The Northern California pot growing culture is very clubby. In Mendocino and Humboldt, it's the growers against not just the cops but also CAMP. This vigilante group, the Campaign Against Marijuana Production, believes that pot is not a bountiful cash crop that creates abundant business in their counties, but rather is an evil source of corrupting criminal activity that holds serious potential to destroy the youth of the area. CAMP operates helicopters in the late part of the growing cycle when the plants are visible through binoculars from the air. CAMP also patrols the country roads looking for suspicious activity and noting license tag numbers.
The growers, to neutralize the CAMP activities, maintain a hotline to which anyone may call to learn the current location of CAMP's vehicles as noted by spotters working shifts during season. In one growing zone, the town of Elk, about 20 miles south of the town of Mendocino, an annual bake sale is held at the conclusion of harvest. All the growers attend the sale, and the cakes and pies are bid according to the richness of the harvest. A grower with a bumper crop might, for example, bid $500 on a pie, signifying he will have plenty of pot for sale after his regular customers have been supplied. So anyone who lands a high volume buyer and cannot fill his order from his own harvest will know the $500 guy has plenty.
At the Albion River Inn, a beautiful and pricey hotel and restaurant in Mendocino, the diners come in two varieties during late autumn. At one table will be a tanned quartet of wealthy silver haired retirees, up from Marin County for a long weekend, oozing tasteful attire and good table manners. At the next table, a pony-tailed hippy in his late 20s with a long-skirted "Hessian" girlfriend will be celebrating the harvest with a $200 bottle of Cabernet and a $300 room in the Inn.
There is a definite family flavor to growers in these towns, and once you're known, you can expect access to some of the finest pot in the world. Grown from Dutch hybrid seeds, imported from Amsterdam via cut-out points in Canada, cultivated in the same soil as the nearby wine regions, this is the gourmet pot of America. Only organic fertilizers are employed. The same fog dampens the plants by night, the same sun burns it away and warms the plants by day. It is, as one of the growers told me on an early trip to score, "a pot growing factory." They are professional and conscientious. Many have studied hydroponics and horticulture at nearby Humboldt State, part of the California State University system.
Our first meeting was with JD, the Mendocino grower. The town of Mendocino is almost four hours north of San Francisco, and JD lives more than half an hour inland from the coast. For convenience we ordered two pounds and arranged to connect in Santa Rosa, closer to the city than to JD's house. The plan was to meet in the large parking lot of a big hardware and DIY store at noon. We told each other what we were driving.
We arrived first and made a circuit around the lot, which had two sections. When we were certain JD was not there, we parked in a relatively open area near the back of the lot. Minutes later, he arrived in his Pontiac mini-van and pulled up alongside, telling us to follow. He had rented a motel room a half mile down the road. The door to the room was not visible from the office. We pulled up to the room and followed Donald into it where he had left a black garbage bag in the closet. We evaluated the pounds (they were fabulous), counted out the money and made plans for our next rendezvous.
They were Humboldt County growers, part of the "Emerald Triangle," a take-off on the famous golden triangle in southeast Asia where the opium poppies come from. It consists of three counties, Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt. Flying north out of San Francisco in a commuter jet bound for Eureka, not quite 300 miles north of the city, you follow a route along the spine of the Coastal Range. To the east, off the right side of the plane, flying at about 10,000 feet, you get a clear view of the famous California vineyards in Sonoma and Napa. Their neat rows and geometric sections appear as manicured as a Bel Air mansionette. The coastal fog creeps through the passes or makes an end-run around from the south and dampens the grapes each night. Then the glorious California sun burns the fog off and warms the grapes each day of the growing season.
To the left of the airplane, on the coastal side and a little farther north, are the less visible fields of the Mendocino and Humboldt pot growers. Their fields are cleverly disguised, arranged to blend naturally with the contours of the hills and the little arroyos and run-off channels that normally support green growth. The stands of pot are planted two or three at a time, on the edges of other growth so as to be hard to spot from the air. Nonetheless, proceeding north toward Eureka, you have to be aware that the same rich soil, the same cooling night fog, and the same golden sun nourishes both of California's most famous cash crops. On one side, Kendall-Jackson and Stag's Leap, on the other Mendo and Humbo Gold.
