What can I tell you about going to work on a weed farm that the Grower, The Trimmers and The Landowner won’t kill me for? Soft criminals are especially tense about getting put in cages by men with guns….
A very special edition of Dave Reeves’ “Do The Math” column in Arthur 32/December 2008. Illustration by Arik Roper. Photos by Daniel Chamberlin.
In 1996 Californians passed a Proposition called 215 that allowed a citizen to go to a doctor to get certified as demented enough that a federally banned vegetable substance known as a “Joint” is the only remedy. The Doctor gets a hundred dollars. The Citizen gets a number, a little patch, and if things go a certain way during the Bush Obama changeover, a free ride to a Special Federal Camp.
The distinction between State’s Rights and Federal Law has led to some lively debates, most notably “The War of Northern Aggression” (1861-1865), after which it was deemed that, in spite of the Constitution, Feds make the Laws and States shut up. So sorry California, weed is still illegal in the US. This has created a situation where Growers, thinking they can cultivate legal weed behind their Prop 215 permission slip, get robbed by Federal Agents. The Grower can’t call the Sheriff, and the number at the UN is always busy.
If the production of weed were legal, trimming weed in Humboldt would be a lot like the seasonal job of stomping wine in France. It is not legal, so trimming weed in Humboldt is like cooking meth in Kentucky. What can I tell you about going to work on a weed farm that the Grower, The Trimmers and The Landowner won’t kill me for? Soft criminals are especially tense about getting put in cages by men with guns.
For the sake of this story I will posit that every Grower is, due to certain skill sets and predilections, essentially the same kind of guy. All Growers have three shitty houses but don’t live anywhere in particular; all Growers are trigger hippies who learned to drink in the Army and don’t like to have a boss; all Growers have a truck, a dog and an ex-girlfriend with an axe to grind; etc. I don’t know if crime makes cliches come true or if it’s the other way around, but I would guess that a variation of the following drama is acted out in remote camps across Humboldt every year at harvest time.
The first nights at the camp were the loudest nights. It was rumored that a Mexican gang was pistol whipping and robbing growers around the valley. So the neighbors would let off a shot, and we’d follow suit, letting the theoretical Mexican gang know that the whole mountain stood in a steady state of readiness or madness. It had yet to dawn on me what was fishy about the Mexican gang rumor because after a day of cop watch reports and terrible music on radio station KMUD, my brain was washed of all sense. I was ready to believe anything.
The main camp consisted of a reclaimed meth trailer, an outdoor kitchen and a drying shack made of some found wood: exactly the same as one of those tobacco shanties you see slouching haphazardly around the South, except it reeks of skunk. Outside the drying shack was the kitchen: a freestanding gas jet normally used to fry turkeys, a Coleman two burner camping stove and a gas grill, all covered by an elegant tarp roof. The living room was comprised of several wonky chairs arranged in front of a fire pit cut into the road leading down to the green house.
I considered myself lucky to be passing a bottle around out in the woods while the stars skated around the sky. The dirt road out in the middle of nowhere was easy street compared to the economic uncertainty of the real world down valley.
The Grower sang “All we are say-ing/ is stay on your land” to the tune of “Give Peace a Chance” while merrily blasting a fresh faced pumpkin away with his service .45. The Jack o Lantern’s bright eyes and toothy grin provided almost a half an hour of joy before his brief candle was snuffed. I let the tragedy ride as I was outgunned and, judging from the Grower’s marksmanship, underserved.
In the course of an evening the simmer of pistols graduated into salvos of “deer rifles” gilded with small arm glissades until the show of force spent itself leaving only a lonely nine pop-popping out an echo in the valley below. The percussion movement was in a magnum key and provided great comfort to all Growers within earshot, but it like totally freaked out the hippy masseuse/trimmers and their fat vegetarian mutts.
The Grower had set up a three-season R.E.I. tent in which I was to sleep and guard the fortune flowering in the lower greenhouse despite all the best efforts of voles, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), the Department of Justice, the California Highway Patrol, the California National Guard, meth heads and the natural enemy of any grower: The Ex-Girlfriend.
Eventually I drank enough to decamp to the tent hidden in the scrub. The natural camouflage that made it hard for helicopters to spot also made it hard to find at night in my whiskey shoes. Using my superior sense of direction and a flashlight I was able to fall in one direction consistently until I fell onto something which proved to be my tent. Anticipating the character erosion of the untold riches I’d soon reap for this work, I got in the tent and fell asleep quickly. I dreamt of a white owl, big as me, hooting in the halls of a great library.
