As the wild oat and its cousins transform the south slopes from bleached gold to emerald green, the poison oak leaves take on the same hues of purple to daffodil blaze as the vineyards. In your imagination you might be looking at rows of pruned and cultivated poison oaks rather than grapes.
This fall marks pretty much the twelfth or thirteenth year that I have wondered why the hell I didn't plant a crop of weed. Part of the reason is that ever since arriving in California in the fall of 1996 I've somehow magically never run out of smoke, with generous donations streaming my way as if God wanted me to get high. Part Two was that nearly everyone else was, and I learned in soccer that if five players were clustered around the ball the best thing to do was to stay back and wait for the thing to come out in the open. So going back to the California Gold Rush when the folks who really cashed in were the bankers and the bakers, the butchers and the dairy farms churning butter, making bacon and eggs, I tried that strategy. The miners forked over gold for grub. But with the Pot Rush in this era you have to factor in the Safeway stores in Ukiah and Willits where the price of bacon and eggs is pretty much the same as it is in the ghettos of East St. Louis. So my plan for getting rich had some flaws. I was pouncing on nickels while the rest of the county was counting Ben Franklins.
There is a third, possibly more convincing reason why I decided never to do the Big Grow. It dates back to the watermelons and okra I was tending on this one acre paradise below a gleaming reservoir north of Ukiah. Quite a few yoga and transformational groups liked to skinny dip in those waters, and as they parked along the road the people could not help but notice the flood-irrigated garden.
One of the yoga practitioners was a fellow whose name was, “Sharif Hefeweisen.” His father was German and his mother was Egyptian. The guy had grown up in Cairo and had black hair dangling straight down to his shoulders. Now he tended pot gardens in the National Forests near his 40-acre plot on Hatchet Mountain overlooking Round Valley.
“Looks like you know how to work,” he said, buying a watermelon. “You wanna help with the Harvest?”
So one weekend morning in October I accompanied him up Highway 101 where we stopped at the Safeway in Willits to pick up some bacon, shrimp, and a few bottles of Jagermeister, as I recall. There must have been other items. We turned off on the Covelo Road and went up the switchback gravel of Hatchet Mountain. We parked beside a pickup camper from which emerged a dude in blonde dreads who called himself, “Fly.” He was tall and thin simultaneously.
We sipped the Jagermeister while Sharif laid out the plan. The plan was simple. We were going to hike out to this patch on a hillside in the National Forest where we would cut the bud stems and fill garbage bags until we could carry no more, then tote them back to a drying shed on the edge of Sharif's property. At the end of the harvest Sharif was going to give me the equivalent of a pound in cash, or $3,500 in those days.
Originally I'd assumed that pot growers were lazy and this ramble was going to be about five minutes, but it turned out the patch was in the neighborhood of three hours around Hatchet Mountain, through ravines, over rock faces. The whole time we hiked I wanted to kill “Fly” because every time he encountered a branch that might possibly whack me in the face as I walked behind him, he'd grab it and holler, “Branch!” before letting go and letting her whip. I wasn't blind. I didn't need a tour guide. When we finally showed up at the patch, Fly kept oohing and aahing over all the beautiful buds like they were the thighs of a babe who posed naked for cash. Then we were somewhat interrupted because a chopper circled us and the patch hidden in a clump of manzanita bushes, causing Sharif to suggest we take a break in the shade and have a swig of Jagermeister.
When the chopper finally lit out, apparently not immediately raiding the patch, Sharif decided to make a dash back to the main camp to cover whatever traces of unlawful behavior remained, leaving Fly and I to harvest as much of the rest as we could fit in our garbage bags and make our own way back. Of course this was my first time out there. A storm was brewing, heading in from the Gulf of Alaska, and it wasn't long before the sky had glazed over and snowy spit was pelting us.
“Christ, we gotta get back,” I said.
Fly was in agreement. We started around Hatchet Mountain like it was a crawling freeway leading into the October night growing darker by the minute, colder by the degree. “I can't see the trail,” said Fly. “Branch!”
“Man, who cares about the trail? We're going around the damned mountain.”
“I remember that big cedar; I think we're above it.”
We argued for a minute but this was one of those points in life where the vague sun was setting behind a sea of gray, snow-spewing clouds, and I wasn't about to waste more minutes debating. Better to keep moving. We had to get somewhere. It wasn't long before the only light was magically reflecting off the cloud cover. Fly had a headlamp he started to use which really blinded me. We kept going downhill, too, which worried the daylights out of me. The camper at Sharif's land was relatively at the same altitude as the pot garden, at least according to Sharif's pronouncements on the hike to the patch. It wasn't long before we were plunging blindly into thickets of God knows what, and just about the time that Fly started in on this thing about how he wasn't gay but wasn't afraid to snuggle with another man in order to save our lives I heard dogs barking from maybe another thousand feet below.
“A homestead!” I blurted. “We're saved.”
When we'd scratched and clawed closer to the place, even climbing a dangling woven wire deer fence, it turned out there were three dogs and they converged at us with territorial vigor. They snarled and sent Fly and I darting up the nude branches of a madrone, leaving our garbage bags of pot somewhere in the void. We were literally out on a limb. It was barely thick enough to hold the both of us, one of the madrones that reach up at an angle for a snatch of sunlight in the canopy of firs like an outfielder stretching over the fence for a home run ball.
After maybe 20 minutes of second-guessing each other and gripping the branch, the ranch's owner showed up with beaming spotlights. He or she was probably armed, set on downing a skunk or bear. From the vantage point of the tree limb and with the bright beam spotlighting the three canines circling the trunk, the beam following up the sinuous madrone skin, I couldn't make out much of who was below. It wasn't until the light zeroed in on our eyes that a voice gave me more of a clue about what kind of character we were going to be dealing with next. It was a man who probably smoked cigarettes by the sound of it. “What the—?”
Next we heard the bolt action.