You don't often think of the Taft desert as a prime destination for spiritual rebirth.
But for Tommy Chong, one half of the legendary comedy duo Cheech & Chong, the solitude of west Kern's sprawling desert offered a chance to "blaze" a new path in life.
Chong served a nine-month prison stint in 2003 at the Taft Correctional Institution for the manufacture and sale of his Chong's Bongs and other smoking paraphernalia.
"It was probably the most memorable nine months I've ever spent of my life," said Chong, 74, during a phone interview. "It actually turned out to be a religious retreat for me because I wasn't able to practice doing what I was doing on the outside."
Chong reteams with his longtime partner Richard "Cheech" Marin, 66, for a pair of shows at Eagle Mountain Casino this weekend to kick-off the duo's "Up in Smoke" tour.
(Buzz kill: If, in Cheech & Chong style, you procrastinated buying tickets, both shows are sold out.)
"And you know that desert area is so special," he recalled. "I used to walk around in the yard and I couldn't keep myself off the ground because there were so many treasures from the desert, all the different rocks and stuff. Where we were located was where the tarantulas migrated. And we had rabbits that would come to the yard. There were hundreds of them that would come in the evening. They were like wild dogs that had been abandoned."
Following his release, Chong became an even more vocal advocate in the pro-pot movement, releasing a documentary, "a/k/a Tommy Chong," that chronicled his arrest.
"Everyone is embarrassed. Law enforcement are kind of disowning the whole thing. They're all blaming George Bush."
But nowadays Chong is focusing on his comedy and the partner he met one fateful night in 1971 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The counterculture duo gained mainstream popularity in the States after releasing a series of best-selling albums and films, all featuring offbeat marijuana-laced themes and characters.
The two abruptly parted ways in 1985 for solo careers, but their popularity as one of comedy's most revered partnerships never faded.
"Before we got together, we weren't actors. I was a musician on the road with some band and Cheech was a singer in a band. Not a very good one, but our inabilities brought us together to make history."
Chong and Marin reunited four years ago, embarking on a successful tour that, according to Chong, should continue to their final puff.
"I never really got over the breakup and I don't think Cheech, he ever really got over it either. We're deeper than brothers. So when we got back together again, neither one of our egos wanted it, but inside it was about time. We'd been apart long enough.
"The great thing about our breakup was that we did it in such a way that we could get back together.
"Too many groups break up and then it's over, like the Beatles. But Cheech & Chong, we quit early enough so that people never saw the end of the road. That's why we're back together, to fulfill our destiny."
Fans lucky enough to have snapped up tickets already will have the distinction of being something of a test audience for the tour, which features the bands Tower of Power and War.
"We're actually creating the new show in Porterville this weekend. This will be the first time we're working with bands. It's going to be more like a play than an act. There's going to be a story, but I can't say anything about it. I don't want you to know before Cheech, because I can just see Cheech reading this and saying, 'Hey, I didn't even know that we were doing that.'"