It’s Wednesday, around midday. My friend and I, along with 100,000 other people walk up to Golden Gate Park’s Hippie Hill. 4/20 festival – it’s the biggest day of the year for marijuana enthusiasts, but we’re just here for the experience.
Coming from a pretty conservative city, San Francisco’s liberal spirit is undeniably present. I mean, it’s a Wednesday, and locals are embracing this gigantic gathering, instead of working. There’s no permits. The city turns a blind eye to the stampede of people congregating in for a giant smoke out.
All walks of life are here. Men. Women. Elderly couples. Kids… this place is more than a free-ticket to smoke all day, into the night – it’s a counter culture. A community. A holiday to protest. A symbol of freedom.
We find a free spot of green grass, and lay out in the sun – just like everyone else. A gigantic blanket of smoke hovers above us, and “Get freshly baked” is written by a flying plane. This is what it was like to live in the 60’s, I think to myself.
Not that we’re big smokers, but here, we feel like a joint. It’s national weed day, of course. Realising we didn’t have any cash on us, we get up and walk over to a group of guys handing out water bottles.
“Hey, would you happen to have a spare joint? We don’t have any cash on us,” we ask, giggling.
“Sure – take this one,” the short brown-haired American said, smiling.
“Wow, this place is cool, “ I say to my friend.
I put the smoke to my lips, and suck in. I breathe out, and let everything out with it. My friend and I pass the joint back and forward, until it’s no longer alight.
Four people catch my eye as we’re wandering. A woman with ripped jeans is strumming a guitar, looking down to the ground. While her friend to the left points her infectious grin my way, as I giggle at her sign: I need a fatass blunt.
A dog stretches out in front of her, and two other friends sit next to her – both with matching caps and their backpacks still on.
It’s easy to see that this festival means different things to different people. Some are just here to get high and have fun, but others are using this opportunity to get legalise marijuana – getting signatures from 420 punters.
Everything and everyone is relaxed. Mellow.
Passively high from all of the weed in the air, we decide it’s time to head off and grab some food. “I’m done with crowds for the day,” we both agree. Meandering down a gravel path, we laugh at each other, as we’re already lost. Without the herds of people to follow, it all looks the same.
“I think it was the next path over, but this will probably take us to the exit,” I say. Laughing, we continue on, lightheaded and worry-free.
But in a split second, everything changed.
I hear an overwhelming number of voices and rummaging. Feet hitting the ground. I turn to my friend and I see a stampede of people. Confused, we share a look of horror. Eyes wide. Heart pounding. Legs shaking…
Not knowing what was going on, the first thought that pops into my mind is we’re going to get trampled.
“Run!” I yell instinctively to my friend. But she grabs my hand, and pulls me up on the hill that sandwiches the thin gravel path.
“We can’t outrun everyone,” she says, voice shaking.
I can’t explain it any better than the scene from the Lion King, when Mufasa is trampled. Legs bent, we hide behind a bunch of scrubs, hands grasped tightly. We sat there for what felt like an eternity, holding our bodies up on the steep hill.
A short American girl with long dark hair came up to us, frantically. “I’ve lost my friend. Can I stay with you girls?”
Embracing her, we tell her of course. She stays with us until the last of the people have run by. And I think that was the scariest part of this whole thing.
If we had turned back when we thought we were lost, things could have ended very differently. We could have so easily lost each other.
It was the scariest five minutes of my life. You know those moments that last forever.
Although the buzz kill was only temporary and the smoke continued to rise, we decide to leave. Walking back down the hill, coming out at the entry of the park, we’re still high on the adrenaline. Weirdly, I’m laughing and I don’t know why. I guess it’s how I deal with trauma… laugh it off.
Later, we found out that someone fired a gunshot.
Along with watching the 200,000 Egyptians protest from a Cairo rooftop during the Arab Spring, this is the only other time I’ve feared for my life, while travelling. But this time, I was in it. No watching from afar. No hearing it in the news.
I remember it, and will continue to. But does it stop me from wanting to travel, definitely not. It’s all part of it – taking the good with the bad.