Sometime later I woke to the sound of some thing breaking sticks and mumbling. Mexicans? Ex-Girlfriends? I had no way of telling as I was pistol deaf and blind under the rain fly. Remembering from Spanish class that Mexican gangs never leave witnesses to warn the others that a Mexican gang is coming, I jumped out of the tent, butt naked, hoping for the element of surprise. My flashlight beam froze a fawn and her mother, cracking their pistolwhips.
And so I slept the rest of the night fitfully, for the camp was set up on a well-traveled deer trail.
Dawn was cold, as the sun couldn’t penetrate the Redwood canopy. Getting out of a warm sleeping bag to shiver in the long shadows is always a matter of will and black coffee. As I trudged up the hill to the kitchen in the main camp, I caught a glimpse of the one view allowed from the hidden hollow, out over the Humboldt fog wreathed at the base of the dry brown hills below.
The Trimmers were already at work with KMUD on the camp radio as I put a pot of water to boil on the blue jet of the turkey fryer. All the Trimmers were strong women with independent streaks that render them unemployable in the real world. They are the Grower’s New Girlfriend (of course), a Lesbian Couple, and some badass cafe au lait chick from L.A. with Jimi Hendrix hair. The Lesbian Couple were pros, never missing a minute of trimming at the standard rate of 250 dollars per pound. Years of scissorwork had wizened their eyes back in their heads so they looked like two little possums futzing with the weed. The L.A. Trimmer and the New Girlfriend were new to the trade, so they took time to eat breakfast.
The only accepted topics of conversations in Humboldt are what’s your sign, what you can’t eat or what dream you had. I told them about the white owl because I’m obviously an omnivorous Scorpio. The femme of the Lesbian Couple allowed that white owls were “harbingers of good fortune” while her girl stole my coffee water to make oatmeal for her dog.
We had to listen to KMUD radio for the Community Safety and Awareness Report provided by The Civil Liberties Monitoring Project who watched for any big moves by law enforcement. Paranoia becomes more insidious when framed by the destitution of listening to “Legalize It” for the eleventy hundredth time.
We had been listening to terrible music for days when, finally, they came on the radio and announced: “This is KMUD with a Citizen’s Watch Report. There are three police trucks with ATVs on the back heading up Goose Creek Road. Okay? Repeat: citizens watch has just got a call from a concerned citizen. They said they were heading up Goose Creek Road about three minutes ago.”
“That’s our road,” the Grower’s New Girlfriend pointed out.
The Lesbian Couple seem nonplussed but the LA Trimmer and the New Girlfriend got up and started worrying, ready to run.
The Lesbian Couple shrugged. “It’s a long road.”
The sound of helicopters thundered over the valley. The Grower burst out of the reclaimed meth trailer: “Didn’t you hear the radio?” he asked, throwing water on the fire, sending up a big puffy smoke signal. The helicopters passed over, on to bigger things.
The Grower’s actions were strange because he had all the Propostion 215 Medical Marijuana cards. The rule of thumb was that the local D.A. won’t bust for less than 99 plants and the local sheriff won’t do anything the DA doesn’t like. The Grower also said that he thought a mom and pop operation like ours was unlikely to be busted, but then the Grower also thought that his Ex-Girlfriend was going to be cool, and that hadn’t stopped her from showing up and acting like a maniac.
The pale face and bipolar dart of the Ex-Girlfriend’s eyes gave her that early Manson Family brio. Her pants were belled around her feet so she walked on heels, her greasy straight blonde hair parted in the middle. You could see the vein in her forehead jump when she yelled at the Grower, screaming at him for two hours meaner than a soap opera. And then she left. We all breathed a sigh of relief and laughed at what had been a tense situation. Then she came back and caught us laughing.
“Ha ha, I’m real funny huh? Don’t you ever fucking laugh at me.” She got in my face and I agreed with her, wanting no part of it.
“You got that, sister?” She called the L.A. trimmer “sister” because she’s kind of black, like brother Obama. “Don’t ever laugh at me. Do you know that you’re trimming my weed right now?”
The L.A. trimmer shot back, “Then you know that you should be here doing the work instead of standing around fucking me up.” It is dangerous to pull a Trimmer out of the focus required to sit and snip in a lopsided camp chair all day.
“Lets just talk about what’s on my plate, sister.”
“I’m not your sister,” the LA Trimmer shot back.
“Yes, you are. And I will call you that, sister. Let’s talk about what you got on your plate.”
“This ain’t Oprah. Fuck around and call me sister again. See what happens.”
