I thought it was a dream. A war dream specifically, filled with fiery convoys of armored vehicles, militant men screaming “Don’t move!” and “Arms up where we can see ‘em!”, the scatter and roar of attack dogs in pursuit. When I started to lose the dream, the shouts grew refined, closer, more distinct, and I heard a gruff bullhorn announcement: “Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department! We have a search warrant, do not move!”
It’d be a big budget Hollywood sort of dream, and a predictable one for my anxious mind to have that morning. The warfare element surely bloomed from my nerves of the past week as my friend Willie and I hand planted Petite Sirah vines into a hillside of a 20 acre pot farm. Each day we saw helicopters checking us out, and the dozens of other marijuana grows too. Yet, we were surprisingly on a legal, arguably noble, old world inspired mission. Together with shovels, a rented gas-powered auger capable of blasting through granite, gallons of gasoline to fuel it, posts, crates of certified Novavine plant material, and a hectare’s worth of irrigation line, Willie and I had accomplished the major first stage of planting a vineyard.
Lying there, with what sounded like the whole farm under attack by an armed opposition, I retreated into my groggy denial. There was no way a dangerous situation was unfolding out there. Cops? At this place? I had only seen two of the four greenhouses full of plants, but I remember the laminated patient prescriptions posted in full visible compliance. The owner, who I’ll refer to as The Eagle, claimed his farm was more legal than any other in Potter Valley. So was all this current commotion a robbery then? There wasn’t much worth stealing this early in the grow season, unless there were buried satchels of cash on site, and someone from the farm committed an act of betrayal. With these unformed scenarios slightly awakening my mind, I shimmied deeper into my sleeping bag on the hard floor of the yurt, lying on my stomach, sheltering my head, and fell back asleep, before multiple hard voices penetrated the biodegradable walls. It was close now. It was right here, the warnings they delivered were as real as the Reggaeton heartbeat in my chest. I looked up. My friend’s sleeping bag was empty across the way. No one else had spent the night after the celebratory barbecue; grilling grass fed steaks and drinking bottles of Petite Sirah to amplify to the Eagle’s brother and the caretaker what these fresh nursery vines might be capable of. It wasn’t peak pot processing season, where this yurt would be ripe with skunk-spray aromas of hundreds of pounds of weed and over a dozen itinerant workers, stinking up the space themselves, seated in chairs, blasting music, telling stories, drinking IPA’s, hooking up with each other, and manicuring pounds of cannabis for cash.
No, it was June, prime grapevine planting season in frost prone Northern Mendocino County, high up on Mid-Mountain Road, smack dab in the heart of the emerald triangle. The Eagle and his visionary, storyteller’s take on polyculture, polyamory and poly-everything successfully charmed me enough to embark on this viticultural voyage. Making wine off his land was the final feather in his Phoenix, and I was foolish and unemployed enough between wine harvest gigs to actually risk doing it for twenty bucks an hour.
“How many are in there?!” I heard a man ask outside the only door of the yurt.
“It’s just my friend,” a quieter voice replied. It was Willie. He was out there. “Listen he’s not armed. He’s sleeping. Take it easy.”
“You better be telling the truth.”
Some fist pounding on the frail door followed. “Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department! Put your hands up! We are coming in. Freeze. I repeat we are coming in. Don’t move. Arms up where we can see them!”
I was frozen all right. I had that part of the arrangement covered. Yet I couldn’t move my arms up out of the sleeping bag to demonstrate my unarmed status. I remained as I was, in a just fed snake position. The door slammed open and I heard a mob rush in. A man aggressively jumped onto my back and drove his knees into my ass, the tip of his assault rifle rammed between my shoulders. A second officer asked “Are you armed in there? Are you armed?!” with his handgun pointed at my head.
