Dillon Bates takes a hit from his custom-modified vaporizer and the mist starts billowing out of his mouth like smoke from a circus cannon, settling over his head like a thought bubble.
While it hangs there, he explains the criteria for cloud chasing – a fast-growing and wildly competitive hobby that involves blowing the largest, widest and densest puff from an e-cigarette.
First is distance. The average cloud chaser can send a plume shooting 5 or 6 feet. But the kings of vaping can double that.
Second is spread. How wide is this cloud: passing storm or creeping patch of graveyard fog?
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Third is density.
“Is it a wispy cloud,” asks Bates, who works at Electra Vapor on New Bern Avenue, “or can you not see anything through it? Does it blot out everything behind it?”
On Saturday, the vapers will gather at Electra for the store’s cloud competition, in which a pair of contestants stand back to back, wait for a 10-second countdown and exhale more impressively than the caterpillar from “Alice in Wonderland.”
They’ll tinker with their e-cigs the way teenagers used to monkey with the engines of their muscle cars, speaking in a highly technical lingo that involves atomizers and ohms.
They’ll debate the best juice for making the fattest clouds, praising the properties of vegetable glycerin over propylene glycol.
And when the clouds clear, the competitor who makes a cumulonimbus will snag a $250 prize.
“There’s a lot of techniques,” said Bates. “There are people who make it up to 12 or 15 feet.”
Art and sport
This hobby, described by its devotees as both an art and a sport, has intensified to the point of having clubs, teams, sponsors and – get this – fans. Cloud chasing is widely applauded as both an anti-tobacco diversion for ex-smokers and a road to hipster virtuosity. YouTube abounds with advice for blowing atomic-blast-sized plumes.
Vaping, for the uninitiated, involves inhaling a mixture of liquid nicotine with vegetable glycerin and/or propylene glycol, a solution heated inside a battery-operated device. The verdict on the health risks remains a question mark, at least to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, because they haven’t been studied for any length of time. The Mayo Clinic advises against vaping until those risks are better understood.
But it’s clear the vape trend is gaining chic in the style of craft beer and gourmet coffee. Some people in Raleigh pay as much as $400 for a specialized model.
Matt Busch, a manager with Electra Vapor, showed me a display case full of vaporizers that didn’t exist when the store opened just before Christmas. The blue one on the bottom shelf, the MVP 3.0 Pro, fires up to 60 watts, offers 4,500 milliamp hours of battery power and comes with its own USB cable.
“You could actually charge your cellphone,” Busch said.
Cloud chasing is a lower-tech outgrowth of vaping in general, using home-built devices called mods. But enough of the intro course. This marks Electra Vapor’s second competition this year. Here’s hoping Raleigh breeds the world’s next cloud boss, a smoky gladiator with the lungs of an opera tenor and the mouth of Gandalf the wizard, blowing a lazy O into the sky.
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If you go
What: Cloud Competition
When: 6-9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Electra Vapor, 4531 New Bern Ave., Raleigh