The Ex-Girlfriend’s eyes bulged and she threatened to do what everyone told her she should have done a long time ago. Leaving just what that was to our imaginations. And then she left. We laughed, quietly this time, lest she return.
The girlfriend’s sudden appearance cast a pall over the camp and the Growers excuse of “Don’t worry about her, she’s just insane” was little comfort, considering what she could do with just a phone call to the right Law Enforcement Agency. Soon every plane in the sky was Feds.
So the Grower delivered the boilerplate pep talk for skittish pot camp employees: “Law guys won’t, as a rule, follow anyone into the woods for fear of booby traps. So, just hit the woods and they won’t follow you. I’ll show you the escape route, but you won’t need it.”
The escape route followed the extension of the deer path where my camp was and then ran downhill over a series of fences and through a gullywash where you can’t stop running or else you’ll slide and fall. Then over a fence and though some poison oak only to come out at the Landowner’s contraband greenhouse.
“Then you go out to the road and act like you’re there to see what the helicopter is circling about.”
“Helicopter for us?”
“Or a plane. I guarantee that when CAMP comes it will be with a spotter. They come in low and circle around in what they call a death spiral.”
Since we were in the neighborhood, the Grower thought this might be a good occasion for me to meet the Landowner, who was as stereotypical as the rest of the cast of characters on the farm. The Landowner is invariably a man living in the woods alone because some heartless wench has stolen his crops every year. The problem is so prevalent that many growers who still mess with women insist on blindfolding their dates before bringing them back to their camps. Some even have a no girlfriend rule, having given up on wenches in general. This leads to a culture almost as devoid of women as hip-hop. Which is why guys like the Landowner happen.
Our Landowner is one of the old school growers, and looks every bit of it: six-five, 270 pounds, about 60 with a shoulder-length bowl cut tied down with a bandanna, “Magaritaville” wifebeater, flannel shirt, Daisy Duke shorts with his balls hanging out, tube socks and high top chucks. He is known to be a bad man.
The Grower is essentially a sharecropper to the Landowner and owes him 35 percent of the harvest take. So The Grower and The Landowner traded market rumors from town of “panic pounds” selling for eighteen hundred dollars, way below the accepted Pot Farm Bureau Co-Op price of three thousand. Could these jumpy carpetbaggers make the bottom fall out? Could it be that this whole weed-costing-as-much-as-gold thing is just another California bubble?
A girl wearing rubber boots and a peacoat and a white dude with dreadlocks waved to us.
“This guy, he’s a good trimmer.”
“A dude that can trim?” said the Grower.
“Yeah, he has a wife,” the Landowner offered by way of explanation. Everyone knows men can’t trim. It’s one of those patriarchal generalizations like white men can’t jump or girls can’t skate which proves itself true often enough that even Proposition 8-types accept it.
Back at the camp the Grower spent his time doing bong hits, marveling at how he must have at least 40 pounds of good weed (though he was afraid to tally it up and know for sure just yet). He was living the dream between calls from the Ex-Girlfriend.
The Grower would hang up his cell phone and update us, “There she goes threatening me again. I wish she would stop it.”
“What’s she saying?”
“Oh, she’s like she’s going to come up here and kill all of us,” he’d laugh, drinking the neck off a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” report played tape of some fool reporter getting stomped by a cop horse at the RNC. This made the Grower mad enough to subvert the dominant paradigm by getting around to harvesting some more weed. Without “Democracy Now” getting Northern California hippies motivated is like herding cats, if cats went everywhere with fickle untrained dogs.
The Grower took me and his dog Mystre back up to the greenhouse. He cut plant tops and placed them on strings. Then I plucked the emblematic seven-fingered marijuana water leaves until my latex gloves were gunked with pollen. Yes, the buds were all those marijuana words like “crip,” “juicy” and “dank.” Go get a glossy weed porno at the 7-11 if you want to read jargon about the architectural intricacies of a bubba OG kushtop because I’m over it. It’s a weed. It shouldn’t cost as much as gold or put people in jail.
I hauled the buds from the greenhouse to the drying room and hung them on strings to cure for trimming. Back and forth for many days and nights. Days burned away into weeks. I don’t know how long I was up there. Time wasn’t really my trip anymore. The monotony of country life wears the chat out of you. The group droned on, glued to the radio, stopping whenever the helicopters passed too close.
Things happened. They must have. The Grower and I would get drunk and shoot the place up to keep the camp safe from maniacs. We got good at running the escape route at night drunk as hell because … I forget why. Oh yeah, because it proved good training when the Grower went to town and the Ex-Girlfriend showed up and the shit hit the fan.
