Highlands of Humboldt

Back in the summer of 1994, when the marijuana growers of California were still outlaws, my mother-in-law, struck with real estate fever, invited us to spend a week in a place called Shelter Cove. Deep in the highlands of Humboldt County, something of a boom was at hand, and she had persuaded her husband, a man of considerable parsimony, to cough up twenty grand to buy three lots situated in the hills above the so-called Lost Coast. Each subdivided property had a view both north and south to the Pacific Ocean, and the sands that washed down from the rivers of the King Range were not white but black. The mountainside gave rise to the primeval glory of redwood trees twenty centuries old and thirty stories high, and the tide pools teemed with immense crabs, and the seabed held vast fields of abalone. Along the shore, the resort’s developers, a syndicate from Southern California, had built an airport with a 3,200-foot-long runway and a nine-hole golf course in the custom of a Scottish links.

My mother in law, exercising her pitchman’s neglect, did not talk about the drive there, except to inform us that it was long and best divided by a short respite in the town of Ukiah. By map, Shelter Cove sat 250 miles north of San Francisco, a straight shot up Highway 101 through the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma and then past the redwood curtain until you reached the outpost of Garberville. From there, only one road connected the world to the Lost Coast, and it appeared in the mapmaker’s pen to be almost benign. I thought much later that there might have been a way to draw that road to give some sense of the terror it would inflict upon the first-time driver. But it did not wind, it did not climb, it did not fall, at least not by the conventions of every other road from mountain to sea that wound and climbed and fell. As a kid, I needed only one ride on the roller coaster at the Santa Cruz boardwalk to know that I would never ride a roller coaster again. This was the Giant Dipper on broken asphalt. It took a full hour to cover the 25 miles from Garberville to Shelter Cove. We arrived at nightfall, too dark to see “the mighty canyons and great mountain peaks and long stretches of thundering coast” that writer Bret Harte had called “America’s uttermost west.” As we pulled up to the rental house, my father-in-law kindly advised us to not park in the weeds. Our brakes,
he said, were hot enough to start a real fire.

The next morning I looked out the window to get my bearings. Where exactly was this resort of Shelter Cove? From one side of the mountain to the other, the world’s tallest trees had been plucked clean. In stretches where the old forest wasn’t bare, a ravenous scrub had taken hold. The developer had done his work, too, platting an entire town of streets and cul-de-sacs. That afternoon, I set out on foot and traced the subdivision’s insistent path up and down the hillside. Lindley Loop. Higgins Court. Shaller Lane. No matter which way I turned, each road, each cul-de-sac, led to nothing. Thirty years before, Supervisor Elwyn Lindley and Planning Director Harvey Higgins and Public Works Director Charles Shaller had stood in the sun with the “blue suede shoe boys from Los Angeles” and imagined 4,000 cottages overlooking the ocean, the single biggest residential development in California. Thirty years later, the county men were gone and the roads bearing their names had faded into ghost trails.

The ocean down below was visible—in some cases the view quite stunning—but many of the parcels were pitched so precariously on the ledge that no house could ever be built there. For the would-be retirees in Texas and Michigan and the military men stationed overseas who had bought the lots sight unseen, Shelter Cove became an epic swindle. Not even the black sand beach was for real, unless, of course, one considered rocks and pebbles, some more crushed than others, to be sand. If the developers had made good on the 3,200-foot-long airstrip, it was only because their con job depended on it. Investors from all over the state were flown in so they might glimpse the Scottish links and Victorian houses taking shape along the beachfront and then be flown out.

This was the play on the afternoon of June 27, 1971, when a DC3 owned by the syndicate landed at the airport with two dozen real estate salesmen and potential buyers aboard. After the customary tour, which avoided all roads washed out by the last big storm, the flight departed. As it lifted off from the runway, the plane clipped the top off the sewage treatment plant and plunged into the sea, smashing into a huge rock and breaking in two. Sixteen passengers died. Shelter Cove as a resort never recovered. The following year, with the land scam as Exhibit A, the citizens of California voted to change the state’s constitution to establish a coastal commission that would place unprecedented restrictions on ocean front development.

By the summer of 1994, my in-laws were standing at the edge of a new boom. They had already pulled permits for one house and had talked their son, a framer, into leaving Alaska and moving to Humboldt County. It didn’t matter that Shelter Cove had no economy to speak of. It didn’t matter that its forty miles of chuck-holed roads led to one restaurant, one bar, one motel. The yap of hammers and saws never ceased, and it was nearly impossible to find anyone in town who wasn’t a builder, and the construction workers were not exactly hippies and not exactly hillbillies but a weird amalgam of the two, and what commerce existed was all done in cash, and the cash carried the strangest odor, something between fresh-ground coffee and skunk, although no one except the outlander seemed to be able to smell it.

After having spent the month of September examining your valleys, hills and table lands; consulting your oldest settlers, ranchers and fruit growers; examining fruits in the old orchards and vineyards that have had but little care, I am even more optimistic than I was last year when I told you that Humboldt County was the most perfect garden spot in America, and that your soil and climate under proper direction would yield millions to future generations, where your redwoods have yielded thousands to the present.  –George E. Rowe, vice president of the American Pomological Society, September, 1913

Rumors of a massive raid on the ganja gardens of Humboldt and Mendocino counties—the famed Emerald Triangle—lit up the Internet in the early summer of 2008.  “THIS JUST IN: Up to 60 FBI agents may have recently rented houses in Eureka. No confirmation whether it’s connected to the planned DEA actions.”

Marijuana bloggers were nothing if not vigilant, a chatter that seemed to gush out of a mania that hit its stride at three in the morning. Dozens of hotlines had surfaced to share the secrets of plant breeding, hype new strains with holy properties and alert the flock to the stirrings of the drug cops. Fear that the narcs were about to pounce was pretty much a constant state, a buzz that took on more and more paranoiac adornments as summer turned to fall and the buds evolved into musty fruit. These rumors, though, weren’t tied to harvest anxiety. The whispers had begun months before the camouflaged warriors of CAMP (the state’s Campaign Against Marijuana Production) were scheduled to launch their annual raids from the whoop-whoop of military helicopters. These rumors, it turned out, concerned an action that struck a far deeper fear into a culture whose psyche had been reduced to six words on a bumper sticker: U.S. OUT OF  HUMBOLDT COUNTY.

Word had somehow leaked that an FBI agent based in the old logging town of Fortuna was tracking an unusual real estate development known as Buddhaville. A fat Filipino named Robert Juan, a.k.a. Buddha, had put together a syndicate, the Lost Paradise Land Corporation, that had amassed 2,000 acres of timber company land along the border of southern Humboldt and northern Mendocino counties. Juan’s designs, it seemed, had nothing to do with condos in the redwood forest. He had subdivided the land into dozens of smaller lots and was selling off the parcels as part of a gated community for the purposes of growing indoor and outdoor marijuana. Phase One had already broke ground. By the end of Phase Two, dozens of 50-to-100-acre gardens would be cultivating the most exotic strains in the classic ideal of a collective.

