Thousands of illicit marijuana farms coat the misty hills of the “Emerald Triangle.” Legions of young laborers like me flock here at harvest time for fast cash, adrenaline-pumping adventure, and our own little piece of the new American dream.
Somewhere along Highway 17, as it dips under the canopy of the California Redwoods, into the knotted hills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Eddie realizes the lid to his snake’s terrarium has been knocked off. He squints through the little window into the bed of the truck at his two American bulldogs, their faces wide and muscled like a pair of t-bone steaks. He looks at Damian, his four-foot python, curled up peacefully in the glass cage.
Eddie pulls the truck into his driveway, exhausted from the ten-hour drive and the dogs jump out, knocking at each other as they leap up the narrow stairs to the house. Tomorrow Eddie will harvest the 100 marijuana plants growing under the humming lights in his garage. (Due to the illegal nature of this business, the names of “Eddie” and the other people mentioned in this article have been changed.)
He awakes with a panic in the morning. The snake never made it in the house and the terrarium sits empty next to dirty dog blankets and mangled chew toys. Like a scene from a Harry Potter movie, Damian slithered out and disappeared into the forested hills of the San Lorenzo valley.
Eddie is upset, but not terribly alarmed. He seems to accept it as almost normal that a four-foot constrictor is loose in his neighborhood. This is the Wild West mentality of Cannabis California: big trucks, big dogs, big plants, big money, big risk and sometimes, big snakes.
* * *
Voters in Colorado, Washington and Oregon have legalized the sale and production of the plant, but California is still running and gunning, operating under the cloudy grey area of “medical marijuana.” In four counties here: Santa Cruz, Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino (the last three comprising the infamous “Emerald Triangle”) it is legal to grow up to 99 plants if you have a medical card. The rub is that anyone growing 99 plants is likely to grow much more.
It’s the fall of 2013. I am visiting from New York to work the harvest, and there is something strange and lawless in the air here.
Opportunists are moving here in droves to cash in on the green rush, swelling the small towns. Stories of armed robberies, kidnappings and murder, reported in local publications like the Lost Coast Outpost, filter through the country communities, like the dank smell of the elephant in the room. It is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, unspoken at the grocery co-op and the swanky breakfast joint. There is a palpable tension between the “working man,” scraping by on Wal-Mart wages in a sagging economy, and the newly-rich young man with dreadlocks and a backwards baseball cap flashing a wad of cash.
I leave Eddie to finish his harvest and I hitch a ride up the coast with a man named Earth in his blue Econo-line van. I sit on the carpeted floor, next to a bottle of homemade kombucha and a zucchini the size of my forearm, listening to the two men in front trade horror stories of trimming experiences past. Last year Earth found himself in a small outbuilding, cold and surrounded by moulting, meowing cats as he snipped away at small, “larfy,” premature buds. The other, a middle-age man from Oakland, was picked up by a guy in a BMW roadster, who pressed the gas until the speedometer read 120, flying down Highway 101. When they got to the farm, the guy got drunk and threatened the workers with a shotgun under the counter. These kinds of stories are commonplace in this strange, seasonal, lawless pop-up economy.
Earth pulls the van into a gas station in the small town of Leggett, on 101. The woman behind the counter, her cigarette-dyed hair pulled back in a thin bun, grumbles to another local about the flunkies who use her bathroom without buying anything. “That time of year again, eh, Joe?” She remarks to the older man in wide logging suspenders and a camouflage hat. “Yup,” he says, paying for his gas. “They’re back.”
The seasonal workers, many already living on the edge of society, seek fast cash and exciting adventures in the hills of Northern California at harvest time. They sit on freeway onramps and in town squares holding cardboard signs with pictures of scissors drawn in Sharpie, looking for trimming work. They will be picked up by strangers, often blindfolded and taken to remote woods outside of town to work the farms, plucking leaves, watering plants and trimming buds, hoping the man decides to pay them what he promised. I have joined this group of vagabonds to document the effects of marijuana prohibition on the people and communities of Northern California.
