HEART OF THE EMERALD TRIANGLE

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The following is an excerpt from an essay by Lee Ellis on marijuana camps in Humboldt county from this month’s issue of the magazine and in full text on Believermag.com.

IN HUMBOLDT COUNTY, CALIFORNIA, ILLEGAL MARIJUANA CAMPS BUOY THE ECONOMY AND INFLUENCE THE CULTURE. WHO WINS, AND WHO LOSES, IF WEED GOES LEGIT?

DISCUSSED: Engine Trouble, Fourteen Hundred Dollars in Twenties, The Mountain’s Forbidding Cap, A Goodbye Shot of Courage Before Facing the Siege, Envious Neighbors, The Prohibition Premium, Shaping One’s Community in the Style of the Storied Old West, A Hidden Gun, Platinum Bubba Kush, The Bougiest Trim Scene in Humboldt, Hipnecks, Unmarked Shortcuts, A Ninety-Seven-Dollar Fix

The cook, whom I am going to call Dan, was having engine trouble. Fourth gear had gone limp on him, and fifth was unusable. He’d feared this day awhile now, when his aging, sun-beaten Toyota SUV started to break for real. Its previous owner had worn the truck out doing ranch work up north, near Canada, and then sold it to Dan cheap, aftermarket subwoofers included. On that ranch, Dan had plowed grain and mended fences, and after the season he had landed here, in Humboldt County, California, the marijuana-growing capital of America, if not of North America, where twice a day, six days a week, he made meals for trimmers on a big-money marijuana grow. Those trimmers, who neaten raw marijuana buds, nicknamed him “Dreamboat,” and he didn’t object.

It was a placid Sunday in October 2013, the middle of the fall harvest. Dan eased down the Mountain—“what everybody all over the world calls it,” he said, meaning the world of elite marijuana growers and their farmhands—riding neutral when he could, hoping his engine would later have enough kick to get him back up. He was headed into town to buy his farm’s weekly supply of food and drink. His budget, fourteen hundred dollars, all in twenties, sat on the dash, in an envelope labeled “Kitchen.” This allowance would be spread across several stores: restaurant suppliers, a local grocer, consumer wholesalers, and a tobacconist. Dan was a frugal shopper. He didn’t use coupons, but he knew that the price of pork loin was better at Cash & Carry than at WinCo, and that neither sold the brand of sweet butter popular with the trimmers. (That was at Safeway.) His shopping circuit would last into the evening, which was the point. If he returned to the farm before the dinner hour with a pantry of new food, he’d be expected to whip up a dish. And Sunday, contractually, was his day of rest.

Where the farm road met pavement Dan shifted out of four-wheel drive, flicked his spliff out the window. The sheriff’s office, if they were in the mood, could be suspicious of a vehicle simply for driving on the Mountain’s main road, a known high-volume marijuana trade route. Passing a Super Duty truck pulling a horse trailer empty of horses, Dan said that around here it would be surprising if the trailer wasn’t filled with weed. The Mountain, some fifty miles from the Pacific, a summit among low peaks, is passable only via private back road. Those growers who want to keep their shipments of marijuana off public roads as much as possible pay fellow growers, like Ethan, the owner and chief executive of the farm where Dan cooked, for the right to use his farm’s roads to bypass county, state, and federal throughways. The customary toll, according to Dan, is two hundred to four hundred dollars per trip. He’d collected a few of these tolls himself.

“Haul down to the gate on a quad,” he said, “open it, and the guy hands you a couple hundred bucks.” Easy money, and the wind hard on his face felt nice. Dan had opened Ethan’s land to pickups, horse trailers, cargo vans. The shipments would make their way north, to Oregon and Washington; east across taller, more-forbidding mountains, and into the American interior; and south, to lower California, Arizona, all over. Marijuana is Humboldt County’s main export; one local expert calculated that some twenty million plants a year are grown within its borders. Conservatively, five million pounds of marijuana are produced annually in Humboldt—six times the total number of pounds seized nationally by the DEA in 2012.

Last year alone, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office identified 4,100 marijuana cultivation sites. In a typical season, the sheriff said, his office will be able to eradicate fifty to sixty of those sites. Statistically, Dan’s boss, Ethan, had about a 2 percent chance of getting caught. He’d done his best to conceal his grow, snuggling it into the Mountain’s forbidding cap, and planting the outdoor gardens on rough narrows of the mountainside. A series of property gates protects his land, and the surrounding forest canopy is dense, providing good cover.

Even so, the threat of law enforcement raids is persistent. A few weeks before I arrived, Ethan had gotten word from the base of the Mountain that the DEA was headed his way in force. Spotter planes were making low passes overhead. “There’s always spooks in this realm,” Dan said, but this one seemed legitimate. Ethan told him to hide his gun, which Dan cased, wrapped in a trash bag, and then buried in a hollowed-out tree stump. It was an old rifle given to him by his grandfather. Although Dan lived in a dated wall tent, thin canvas the only thing separating him from the wilderness, the gun was more of a keepsake than a means of defense.

I asked Dan if he and Ethan, in what was possibly their hour of reckoning, did anything dramatic—maybe rolled up some farm fresh and enjoyed it with ceremonial finality, a goodbye shot of courage before facing the siege head-on. They didn’t, Dan said. They either carried on business as usual, or they went rafting; he couldn’t remember which, so frequent were the threats. Dan, who held an Ivy League master’s degree in creative writing, was in his second season on Ethan’s farm, and, with any luck, it would be his last. The plan was to rake in cash as both a cook and a grower, and then leave the States for a minute, head someplace where good living didn’t cost much. Take photos, write poems, finish his book. Going to prison could hamper that, Dan recognized, but this, farming pot, was a proven path to fast money.

After the warning, an hour passed without intrusion, and then another. Eventually, Ethan, part of an informal alliance of growers on the Mountain who kept each other in the loop regarding traffic, federal and otherwise, was told that the DEA squad was headed elsewhere—specifically, to the valley, where they eventually busted a grow that had more than three hundred plants in a single garden. Generous as Humboldt’s growing standards are, such a concentration of plants is considered flagrant and unignorable.

Dan waited a few days to retrieve his rifle, which a bear had found. Thinking food was inside, it had clawed off the trash bag, torn into the case, and then flung the rifle down a soggy hillside, muddying it.

“The action still works,” Dan said. “But it sat out in the rain and needs to be reblued.” For now the rifle was back at his camp, resting atop some verse.

Read the full piece.