I gave a muffled no. I was drenched, burning and iced at the same time. He ripped my arms up out of the sleeping bag and they both yanked me out. The man with the hard knees aimed his assault rifle at me as I was handcuffed behind my back by the officer with the handgun, wearing only my long sleeve shirt and boxer shorts. The cuffs were piercingly tight. The other cop checked my empty sleeping bag, gave my friend Willie’s bag a shake, and searched the yurt before rushing back outside. The remaining officer, with a camouflage hat, khaki pants and brown steel toe boots, was protected by a black bulletproof vest that read “Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department”. He gripped my upper arm behind my back and pushed me out onto the little deck outside where I saw poor Willie, handcuffed in nothing but his tighty whities amid the chilly Mendocino morning. I’d known him since I was ten, through our school years, and through my failed marriage. We were thirty four years old now, but he looked the same. He was ageless. A part time children’s yoga teacher, avid surfer, waiter, summer camp counselor, and yes, seasonal trimmer, he looked at me ashamed for the first time in our lives. Ashamed that he’d gotten me into this, and ridiculously reduced of his dignity.
“I’m sorry D.”
“It’s okay, Willie.”
The officer pushed me down roughly onto the little wooden bench next to him. The irrigation pond for the large marijuana growhouses was right below, and with that stagnant water came mosquitos of Philippine proportions. It was such an omnipresent swarm that watching a sunrise or sunset from this deck was comfortably impossible without socks, sleeves, pants and even head gear. In the early morning light, my handcuffed friend’s bare skin was already red with bites, and dozens were dive bombing his back and sticking to him. He had no way to defend himself. Seemed like a trivial observation, silly to point out even, but it was torture of a primitive kind, and comedy for our watchdog officer. I used my foot to kick some off of his back now and then, but they barely moved for it, opting to bite my legs and feet during each intermission. “God these mosquitos.” Willie was starting to freak, rustling around. “Agh!”
Looking around, I noticed a pack of armed and bulletproof vested officers raiding the greenhouse below, then two large dump trucks rumbling their way down to fill up; plants, lights and all horticultural items of value were being confiscated.
Our cop, on closer look, was probably somebody’s grandfather, the idea of which was slightly comforting. It was likely he lived in small town Ukiah and watched televised sports on Sundays, participated in Thanksgiving and Christmas and everything else. He’d tidied up his reddish mustache, had a second chin, and seemed more paternal than militant after the first hour of detainment, even with his loaded firearm in hand standing over us. His gin blossomed nose suggested he’d seen the flames of a fireplace through a tumbler of local brandy many a winter’s night. Willie had already explained to him, pleaded even, what we were actually doing here, which went entirely unbelieved, yet he was trying again.
“Look sir, this is Darren, my friend I told you about. He’s just back from Australia and is a winemaker. We were only here planting grapevines. We live in San Luis Obispo County. We don’t live up here.”
“You really expect me to believe that, don’t ya. Don’t waste your time. You don’t look like winemakers. You look like typical growers to me.”
“I’ll show you the vines. You came in right past them. If you let us show you them.”
“You two won’t be making any wine any time in your lives after all this. You’re both done. It’s even illegal to plant grapes without a Federal permit too! Ha! Winemakers. That’s a first.”
He looked at me with his sunglasses on, and the quivering expression I gave him was a blend of fear, life-threatening constipation, and a splash of believability about what Willie had been saying all along.
“Agh! These things are killing me!” Willie was squirming again. The swarm was bigger. I was getting devoured too, but I could kick them off of me. I couldn’t protect the back of my neck or my face though. He was being devoured everywhere, even over his white underwear, hundreds of them. I could see penny sized welts reddening up. He looked at me then, the most serious eyes I’d ever seen from him. I noticed his lips were still stained and crusted from the Petite Sirah the night before.
“I was just out here peeing off the deck at dawn when they got me,” he said. I was trembling — almost puking — at the reality of it all. I envisioned a jail cell, the one phone call you were supposed to get, right? Who to call and if they don’t pick up, you’re screwed till the next day. What numbers had I memorized? My mother’s restaurant in Pismo Beach? Then, the natural visual of getting fucked in a cell. I mean, Mendocino County Jail wouldn’t be nearly as terrifying as getting locked up in Los Angeles or San Francisco, but there were plenty of mental criminals in there, transient freaks, white supremacist nutjobs, and murderers. I’d read the Sheriff’s Log in the Mendocino paper Anderson Valley Advertiser and saw the characters that happened to be locked up inside at that moment; while cuffed out there on the deck with my friend, I realized that we’d be joining them, and maybe even getting our mugs in the media too.