* * *
Before I left, Eddie arranged for me to meet up with the guy who will be my boss for the next few months at a grocery store parking lot along Highway 101. Jeremiah is a tall, slightly Nordic-looking man with close-cropped hair and a cautious friendliness in his eyes. He drives a big flatbed truck with two well-mannered hunting dogs in the extended cab. “I’ll take you up to the land tonight,” he says, loading in my gear.
The sun is setting as we rise above the cloud layer into the foothills of the Trinity Mountain range, off the main highway and onto a winding logging road, heading to the 80-acre plot of land where his farm sits tucked in the woods.
When we pull up to the cabin, Leif is carving a sword from an arm’s length branch of manzanita using a large hunting knife. His hair is shaved close on both sides, the rest pulled back into a thin ponytail, and his beard comes down into a small braid from his chin. He looks like a Viking warrior or the bass player of a Norwegian black metal band. Leif’s best friend, Bobby, is tossing throwing knives into a tree a few feet away. He has plugs in his ear lobes and long blond hair that he wears under a black Van’s trucker hat. They would appear menacing if it weren’t for their kind Canadian eyes.
Bacon rides up on a dirt bike, throttling the gas and breaking the silence of the cool mountain air. He has a scruffy blond beard and twisting blond curls that bob around his ears. His t-shirt and pants are almost the same color of his hair, making him a monochrome in dirty khaki. “I found a good mushroom spot down the creek,” he barks, holding up a handful of knotty tan chanterelles. His voice is gruff and he speaks in short deliberate bursts that command attention, remnants of the high mountain machismo he learned as a wild land firefighter.
He is Jeremiah’s younger brother and partner in the business. The brasher of the two, he has a “get ’er done” attitude with the rough-handed skill set to make it so. He does most of the legwork on the farm, crisscrossing the land, changing hoses, moving water pumps and mixing nutrients into the 10,000-gallon water tanks. That evening he sautés the chanterelles he found with a massive t-bone steak and passes around a bottle of bourbon as we settle in.
I get to know the rest of the crew between pulls of sweet, stinging whisky. Alex is a river raft guide during the summers who talks excitedly about surfing in Mexico. Saul, a big Hawaiian man, was in a gang in Colorado before coming west to work on the farm. Elliot used to sell stocks for a big financial outfit and now is the most permanent worker, spending eight months of the year looking after the land.
Jeremiah and Bacon have beds downstairs and the rest of us sleep in a loft in the peak of the cabin ceiling. I climb the precarious ladder up with one hand, my duffle bag over my shoulder and a light buzz. I find a place among five other beds and lay out my sleeping bag under a window facing a stand of pines and a sliver of the moon.
The next morning we drink coffee and observe the cloud cover that hangs in the valleys below. This is Humboldt fog and it’s one of the reasons that the plants do so well here. Like the prized wine regions of Napa and Sonoma counties to the south, there is a magical mix of cool and warm breezes here and a rush of mineral-filled sea air that washes over the hills several times a day. The inversion layer will lift at about noon and the cloud blanket will dissipate, but now, from our morning perch, it feels like you could walk onto it like a magic carpet.
The sun bathes the green houses, making them glow in the clearing down the hill, as we approach for the days work. Ducking under the lip of the plastic roof, there is hardly room to move as we stand face to face with the eight-foot tall plants in varietals like Girl Scout Cookie, Head Band and Sour Diesel. We make our way in the tight rows between the plants and begin plucking. The large fan allows air and light to penetrate.
Everything about this plant is attractive. It’s no surprise humans have been drawn to this “weed” since the dawn of civilization. The buds are collections of tear-shaped calyxes frosted with resin crystals covered in tiny orange hairs that curl around them like an Irish maiden’s nether region. The female plants release their late-season pheromones, trying to attract a male’s pollen. This is the bittersweet fact of marijuana cultivation: only female plants create THC and a single male can ruin an entire crop. The females, thus, stand sticky and pungent, trying fruitlessly to reproduce.