Because the feds played by different rules, no grower took the threat of a U.S. raid lightly. The DEA didn’t answer to Proposition 215, the California ballot initiative that allowed marijuana to be grown and distributed for “compassionate” medical purposes. Voters may have had in mind the ravages of cancer and AIDS when the law was enacted in 1996, but in the decade since, 215 had been stretched and pulled in so many different directions that it had lost all meaning, or rather it meant whatever folks in Garberville and Arcata wanted it to mean. It meant that comfortably half the weed grown under the license of health care wasn’t really medical marijuana at all, but the bud of choice for you, me and the world. It meant that marijuana was the single biggest cash crop in all of California, dwarfing the ten-billion-dollar-a-year agricultural bounty of Fresno and Kern—the number one and number two farm counties in the country. It meant that California from the neck up—7,081 square miles, 215,000 people, eighty five percent of them white—operated as its own separate nation. The land had been ceded to the children of the old loggers and salmon fishermen and cattle ranchers and hippies, who after the summer of ‘67 couldn’t afford the rents of San Francisco and flocked to the hills two hours north, grafting cannabis onto redwood country. It meant that nearly every standing thing in a two-hundred-mile stretch from Ukiah to McKinleyville—hydroponic stores, garden shops, irrigation supply houses, fertilizer companies, hardware stores, sushi restaurants, Toyota 4 by 4 dealers, banks, hotels, glass blowers, tee shirt makers, realtors, concert promoters—was almost wholly reliant on the unfettered cultivation of marijuana. It also meant that at any given time, the federal government, desiring a piece of the action, could shut the whole mountain down.

To the grower, the risk weighed out simply. If you furnished more than three pounds of marijuana a year to a patient—a technical violation of California law—you maybe faced a few hundred dollars fine. The very same operation, busted by the feds, could land you three years in the U.S. pen. Thus, the fear of a federal raid, even though such raids rarely occurred more than once a decade, stayed long in the air. “The D.E.A. is on its way!” a blogger blared. “Hundreds of federal agents have booked rooms at the Red Lion.”

By mid June, 2008, a state of alert had fallen upon the Emerald Triangle. Residents began calling police with reports of unusual movements in the still of night. Their neighbors—the names they did not know–were clearing out garages and hauling off irrigation pipes and box lights. Brokers, too, were heading below ground, refusing to sell their turkey-roasting bags stuffed with Purple Kush to any buyer they hadn’t done business with before. The city council in Arcata, the first town in the U.S. to hand out medical marijuana user cards, a place that routinely out-liberaled Berkeley, issued a moratorium on all new warehouses seeking to dispense medical pot.

The whispers and warnings and movements both subterranean and official continued all the way up to the early morning hours of June 24, when residents awoke to a convoy of 450 federal, state and local police—cars, trucks, all-terrain vehicles, three wheelers, mobile communication center, portable toilets—roaring up the hillside. The shock and awe of U.S. Operation Southern Sweep was in full deploy. “It was amazing,” a coffee roaster in Redway remarked. “I’ve seen some convoys go by, but never anything like that.”

Such was the timing that his first thought was the federal government had come not to raid the fields of marijuana, but to help put out the fires that were burning California.

It was late July, a full month after the federal bust, and I was sitting in a backyard in Ukiah, near midnight, surrounded by a Zinfandel vineyard and, closer in, a small orchard of marijuana. If you didn’t know better—and I didn’t—the bushes all looked the same: lush and overdosed on nitrogen and forced upright by the will of bamboo stakes. In reality, some of the plants were Maui and others were Sour Diesel, two distinct varieties that had come to cultivation after years of selective breeding. Inside the farmhouse, one of the growers and brokers I had hoped to meet was negotiating a major sell with two customers who had journeyed all the way up from Bakersfield. Understandably, the mood was jumpy, and so I waited on the porch, drinking a beer with another grower and broker named John Heath (a nom de guerre, as it turned out) who had agreed to act as my tour guide.

I had traveled north to see for myself just how brazen the culture of marijuana had become in the decade since Prop 215’s passage and, if lucky, catch the tensions that seemed to be growing between the old hippies and new hippies. The back-to-the-earth disciples who had brought marijuana to these hills in the early 1970s were now rising up against the “diesel dope” factories that were polluting the salmon rivers and ravaging what was left of the redwood forests. In the days after the federal raid, I had called Bob Ornelas, the ponytailed former mayor of Arcata who had once bragged to Time magazine that he ran his marathon races high on Humboldt bud. Ornelas was so thoroughly disgusted with the way pot had been perverted by the younger generation that he found himself applauding the federal agents as they ransacked the house across the street.

“For a while, I thought my neighbor was a high-class whore because she had so many young men coming and going at night. Then I realized she had turned the inside of her house into a pot farm, and the guys were coming to check on the lights and thin the leafs and make sure the acidity in the hydroponics was right,” he said. “Hang out here for a few days and you’ll see young people, twenty five to thirty years old, spending their marijuana riches like mad. We call them ‘The Tribe.’ They try to put a hippie spin on it, but it’s all bullshit.”

I had taken a room a few miles outside Ukiah at the Vichy Springs Resort, founded in 1854. Though the inn had served a long and distinguished line of guests, including Mark Twain, Gentleman Jim Corbett and presidents Roosevelt (Teddy), Harrison and Grant, it billed itself simply as “Jack London’s favorite resting spot.” The two guests in front of me had pulled up in a mud-caked four by four. The young man had the beak of Frank Zappa, and his dreadlocked girlfriend wore no makeup on a sunburned face. I imagined they were campers coming down from a long hike, needing a room with clean sheets and a place to shower. Angela, the front desk clerk, recognized them as something else.

“Welcome to the famous champagne baths,” she said. “This is the only place in North America where the mineral waters are both warm and carbonated. Millions of little champagne bubbles will cling to your skin.” She then ran down the list of available cabins. The boyfriend kept shaking his head until she came upon the most expensive one. He pulled out three one hundred dollar bills from his wallet and off he and his girlfriend went in the direction of Little Grizzly Creek. Angela then turned to me. “Their money always stinks, but I don’t smell it anymore.”

Now huddled outside the farmhouse with the young grower John Heath, I tried to describe the couple. Rasta Rednecks was the best I could come up with. He knew the type well, he said. More than likely, they lived up the road, north of the county line, in southern Humboldt. So Hum, he called it. A geography and a psychology that existed on the far side of Laytonville, one of California’s cultural divides.