Willie’s wholehearted request to get his cuffs removed and his hands cuffed in front of him was instantly denied. The officer’s walkie talkie buzzed and crackled periodically with the progress. “We got a suspect at the main house,” we overheard. “He’s cuffed now.” Willie and I exchanged a look; it was the farm caretaker Scott, who was living at the only house on the property within view of the yurt. His longtime girlfriend and cohabitant had wisely broken up with him a mere week ago and moved out. Talk about timing. I didn’t know if there were guns on the property, but I assumed there were. There was a well talked about rule with these raids that if there was any sort of firearm on the property, arrests could instantly be made. If not, the trimmers or temporary types were usually fined and released. The amount of weed being harvested off this land made me assume there was some lethal method of self-defense on site. He radioed back and forth as a departing dump truck rolled past overflowing with massive marijuana plants, the colas comically frolicking and almost waving goodbye to us. A crew was dismantling the one indoor grow building that was behind the yurt. Everything about this farm was sure to be destroyed.
“Building one cleared,” we heard. “Crew completing the residence. Standby in five.” “Copy.” He kept his eyes on us, standing there in command posture, but dare I say a little awkward by this point. He’d scared us enough and Willie had attempted all the small talk he could, and Willie’s voice was about the friendliest most innocent one out there. It was clear by now that we didn’t look dangerous. Willie was clean cut, health conscious, had no tattoos and stood at five-foot-three in his underwear, and I’d even shaved my beard off recently and had a shirt on with a wave and a fucking ukulele getting barreled on the front. My boxer shorts were well marked as being certified organic on both sides. The yurt wasn’t loaded with drugs and weapons; instead it was filled with guitars, easels and paint brushes, tambourines, conga drums, a candelabra and stained wine glasses all over the place. The main house probably wasn’t too different in the paraphernalia department, but we didn’t know for sure yet.
“Ok to escort the suspects up to main house,” the radio hissed.
“Can we have our cuffs in front please? Sir?”
“Ok,” he gave in. “Don’t try anything. One at a time.” With mercy, he uncuffed Willie who brought his hands around to his belly for swift recuffing. He immediately batted the mosquitos off his neck and elsewhere and began itching where he’d been annihilated on his stomach, chest and legs. The officer looked at me a little more cautiously, then he turned me around and uncuffed me, latching me up in front. He even loosened them a bit. My wrists were sliced and swollen from the first time, and I had pain in my lower back from his compatriot’s aerial Chuck Norris move, not to mention the tip of the AK47. With his handgun still on point, he marched us off the deck and up toward the main house.
Scott, the property caretaker, sat handcuffed in a patio chair, wearing flannel pajama pants and a t-shirt. He’d been less compliant and was talking back to a younger officer who looked at us with flared up nostrils as if he was smelling scum. He cracked up when he saw Willie in his underwear and made us sit in three different chairs lined up one in front of the other, so we couldn’t look at each other nor communicate. Immediately, we knew he was a good ol’ boy, a marijuana-hating redneck cop, and Willie and I gulped in unison as we were left in his possession.
With a cheek full of chewing tobacco, he immediately let us know we were all getting arrested, and would most likely be serving five to ten years. My eyes welled up with tears then. My life was truly over. There would be no more wine harvests for me, nor would there ever be my own wine label with a felony on record; I was done. Nine years in the wine industry down the proverbial rabbit hole. He then demanded to know the name of the owner of the whole operation, and Scott kept at it with his rehearsed line: “It’s a collective. It’s legal. No further comment.”
“You and your fucking collective. That’s the buzzword of the year. Collective. Fucking collective my ass. We already know who it is. We know it all. He’s about to get raided at his own house right this second. You get paid so much you still trying to protect him?” He stepped his way to Willie, who was seated behind me, and asked him the same thing. “It’s a collective,” Willie replied. “He’s right. It’s all medical. The prescriptions are all in there.” Willie’s tone was cheerful, almost reading-a-children’s-book-cheerful, which didn’t help.
“That’s your Subaru down there by the hippie house, right?”
“It’s mine now. Confiscating anything of value. Everything must go!”
I heard his boots scrunch closer on the gravel and could feel his demonic presence creeping its way up right behind my head. He leaned his pale face into view, inches in front of mine, with these angry green eyes and a clenched jaw filled with spit and tobacco. He stared at me until I just looked down, freaking out and about to lose it all. He spit a rust colored splatter on my bare feet and moved away.