I was enjoying my role as the cook early one evening, bribing the Trimmers with hot chai and fried turkey swiss sandwhiches when the Ex showed up.
“Where the fuck is The Grower? “
“He went to town.”
“When is he going to be back? “
“We don’t know.”
“Okay then, I guess I’ll wait.”
The Ex-Girlfriend took the strangest spot in the area, up at the top of the firepit dug into the road. The Trimmers did their best to not feel threatened as The Ex Girlfriend lorded over them, seething.
“Why don’t you go wait somewhere else?” said the L.A. Trimmer.
The Ex-Girlfriend, being used to the way hippies do things, said “Bet you won’t come up here and say that in my face because, bitch, I will pounce on you, I don’t care if you do have scissors in your—“
The L.A. Trimmer, being used to the way they do things in L.A., leapt from her seat and flew up the bank into a flurry of girlfight. She went upside the Ex-Girlfriend’s head and knocked her down.
“Who’s a bitch now?” asked the L.A. Trimmer.
The L.A. Trimmer walked away from the tussle with just a patch torn out of the shoulder of her long johns. The L.A. Trimmer took the cigarette proffered by the now smitten lesbians and lit it up while the Ex-Girlfriend peeled herself up from the dirt.
“Try and cuss me again,” said the L.A. Trimmer.
“I want a do-over,” the Ex-Girlfriend mumbled. “I wasn’t ready.”
“Better get out of here before I teach you some more manners.”
The femme lesbian Trimmer told the Ex, “ Can’t you feel that this energy is not working here right now?”
The Ex-Girlfriend was dazed enough that I could herd her down the road, shooing her like a stray cow every time she wanted to turn back. The road fell off steeply from either side and there was nowhere for her to run back but through me, and doubting the quality of my mercy, she trudged on. I felt like a man taking a dog for that final walk.
The Ex-Girlfriend got to the fence where her brown car sat, blocking the gate. The final steps to her car had the ring of resolution in their heels as she grabbed her cellphone and dialed. I walked back nonchalantly until I heard her on the phone telling someone directions to the camp
“Going, yeah right on Goose Creek, the third pullout on the right with a no trespassing sign…I have been assaulted… yes, I am still here now.”
I ran back to the camp, calculating how far we were from town. The Lesbian Couple and the L.A. Trimmer were eating chips and salsa and reliving the fight.
“She called the cops.”
“But she was trespassing.”
I grabbed the weed out of the drying shed, hoping that my drastic action of taking $40,000 of weed and stashing it in the woods might rouse them to action but when I got back they were still eating salsa.
“She was assaulted on a pot farm. If she tells the cops, they’ll take everyone to jail and sort it out with lawyers.”
They chew more slowly as they cogitate.
“We can’t leave by the road because she’s out there waiting. So we need to button up and get suited and booted. Get ready to run and maybe even sleep in the woods tonight.”
We gathered up whatever incriminating evidence was lying around, pulling the old half bloomed plants up from the greenhouse and tossing them into the woods. Then the New Girlfriend rolled in, with fresh dents in the hood of the truck.
“That bitch is crazy.”
We arranged with the New Girlfriend to meet us on the main road by a particular sign because my cell phone’s battery was due to run out soon. I got together a day pack with a change of socks, water, emergency bivvy blanket, flashlight, knife, heavy jacket, warm hat, sleeping mat, chocolate, laptop computer and 20 pounds of marijuana in six black plastic garbage bags, and slid down the hill on the escape route.
“Listen for a minute.”
Me and the L.A. Trimmer could hear the Ex-Girlfriend barking at the Grower, but could not make out what she was saying. An airplane buzzed the valley. Was it coming for us? I took the weed and hid it in the apex of a gully in a dry creek bed by placing ferns on top of it. Then I turned and walked away, leaving a year’s worth of the Grower’s work hidden in the woods.
We walked quiet as spiders on the redwood duff to the Landowner’s house, listening for sirens, planes or the chop of a K9 unit dog in pursuit. The Landowner’s shanty came into view. I had my doubts about approaching the house unannounced, as Landowners are known to keep vicious hounds. Plus it was his shotgun that had provided the contrapuntal thunder to the valley. The sun began to set. An owl hooted. It occurred to me that there is nothing so tragic as an omen misread.
The L.A. Trimmer and I went up to the road so as to approach the Landowner’s house the way a normal person would (if there were any normal people in these parts), holding our hands up, yelling the his name over and over again.