“Laytonville is a fascinating place. It’s where the organic hippie movement with its small scale marijuana gardens meets the industrial grower,” he said. “To the south is us. Mendo. Weed is a spiritual experience here. We grow it in a sustainable way. We grow it in backyards using the sun. To the north is hill country. They do it big, out in the middle of nowhere. They build these huge indoor grow houses and use diesel generators to keep the lights burning. They’re grease monkeys. Their four-wheel drives are beat to shit because they actually use them. They’re hardcore. They listen to reggae. Their girlfriends have dreadlocks. They pride themselves on the weapons they carry and the motorcycles they ride.

“We’re town people, the sons and daughters of the professionals and hippies. They’re hill people, the sons and daughters of the old lumbermen and fishermen.”

When it came time to do business, the town people in this case went to the vineyard people to rent a rural farmhouse, converting the backyard into a pot orchard and the den into a showroom for Mendo’s most extreme weed—up to four grand a pound. Every few minutes, the back door creaked open and out came somebody different, wearing the same “I-need-to-exhale” face. They wandered about the six-foot-tall bushes planted in giant plastic containers under a towering redwood. A few deep breaths later, they stumbled back to the drug deal inside.

John’s partner, his old high school buddy Dennis, was negotiating the transaction. He had shown up at the farmhouse that evening completely high. Instead of “couch-lock,” the paralysis that some varieties of herb were said to induce, Dennis had the opposite problem. He couldn’t stop moving or talking. His friends figured it was some strange amphetamine. Instead of closing the deal, Dennis kept digressing. The two buyers from Bakersfield, a sawed-off Mexican and a USC linebacker-sized black man, had driven up in a Camry. The reason the deal was taking so long was they were sampling each stashed pound, and Dennis was insisting they write testimonials to appear in his online promotions.

Indulging Dennis, the linebacker wrote this: “Purple smoke is no joke. Especially when it is real purple. The smell, taste and high is easily one of the best in the world. One bowl of some purple Kush, and I’m done for a couple of hours… B-man, from Central Cal.”

John was running out of patience. A straightforward dope deal that should have taken twenty minutes was dragging on for three hours. The air outside was turning chilly, but he didn’t seem to notice. He wore cargo shorts and a T-shirt and nothing on his feet. He was a tall, good-looking kid with short blonde hair, clipped goatee and a paunch that had crept up on him in his late twenties. The farmhouse where he now lived, he said, was just a few miles from the house on a fancy hill in Ukiah where he grew up. His mother was a librarian and his father a CPA who had never been a hippie but played the electric guitar and smoked a little weed and leaned in his politics to the left. Then his mother died and his dad remarried, this new wife an evangelical Christian. Now, his father was spearheading the local effort to change Mendocino’s cannabis law, slashing the legal limit of plants from 25 to six.

“My dad thinks the loopholes in the law have been completely exploited. He’s right, of course. You ask him if he wants marijuana to be legalized and he’ll tell you ‘Yes.’ But if it can’t be legalized, he wants it controlled. The accountant in him hates that so much of it is unaccounted for.”

John was fifteen when he raised his first three plants from clones and stuck them in the backyard where the tomatoes and beans grew. By his senior year, he was farming two dozen plants that his mother watered while he studied abroad in France. The day before he came home, the cops busted a meth lab down the block, and his mom panicked. She hacked down all the plants, the flowers yet to bloom. “That was my first introduction to the heartbreak of this business,” he said. He tried to get away from it—as a college student working part-time for the U.S. Geological Survey, as the French teacher at the local high school—but the money and the rush (“It’s addictive, dude”) always brought him back.

“People have this vague understanding that the Emerald Triangle is the marijuana growing capital of the nation, if not the world. But dude, unless you live here or work in the biz, it’s hard to fathom just how big this business is.

“The lumbers mills are closing and the salmon runs have died. They kept this place running for 150 years. Now it’s weed. Easily, it’s eighty percent of the economy. How many billions, no one can really say, but it’s billions and billions, trust me.”

Come early October, this little backyard, all by itself, would employ eight to ten young women. They would trim the leaves, nip the buds off the main stalks, hang them out to dry and cure the final product in plastic containers. No worker would earn less than forty dollars an hour, very likely the highest piece rate in all of American agriculture. When it was all said and done, the twenty-two plants would yield an average of two and a half pounds each. John and Dennis would walk away with one hundred and sixty grand. And that didn’t count the three grand a month that John made brokering weed for other growers.

“We do everything local. We buy our fertilizers and soil amendments down the street. All our supplies and tools, we buy at Friedman’s. I go out to dinner, buy clothes. All local. And because we’re producing something real that sells across the country, we’re bringing in real dollars from the outside. Walk downtown, look what’s popped up. It’s amazing. That’s all pot, directly and indirectly.”

Not unlike the fruit and nut farmers of the San Joaquin Valley, a handful of growers, perhaps five percent, were making millions, they estimated. But with the higher profile of those millions came the higher risk of a raid. A much larger slice of growers, not unlike themselves, were quietly earning what good lawyers in a midsized town earned. Even so, John and his girlfriend, Annie, American consumers that they were, had no savings to lean on.
“At one point, Annie and I had fifty thousand dollars saved up,” John said. “We tried really hard to hold on to that.”

“We tried hard,” Annie said, in a little girl’s voice.

“And we’re not high, dude. We spend no money on drugs. Just smoke a little of our own stuff. Our biggest vacation was going to Disneyland. But shit, that fifty grand was gone in six months.”

“Paying rent, paying bills, paying insurance,” Annie said.

Sitting across from John and Annie was a grower named Kyle, who believed it was less about making money than following a dream. He had come out from Montana two years earlier, a skinny farm boy sensing his destiny wasn’t raising cattle on the Billings range but cultivating the finest Razzmatazz in Mendo.

“I fell in love with bud when I was 13,” he explained. “Going to California. Going to California.’ That’s all I thought about. When I got here, I didn’t look back. This is where I belong.”

If he still dressed in farmer’s cap and Wrangler jeans, it only enhanced his lone wolf status.

“You’re looking at one of the two or three best indoor marijuana growers in the Emerald Triangle,” John said. “The man’s got a serious case of O.C.D. Imagine walking into a grow house and there’s not a speck of dirt anywhere. Spotless. That’s Montana.”

Two students from Humboldt State, who had grown weary of the drama inside, joined us on the porch. The anthropology major said he had observed in growers an emotional stunting that might best be described as “the psychic guilt of marijuana ambivalence.” Yes, by virtue of medical cards signed by friendly doctors, you could grow pot quite freely in these parts. But the law was confused. On one hand, it allowed you to grow twenty five plants, which equated to fifty to sixty pounds of finished product. On the other hand, it was illegal to store anything more than two pounds at a time. The institutional confusion simply grew out of a much bigger societal confusion. Thus, you spent a good part of each day hiding from the cops and your neighbors what you did for a living.

“As righteous as you might feel growing and selling this as a crop,” the anthropologist said, “at the end of the day it’s not corn or cotton or grapes or almonds. You’re still a criminal, and you know it.”

