The dream of going off in search of America—and finding yourself along the way—is a rich cultural vein that somehow refreshes itself with each new generation. From Huckleberry Finn to Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise to Into the Wild, we’re perpetually drawn to tales of rebels and outlaws who break free from society’s shackles and doggedly pursue some kind of meaning amid our national madness.
That’s because every one of us has thought of doing this in real life—though it’s a tough thing to actually pull off for any length of time, ironically in large part because of traps laid by the very “system” you’re trying to escape. In a 1989 Rolling Stone interview, Jerry Garcia described his work helping to manifest a decades-long traveling psychedelic freak show as a kind of public service.
“[Following the Grateful Dead] is an adventure you can still have in America, just like Neal on the road. You can’t hop the freights anymore, but you can chase the Grateful Dead around. You can have something that lasts throughout your life as adventures, the times you took chances. I think that’s essential, and it’s harder and harder to do in America. If we’re providing some margin of that possibility, then that’s a nice thing.”
Jimi Cummins (far better known as “Wicked Glass”) confides in me that he’s not too into the Grateful Dead’s music, but he’s damn sure glad he made it out to see them on their very last tour in 1995. It was on “Shakedown Street,” amid the gaggle of unofficial vendors gathered together in the parking lot outside Shoreline Arena before the concert, that he spotted his very first glass pipe, a momentous occasion that would blossom into a calling and change his trajectory immeasurably.
At the time, “functional art glass” was in its infancy. Cummins was 24 years old when he attended that fateful Grateful Dead show. There, he met Bob Snodgrass, a living legend and pioneer of the craft of functional glass art, who blew and sold thousands of “color changing” glass pieces while on the Dead tour, dropping knowledge and inspiring countless new artists along the way. His lifestyle would captivate Cummins’s imagination, spurring him to purchase an RV nearly a decade later and leave society behind.
Snodgrass wasn’t the only impetus. The “Neal” Jerry Garcia refers to is Neal Cassidy, pseudonymous hero of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel On The Road—Cummins’s favorite book and a primary catalyst for his own life of freewheeling adventure, most recently manifested as a four-and-a-half-year-long road odyssey spent creating glass art across the US.
Inspired by a combination of Snodgrass, Kerouac, and cannabis, Cummins left his last known address on April 20th, 2013, with vague plans to log 420 days out on the road. He would end up spending the next 1,650 days (to date) away from home.
…So maybe let’s go back to the beginning and get a running start.
Santa Cruz Roots
“I’ve always loved Santa Cruz,” Cummins tells me, “but this is a small town, and I’d get over it quick and want to go wandering again.”
We’re in Santa Cruz, sitting in Cummins’s newly acquired 1986 Volkswagen Westfalia Vanagon, which he just downsized to after deciding to go off the road for awhile. We’re parked outside a small studio space, which he just rented to set up his equipment and turn into a home base. It’s the very same studio he used to blow glass in before he bought the RV, about a block away from where he used to set up a table and sell glass to tourists come to visit Santa Cruz’s famous beach and boardwalk. On a good day, he’d move five or ten basic spoon pipes that went for $40 a pop before the cops would come along and roust him.
Cannabis helped me not worry about conforming to the norms of society or being judged by people.Jimi Cummins
Cummins started out smoking pot when he was younger, and found it helped him focus and overcome symptoms of ADHD. Cannabis also led him to question the conventions and expectations of his suburban upbringing. “Weed played a big role in forming my philosophy of life,” Cummins explains, “because it helped me not worry about conforming to the norms of society or being judged by people.” Though he grew up surfing and DJing in this coastal countercultural college town, Cummins has never stayed here—or any place—for long. As a young man, his wanderlust took him as far as Hong Kong, Africa, Australia, and Japan.
The day he first saw the RV he would travel the US in, Cummins had just read an article about Jack Kerouac in the local paper, and then there it was—a 30-foot RV C-Class—for sale directly across the street from this very spot. He bought it the next day and immediately started making modifications, assembling a work station for his glassblowing set-up, making a space under the bed to fit oxygen containers, building a hidden compartment to plug in propane tanks, and then installing solar panels, an inverter, and four deep cell batteries to run exhaust fans. He had to make sure everything angled away from the kitchenette to prevent any fire hazards. Finally, the RV was ready.
Cummins started that auspicious spring afternoon—4/20/2013—by driving up to the University of California Santa Cruz, to take in the campus’s legendary outlaw 4/20 party. Then he smoked a ceremonial “bong voyage” bowl with his local homies and headed for Death Valley. He was on the road.
The RV was all “perfectly legal,” he assures me, but law enforcement would still occasionally spot him long-term parked in some remote area and assume they’d stumbled across a mobile meth lab.
“A few times the cops rolled up with multiple squad cars, all ready to bust some crazy motherfucker, and then they’d see me inside the RV making octopus pendants and just trip out. The first question they asked was always, ‘What the fuck are you doing out here?’ And now, when I look back, I think—‘What the fuck was I doing out there?’”
“Snodgrass Did That Shit”
“Bob Snodgrass was one of my major inspirations for getting in the RV,” Cummins says. “I literally said to myself, ‘Snodgrass did that shit, I’m gonna do it.’” The fact that there wasn’t a Grateful Dead for him to follow didn’t stop him. “I didn’t want to sell to shops, I wanted to sell my glass direct-to-consumer like [Snodgrass] did,” he recalls. “But I had no idea how. Until I discovered Instagram, and realized I could connect with people while I’m traveling and sell my work that way.” Having worked his way up by building his social media network of followers, Cummins’s pipes are currently in high demand, with original versions now fetching several thousand dollars per piece.