The house was a free-form corrugated tin burrito structure that used to be a greenhouse. It had the look of a camp hastily erected and then lived in for years. The Landowner was inside watching television even though his old hounds were at the door barking.
“Ah, The Ex-Girlfriend came back and one of the Trimmers beat her ass.”
“Well she deserves whatever beating she gets.”
“What’s the best way to get her out of here? The Ex-Girlfriend is still up on the road,” we paused and listened. Half a mile away and we could still hear her shrieking.
“She probably called the law,” I added.
The Landowner looked over my shoulder at the L.A. Trimmer, who had tucked her hair away under the camouflage hood of her jacket.
“Well you could take the ridge back up,” the Landowner swept his arms at the ever darkening forest, “or, if you let me catch the dogs, I’ll give you a ride.”
The Landowner peeled the tarp off a derelict Chevelle in the yard.
“This car is real life,” he said. The Chevelle was modified with a homemade gearbox of shiny sheet metal riveted in under the dashboard. “I take the door panels out and run this fucker all the way to the East Coast every year.” He turned the key and the car farted up a cloud of blue exhaust and then roared. His dogs jockeyed for position on his lap as the Chevelle spit gravel all the way up the steep road.
The L.A. Trimmer hid in the back under a blanket as we swerved past the gate where the Ex-Girlfriend was still parked. She ran into the road frothing at the mouth, beating on the Landowner’s car and screaming “This man grows marijuana!”
“Jeezus. It’s about time for her to leave the county,” said the Landowner.
He took us to the two-lane road and dropped us off at the sign where we agreed to meet the New Girlfriend. A cop, a fire truck and an ambulance screeched around the curve with sirens lit.
We called the New Girlfriend to tell her that we made it. The Grower took the phone from the New Girlfriend.
“Where is it?”
I tried to tell him where the stash was. It was hard to communicate because he was worried. Worried that the raccoons would get into the weed. Worried that the meth-head neighbor might find a year’s worth of work and sell it for nothing. Then the Grower would have to kill everybody to prove a point.
“It was down that cut bank by the stump, take a right and contour across the hill until you hit a creek bed, under some ferns.”
“Yeah, okay. When you get to town, get your truck off the road. You know, cops look for dirty trucks coming off the back roads.”
The description of a Trimmer “sister” with a hafro and ass-kicking legs had the cops out in droves. I got the L.A. Trimmer tucked into a hotel off the main strip. We tried to clean off the three weeks of woods and waited for the Grower to run the gauntlet into town. Finally he showed up, filthy with fingernail scratches all around his neck.
“I couldn’t find the truck and figured you’d left town with the weed.”
“I left it in the bush, like I said. And you told me to hide the truck.”
“Well, I looked for the weed out there for a while.” This time the innuendo was harder to miss.
“I guess it is, if you’re here.” The Grower sat down heavily and produced a bottle of whiskey from his jacket. I noticed that he had his pistol tucked in his belt. He poured us all drinks.
“Shit, me and the Landowner thought you were long gone with the weed and the truck.”
A flash of regret must have registered on the faces of me and the L.A. Trimmer because the Grower laughed at us.
“Tell you what, have a drink. And live it up, goddammit!” he yelled, slinging Johnny Walker Blue all around on the carpet “If you’re gonna get into the game you got to live it up, because when they come through that door it’s all gonna change.”
We spent the night drinking and watching windows, talking business with the Grower in a room full of suitcases and guns. The love of easy money has been the ruin of many a poor boy and by morning you know I was one.
So call the cops and tell them to bust me. Tell them that I’m coming south right now with some of that dank Humboldt OG babyshit trainwreck kushywushy. Tell them they can’t miss me. I’m on the 101 with a dangerous Trimmer from L.A. right now. I’m in a white van, a dirty blue Toyota truck and a sedan with hollow doors. Doesn’t matter what I’m driving, really. Throw up roadblocks, pull everybody over and let the courts sort it out. Then bust everyone ordering pizza after ten o’clock. Bust all the turkey bag buyers. Get those skinhead pigs from Riverside up in a helicopter to look for dangerous flowers and send these growers indoors where they belong. Do every bit of that zero tolerance shit and let’s get this weed price up from the price of gold up to the price of platinum because I’m trying to live.
Dave Reeves has a short story titled “Bottle to Throttle” published in the Two Letters Collection of Art and Writing. Also he is expecting to have a movie he co-wrote with Larry Clark called Shame in production by March, but understands that everyone in this town lies to him about shit like that so he will jump through hoops like a little trained dog.