“I want to view myself as a good person,” Kyle said. “I pay my share of taxes.”

“A lot of this backlash,” Annie said, “comes from pissed off people who have to work nine to five and are barely making it. They hate us.”

“My inclination,” John said, “is to be out front. But the impulse of this business is to retreat, and with that retreat comes isolation. In too many of us, it leads to depression and drug abuse. It leads to unhealthy spending habits. We spend to prove that we’re for real. But the dough can only do so much to mask the isolation.”

I wondered if any of them had found a measure of engagement in the political process,  if the war on terror and the assault on civil liberties and the surrender to a deregulated Wall Street had been seen as a call to arms?

“Look, let me tell you this,” John said. “Conceptual thinking is dead. The hippies might have done a great job of doing it themselves. But they forgot to pass that thinking on. Their children don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know what they want to do. And whatever they’re doing, it has nothing to do with politics.”

They pointed to Dennis, still haggling inside the den with the Bakersfield duo. His parents had left New York and journeyed to California in the Sixties. They raised Dennis and three other children and then split up over different versions of what true radicalism meant. His father still lived in a nearby commune called Round Mountain. His mother had moved to Baltimore to join Father Berrigan at the collective known as Jonah House. In and out of jail, she was still trying to beat nuclear arms into ploughshares.

“If you want to understand what became of the hippies and their children, tonight probably isn’t the night,” John said. “Come back tomorrow, and I’ll take you to Dennis’ place.”

The two-story redwood chalet sat back in the woods on a clearing of meadow so sublime that air and light changed the moment we crossed the gate. The chalet looked out to a pond, grape vines, a garden of vegetables and a small orchard of fruit, so much simple beauty that my eye nearly missed the jungle-thick bushes, twenty five in all, that a man almost as perfect was watering with a hose in the dappled sunlight. “That’s Dennis,” John said. He had a flawless cut of combed back hair and wore Dior sunglasses and no shirt and his shorts slung low enough to show off the top of his green boxers. On the deck, standing in the full sun, was a tall redhead with giant breasts in a purple halter dress. In the sky, atop a tree limb for a pole, flapped the rainbow-colored peace flag of his mother’s Jonah House. “Welcome to my farm,” he said in a voice that gave each word a waver.

Whatever had happened the night before hadn’t stopped him from a full morning dressing the topsoil of his marijuana with a mocha mix of bat guano. “Weeks ago, during the vegetative stage, I used a high-nitrogen bat guano to pack on the leaves. This stuff is  more mellow, slower on release, and heavier on the potassium. Perfect for the blooming stage. You can have the fattest bush in town, but without the flowers, it’s just rank green.”

The apple, pear, cherry and walnut trees, the tomatoes, squash, cucumber and corn, the Maui erupting from one-hundred gallon nylon-mesh planters—all of it was proudly organic. He let pennyroyal run wild because it snatched nitrogen from the air and stuck it back into the soil. Whatever dropped down from the blue and valley oak, he welcomed for its microbial matter.

“It’s all about the soil. Pests, mold, poor production–it all goes back to weak soil,” he said. “I spend most of my time building up the soil’s profile. I use really strong chicken shit. And all the watering I do is by hand. Drip doesn’t work with herb. It wants too much water.”

Unlike indoor pot, where the lighting was manipulated to produce more bud than leaf, outdoor marijuana grew like koi in a pond—as big as the space you gave it. Indoor plants were harvested once every two months. Outdoor plants were harvested once a year. Indoor plants, done right, yielded one pound for every halogen light that shined upon them. Outdoor plants, using the sun, yielded two and half pounds each. As far as quality went, indoor plants produced more resin and a stronger buzz and thus sold for a premium.

For John and Dennis, the choice wasn’t theirs. The microclimates of the Emerald Triangle dictated the method of growing. If you lived in Salmon Creek or Arcata, fighting the cold mists of the coast, you grew indoors using diesel or electricity. If you lived in the hot and dry of Mendo, the garden you grew was outdoors.

“We get one shot at it,” Dennis said.

“One harvest,” John said.

“So if you get popped, you’re done for the year,” I said.

They looked at each other and snickered.

“So how much at risk are you guys really running?” I asked.

“Zero,” Dennis said.

“Zero,” John said.

“We always work within the guidelines,” Dennis said.

“We’ve got the required paperwork for two dozen plants,” John said. “But if we wanted to push the guidelines, we’re allowed five times more.”

“That’s one hundred and twenty five plants,” I said. “You’re talking more than 300 pounds a year. That’s a million dollars.”

The calculation was a long way from the commune in San Francisco where his parents took their vows against the war machine. Dennis said he and his three siblings lived in buses and in the back of a shop in Ukiah, where his father did graphic design between protests. For a long time, he tried to carry their causes. He left high school to live with peasant workers in Central America. In college, he learned how to gin up a pirate radio station from the father of Berkeley Free Radio, and he and John, pals since the eighth grade, ran the hottest station in town–102.9 FM, no commercials, uncensored tunes—until the FCC shut them down.

“My parents gave me this wider view of the world, and for that I’m grateful,” Dennis said. “I’m even glad for the experience of growing up in buses and in other illegal arrangements. But I never wanted to live my life the same way.”

He had finished watering, and we were sitting on the back porch, the sun straight up,  glinting off his Diors.

“So how do your parents feel about this?” I asked.

“I’d be lying if I said they’re happy. For them, pot is just another way of selling out. But my dad is beginning to realize that there’s more to it here. There’s a movement inside.”

“I guess one thing has stayed the same,” I said. “The feds are still big and bad.”

“Can you believe their little field trip? In the middle of the worst fires ever in California, 450 drug agents ride to the rescue.” he said. “And when the smoke clears, all they’ve got to show for it is 10,000 plants and not a single arrest?”

No one in Mendo was exactly crying over the demise of Buddhaville, the planned pot community that would sprawl across the two county lines. The project was classic So Hum—big and brazen and contemptuous of the environment. The feds did manage to seize ten million dollars in land and houses. And indictments by the federal grand jury were expected to follow.

So far, John and Dennis had managed to fly under the radar. John had designed a more efficient distribution network to increase the pounds trafficked between northern and southern California. Dennis was the grower who was taking the profits from one backyard and pouring them into another. In a matter of three seasons, he had realized his own Shangri La for the price of four hundred and fifty grand. Anywhere else in California, the meadow by itself was worth two million. This, though, was Mendo, where the living was cheap and the only economy that counted was the underground economy.

“Here we’ve got a code,” Dennis said. “You don’t get too big, you donate to political campaigns and you treat your neighbors with respect. You give back to the soil.”

His girlfriend’s parents were coming over to see the place, and he had to cut our visit short. “You’re welcome back anytime,” he said. As he headed up the garden path, he stopped and pointed at his mother’s flag flying over the Maui. “It looks beautiful up there, doesn’t it?” he said.

