It’s hard to avoid the water misters on the sidewalks of downtown Palm Springs, especially when those sidewalks are full of people, mostly men, by all appearances gay men, in various states of undress. Looking at Weedmaps, which is much too busy for my eyes, I map my location (Thai food restaurant) to the nearest, and the area’s only, dispensary. (Today’s banner across the top of the Weedmaps website reads: HI, NY! IT SEEMS FAR BUT LEGALIZATION IS CLOSE. GET WEED FREED).

On a short solo road trip to Joshua Tree, I decided at the last minute to turn off onto Hwy 111 toward Palm Springs for research. Before I checked Weedmaps I learned from a Facebook friend that this would be the only location in the area. There are numerous delivery services, but only one walk-in dispensary.

I drive about three miles outside of downtown and come across a white building. All the parking spaces outside have corresponding placards noting that parking is for patients only, which seems odd because the nearest buildings are across a small driveway and the businesses couldn’t appear more separate. A young woman is outside the door making a phone call while a man waits for her to finish. I open the heavy white door and step in.

The smell of marijuana is overwhelming and I realize that in most if not all the other dispensaries I’ve been in, I don’t remember the aroma being so strong in the lobby. When I walk in I’m greeted by the sound of gunfire coming from a big screen television I must walk past to get to the receptionist, a blonde, blue-eyed woman wearing a black baseball cap with marijuana leaf patches all over it. The small window opens and she greets me with a smile. She establishes I’m a new customer and I get the clipboard and four pages of paperwork to sign and initial.

Wicker chairs are mixed in with folding chairs and I seat myself on one of the latter. An ancient green throw rug covers a portion of a white-tiled floor. The coffee table offerings are business cards and copies of Gardener’s Digest. This waiting room must have once served as a dentist or doctor’s office. I’ve never seen bathrooms off the waiting room of a dispensary before, and here, there are two.

A trickling meditative water fountain does nothing to mitigate the gunfire and banter of the movie being shown, which I have to look up later (This Is the End, with Seth Rogen and James Franco, et al). The people I’d seen outside walk in, as well as several others. It’s 1:30 p.m. on a Monday, a time I’ve never been to a dispensary, and the place is hopping.

When I return the paperwork, the receptionist asks, “Is this your first time at a dispensary?” I reply no, then wish I’d said yes, just to see what kind of extra tour and spiel I might get.

I walk around the waiting room, noticing the preponderance of particular iconography. Porcelain cups. Multiple Buddhas. Bamboo plants. Their glass case contains a few marijuana-related art pieces but it’s spare, leaning more towards the Asian-themed décor.

The usual wait time requires a person leave the buying room before another is buzzed in. My name is called, which is slightly disconcerting, and I’m buzzed behind one door. For a moment I’m standing in a vestibule with only posters on the walls. Another buzz and I enter the buying room.

Four budtenders are behind the counter in what is a huge buying room. I’m ushered toward Miguel. He hands me a several page menu, paper in plastic covers. He is soft-spoken but self-assured. I decide to engage him in a conversation about strains to see how different his take will be than the last budtender I spoke with in Hollywood. When I say, “I’m a writer” to Miguel, he nods knowingly and talks about the endocannabinoid system and strains that favor creativity. “I read a lot of Wikipedia,” he adds.

Because of his focused attention on me, and because I am alone on this excursion, it’s difficult to pull away and take in all the details of this buying room, but I do notice the countertops messy with shake, the neon marijuana leaf on the wall, and the Obama CHANGE poster modified to show smoke coming out of the president’s mouth like he’s just taken a hit off a big joint. Many of the usual offerings are present: chews; lozenges; cookies and other edibles; wax; glass pipes (no bongs that I can see); and accoutrements, such as plastic grinders. A jar of dog biscuits is on the countertop and labeled as such, with the important notation NON-MEDICATED. Next to it are paper flyers requesting I like the dispensary on Facebook. A red and white sign on the wall admonishes STOP ARRESTING MEDICAL MARIJUANA PATIENTS.

The sheer amount of patients coming in and out of the buying room makes me wish I could sit in a corner and watch every transaction, as it already feels so different from Los Angeles dispensaries. The vibe is looser, the customers more laid back and plentiful. Is it related to the landscape just outside the door, with views of the San Jacinto Mountains and clear blue skies, versus the dirty sidewalks and imposing buildings I’m used to seeing in Los Angeles? I leave sooner than I’d like and sit in the parking lot for a moment writing notes. Someone opens a car door and gets out, headed for that white door. Cars pull up. People walk out the white door and get in cars to leave. The bright hot sun makes it difficult to write in the sweltering car, and I’m conscious there are probably cameras outside watching the parking lot. I drive a few miles away and park in the shade. When I mention on Facebook that I’m in Palm Springs doing research, a friend replies, “Oooh, post White Party. Should be a fascinating crowd of hungover, exhausted half-clad, hot homosexuals! Enjoy that (winking face emoji).” When I look back again at the dispensary page on Weedmaps, their Announcement box reads, WELCOME ALL VISITORS FOR WHITE PARTY WEEKEND. STOP & CHECK OUT OUR MEDS. YOU WON’T BE DISAPPOINTED. The crowded sidewalks and excessive topless-ness in Palms Springs now make slightly more sense.

My research finished, I drive away from town. The road signs heading toward Joshua Tree read, CAUTION: WATCH FOR DRIFTING SAND, which captures exactly the feeling I have as I head away from the city toward unpaved roads and nights shot full of stars.