Currently Reading: Life on the Lost Coast

The 4E family road trips to ground zero for commercial cannabis in order to learn from 40 years of vigilante cultivation

Portland arrives fast enough, and we stop by the Danner Boots factory store to have a classic pair of Americana re-soled. We journey southward past the mid-century modern retirement home in Canyonville, OR. Past Drain, Oregon. Past Fiddle, Oregon. Past Upper Cow Creek Road. At Grants Pass, where the locals claim “it’s the climate,” we head west through the Redwoods Highway.

DJ Shadow plays as the old-growth forest reaches heights only skyscrapers can touch.

Past road signs that feature pictures of rocks falling on a person’s head and tsunami hazard placards that seem strangely out of place. Past Lady Bird Johnson Grove and Lost Man Creek. Snaking along the Pacific Ocean where the fog hangs in the air like second-hand smoke, we finally find ourselves in Humboldt County. We have arranged to visit friends, who prefer to remain anonymous due to the legal ramifications of blowing up their own spot.

“People like to come into other people’s houses and take things,” our friend explains while walking us through his indoor garden. “The best way to deter them is to get a pitbull and lift weights in the yard.”

But the posturing for security purposes also draws the attention of the scattered retired couples who live in an uneasy balance with the much younger crowd of indoor cultivators. It’s easy to spot the rental houses that are being used for such practices. Young people come and go at all times of the day. Multiple cars are parked and left unmoved for weeks at a time. The garage never opens.

There are shantytown shacks with no windows full of rugged immigrants that don’t have any hope of a green card, sitting right next to the organic farm producing Horizon Dairy (which is sold through the State of Washington). In one case we drive by a rundown barn that is barely standing as a 7-series BMW pulls out of the property.

Our friends explain that you have to keep up appearances, and not blatantly flaunt partaking in the region’s cottage industry. The tolerance of local law enforcement is as easily eroded as the hillsides to the East. The smart ones host BBQs and invite people over. They manicure their lawns, landscape the yard and grow vegetable gardens.   

“It’s odd to live like a retired person at 30 years old,” another friend says bluntly.


 

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But this is the romantic ideal that Washingtonians have fantasized about for generations. Leave it all behind and just grow, or join a co-op that is set up and work as a farmhand. Slow down, be easy, live better and abandon the rat race leaving the cheese for someone else to chase. Our first night we enjoy the authentic cookhouse dinner in Samoa, CA which has been serving folks since 1890. It’s a big open room and food is available “lumber camp style” as they put it, Golden Corral tries but they have nothing on this original.

Arcata is our first stop on HWY 101 as we plan a route south through Humboldt County. An older gentleman walks the downtown streets with his pet Yak. Another eccentric individual is known for jogging around town everyday – backwards. The area is overrun with vagabonds, many of them teenage runaways. $200 a day to trim is a pretty standard wage. The streets smell like urine. All of them.

Some hitchhike on the 101 attempting to meet growers that way. But it’s a bad look. A lot can happen “up in the hills,” as locals call it. Some trimming jobs are conducted at gunpoint, and it’s obvious where the hippie growers stop and the cartels start.

A culture of distrust permeates every aspect of life. Who is legit? Who is an informant? This region supplies most of the Rocky Mountain corridor and was even more essential before home-grows became prevalent. People drive to Humboldt looking to buy in bulk and in many cases a broker is even used to connect money with product in a way that limits strong-arm robberies. Just before our arrival a bone-chilling double murder was allegedly perpetrated by a man named Bodhi Tree resulting in the death of a fellow called “Sunshine” and his much younger female companion.

It’s not all peace and love on the Lost Coast.

One local legend is told and re-told like a forewarning fable. The classic bed-time story for youngsters thinking it’s easy pickins around these parts. A college kid at Humboldt State University (in Arcata) that has been making side money by brokering for friends in Colorado gets busted pedaling small amounts to classmates. While in police custody he receives a text asking where to send the buy money. The police reply to the text with the address of the Arcata, CA police station.

$30,000 shows up a week later.


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SoHum is what the locals call the more remote towns further south on HWY 101. We plan to visit Garberville where old friends from sports leagues and grammar schools have established a top-notch farm deep in the back road brush. It’s past Eureka, CA (the biggest city in Humboldt) and often called “Eu-Tweeka” for it’s high rates of chemical addictions. We continue on the 101 past the “Avenue of the Giants” and “One-Log House.”

Inside Ray’s Grocery Store in Garberville, a locally owned option for a community that has no desire for a Safeway, an entire aisle is dedicated to plastic bags. The sheer size of it is appalling. Locals have made it a tradition to meet up at Aisle 11 inside Ray’s. Outside in the parking lot teenage runaways and transients loiter like day laborers in front of Home Depot. They wait for the trimming jobs that may or may not come.

This town sells more turkey bags than anywhere else in the United States, according to the cashier.

We proceeded to an outdoor grow high in the hills of SoHum. We agree to their demand that their location and identities remain anonymous. It’s the least we can do to repay their hospitality.

When the counter-culturalists first moved out here to cultivate their crop of choice they built elaborate structures deep in the caves where no roads existed. Some were Robinson Carusoe style tree forts fabricated into the old growth forests in order to use the canopy above to avoid detection from authorities circling the skies in their helicopters.

As we pass multiple dead bolted gates, and private property signs, we arrive at a true example of an off-the-grid commercial operation.

Generators runs on bio diesel and the farmers are more concerned with wild boars than they are with Federal Agents. Out here, if you have less than 10 pounds in your possession they don’t even call it in according to our hosts. The truly remarkable thing is that no matter how deep into the hills you go, your cell phone service will only get better. It’s no coincidence that this remote area has brand new cell towers, pulsating power lines and a maze of well-paved roads that are almost impossible to navigate without a local guide.


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This odd mixture or rural and technological reflects the unsaid understanding of the Lost Coast.

The economy relies entirely on being the pot provider for two-thirds of the United States. Businesses are started with profits from the illegal trade, they may lose money but never go out of business. Magazines like PDA are completely sustained by advertising from the grow shops pushing custom organic compost or energy efficient light hoods. There are almost no medical dispensaries or access points, and the few that do operate there are completely inconspicuous.

No one seems to mind. The law only pursues the cartels, and most folks wink, nod and look the other way.

It’s awkward at times but falls far short of the picture painted by Oliver Stone’s film “Savages.” People are wise to the decades of dealings going on around them, and just like the cashier at the gas station that sells you a Swisher knowing what it’s really for… they don’t sweat it.

Unless you let your front lawn grow too long of course.


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