Only after Dennis disappeared into the lush canopy did John make a confession. Not everything in his best pal’s garden was organic. This girlfriend, the last girlfriend, the girlfriend before that. “They come to him flat and always end up with these enormous  plastic tits,” he said. “Like everything else, they’ve got marijuana to thank.”

I was headed to a meeting in So Hum, but John had a few more places he wanted to show me first. We stopped at a “grow house” called Hydro Pacific where shelf after shelf had been stacked with bone meal, fish meal, folic acid and live soil inoculants from Hawaii and Amsterdam. John and the clerk swapped cultivation tips for five minutes without ever once uttering the word “marijuana” or “pot” or “ganja” or “herb.” There wasn’t even a wink. The indoor garden display, complete with oscillating fans and exhaust ducts and CO2 emitters and lights on a motorized rail, was all set up to go. The plants serving as props were a tomato, a bell pepper and an eggplant. In the parking lot, a fork lift driver was pushing loads of soil amendment bagged in camouflage, as if destined for a war front.

“That’s for the guerilla grower in the mountains, “ John said. “They plant straight into the bag, and the bag is already camou-ed so you don’t have to worry about a CAMP helicopter spotting you from the air.”

We made our way to Friedman’s, the local hardware store. It had been built on the scale of a Home Depot but operated with a completely different sensibility. The aisles of the Home Depot in Ukiah were no different than the aisles of the Home Depot in San Diego. Friedman’s, on the other hand, knew exactly who its customers were. There likely wasn’t another hardware store on the West Coast that carried this many brands of irrigation timers, this many stacks of rigid wallboard insulation, this many bins filled with high-end trimming scissors. For Benny Friedman, who had died that month at the age of 90 and whose obituary was plastered across the front and back doors, it was all about serving a demographic.

“Friedman’s stocks oscillating fans in the middle of winter,” John said. “Who else in their right mind would do that?”

We drove through downtown and past the house on the hill where he grew his first  plants and then out on Orr Springs Road, which ran all the way from Highway 101 to the coast. In the hills of pine and oak where the asphalt turned to dust, he stopped his truck at crest and gazed into the last of the sun. “This raw beautiful territory is one of the earliest spots,” he said. We had come to the gate of the Greenfield Ranch, the first or at least the longest-running marijuana collective in California.

“This entire swath extends about ten miles. This is where the hippies from the Summer of Love came as part of the whole back-to-the-land movement. Can you believe that they bought this hillside for a hundred bucks an acre?”

“How many families?”

“Somewhere around thirty. Think about how many of their friends came up to visit from San Francisco and latched onto this idea of a marijuana kibbutz. This is where it began. And the original settlers are still here.”

We drove back to his place in Redwood Valley and shook hands goodbye. As I got into my car, he pointed me north in the direction of So Hum.

“There’s something you need to know about where you’re going. Garberville, per capita, has the finest women in the world. Girls with facial features that are unbelievable on bodies that are unbelievable. ‘Dude, where am I? I’m in Garberville? Why is there like five of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen in my life working in the local coffee stop?’”

He had been an excellent tour guide, and a fine backyard sociologist and historian, to boot, and so I asked him if he had a theory to explain it. He did, of course.

“In the days before Prop 215, you could make four grand a pound for crap weed. And these guerilla growers were doing it big. They drove Ferraris and built million dollar estates. They did wild world traveling and brought home the finest trophy wives they could find. So you have all these hot looking fifty-year-old mothers and their even hotter-looking daughters. Tall and thin and super built with exotic faces and names like Chia.”

This wasn’t the California I learned as a kid. Father Junipero Serra didn’t journey this far north, not by a long shot. There were no missions here, no padres with rawhide whips, no neophyte natives planting the first vineyards and wheat fields and digging the first irrigation canals, no Spanish land grants seized through wholesale scam by the European industrialists of San Francisco, no Chinese or Japanese or Mexicans brought in to build levees and railroads and harvest vineyards and orchards and vegetable fields. This was a land too rugged for even the most rugged of the fur trappers. There was a harbor, yes, but its opening was so treacherously narrow that it frightened off the captains of the discovery ships. The approach by land was even more of a bludgeon, coastal mountains that extended some one hundred and fifty miles beyond the beach. Not until the Gold Rush, almost a century after Serra and his band of Franciscan friars began the taming of the American West, was the silence of the north broken. The first white man to colonize these parts carried timber in his blood. “Her pioneers were men of brawn, largely from Maine and Nova Scotia,” read the History of Humboldt County, California, published in 1915. “While the sturdy pioneers were carving their fortunes from the primeval forests, the red men were not strangers to the war dance and the poisoned arrow.”

Such was the state of isolation that by 1854, four years after California had joined the Union, the natives of the Whitethorn Valley still had not seen a white man. Such was the fever of conquest that by 1864, just ten years later, the entire society of Sinkyone, Yurok and Karok had been destroyed. What was the wiping clean of one culture and the planting of another if not the prosecution of an American holocaust? The execution may have been more haphazard than the genocides and Holocaust to come, but it was no less efficient for the means available at the time. “The people of the county are driven to madness by the red-skin scourge that has long been preying upon their lives and property. They are impatient to have the county rid of it,” read one of the first editions of the Humboldt Times.

They got rid of it by exacting a revenge that held to the calculus that for every white man killed by an Indian, one hundred and fifty Indians needed to die in return. This is what happened in Weaverville in 1852 and again on the night of February 25, 1860 when “a secret society of settlers” crept ashore Indian Island in Humboldt Bay and proceeded to massacre “every man, woman and child they could find,” wrote Humboldt historian Ray Raphael. They did not stop until nearly three hundred natives had been slaughtered. Bret Harte penned an angry editorial and was fast run out of town. The grand jury convened but failed to turn up a single clue identifying the offenders.

It made sense that a place so cut off would be accountable only to itself, exile begetting lawlessness. Once the settlers got accustomed to taking, it didn’t matter if it was the Indians or the U.S. government they were taking from. Out West, through the Homestead Act, land could be purchased for $2.50 an acre, as long as the buyer swore off speculating or turning over his deed to a third party. The law somehow didn’t apply to the California Redwood Company in San Francisco, controlled by a wealthy syndicate out of Edinburgh, Scotland. The company scoured the streets and signed up hobos and sailors who were paid anywhere from five to fifty dollars to file a claim for cheap land. As soon as the deed became theirs, they handed over the land to the syndicate. In this way—the same way it was being done with great stretches of farmland in the Central Valley—64,000 acres of virgin redwood timberland became the domain of a handful of robber barons.

