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Humboldt, The Book 

Journalist embeds for a year in the marijuana lands of SoHum

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Emily Brady

The Making of Humboldt

When Emily Brady arrived in Garberville in the summer of 2010, she was thinking that the sorta-famous, sorta-secretive pot town could make for an interesting chapter in a book about California's (seemingly) impending marijuana legalization. But almost immediately she realized that the insular, outlaw culture of Southern Humboldt warranted more than a chapter. "It just seemed like a really different place, this other world," Brady told the Journal in a recent interview.

At the time, SoHum was abuzz with excitement and anxiety about the upcoming vote on Prop. 19, which would have legalized the cash crop that's sustained the region's economy for roughly 40 years. Many worried that legalization would destroy their livelihoods; others embraced the idea on idealistic grounds. Most were conflicted. "I realized that to get the story of this place I needed to stay there," Brady said.

And so, for more than a year, the young writer lived in Southern Humboldt, exploring questions facing the community: How long can a counterculture exist before it becomes a culture unto itself? What comes after pot? When a community is sustained through secrecy and illegal activities, how does that affect the next generation?

In her first book, Humboldt: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier, which arrives in bookstores on Tuesday, Brady examines such questions through the eyes of four SoHum residents, each with a different perspective. There's "Mare," an aging back-to-the-lander who's finally ready to stand up and be counted as a grower. There's Bob, a good-humored but frustrated sheriff's deputy outmatched by money and legal hypocrisy. There's "Emma," a young woman raised amid the industry with a half-brother, Mikal Xylon Wilde, who stands charged with murdering a laborer on his Kneeland pot farm.

In this condensed excerpt, we meet "Crockett," part of the profit-hungry second generation of cultivators, producing marijuana on a massive scale.

Brady will give a reading and sign copies of her book at Garberville's King Range Books on June 27 at 4 p.m. The next evening at 7, Arcata's Northtown Books will host another read-and-sign event with the author.

— Ryan Burns

 

Against the shadowy outline of the mighty redwoods, the speeding Ford pickup looked like a toy powered by some far-off remote control. A balmy, late summer wind whipped through the truck's open window and through the sandy brown hair of the man behind the wheel. It was late, and there was no emergency, but Crockett Randall sped as if his life depended on it. He loved to drive fast. He called it taking an engine to its limit, but it wasn't really about the engine; it was about the adrenaline. The closer Crockett came to death, the more alive he felt, whether it was hurtling down a snow-covered mountain on a snowboard or driving thirty miles over the speed limit on a dark country road.

At 35, Crockett was old enough to know better, but teetering on the edge was part of who he was, and he did it in ways you'd never suspect just by looking at him. Crockett had a strong, square jaw, shy blue eyes, and a permanent tan earned by bobbing around on a surfboard off the North Coast, braving hypothermia and great white sharks in the hope of catching the perfect wave. One of Crockett's greatest gifts was that he possessed the quiet, unassuming presence of someone you could easily forget was in the room.

This chameleon-like quality helped him blend in with the ranchers he worked with at the volunteer fire department back home, and with the men he used to operate heavy equipment with. The aging hippies on the commune where he grew up still accepted him as one of their own, and when the police pulled him over for speeding, which happened at least once a month, usually all Crockett had to do was flash the license that permitted him to drive fire trucks, and the cop would realize he was part of the brotherhood. Then there was the underworld where Crockett made his money, where everything was built on trust and intuition. He belonged to that brotherhood, too.

In many ways, Crockett was the perfect example of the kind of men who migrated to Humboldt County every year. They came from around the country and sometimes from abroad, like miners of old, hoping to strike it rich. In general, these newcomers didn't tend to tithe their earnings with donations to hospice, or spend $1,000 on raffle tickets to support the community school. These newcomers often lived in isolation out in the hills, where they clear-cut hillsides and grew pot. Or they filled buildings with impossibly bright lights and grew their plants indoors, with diesel powered generators. Crockett was part of this Green Rush, as it was called, but he also came to the marijuana industry honestly.

He was born into it.

