Highway to Heaven: Houston 420 by Mike Dyson

2626 W. Loop South
Houston, TX 77027
Phone: 713-621-1814
Fax: 713-784-9074

Hours of Operation:
9:00 am to 1:00 am
Payments Accepted:
Cash and major credit cards

January 2004–A shopping trip with my brother, Paul, had me headed south on the 610 loop towards the uptown Galleria shopping area, home of the fifth largest mall in the nation. This was by far the most upscale part of Houston we had visited since moving to the city a month before. That’s when I spied it; the largest interstate sign I had ever seen. I could see it from what must have been a couple miles away. It stood 100 feet or more in the air and was illuminated brilliantly in the city night. The Texas Department of Transportation really went all out on this one, I thought. And what destination could be of such import to warrant such a massive sign? Heaven maybe? As we got a little closer, still a mile or so off, I could make out the digits: 420 was emblazoned on a bright azure field, while the crimson top, where one would expect to see “Interstate” scrolled, instead read “HOUSTON”. It was decided. I had to find out where this glorious sign would lead me.

I followed the sign to its base, at which a barn-like structure stood. It was painted in much the same motif, a large blue roof with the crown covered in red, as the pointer that brought me. Again HOUSTON 420 was inscribed in enormous white letters. So I had been led to some kind of commercial outlet by a clever ploy to capture my imagination. In an area dominated by the likes of Macy’s, Saks, and Nordstrom, I suppose such advertising strategies are a survival standard for the lesser-known retailers. Conquered by such marketing genius, I felt obligated to finish the journey inside. Once inside, I soon discovered that taking this road may not get you as high as heaven, but it was sure to get you as high as you needed to be.

The pungent smell of incense hit me the second I opened the door. My nose was flooded with scents from all over the spectrum. First it was floral. Rose, most likely. Then the spice hit me. Cinnamon maybe. I couldn’t decide, for as soon I tried to identify it, the scent was overcome by patchouli. That was easily marked. Odd how the senses are able to pinpoint the least pleasant and focus all their efforts upon it. Directly in front of me lay racks of T-shirts to which little attention was paid for my eyes had quickly moved on to the coffee stand, which was boasting fresh brews in a sundry of flavors. Finally something to drown out the patchouli. As I made my way through the small shop I noticed a string of computers. This apparently was no mere head shop as I had originally thought. It doubled as an Internet café and coffee house as well, and for the modest price of about $8.00 you could browse the internet for an hour while sipping your fresh java.

To my left, I saw a slightly raised portion of the store. At the top were shelves of glassware. The pieces were nothing short of beautiful. I walked right past the glass display cabinets that lined the path, completely oblivious to their contents. Venetians in all their glass blowing glory would have stood in awe. Pipes, bubblers, bongs (excuse me, I mean tobacco water pipes, for you must make sure to never mention the possible use of these devices for illegal uses unless you wish abruptly end your browsing) and hookahs in every color of the rainbow. Some were short and stocky, others, tall and thin. Some had been bent into zigzags and others shaped like animals; the scorpion was quite impressive. The choices had been illuminated by lights that lined the back of every shelf, causing the intermingled hues to shine with such magnificence as to drown out the sun. Fearing for the sake of my vision, and because someone can stare at something as intense as the sun for only so long, I broke my gaze, wiped the drool from my chin, and continued to browse.

Rolling papers occupied five feet worth of display cabinet, with all three levels filled by varying brands, lengths and flavors. I had no idea what a lucrative market cigarette rolling papers had become. Even Bob Marley had gotten in on the action with a line of papers whose packaging looked Caribbean in color and touted a caption of the reggae wailer toking a rotund cig. Coconut, cherry, orange, chocolate and even Pina Colada flavors were available in most brands. Cinnamon and a few kinds of mint, wintergreen, spearmint, but oddly no peppermint, were stashed off to one side. Tucked in between the papers were little devices, all flaunting the easiest way to roll your favorite brand of tobacco. These also came in a variety of sizes, colors and brands, and although they all appeared quite similar in design and make, the array of prices suggested otherwise. I suppose some must have received the backing of Corporate America, or at the very least, bought into the idea of a superior name equating to a superior product. Capitalism, evident with the coffee station, Internet alcove, and staggering prices, was alive and well in this subculture.

As I returned to the lower level, I noticed the store was empty, with the exception of my brother, who had remained near the coffee in a vain attempt to drown out the incense. A doorway that had originally escaped my attention, no doubt due to the fine craftsmanship I eyed earlier, was positioned behind him. An almost eerie, purplish glow flowed out of the room. Above the door: “Blacklight Room”. Now this seemed interesting. Inside, the supernatural radiance surrounded me. From floor to ceiling, neon colors poured from large posters. To my left, a giant alien reached for me with a gangly gray arm. To my right, a poster of two skeletons in a number of amorous positions, and next to them, a poor soul whose entire head was melting through the very hands upon which it was propped. A display cabinet held more of the tobacco water pipes. These, however, were made of some kind of acrylic, and they emitted the same mystic light as the posters. To the right was an assortment of jewelry. I say jewelry, but in truth it was more a ring or bar for any and every piercing imaginable. They sported the same plastic material as the pipes, and glowed in the same manner. Against the back corner, a lava lamp provided the only true light for the cash register. The room was nothing short of overwhelming and soon my brain began to feel much like the poor soul’s head looked. There was simply too much to take in, and, not unlike with the glassware, I had to force my eyes to avert and find the exit.

I noticed the merchant for the first time once I was back in the main room. Had he been there the whole time? He wore a T-shirt, no doubt like the ones I disregarded when I first entered the shop. His pink, bloodshot eyes inspected me suspiciously, but the tone of his voice was relaxed as he asked if I needed any help. Still, I felt a strange sense of unease and thought it about time to leave. Besides, the shop was almost more than my sober mind could handle. The salesman’s gaze, through those tiny purple-rimmed slits that had become his eyes, told me that my browsing was nearing an end. I decided to make a small purchase, one of those nifty cigarette rollers, as a goodwill gesture. This seemed to make the unshaven guy behind the counter much more receptive. He then proceeded to tell me that the store had been dead for a while and in his boredom, he had snuck to the back to have a quick smoke. Apparently, I had stealthy entered without his knowledge and mistaken his distrustful stare, which was actually more surprise (he claimed) than anything. We spoke briefly about nothing important and he demonstrated the proper use of my new device. Then I left.

I have since learned that there are a number of HOUSTON 420 head shops throughout the city, yet loyal patronage and a certain sense of comfort keep me coming back to the location in the heart of the upper-middle class Galleria area. There is just something fascinating about celebrating a subculture in the heart of mainstream capitalism. Anyway, none have captured my senses like the one my friends and I affectionately call the Highway to Heaven.









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