California had already witnessed the Forty-Niners turn its northern rivers into great scours for gold and eight thousand Chinese coolies tear through the granite of the High Sierra—some days progressing no more than ten inches with steel drills that bent like licorice—to lay the tracks of the Central Pacific. The extracting of red gold from the Humboldt mountains was no less an act of rapacity. Early on, there were no train tracks and no roads through the redwoods, and each piece of equipment for the mill towns that rose up on the Eel and Elk and Mattole rivers had to be carried in by mule. The felling of the trees was done in summer so that by early fall the riverbeds were piled high with huge timbers. To move such a mass to the mill, the loggers built dams along the rivers and waited for the autumn rains to fall. Dams brimming with water, they then lit dynamite and blew open a crater, sending an awesome wave of water and mud and timber down the canyon. To harvest the groves beyond the river, the loggers built “skidroads” out of small timbers that were then slathered with grease so the oxen, yoked and harnessed, might easier pull the haul. These miners, with their honky-tonks and stills and outhouses situated directly over the streams, lived no lighter on the land. When they wanted fish to eat, they simply drained the millponds of all but the most shallow pools of water; so many salmon and steelhead got mired in the mud that even their dogs gathered at river’s edge to feast. The few natives hired to help, men called Indian Ike and Big Charlie, had to turn away their eyes.

The industrialization of the redwood forest kept up this way for the better part of a century, small mills gobbled up by bigger mills until the mountainside was owned by Georgia Pacific and Louisiana Pacific and Sierra Pacific. Then, one by one, thanks to deforestation and poor management and tree huggers turned tree sitters, the mills began to slow and shutter, so that by the time I arrived in Garberville in late July 2008, the headline shouting from the front page told of the last day of the venerable Pacific Lumber. A contentious bankruptcy battle was sending the 150-year-old company into new hands: the Humboldt Redwood Company, owned by the Fisher family, of Gap stores fame.

“Even though the last few years have not been the best, I hope you will always be proud of having been a part of this great company,” president George A. O’Brien wrote to employees that day. “If you stay with Humboldt Redwood or the Town, I know you will give it your all, because that is what you have always done. So good luck.”

If you didn’t count the twenty year reign of Charles Hurwitz, who had leveraged the junk bonds of Michael Milken to harvest the old-growth groves, Pacific Lumber had been much loved here. Locals said the pain of its slowdown would have been more widely felt had the economy not shifted years ago. Consider Alderpoint, the tiny town outside Garberville, where thirteen mills once followed the Eel River up the canyon. The last of those mills, owned by Louisiana Pacific, had shut down in 1982. “We’ve been without a mill for 25 years,” said Ed Denson, an Alderpoint resident since 1980, when he moved his mail-order record company from the Bay Area. The former manager of Country Joe and the Fish, the opening band at Woodstock, Denson was now one of the most successful marijuana defense attorneys in the state. His one-man office, an old chicken coop, sat crooked on thirty acres of rolling hills that looked out to Pratt Mountain.

“The loggers denuded the mountain and then the cattlemen and sheep men came in behind them, and everyone who could get out got out,” he said. “That’s when the hippies moved in and started growing pot. The rednecks hated them until they figured out that they could make money, too. Then a funny thing happened. The children of the rednecks and the children of the hippies married. Now all you’ve got growing on this mountain is marijuana.”
The blending of the two was far from complete, it seemed. That evening, in the old Veteran’s Hall in downtown Garberville, residents were holding a community meeting on the growing problem of “diesel dope.” I got there early enough to meet the half dozen organizers who were setting up. The first to arrive was a man in a crème yellow 1953 Chevy pickup, sweetly restored, with a bumper sticker that read: Diesel Dope: Pollution Pot. He was in his late sixties, skinny, clad in sandals and jeans, and the locks of his blonde hair draped down to meet the immense gray of his beard. It was the head of a lion on the body of a grasshopper. I introduced myself and asked his name.

“Hardy,” he said.

“First or last?”

“Hardy Har.”

He said he had been on the run since 1971 when he was a campus leader of Students for a Democratic Society and shouted “mother fucking pig” at Gov. Ronald Reagan during a speech at Cal State Fullerton. From that moment on, the cops were on his case. Facing a stiff jail term for selling hash, he jumped bail and fled to Humboldt County, where he joined a commune of pot smokers. “Now, 37 years later, we’re rising up in protest against the industrial marijuana grower,” he said.

For a long time, Hardy and his friends couldn’t decide what, if anything, to do. Here was a collision of two of their most cherished values: the freedom to grow pot and the obligation to save the environment. The first value had led them to build a marijuana society here; the second had propelled them to fight Hurwitz and the other clear cutters of the forest. Now a series of diesel spills were contaminating Salmon Creek and other streams, and the old hippies were printing out fact sheets and bumper stickers. The time had come to confront the growers of diesel dope.

“There’s a way to grow marijuana that doesn’t degrade the drinking water and kill off the salmon,” he said. “That’s why we’re here tonight, though I’m not sure any of the diesel boys are going to show.”

A professional facilitator had written a set of admonishments on a large piece of  butcher paper: Be Respectful. Be Open to Different Points of View. Expect Unfinished Business. The lawn chairs started to fill, fifty in all, many of the men looking just like Hardy Har, many of the women wearing clogs and long skirts and clutching hemp bags. There were no Chias here.

The basic facts were quickly agreed upon:

Most of the cannabis grown in the Emerald Triangle was now produced by sophisticated indoor grow houses powered by large diesel generators.
It took seventy five gallons of fuel to produce one pound of indoor pot. That was the same as the average car making one trip from California to Texas.
The particulates in diesel exhaust were the most significant source of air toxins in California. A high percentage of rural fires were caused by indoor grow houses.

Officials from the D.A. to the sheriff to the county judge to the local building inspector were turning a blind eye.  Many indoor gardens were infested with pests that had to be sprayed. Those chemicals were in your pot. Then the discussion began, a little tentative at first with several speakers looking in my direction as I took notes. A tarot card reader named Juna Berry informed me later that  the whisper working through the hall was that I was a DEA agent. Maybe this explained why a number of folks chose not to identify themselves.

Young man with goatee and baseball hat: No one wants to talk about how we’ve been silenced by political correctness. It’s sad that I’m one of the few young people in this room. We’ve lost our voice. A lot of the old timers don’t want to speak out either because they’ll be accused of being hypocrites. “You grew, and now you don’t want us to grow.”

Middle aged man with scraggly beard: It’s not about growing marijuana. It’s about the kind of marijuana they’re growing. The problem goes back to a spiritual tear in our society. It goes back to mammon.