I had been given a sample of Humboldt and was eager to buy some -- as much as I could afford. The problem was, how to get it to New York? Flying was out of the question. Sure, you can zip up a couple of ounces in your checked luggage. The x-ray checkers are looking for metal -- bombs and guns sorts of things -- not a nerf football sized outline of some vegetation. But flying with weight is asking for it. So your chances are five to one of getting it through. That's not good enough -- not nearly.
So driving becomes the primary choice, with the train or the Greyhound secondary. Forget the 'hound. If you've traveled by bus for even a single night, you probably don't need to repeat the experience. Here the relative advantages and disadvantages of the train and the highway become apparent.
The train is comfortable and goes all night. You get from California to New York in four days. You won't encounter Smoky at any point. No breakdowns, no tail lights out, no speeding tickets, no K-9 units, no accidents. On the other hand, the train is a narrow funnel. There are only three routes from the West Coast to Chicago. From Chicago to NY, there are only two. You could take a more circuitous route, but that would end up five or six days; Ugh-h-h-h. It's pricey, too, to take a bedroom car, and who really knows what kind of security, what kind of narcs, may be prowling the Amtrak cars?
Renting a car and driving offers much more freedom and flexibility, but the law knows that a lot of pot is migrating from California to the East and that means Interstates 80 and 70 must be pretty active conduits. The drive can be done in four heroic days, but it takes five days at about 600 miles per to do it without killing yourself. The big risk is state troopers with dogs. With the right equipment you can deodorize your cargo by human standards, but you don't want to challenge the K-9s. With a car, at least you're not trapped on the train. You have the freedom of the open road, and if you have some time, you don't have to go via the interstates. You can take the charming blue highways.
These were my thoughts as I made the first trip north to score in Humboldt. We were to rendezvous in Garberville, a small town in southern Humboldt about four hours up Highway 101 from San Francisco. It's located in the southern end of the redwood country. A couple of little stands of old growth redwoods, preserved in state parks, appear south of Garberville, to give you a taste of the Redwood Empire. The larger remaining groves are located a little north, along the route of the giants. These redwoods are great to see, and they also provide a plausible reason to be in the neighborhood, should anyone ask.
I was to meet my contact in a luncheonette style restaurant at 1:00, so I left the city bright and early before 7:00, arriving almost exactly on time. I had brought my cell phone to let Brenda know when I was finished and on the way home, all contact to be in a code as cell phones are notoriously insecure.
I bellied up to the counter, pulled a free shopper's paper from a rack and ordered coffee, seated strategically where I could see my contact enter. I had not met him but had a good enough description. Half an hour went by swiftly, me sitting at the counter drinking decaf and avoiding eye contact. By the end of an hour I decided to go outside and move my car, reasoning that the police must be curious about any car that comes to this tiny town if it stays more than a little while.
Finally, another half hour later, my contact arrived, tossing off a casual "sorry I'm late," as if it had been ten minutes. This was my first clue that I was dealing with flakes. I had understood we'd be doing our deal nearby right then, but I was told we had to get "a little bit out of town." Since parking on the town streets was restricted to two hours, I was told to follow the truck. Steve, my contact, and Jason, the grower, had left the supermarket parking lot. We quickly exited the three blocks of town, and started up a long gentle hill.
Within two minutes, I saw the boys, both in their late 20s, waving excitedly at a pickup truck coming in the opposite direction. I pulled over to the side while they chatted with the driver. We continued. The blacktop gave way to a hardpack dirt road, dust rising in my face as I dropped farther back of Jason's pickup, We'd been going for 20 minutes, and I assumed we must be almost there. We were running along a ridgeline, gaining altitude gradually and moving away form Highway 101, getting deeper and deeper into the back country. It was beautiful, but I was getting a little pissed off, feeling I had been jerked around by Steve.