* * *
Some days the work is light and one afternoon we break early to explore the land. A bag of psilocybin mushrooms sits in the freezer for any such occasion. We eat a few with lunch and decide to take the Rhino, a four-wheel-drive golf cart, down to a creek just past our property. Saul, who works as a mechanic and reads Big Rigs magazine for fun, is our designated driver. I am sitting shotgun and Bacon is in the back, the turret seat, with a Daisy pellet gun and a bottle of bourbon, his trusty green vest strapped to his chest, like he is about to land at Normandy. The farm dog, Mara, a squat, overly-excited black lab, is waddling fast behind us. The road turns from gravel to dirt and sticks as we cross into the neighboring property.
The mushrooms are working on me now and I feel a tinge of paranoia, understanding the lawless nature of this area and the seriousness of trespassing here.
Saul maneuvers the Rhino around a large downed tree in the road and parks. We climb down to the creek bed and I let the cold water rush over my hands, splashing it on my face, which feels like it’s not my own, the warm, detached glow of psychedelic mushrooms tingling through my skin.
Bacon stands up, surveying the area. “Oh, shit,” he whispers. Twenty yards from us a 200-gallon tank and three coils of brand new hose are cached under a tree. We have stumbled on another operation.
We stand, looking around for more signs of a camp. Just then a truck door closes on the road below us. We stop and listen for a moment. A cold shot of reality washes over me. We hear the low idle of a big truck through the thicket and scurry down the hill like teenagers running from the cops. But this is potentially a much more dangerous situation.
We move quietly but quickly to the rig and Bacon wrangles Mara to keep her collar from jangling. I leap in the back and Saul puts it in gear, moving slowly, quietly at first, over the sticks that crack under tire. Then he punches it and we fly up the hill, wind in our hair and palms sweaty, grasping the supports of the buggy, bouncing up the dirt road. I realize immediately how bad that could have been as we glide home, Mara panting behind us.
* * *
The plants are recognizing the shorter days of late autumn and have begun their final ripening stage. Almost too large to support themselves, they push large conical flowers towards the sky and stretch big branches of leaves in every direction. Their bulbous flowers are dense and hard to the touch, almost cartoon-like in this exaggerated state. The leaves are dying, textured like alligator skin, they blush an inky purple, the melanin release of late-season growth.
Jeremiah checks their maturity with a small magnifying glass, looking closely at the crystals on the tips of the flowers, and makes the call to begin harvesting on November’s full moon.
The harvest is a physical haul. Bacon and Leif work a pair of heavy-duty garden sheers, cutting the thick fibrous stocks and hefty buds, and laying them on a plastic tarp nearby. When the mound is full, we carry the weighted tarp to the yurt to be hung and dried.
When the word comes after a few days that the weed is sufficiently dry, it’s time to pack the trailer and head into town, where a team is waiting to trim.
I will be following Jeremiah as he drives the load into town. A “follow car” is commonly employed in transporting contraband, sometimes used to distract law enforcement by intentionally getting pulled over. This, thankfully, is never discussed. Still, I can’t help but feel the hot air of anxiety as we prepare to depart.
The drive down is one of the riskiest parts of the operation. Exposed in transit with more than 500 pounds of weed, we are vulnerable to any number of scenarios. The boss, however, maintains a Zen-like attitude that morning. I search his face for signs of stress as he checks the brake lights and turn signals on the trailer, but he is completely calm, giving me just one bit of instruction before we leave: “Stay close but not too close. I am going to drive fast, so keep up.”
* * *
I have been on the hill for over a month and it is beginning to show in my appearance. A scruffy beard covers my chin and cheeks and my hair is full of sticky cannabis particles, pressed under a beanie. I have lost weight and dark bags hang under my eyes after months of sleeping on couches and floors. I’ve begun to resemble the other trimmers in town — dirty and matted from life on the road. I am no longer an innocent bystander here; I am an active member of an illegal operation.
The sun is setting over the Humboldt coast and the pink clouds are settling into the valley as we head west towards town. We pull out onto the main highway and into a flow of traffic, some of which includes trucks and trailers like ours, filled with similar cargo.