Francis Ford Coppola look-alike: We’re talking about preserving what’s left of the forest and watershed. Think of the great horned owl perched out there trying to listen for the sound of mice in the grass. That owl can hear nothing but the din of the diesel motor. MMMMMMMM.
Middle-aged man with ponytail: There’s a huge blaring sun outdoors. Why go inside? It boggles the mind.
Tall woman vegetarian: Because the marketplace demands indoor pot. There used to be honor among thieves, but Prop. 215 had made people mad with greed.
Woman who grew up on farm: We live in an enlightened community, and I expect we can come up with our own plan to solve this problem. I don’t want to use the word “regulation,” but we need to apply gentle peer pressure to change this behavior.
Smart lady: We need to kick around the idea of a public education campaign. Pitch stories to High Times magazine about the environmental harm this dope is doing. We need to reach the young.
Coppola look-alike: We’ve got an ecological disaster on our hands. We need to stop these greedy assholes with a lawsuit.
It was past eight when I made it back to Garberville’s main drag and finally caught the vision in John Heath’s eyes: the tall, tanned trophy wives and daughters of the O.G.’s,  flocked in front of Flavors coffeehouse. I smiled at the dead-on of his adjectives, but I was too tired to linger. I stuck a Swisher Sweet in my mouth and tried to locate the adrenaline for the long drive to Arcata. Word on the street was that the uproar over indoor dope had aroused vigilantism in the college town on the other side of the Humboldt Bay.

“They say I’m on a crusade. I’m not on a crusade. What I’m doing is fully consistent with trying to report a story. All I do is come out, takes notes and take pictures. Old fashioned community journalism.”

Kevin Hoover, editor-in-chief of the weekly Arcata Eye, was feeling a little defensive. He had been under attack from the marijuana faithful for the past six months, ever since he began compiling a list of suspected grow houses in town. “Weed Nazi,” they called him, though it wasn’t a label that exactly fit. Hoover had dope smoked his way through community college and was the kind of journalist who saw too much ambiguity to be a  genuine muckraker. His bent for irony was on full display in his local Police Log, where he took the noise complaints and hit-and-runs and public drunkenness of a small town and turned them into limerick.

But now Arcata, the town he had grown to love, was under siege. Residential tracts were being converted into factories of marijuana. Whole blocks were being industrialized. Dope growers, he believed, made for the worst of neighbors. Like opossums, they kept to themselves and moved furtively at night. Lights in their eyes, they hissed and bared their teeth. With four and five grow houses on every block, neighborhoods were being hollowed out. College students and working class families could no longer afford rents. And then the house fires. Who, if not the editor of the local rag, needed to awaken the citizenry?

“I don’t give a flying fuck that they’re growing marijuana. I’m as much a ‘U.S.-out-of-Humboldt-County’ guy as the rest of them,” he said. “But when I see neighborhoods going dead, that’s when I get riled up. Don’t grow in the middle of town. Don’t gut perfectly fine houses.”

He was an overweight man in his mid fifties who wore a cap over his balding head and beard on his double chin. He was giving me the same “grow house” tour he had given to The New York Times a month before. Every week, another neighbor or jogger or old lady walker sent him a new address to target. If the suspect house was a rental, he’d write a letter to the out-of-town owner. Your house shows the telltale marks of a marijuana grow: darkened windows, funny smell, PGE meter whirling like a Frisbee. You may want to pay a little visit to the renters. If the house was occupied by the owner, he’d knock on the door and ask a few questions—all very polite, nothing beyond the pale of journalism.

“I say, ‘Hi, I’m Kevin from the Arcata Eye. I’d like to talk to you about growing. Is this part of a medical marijuana club? Or are you selling in the open market, which the law doesn’t allow?’’’

We were headed to Beverly Drive, the epicenter. “I don’t turn them in. I’m not a cop. But the exploiters of 215 have done their best to conflate a wonderful hippie heritage and tolerance for smoking recreationally and medically with a cynical money-making enterprise. And that’s a story.”

We parked in front of a house with a detached garage and a new eight-foot-tall fence. “This is a grow house all armored up. You can make a quarter million dollars a year off a garage like this.”

In a middle-income neighborhood known as Sunny Brae, he asked me to stop the car alongside a redwood house. He dashed out, sneaked a peak at the PG&E meter and ran back. He was out of breath. “Grow house for sure. Full tilt boogie. You can smell it. You can hear the ventilation system. And the meter was spinning nuts.”

On A street, he pointed out the house that a few months earlier had been tagged by an angry citizen with the word GROW. Hoover had left his card, asking the renter to call him. A week later, the house was raided by the local drug task force. He headlined the story, Tagged Grow House Turns Out to be Just That.

“Some residents are advocating vigilante campaigns. They’re pissed off because when the cops do go inside, often they find shotguns and meth. We’re all about having a barbecue in the backyard with our neighbors, playing the Grateful Dead and sharing a joint. An armed enclave next door? What kind of shit is that?”

We drove west of town to a section called Pacific Union, the home of Sun Valley Floral Farms, the biggest industrial enterprise in Arcata if you discounted marijuana. Martha Stewart had once visited to inspect the farm’s world-famous floral bulbs.

“We’re coming up to the house that was rented out to these slob growers. Total idiots. They were knocking holes in the walls with hammers to run wires and ducting. Of course a fire started. They had 30 cases of butane inside. Lucky the whole thing didn’t blow up.”

A crew was putting the final touches on a $55,000 repair job. The contractor saw us parked out front and walked over to chat. Most of the year, he said, he worked for General Electric. During the summer months, he did carpentry.

“There’s not a construction worker in this county who hasn’t helped build an indoor grow,” he said. “I’ve helped build some of the damnedest houses. Designed to look like a home, but on the inside there was nothing. Just a shell. No floor. No sheetrock. Stand out front and you swore it was a house. They even put a swing set out front. But there were no kids inside. Just a million dollar pot garden.”

The Arcata City Council, struggling to find a way to regulate but not really regulate the mess, was holding its weekly meeting. On the way over, I stopped by the local branch of the Bank of America to deposit a check. As I stood in line, my ear began to pick up a sound I had not heard before, at least not in a bank. Ch-chut, ch-chut, ch-chut, ch-cut, ch-chut, ch-chut. From one teller’s station to the other, I could see little machines humping to keep up with a cascade of cash. Customer upon customer, satchel after satchel, the washing of redolent twenties, fifties and one hundreds. When I made it up front, the teller could see the out-of-towner’s bemused smile on my face.

“Nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine dollars,” he said. It was the magic number, a dollar shy of the bank having to notify the federal government of a “suspicious deposit.”

Inside the council chambers, which gave the distinct impression of being inside the belly of a whale, five council members sat in perfect embodiment of the town: all white, all well-spoken, all very liberal except for one vanilla Republican. The youngest council member, the favorite of the pro-cannabis crowd, was actually named Harmony Groves. She had grown up down south in El Monte, watching her father die an agonizing death from cancer, wondering why the palliative of pot was not an option.

“I don’t deny that indoor grow houses are a problem here,” she told me over dinner at Tomo’s Japanese Restaurant. “But if you listen to Kevin Hoover, you’d think the whole town was overrun with them. He says one in five houses are grow houses. But I’ve walked two campaigns door to door. To me, it’s more like one in fifteen.”