“This one here’s about to crack. You sure your collective full of sick patients is worth you going to jail? All those poor sick cancer patients you work for up here?”
“Rah! Crack! Rah!”
“What?” the officer tripped out.
“Rah! What? Rah!”
It was the house parrot in the kitchen; I’d forgotten all about it. When I was here during the previous harvest for a couple nights the bird used to impersonate the orgasm shrieks Scott’s ex-girlfriend made, and randomly chime in with imitations, making everyone die laughing. Trimmers had blown so many bong hits in the thing’s beak that it was permanently stoned and usually hilarious. I couldn’t have been happier to hear it. Literally it brought me back to a place of partial sanity, and was pissing off the cop immensely. “I’ll shoot that fuckin’ thing up too!” “Fuckin’! Rah!”
A man came out of the house then with an “IRS” marked vest, just slightly older than us. “Okay, send them in one at a time for their F.I.’s,” he advised. The cop let me in first, knowing I was falling apart, and I stepped into the familiar kitchen and there was the parrot in its cage, locked up in his own right, yet having a ball all the while. “One at a time! Rah!” This officer, who was trying not to laugh at the parrot, had multiple laptops opened on the kitchen table, one with a Ukiah Brewing Company sticker on top that suggested they were laptops found here at the pot farm. He passed across a Fugitive Identification form to fill out, for my address, date of birth, Social Security Number, and a few other personal items. “This is a Fugitive Identification form that is required by law here for you to fill out.” He looked at my cuffed hands then and stopped himself. “Oh, not much you can do there.” He pulled his walkie talkie out and requested to have keys to uncuff me brought up. After a couple silent minutes where he typed a variety of things into his laptop, an officer brought in keys and mercifully released me. Assuming it was just while filling out the form, I speedily completed the sheet. The IRS man looked at the cop with the cuffs, and the voice of practically the Lord almighty said, “He won’t be needing to be cuffed anymore, thank you.” Across from me on the table I noticed my confiscated wallet and cell phone, along with Willie’s too.
I gave the form back to him. “Anything you’d like to say on the record here before your release?” he asked.
“My… my release?”
“You and… and Willie, will not be arrested today.”
“Once we finish up with Willie’s form, you both ought to get on your way.” He handed me my wallet and phone.
“Yes sir. Thank you.” I stood up, practically fluttered into a standing position with wings and hustled outside to wait. Scott and the cop were still bantering as Willie saw my uncuffed hands and gave me a look of relief. The cop puckered his lips and gave me a final glare. Willie went in next to be uncuffed and fill out his form. I felt like I was having a cardiac arrest, as if I’d been aged a decade in the course of two and a half hours. Willie reemerged. We walked speechlessly down to his Subaru, both still in our underwear, surely skidmarked to an unwashable oblivion.
“D, we need to get our pants and sleeping bags out of the yurt.”
“We need to go, man. Just go.”
“It’s fine, D. I’ll get it all. Just sit in the car.”
Part of me felt that this was a trap. Our cell phones were likely tapped now. All data had been copied off of them for sure. Our employable records were tarnished by being fugitives in the system. Our path out of here would be tracked to see if we made contact with The Eagle to warn him of what’s been made of his Shangri-La in the sky. But we weren’t going to jail, at least not today.
Willie returned in his yoga pants and handed me my sandals and jeans. I cranked my legs into them without getting out of the car. He fished his keys from under his seat and gave me a look as he started it up. “We’re going, D. We’re out of here.” He backed up and we drove past two Sheriff’s vehicles and an odd economy unmarked rental car. He paused there and opened up his center console, pulling out a joint and lighter.
“That’s still in there?” I asked. “They went through everything I thought.”
He lit it up and took a big drag. Passing it to me, I puffed massively on it twice. He drove on and we slowly crept along the unpaved road at the top of the mountain. The indoor grow room on the right looked like a tornado had ripped it apart. Then, somehow in the golden late Mendocino morning light, stretching their way across the south-facing slope lay ten rows of head trained and drip irrigated new grapevines, with happy green leaves sucking up the sunshine. I’d practically forgotten that we’d even planted them at all by then. It was that unbelievable of a story, so unbelievable that I’d likely never drink anything off them in this lifetime.