The history of this land is rich with a courageous pioneer spirit that still fuels the economy here. From gold miners, bootleggers, loggers, and homesteaders to cannabis farmers, the remote hills of Northern California have always attracted a unique breed of American. A person willing to brave dangerous conditions in a steep, wooded land and the very real threat of prison, to find riches and a way of life no longer available anywhere else in the country. In a way they are the most American of all, reaching the far coast of the continent and pushing the nation into uncharted territory.
This frontier spirit is what defines the Emerald Triangle, and like the first European exploration, it’s the land that’s taken the biggest hit. In the people’s hungry search for profits, the environment is paying the price.
As we cross over the Eel River, I peer down to the thin, algae-covered water, its banks wide and exposed like the ribs of a malnourished child. The drought in the West is one of the worst in decades, and in Northern California the number of grow operations pumping water from the tributaries of the Eel and Trinity rivers have left them a gaunt trickle of their former selves.
We arrive at the house well after dark and tuck the trailer inside the fence. The one-story rental is half-home and half-business. The garage, attic and greenhouse in the back yard, are all converted into grow rooms. Stepping in, I am struck by the glowing, radiant brightness. Like a secret science operation of a James Bond villain, the rooms hum with fans and 100-watt lights. Silver ducts hang from the ceiling with charcoal filters that disburse the smell of ripe, flowering cannabis.
Jeremiah’s wife, Aria, runs the indoor operation with quiet control, shuffling through the house with bags of leaves and empty nutrient containers, asking Jeremiah to check on the progress of the OG Kush plants in the garage. She is a county girl from the area, with soft features and a sharp wit.
The next day, we set out to sell some of the product. It’s not Jeremiah’s favorite part of the job, but an important one. “It’s a completion thing,” he says, slowly idling his twin diesel Ford out of the small residential neighborhood. “It brings the work full circle.”
Speaking in code on his iPhone, he sets up the deal. “Can you go to the movies, today?” he asks, and promptly hangs up. A moment later a “burner” buzzes in the console. He speaks freely on the pre-paid phone, arranging a deal for later that afternoon at the K-Mart parking lot in Eureka, with a guy he doesn’t like too much, but trusts enough.
He shifts in his seat as we pass the police station and jail. He pulls into the parking lot of the K-Mart and scans it for his connection. A brand new Ford Super Duty truck sits in a deserted section of the asphalt. A young man with a backwards baseball cap sits in the driver’s seat. Jeremiah pulls the truck next to his so their windows are aligned; a choreographed move, common to this type of discreet meeting. After some small talk about wenches and weather, the man hands Jeremiah a brown paper bag, folded over itself, exposing the brick-shaped item inside, $18,000 wrapped in tin foil. He tucks it in the back seat under a dog blanket and cautiously pulls into traffic.
Later that day, Jeremiah takes me to his friend’s place in the hills outside of town. A big wood-plank house on top of a forested patch of land is marked by massive stumps with ecosystems of moss and small trees growing from them. A young mother, like a Madonna of the mountain, bounces a beautiful baby on her hip, singing lightly in the house, a fire burning in the woodstove and loose tea steeping by her side. Her husband, a thin muscular man with long manicured braids, works a tractor down the hill, leveling the earth for a small cabin he will build in the filtering light of a redwood glade.
It’s almost Thanksgiving and the work for the season is nearly finished. Although experienced trimmers can make upwards of $10,000 during a season, I’ve made just over $2,000 in four months, after expenses. I’m exhausted from life on the road and yearn for a real bed.
Jeremiah will continue to put money away, in real estate and bundles in a rainy day bag somewhere, building a comfortable life for his family, one harvest at a time. There is a life here that, for some, is worth the risk. It’s what keeps people coming, braving the Wild West, for a chance to pursue their own version of the American Dream.
* * *
Lennon Bergland is a Brooklyn-based journalist from Oregon. He finds himself in dangerous situations, usually in the woods, and writes about them. When he’s not in nature, he writes music and culture in NYC. Twitter: @LennonBergland.