As idyllic as it sounds now, though, life on the road is never easy. Cummins spent most of the first two years parked on BLM land in the middle of the desert, suffering terrible heatwaves inside the RV, while focusing earnestly on his craft. He saw few people in real life, even as he built up a vast network online of contacts and followers that grew along with his lampworking skills. Amid all the natural beauty of his travels, he also saw enough high-intensity feed lots, polluted lakes, garbage dumps, and toxic towns to turn into a vegan and a committed environmentalist.
On the road, Cummins began to see both his glass and his lifestyle as works of art, and himself as an artist. By 2014—inspired by his life-long love of the ocean, and a chance encounter with a children’s book—he had developed his signature line of kraken pipes. The inspiration struck when Cummins’s ride broke down in rural Arizona; while he waited at the mechanic’s shop, he idly flipped through a copy of Octopus Alone set out along with some coloring books, and felt an instant connection.
“That book’s about an octopus that goes out into a reef and mingles with the fish all day, and then hangs out all by himself at night,” Cummins explains. “At the time I really related to that. Because I’d go to a festival for three days to sell glass and meet hundreds of people, and then retreat back to the desert in my RV and not see anyone for a month.”
After posting a picture of one of the very first octopus-inspired pipes he made, he got an order. Several more came in while he was working on it. He’s been backlogged ever since.
In the meantime, he began documenting his #vanlife, joining a growing social movement without really realizing it. “I like the idea of showing people what I’m doing, and how I’m living, because maybe it inspires them to do this themselves,” Cummins says. “Social media can be abused if you just stay at home and chat with your neighbor across the street, but it’s great for meeting people on the road and staying in contact until the next time I roll through their town. Back in the day, if you sold some glass at a festival, you’d never see the piece or the person again. Now I’m always traveling, but I’m also always hanging with locals, so they show me the cool shit to do and take me to a lot of places I’d otherwise never end up seeing.”
Adventures he’s had with IG friends on the road include mountain biking in Moab, kayaking in Virginia, hiking the hobbit trail in Oregon, and many others. He even met Leslie, his current romantic interest, that way. She’d followed him online for a couple of years before showing up at his glassblowing demo at Chalice Festival in Southern California, hoping to say hi in person—even though she didn’t know what he looked like.
“I don’t post pictures of myself, because I feel like that’s irrelevant to what I’m doing,” Cummins explains. “A lot of people want me to go on YouTube and create a channel and all that, but if I try to record a video of myself and my cat jumps the wrong way or I stutter I feel like I’m going to have to do it all over again, and that would just take too much away from the moment. Also,” he adds, “I kinda call bullshit on half the #vanlife accounts, because, you know, it’s just not as perfect as your little blog makes it seem. No way man. Shit happens and if you don’t post any of that, it’s a misrepresentation of what’s really going down.”
Shit does happen. Take the time his RV got caught in a flash flood in the desert outside Joshua Tree. When things dried out, he headed into town for supplies, and the RV got robbed in the hour he was gone—so badly that he had to borrow money to get back on his feet. That particular shit happened at a place called Slab City, which sounds like where pure-hearted extract artists go when they die, but is actually a sort of lawless autonomous zone and self-described “last free place on Earth” out in the California desert. The robbery was a very low point.
Then again, there’ve been plenty more high points—like when Cummins recently invited Leslie to join him in the VW for an extended road trip. “I told her we could really quickly figure out if things were going to work between us, because in the van I consider every day we spend together to be like a month of a regular relationship,” he says. “You get to know someone so fast. So that was the test, and we passed. First time I’ve felt that way in four years.”
The Value of Inspiration
Tomorrow, he’s heading back to Los Angeles to see Leslie again. Then he’ll hand-deliver a custom-ordered glow-in-the-dark kraken pipe (plus a dab mat made of recycled wetsuits and a special trident-shaped dab tool) commissioned by one of his biggest fans. They’re going to make the exchange at a “secret sesh,” which Cummins describes as a kind of car show for glass enthusiasts who all gather together to show off their favorite dab rigs and compare notes.
“A lot of people call them hype kids, or dab kids, but shit, I love them. I’m far from the best technical glassblower out there, so I’ve never even come close to what the high-end artists get—six figures for a single pipe—but those prices sure do make me look like a bargain in comparison. Anyway, the people who buy my pipes didn’t grow up rich or own a dispensary. They usually worked pretty hard at some crappy job to save up the money, and they want to feel a personal connection to me and the piece. And for me, it’s so rad that I get to make something for all of those people to bond over together while they get high. I just fucking love that.”
For me, it’s so rad that I get to make something for all of those people to bond over together while they get high. I just fucking love that.Jimi Cummins
Two years ago, at a similar glassblowing demo, Cummins had a chance to meet up with Bob Snodgrass again, after so many roads, and swap some stories. He described his itinerant life of meeting glass enthusiasts through Instagram, then driving sometimes thousands of miles to deliver their custom ordered pipes. He told of making stops along the way to collaborate face-to-face with fellow practitioners (Domino, Scoz, Malaquias, Mr. Grey, Chadd Lacy); hawk his wares at music and art festivals; crash with friends old and new; and meet Americans—from all walks of life—who share a love of art, vagabonding, and cannabis.
Snodgrass—now a senior citizen and widely acknowledged as “The Godfather of Glass”—just smiled in his beatific hippie way as he listened to Cummins, and nodded, and finally said if he heard one more tale of far-flung adventure he was going to turn green with envy, get his old road rig street-legal again, and set back out himself.
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Flood images: Justin L. Stewart for Leafly