I’m not a smoker but I can’t resist unusual town names so when I saw an exit off of Interstate 5 in Northern California for a town called Weed, I pulled over, eager to find out how the town got its name. This being California, I imagined that some hippies moved into the town in the ’60s and voted to change the name to Weed. I expected to see aging Boomers with tie-dye shirts, ponytails and unkempt dogs passing around huge spliffs on the town’s main drag, Cheech and Chong movies playing in perpetuity at the Weed cinema, and the melodies of Bob Marley & The Wailers filling the streets.
But a visit to the Weed Store, a souvenir shop at the entrance to the town, quickly disabused me of that notion. Stacey Green, the shop manager, explained that the town was named after a guy named Abner Weed, a native of Maine who came to the place to open a lumber mill in 1897. It isn’t clear whether Weed smoked ganja himself but Green said that marijuana definitely isn’t legal or even decriminalized in the town.”There are definitely some hippies here,” he said. “But there are conservatives as well.”
The town’s other primary claim to fame is that Weed is the place that George Milton and Lennie Small fled from in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
Like many people who live in small towns, Green is something of a jack-of-all-trades. He manages the Weed Store, which sells weed-related T-shirts, hats, signs and other souvenirs, but is also an ordained minister and was elected to the Weed city council in December. Green grew up in Weed and moved back to town a few years ago to care for his mom. He said that the town’s road signs get stolen all the time because everyone wants a sign that says Weed.
There used to be a sign just outside town directing motorists to turn one way for the College of the Siskiyous and another for downtown Weed. But the allure of stealing a sign with the words “College” and “Weed” with arrows pointing in opposite directions was too strong and so they eventually ditched the sign and replaced it with the one you see above. You can, however, buy a postcard of the old sign at Green’s shop.
There isn’t a lot to see in downtown Weed, and in truth, I’ve seen more prosperous looking places, but the town is dramatically situated right near Mt. Shasta, a 14,000-foot peak in the Cascade Range. Even if Weed isn’t the hippie haven I thought it might be, the town’s merchants seem to have no qualms with capitalizing on the town’s name. I saw “Enjoy Weed” T-shirts with the Coca-Cola logo, “I’m High on Weed” hats and other Weed-related souvenirs for sale all over town, including at one of the town’s motels and at a gas station.
At the town’s little tourist information office, a young man made no bones about the town’s claim to fame.
“Most people come in here to ask me about the name,” he said. “And to ask if pot is legal here.”
He said that not only is marijuana illegal, the town also has a law preventing any medicinal marijuana dispensaries from opening inside the city limits. After I left Weed, I looked up the town’s election results and it turns out that Mitt Romney carried Siskiyou County, where Weed sits, to the tune of 56 percent. I didn’t stick around in Weed long enough to understand the town’s political dynamics but even in a brief little foray off the highway, I learned that Weed is full of surprises.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]