This didn’t mean the council was sitting on its hands, she said. She and her colleagues were seriously considering curtailing the local law that allowed one hundred square feet of marijuana plants for every medical card. Fifty square feet per card sounded like a more rational number. And she, as well as Kevin Hoover, were pinning hopes on a new marijuana dispensary in town operated by Eric Heimstadt, a drug counselor who had once served time at San Quentin.

“You ought to go see what he’s building,” she said. “It’s a state of the art dispensary that will help ensure that only true patients are getting medical marijuana.”

The next morning, I managed to finagle a tour of the facility, an old Quonset hut off the quaint main square of Arcata. Heimstadt, another child of the Summer of Love, had been  inspired by a recent reading of the King of the Castle, a history of the Bronfman dynasty. Led by ruthless Sam Bronfman, the family had risen from bootleggers to the founders of the Seagram’s empire, in part by using the cover of medical licenses to dispense illegal booze.
“Like Sam, I want to work with the authorities,” Heimstadt said. “I want to take the illicitness out of pot.”

He then outlined an audacious plan that began with him becoming an official Medi-Cal provider, a status that would allow him to build dozens of greenhouses along the Santa Barbara coast, the perfect clime to produce tens of thousands of pounds of high-grade cannabis. Then, in the tried and true of McDonalds, he would corner the distribution market by franchising hundreds of dispensaries up and down the state.

“We’d have completely transparent books,” he vowed. “The state of California could look at every inch of our operations. I’d be the good guy of pot.”
Deep in the interior of the hut, he had something to show me. Past the nurse’s office, past the patient’s room, through one door and then another, the air grew thick and began to hum. He hit a few numbers on a coded pad and opened the last door. There, in the middle of the room, under twenty shoebox-sized lights, were the lean but powerful plants of an indoor marijuana grow, a secret garden that only his closest advisors had seen. Forty eight plants produced twelve pounds of bud every eight weeks. For the time being, until the city lifted its ban on dispensaries growing their own product, it was illegal.
“This is the model I’d take from Crescent City to San Diego. I wouldn’t be a greedy bastard. With the economy of scale, I’d be able to undercut everybody else.” He stopped  there, letting the image sink it. Not of Sam of Seagram’s, but of Sam of Wal-Mart.
“Medical marijuana would be mine. Maniacal laughter would peal across the land.”


I came to the redwood forest
    Off Highway 101
    Going to a Reggae concert
    Where all the Humboldt hippies come
    I bought some Rasta jewelry, I bought some Rasta clothes
    I even showed up this year with a ring right through my nose
    Those Reggae songs they make me cry
    The people fight and the people die
    While I just sit here and get high
    I think Bob Marley’s really grand
    I’ve got a snow cone in my hand
   And to the Reggae groove I move my feet
   Just as long as I stay out of the heat
   This revolution can’t be beat
— Darryl Cherney

On the way down the mountain, I hustled a ticket to Reggae Rising, the biggest outdoor Reggae festival in the West, I was told. For three days, the cops locked outside, tens of thousands of redneck hippies, tie-dyed hippies, Stanford hippies, Jamaican hippies camped out along a bend in the Eel river to smoke dope and eat Greek food and listen to the four-bars-then-a-drum-snare-then-a-verse descendants of Marley. I arrived as the sun was setting on a Friday night. On the shuttle in, I sat across from one of the diesel dope growers, a giant of a young man with the face of Yurok Indian, who was too stoned, too belligerent, to give me much. “We look kind of like hippies, but we’re not. Dude, how many drugs are we going to do down here? I fucking popped a bunch of Ecstasy and puked all over the carpet.” He wore stitches over one eye and carried a pillow and sleeping bag and held hands with a girlfriend who seemed to have lost all patience. The family in front and the family in back started to cough, and then the whole bus began to cough, and I was sure we were headed to a convention of consumptives.

The colors of Jamaica were everywhere, and girls in bikinis were swaying to the music and children in dreadlocks were running from booth to booth. So much smoke was swirling up from the little round valley in the canyon that I thought it must have appeared, from high above, as one big bowl lit with Kush. I had a pass to the back stage where bartenders was serving drinks to the connected people. I sat down by myself and lit another Swisher, and up walked a woman in her late twenties, sloppy in every way. She said she was a student at Humboldt State and then asked if I believed in God.

“Here at Reggae?” I asked.

“Tell me why I should believe in him? Why shouldn’t I live as if he didn’t exist because if he existed I wouldn’t be living the way I’m living.”

It was a curious piece of logic, not so different from the self-regarding logic of the believer.

“Down the road, I’ll have a change of opinion and all this excess will be forgiven, right? Isn’t that what the Born Agains do?”

I stayed for two hours. On the shuttle back to the Benbow Inn, a Jewish hippy from New Jersey, who had flunked out of chef school and come West to find something new, saw me taking notes.

“Are you a writer?”


“Would you mind critiquing this?”

From his backpack, he pulled out a two-page essay titled “Not Your Same Old Reading” and began to read:

“We are the robot generation. All aspects of our lives consumed by technology.” It went like that for four long paragraphs, but he stopped after the first. The next morning, as I loaded up my bags, I read the rest:

“I’m to embark on a spiritual quest tomorrow afternoon. I’m going to separate myself from society for three to four days in the woods of northern California. This is to do some very important things. First to separate myself from cigarettes and daily consumption of alcohol. Second is to disconnect from my cell phone and everything robotic. Third, and lastly, is to deepen my connection with Mother Earth. I, Daniel Leiber, do not recommend going out in the woods or any unknown territory for any period of time, if not properly prepared. But please know that I am taking the necessary precautions.”

I missed my children and thought about going to see them in Shelter Cove, where they were vacationing for two weeks, but there was that hellish drive and at the end of the drive was their mother, who didn’t want me there. I barreled down the mountain to the strains of Elvis Costello, past the Little Leaguers of Willits, past the Red Tail of Hopland, past the cellars of Healdsburg, past the Golden Gate Bridge. I thought back to a scene in Eureka a few days earlier in the basement of the sheriff’s department. I was talking to Sgt. Wayne Hanson, Mad Dog, as the growers of Humboldt knew him, and after recounting twenty years of forest battles with the guerilla white boys and now the Mexican cartels, he made a sad confession. “I hate to say this because it sounds like I’m throwing in the towel, but they need to legalize marijuana. Because we’ve lost the battle.”

I asked how he and his crew were able to keep on in the face of such futility. Easy, he said. Two years ago, they seized 130,000 plants and last year they seized 350,000 plants and this year’s helicopter raids, which would kick off the first week of August, would surely bring in another record haul. If it was never more than five percent of what was growing in the hills, if their success was its own indictment, it didn’t matter to the powers that be. They had their game to play, just like the marijuana boys. Call it risk management or bureaucracy’s need to self preserve, but the cops weren’t going anywhere. In the Highlands of Humboldt, they were stuck chasing their tails. The more pot they seized, the more pot they needed to seize.