The Avenue of the Giants that Crockett raced along was a 30-mile strip of asphalt named after the redwood forest it meandered through. Back before the state built a four-lane highway through most of Humboldt County, the Avenue was the main thoroughfare north. Now it was a rambling country road, a parallel scenic route that offered tourists a way to submerge themselves in the splendor of the big trees without having to leave their cars. Sometimes when Crockett roared down the Avenue with his coworker Zavie, with "My Dick," by Mickey Avalon, blasting on the stereo, Crockett would wonder about the tourists they passed, with their RVs and cameras. Did they have any idea what was going on here?

At this late hour, Crockett was headed back to the cabin on the hill, to the place where he'd been on lockdown for the past few weeks. An hour or so earlier, he had snuck off to eat at the Avenue Café in Miranda. He dined at his usual spot, at the redwood slab counter. Under dim lights, he ate chicken parmigiana and scrolled through friends' Facebook updates on his laptop. A lone highway patrol officer sat a few seats away. After the officer left, Crockett peered out the window to make sure the cop was headed in the opposite direction, then settled up his bill and tipped the waitress. Crockett had to get back to the cabin. Every moment he was away there was a risk that someone could come and take everything he had spent the past five months working toward.

Crockett turned off the Avenue and gunned up a hill. He left the redwoods behind as he climbed higher into a dense forest of Douglas fir and tan oak. After a few miles of twists and turns, he arrived at a driveway that was sealed with a metal gate. The sign that hung from it read "No Trespassing." Crockett's fingers moved nimbly across the padlock. He lifted up the heavy chain, and the gate swung open.

Dust billowed up around the truck as Crockett bounced down the bumpy dirt road, the kind that wore cars out before their time and felt so far from civilization it seemed like it might lead straight into the African bush. There were two more padlocked gates and two more warning signs: "Private." "Keep Out." Unpaved roads reminded Crockett of the commune he grew up on. But those roads had been tamer; they didn't have Humboldt's foreboding barriers or signs.

The cabin was down a steep grade past the final gate. As Crockett pulled up, the headlights on his truck illuminated the small square building and the tree line just beyond. He killed the engine, and everything went black. After a few seconds his eyes adjusted, and it was as though the dark sky had been pierced with a million holes. The stars guided him behind the cabin, where he flipped on the generator. Its diesel-powered rumble broke the stillness of the country night.

Obscured by the darkness beyond the cabin was a greenhouse full of mature marijuana plants. Deeper in the woods were even more greenhouses full of hundreds of plants. The pot grown in them was expected to fetch close to $1 million.

Inside the cabin, Crockett kicked off his flip-flops, settled into the couch, and prepared to roll a joint. He operated in a near-permanent state of stoned, which didn't make him lethargic or giggly, like those idiots in the movies; it just made him quieter than usual. Whenever Crockett tried to stop smoking, he found himself unable to sleep. The bed where he spent his nights was directly across the room. To his right, the kitchen area was piled high with dirty dishes. Past the kitchen, a door led to a tiny bathroom, where the toilet was filled by a hose that ran through the window. The shower was outside.

The cabin was rustic, but downright palatial compared with how some people lived during the growing season. Some stayed in buildings so shoddy that light seeped through the boards. Others lived in tents and trailers. Many places didn't have indoor plumbing or a toilet and a hose, which meant people had to head to the outhouse or into the woods to do their business.

Crockett knew he was fortunate, and he was comfortable enough being by himself, but sometimes he missed seeing familiar faces every day, and having a smooth, curvy body to press up against at night. When he moved to Humboldt that spring, he figured it would be good to take a break from women for a while, but now he wished he had brought one along. His co-worker Zavie also missed female companionship. Sometimes the two schemed about opening up a brothel together. They figured if they could provide their fellow growers with hookers and blow, they'd be able to take all their money. Zavie had gotten so lonely lately that he'd started lusting after the 17-year-old who cleaned their weed.

The trimmer girl, as they called her, had manicured the pot Crockett was about to smoke. With her Fiskars sewing scissors, she had shaped the bud into the tight, compact, grape-size nugget he stuck in his herb grinder. The metal prongs minced the flower and infused the cabin with the smell of sweet pine. He then poured the contents into the fold of a rolling paper and began rubbing it back and forth between his thumbs and index fingers to form a joint.

