Up In Tobacco Smoke


Joplin and I walked along Mill Creek Drive in Moab, Utah, on a June afternoon. Cottonwoods shaded the street and dropped cotton like snow into the rocky berms and roadside weeds. As we crossed the bridge over the creek, a rusty Ford with oversized and tattered tires rolled by. Its tailpipe blew aery black smoke in short percussive bursts. I saw in the darkened cab the outline of a mustache, the brim of a hat. And out of the open window came flying a smoldering cigarette.

Joplin ran over to the smoking filter, pinched it between his thumb and forefinger, and inspecting it briefly as if to ensure he sucked the right end, took a drag. He carefully passed the butt to me as I approached and I took a drag, too. I tasted what seemed to be remnants of that driver’s humid breath and his truck’s stale exhaust. I can only assume now that Joplin must’ve wanted to sample what his mother was drawn to. She smoked cigarettes, later died from some smoking-related illness. We passed that cigarette back and forth until its ember began to burn the cellulose filter. Cotton tufts drifted like tiny tumbleweeds. The asphalt radiated under a mean Southwestern sun. Joplin blew out a hit. The smoke hung and twisted in the sunlight, and he studied it there, as if holding a negative up to an overhead lamp, looking for an answer or sign.

I was ten years old.

Nearly all first encounters with nature’s psychoactive gifts unfold in this way—unconsciously, slowly, as though pulled by some unbearable curiosity, willed by some unseen force. As though Nature wants us to know her. We discover through these encounters previously unfelt parts of ourselves. Rites of passage. Not necessarily mystical, but nonetheless mystifying.

People have been smoking tobacco for 8000 years—since before Jesus walked, before geezers penned the Old Testament, before written history became a thing. The custom originated about the same time that brewing and drinking beer did, though here on the American continent. American Indians rolled tobacco leaf into cigars and stuffed it into pipes. Shamans used tobacco to treat afflicted tribesmen by blowing smoke over a patient’s body and face for hours, a ritual that facilitated quick trips to the unconscious realm and left both shaman and patient stoned to the core. The smoke, they believed, carried ill spirits out of the body. Or if illness was due to the loss of soul, another possibility, smoking was said to open that pathway to the spirit world where one could retrieve it.

Tobacco is biphasic; it produces both stimulating and depressing effects. It can instantly kill a person in high doses, but it’s metabolized quickly so this rarely happens. This is one reason Natives value it. It doesn’t require the commitment that other psychoactive plants do, like, say, ayahuasca or peyote.

When European raiders first moored their ships in America, Natives introduced them to tobacco, hoping they would appreciate its physical and spiritual effects. But Europeans weren’t interested in what they saw as savage metaphysics. Their interest in botany was from the beginning enterprising. Plants of the New World held, above all, economic promise. So they adopted the practice of smoking tobacco, but forwent the ritual. Tobacco soon became America’s first crop. It was promoted as a panacea to children and adults. As world trade routes opened, tobacco became the world’s first luxury commodity—before chocolate, coffee, tea, and sugar. Today, tobacco is the most profitable crop for at least half a dozen countries, including America—generating per acre twice the revenue of coffee and ten times that of staple food crops. This, in part, thanks to subsidization. Worldwide, tobacco is more profitable to farm than rice, soybeans, wheat and sugarcane, but less profitable than coca, poppy, cannabis, and grapes, otherwise known as cocaine, opium, weed and wine. Three cheers for prohibition!

I wouldn’t smoke again until I was fifteen. Walking along the dirt road that once paralleled the Murdock Canal, I smoked until I reached the orchards. Then I smoked some more, where I could hide from the eyes of parents and neighbors. I was with Tony, a fiery adolescent with a scrappy grin and longish hair. He bopped on the balls of his feet when he walked, which made him appear both confident and ungrounded, free but unhinged. We smoked Camels. Or Marlboros. It couldn’t have been anything else. The two brands ran the most successful advertising campaigns then, and fledgling smokers debated their qualities the way rednecks debate Fords and Chevys.