Another twenty minutes, a couple of turns, and we arrived at what seemed to be a commune of some kind -- six or eight buildings, and a parking area with about 30 cars. It was a New Age program center called Heartwood. It had taken too long, but, at last, here we were.
Or so I thought.
"You can leave your car here. Nobody will notice," said Steve.
"Where are we going now? You said it was just out of town," I asked.
"It's just a few minutes more. But you can't get there in a regular car." We drove off, three abreast in the cab of Jason's Ford F-10. Bouncing along the dirt road, we arrived at a locked gate. Steve jumped out with a bunch of keys and tried a few until one opened the padlock. More bouncing along. By now there was no dirt road, just tire tracks. At one point we forded a trickle of runoff and the truck's muffler scraped bottom. We arrived at another locked gate. Another search through the keys and the same snap of the padlock. We must have been seven or eight miles from anything you could remotely describe as a road. Finally, an hour from Heartwood and nearly two hours from Garberville, we arrived at Jason's cabin. He was outfitted with a satellite TV, a dog, and two guns. His neighbor, Jeff, had a similar shack a quarter mile away, not quite visible from Jason's porch. We were high up in the Coast Mountains.
I asked how many strains of pot were available. "Several," they said. "Let's look," I said, hopefully. "Well, it will take a few minutes to round it up. You wait here -- watch a game on the satellite. We'll be right back."
I stretched out and turned on a college basketball game. It was March and the tournaments had begun. The boys had taken off on foot to visit a neighbor even further up the mountain where, ostensibly, the stash resided. An hour went by. I heard two rifle shots. Gee. I wonder what that was about?, I thought. A guy went by on the path we had arrived by on a "quad" -- one of those dune buggy style motorcycles with two big wheels in the rear and a pair of small ones in front, more like a three-wheeler really. Steve's neighbor from next door came by and I explained to him that I had expected to be finished hours before and needed to call home. I had been unable to get a signal with my cell phone. He drove me to a place on the mountain, about a mile away, where he said his cell service connected. I tried, but still no signal.
As dusk was arriving, the boys returned. The shots had been about a wild boar that had attacked their friend's dog. Bears and boars and mountain lions were occupational hazards up here. They were carrying a garbage bag. I had come to buy three pounds. They had succeeded in scaring up a little less than two. We weighed it out and counted out the money. I was seething in a cold fury. Steve had promised me an assortment of product in massive quantity. They made excuses -- some guy had bought them out the previous week... their friend had no time to dig up his inventory... I learned that the inventory after harvest is buried in 55 gallon rubber-lined drums, with treasure maps detailing where the drums are buried carefully stashed away. This is because the police can, and occasionally do, appear by helicopter. They literally land and search.
By now it was dark. I had tried unsuccessfully three times to cell phone Brenda, and my purchase was not enough to justify the trip and its attendant hassles. I was crushed with disappointment, having counted on Steve to be a good supplier. We started down the mountain in our little convoy, me eating more dust as I tried to keep up with Justin's tail lights. When we reached Heartwood, I called Brenda from a pay phone and told her I was checking into a motel, arriving at 11pm.
In my room, which I rented with a yawning show of fatigue, telling the innkeeper I had been on the road since Portland, Oregon, I took a closer look at the 28 or so ounces I had bought. It was so good. Maybe it was worth the trip.
The return trip the next morning was uneventful. I had double wrapped the product with additional turkey baster bags, excellent at suppressing smells, but I sure didn't want to test them with a police dog. So as I passed each county line -- Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma, Marin... now into suburban traffic, and finally over the Golden Gate, I felt a little lighter.
Steve called that evening. He was very sorry for the screw-up. He had further explanations. Next time it would be completely different. The pot was fabulous. It was just a matter of filing the rough edges off Steve's organizational skills. I at least now had one Humboldt connection.