Crockett's favorite kind of weed at the moment was Blue Dream, but the joint he was rolling was filled with O.G. Kush. Marijuana comes in different varieties, called strains. Most strains are crosses between the two primary species Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Marijuana growers create hybrids of the two and give them names that have never passed through a marketing department: Headband. Sour Diesel. Green Crack. Earlier in the summer, a strain with the unforgettable name of God's Pussy won the High Times Medical Cannabis Cup in San Francisco. (Due to public backlash, it was renamed Vortex a few days later.) The O.G. Kush that Crockett was about to smoke was a particularly popular strain. Rappers composed odes to it. This particular bud had come from a recent harvest Crockett and Zavie grew inside a house their boss Frankie owned near Garberville.

While there is no one way to grow pot, as growers are fond of saying, there are basically two: inside, under high wattage lights, or outdoors in the sun. Marijuana grown indoors can be harvested every two to three months. Outdoor plants are traditionally harvested once a year, in the fall. New methods involving light deprivation, or "depping," trick the plant into flowering earlier and can lead to multiple outdoor harvests. Frankie required that Crockett and Zavie grow a small indoor garden to ensure a steady flow of cash. The windfall, however, would come from the outdoor garden on the hill, the one Crockett spent his days and nights guarding from authorities, and thieves.

 

Marijuana had always been part of Crockett's life. His first memory was of being on a plane with his mother. They were leaving Arizona, where Crockett's father was sitting in jail, busted for smuggling pot across the Mexican border. Decades later, Crockett would have no memory of the man. He didn't even carry his last name.

In the late 1970s, Crockett's mother brought him to live on a commune north of San Francisco. Like Humboldt, his corner of Marin County had been settled by Old World ranchers and fishermen, and then, in the 1960s and '70s, by the New World counterculture. On the commune, Crockett was first introduced to the tall, fragrant plant that would play such a big role in his life. As a young boy, he loved pressing the smooth peppercorn-size seeds into soil and adding water. Little green shoots seemed to pop out of the wet earth almost instantly, like magic beanstalks.

When he started elementary school, his mother supported them by selling pot and cocaine to local fishermen. Crockett knew by then that it was a secret he must keep. He worried about coming to school smelling of the plant during harvest time, or that someone might notice how the plastic bags that carried his sandwiches had tiny green flakes in the corners, remnants of what they once held. By the time he was 17, Crockett was selling pot in a local trailer park.

Crockett had known his boss, Frankie, since elementary school. They rode the bus together when they were little, and in high school they carpooled and smoked pot before class. Later, they were briefly roommates. Then Frankie fell in love with a girl from Southern Humboldt and moved there to join her. He started out working for others, and moved up fast. Frankie lived in the Bay Area now, with a new girlfriend, but owned property in Humboldt, and a shiny new Mercedes. Most important, Frankie had reached the stage where he could afford to pay people to work for him.

Frankie's timing had been fortuitous. After 15 years of operating heavy equipment, Crockett was ready for a change. When Frankie approached him with the job offer, Crockett agreed to move to Humboldt to manage the season's marijuana crop for a cut of the earnings, somewhere around $100,000 in cash. Like sharecropping in the South, the arrangement is called partnering in marijuana culture, and is common among growers who live somewhere else or just prefer to pay someone else to dig holes, stake up plants, water, fertilize, set mouse and rat traps, walk waterlines, and handle all the other manual labor that goes along with pot farming.

Crockett had never lived in Humboldt before, nor had he ever grown a giant outdoor garden, but it sounded like a good chunk of money, and he did have experience growing a few plants in a spare bedroom back home. He had also spent years working as a middleman, or broker, as they call it in the business, connecting friends with buyers and taking a cut off the top.

The garden that Crockett and Zavie were growing for Frankie up near the cabin was big. While it was legal under California law to grow a small number of plants for medical use, gardens over 100 plants risked stiff mandatory sentences under federal law. Theirs was many times that, and its flowers were destined for the black market that for decades had ensured that marijuana farmers were among the world's richest. At various times throughout the 1980s pot was worth more per ounce than gold. In the early 1990s, some master growers in Humboldt earned as much as $6,000 a pound for their outdoor crop.