There weren’t qualities worth debating, however, despite our imaginings. It wasn’t the “Turkish & Domestic Blend” of Camel Filters that lured us, nor was it the promise of a “Class A” cigarette inside a pack of Marlboros. No, we were seduced by the promise of individuality, freedom, and sex appeal. Smoking, we believed, would make us cool like Joe Camel, hard like The Marlboro Man. It didn’t matter what was inside those cigarettes, but what was inside us. Smoking was how we told the world where we stood. Or so the advertisers made us believe.

My fifteen-year-old curiosity soon became an unconscious pack-a-day habit. The men I worked construction with dubbed me “Lil Smoker.” I didn’t smoke cigarettes for long, though, as I stopped enjoying them, and at the age of eighteen I quit, without difficulty. Tobacco, by the way, is about as addictive as morning coffee. That story about it being as addictive as heroin is untrue.

Nevertheless, I soon found abstinence lackluster. In my twenties, as I further entertained mind-altering substances, I’d often find myself intoxicated and tempted by tobacco’s mystique. So I experimented with chewing tobacco (from Skoal to Levi Garrett) and cheap cigars (from Backwoods to Swisher Sweets) and snuff (from Pöschl to Gawith), but always I’d abandon the affair after a few weeks. Then, in 2015, while road tripping through the Pacific Northwest, I opted for the complete Kerouacian adventure and stopped at a service station to buy a pack of Zig Zags and a pouch of Bali Shag. For the remainder of my trip I rolled stogies while steering my Jeep with one knee down Oregon’s byways, and I studied smoke against the sunlight when I exhaled.

I discovered on this trip that hand-rolled tobacco is superior to boxed cigarettes—in terms of flavor, ritual, and aesthetics. The smell of the shredded plant, the feel of it in my fingers, the challenge to roll the perfect stud, the rich and creamy unfiltered smoke—all of it signaled an unexplored landscape of sensation. Piqued by this discovery, I began searching tobacconists for less adulterated forms of the plant and straighter means of consuming it. One day, I asked a clerk at a smoke shop if I might inspect a briar pipe. I’d always been fascinated with pipes, used them for various purposes, built them in high school shop, but I’d never hefted nor smoked from a proper tobacco unit. Without thinking, I put the pipe to my lips to test it out. That’s when the clerk informed me I was buying that pipe, and she pointed to an index card taped to the glass case adjacent to my waist, which read, “You put a pipe in your mouth, you buy it.” Disgruntled, I handed over forty dollars, then ten more for some samples of pipe tobacco, and left.

Did you know there are American, Danish, and Oriental pipe tobaccos? There are Virginia, Maryland, and Burley tobaccos, Latakia, Perique, and Turkish. These vary not only in kind, but also in how they are cultivated, cured, and cut. Different strains produce different flavors, as do different curing and cutting methods. Some are fire-cured, some air-cured. Some are cased and coated with flavorings of rum, vanilla, chocolate or licorice—called Cavendish tobaccos—while others are straight. Some are cube cut, while others are plug cut, ribbon cut, sliced or flaked. Proper curing and cutting takes weeks, and all these tobaccos from around the world are blended in various ways to highlight unique notes within the smoke. When you add to this all the ways a pipe can influence flavor—through material, construction, age, size and shape—you get endless possibilities for smoking pleasure.

For two years I carried a pipe and a tin of tobacco. I smoked at coffeehouses, bars, parties and patios, or while reading, writing, walking or riding my bike, as in the style of Mark Twain. This was no literary accoutrement, though, but a genuine love affair with an aged plant. Friends and strangers, intrigued by the pipe, solicited tokes; I obliged, at first happily and then begrudgingly. A man’s pipe, in time, becomes a deeply personal effect, and is sure to become an heirloom. And his tobaccos become friends. I settled in time on two favored leaves: a golden straight Virginia with a citrus and grassy tang, and a Syrian latakia with a nutmeg piquant. One for the morning, one for the eve. And for the hours in between I sampled a rotating range of strains, which I stored and still store in Mason jars on my bookcase, including a Navajo blend laced with lavender, sage, and fennel.

It was while smoking pipes that I first began to feel good about my tobacco use. Of course, snuff and cigarettes produce a pleasure, but one that, for me, was always tainted with worry over health effects. Puffing the pipe, however, is a guiltless pleasure, for one does not inhale pipe smoke (never mind that puffing might incur the need to have your lip or larynx excised with a scalpel). And I still smoke my pipes—but only when I weary of cigars.

