hang out because people are less strict here" than in Redding, he said. "But we come to Clam Beach a lot anyway. This is a beautiful place."

At another campsite with a pale blue tent, mellow had an edge. Two brassy voiced young women were draining a whiskey bottle while their two young men stood about looking slightly self-conscious. Waves crashed beyond the dunes. Time ticked. Tocked. And then one of the women yelled, "4:20! Whooo!" and punched a button on her cell phone and shouted into it harshly, "4:20, bitches! Whooo! Shasta County! Five-three-o! Whooo!" All around the campground, fingers fumbled with glass pipes and rolling papers, flicked lighters.

The mood at a nearby camp also had a slight edge - not whiskey-bit, but political. An older woman, a local named Cathy, stood with friends at a picnic table. She had on a black T-shirt with a pot leaf and red cross design and the words, "The Humboldt Cooperative Quality Control Team." She wore a pendant made from a quarter, with the metal around Washington's head cut away to form a pipe in his mouth. "I couldn't get up to the [Redwood Park] celebration because they didn't have enough handicapped parking," she complained. "And I'm a patient." Arthritis has crippled her hips, knees, back. She walks slowly, with a cane. "There are times I can't keep food down because of the medication I take. The only thing that can get me started eating again is smoking." To her, "4/20" is the day to celebrate pot as medicine -- which is why she went up to Redwood Park earlier that day. When she complained to a police officer there about the lack of parking, the policewoman said it wasn't an official event - nobody had applied for a permit, so nobody had the authority to designate more disabled spaces.

But maybe it was better to be at the beach, anyway. The cops sure were relaxed. "We're not here to rain on anybody's parade," said a cheerful Sheriff's deputy. "I don't care if anybody's smoking marijuana. We're just out here to make sure everybody has a good time. You know, last year there were kids stealing other kids' beer, and their pot. We're just here to look out for the bad apples."

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Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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