During the past year I’ve smoked two hundred different cigars, in order to get better acquainted with them. It’s been an expensive endeavor, one that has required I temporarily set aside all other hobbies that require funding. But I’ve no compunction. I have noted in journals my impressions and rating of each cigar; I’ve read of their origins and watched documentaries; I’ve cycled through ever larger humidors, settling on a secondhand American made box that I customized with Spanish and Eastern red cedars. I now keep in it a stock of various cigars filled, bound, and wrapped with tobaccos from Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Brazil, Cameroon, Indonesia and the United States. And I know what I like. Aging Room F59, Camacho Connecticut, My Father The Judge, Oliva Serie V Melanio—all outstanding cigars. But Padron is my porridge. The 1964 Anniversary, natural. It’s like an extension of me, colored and sized as it is, resembling my browned and aging fingers, and it tastes like it was made for my palate. It feels good to find your lovechild after three decades of searching.

I love tobacco for the solitude it affords me. In the mornings I grab a maduro cigar from my humidor, then I crank a small handle affixed to ceramic burrs. The burrs pulverize roasted coffee beans. The pulverized beans fall into a glass jar. I then steep the bean grains with water from a hot kettle and pour the blackened brew into a small mug. With a maduro in one hand and a cup o’ joe in the other, I step out to my suburban stoop, alone, and make love to my chemicals. Or in the afternoon I’ll walk along concrete to a city park, circle the grass fields for an hour while smoke encircles my thoughts. Or I’ll bike or hike a mountain trail or desert flat with a cigar in my shirt pocket, like a pig in a blanket, and when I’ve sufficiently exerted myself I’ll stop, put my ass on a rock or portable chair, ignite the stogie with a Bic lighter, and listen to the trees and shrubs talk. And come dusk or dark I’ll excuse myself from crowded house and worldly care and set out wandering dim streets. Nothing like a good ritual to put you face-to-face with the continually examined self.

I love tobacco for its sociability. Once or twice a week I’ll sit for an hour with strangers on the veranda at Juice n’ Java. We come for the same reasons: for time alone, time to commune. Time to smoke. Discussions of politics, art, religion, literature, film, sex and money arise, as if invoked by the nimbus exhalations. No topic is off limits. We are strangers, but we are friends, as much as or more of a community than any parish. Like the ‘50s Beats or the French existentialists, we discuss our broodings and scratch notes. If the coffeehouse is quiet, I’ll call a friend of five or fifteen or thirty years and we’ll meet and light a match and pour some Scotch and laugh at the pain of living. A dangerous affair.

It’s true, tobacco can kill you. But just because we fear death doesn’t mean we should do everything in our power to avoid it. Such behavior is neurotic. Red meat, refined sugar, iodized salt, modern highways, corporate jobs, falling trees and stray bullets can also kill you. Hell, drink too much water and you can die of poisoning. Fact is, one day you will die. And unless you’re one of those rare humans who has the temerity to off yourself, you don’t know when or how your day will come. So until it does, you might as well enjoy yourself. Tobacco, smoked properly, is one simple way to do so. To avoid it for its risks is cowardly. To reject it on religious grounds is ignorant. To subsidize its cultivation while taxing its consumption is immoral. But smoking the tobie alone or with a friend elevates the spirit.

This might all be the vain imaginations of an addicted mind, though. Dependency, after all, underscores the entirety of tobacco’s history—at least that’s what the historians say. Like my fifteen-year-old self once savored the flavor of Marlboro Reds, which today I’d say is akin to burnt pubic hair, my middle-aged self savors hints of clove, coffee, cedar and nuts in my pipe tobaccos and cigars. Flavors aside, let’s not discount nicotine’s mysterious effect on the brain, nor the act of smoking’s influence on the soul. Maybe I’m entranced now not by the promise of individuality and freedom, but wisdom, understanding, and peace. Perhaps advertisers have evoked all these images, and nicotine carries them forward. Or maybe this is all part of reclaiming ritual. Maybe there is wisdom in puffing a plant, slowly, once a day or thrice a week, solo or with a mate, and stopping for a spell.

If that kills me, so be it. Burn me when I’m dead, as an elegy to the plant, and peer into the plumes as they rise against the light. Maybe you’ll find an answer or a sign.