Then, in 1996, Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, became law, and medical marijuana patients were allowed to grow their own. People around the state began growing more of it in their garages, attics, and backyards, and prices on the black market began to spiral downward. Now, in 2010, a statewide initiative called Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act, would, if passed by voters in November, legalize pot outright. Frankie was completely against legalization. His motto was "I'm not in this for the money, I'm in this for a lot of money." A sticker on the wall at his house summed up his feelings and the feelings of many other growers: "Save Humboldt County, Keep Pot Illegal."

The vote was just over two months away, and Crockett still hadn't made up his mind about legalization. On one hand, he liked the idea of drastic changes in history, and ending marijuana prohibition sounded cool. He also didn't agree with the whole prison industrial complex, with its judges, and prison guards and police who earned money by locking people away. The government had spent $41 billion that year alone fighting the War on Drugs, according to a study by the libertarian Cato Institute. It was a war Crockett knew could never be won.

On the other hand, he wondered how he and his friends would make a living in a world where pot was legal and no longer as lucrative. With legalization, would companies such as Philip Morris plant acres of ganja in the Central Valley? Or, worse yet, what if China started growing pot for export? They'd be selling it at dollar stores. These thoughts had all occurred to Crockett, but he put them out of his mind as he lay on the couch and finished his joint to the tinny sound of the "Hotel California" remix playing on his laptop.

First, he had to guard the crop and get through harvest. Then he had to get paid. And then maybe he could start thinking about legalization and his future. He already had a five-year plan. By the time he was 40, he wanted to get his pilot's license, find his father, and build a little cabin on the commune where he grew up.

On this late August night, the marijuana flowers outside were beginning to fill out and were near their resiny peaks. It was a time when sheriff's deputies might come to your gate to make sure your medical paperwork was in order. And it was rip-off season, when thieves could make off with a year's crop in one fell swoop. Paranoia permeated the hills of Humboldt this time of year. It explained the pit bulls in the back of the trucks around town and the brisk sales of motion-detecting cameras and alarm systems at the Security Store up in the Meadows Business Park (the "insecurity" store, as some people called it). The irony was that while most outsiders feared stumbling upon armed growers in Humboldt, most growers feared being stumbled upon by armed men themselves.

 

The first known bust of a pot grower in Humboldt County went down on Sept. 29, 1960, north of the city of Arcata, near a stream of water known as Strawberry Creek. After a multiple-hour stakeout that morning, a sheriff 's deputy arrested and charged a man named Eugene Crawford with growing a little more than two dozen, three-inch-high pot plants. Crawford had arrived at the scene with a box and shovel in hand; he said he was going to dig worms. He was found guilty after a three-day trial the following year. A decade later, the first recorded marijuana-related killing occurred.

Oct. 4, 1970, was a Sunday, and outside the dairy town of Ferndale, Patrick Berti came to check out two four-foot-tall marijuana plants that were basking in the fall sun. Berti was 22, had grown up in Ferndale, and had just been accepted into law school in San Diego. He examined the plants, unaware that he was being watched. Hidden in the bushes nearby was an ambitious young sheriff's deputy on a stakeout. Larry Lema was also from Ferndale and had known Berti for years. At one point, Berti held up a marijuana branch that the deputy would later say he mistook for a weapon. Lema drew his gun and fired, ripping a hole in Berti's chest.

As he lay bleeding on the riverbank, Berti recognized the man who'd pulled the trigger.

"Christ, Larry," he cried. "You've shot me."

Then Patrick Berti died. The pot plants didn't even belong to him, but to a friend. Berti had come to the river that day to marvel at their height. A Humboldt County grand jury later ruled Berti's shooting "justifiable homicide."

In the decades that followed, there were more pot-related deaths, and some stood out more than others, like that of Kathy Davis, the social worker whose 1982 murder during a robbery at her home shattered the innocence of the community. Then there was the 19-year-old boy, and member of the second generation, who was shot to death at a local swimming hole during a deal gone wrong. There were also people who disappeared, leaving their family and friends in a perpetual state of unknowing.

Though Humboldt County has a low violent-crime rate compared to the rest of the state, in 2012 the Humboldt County Sheriff 's Office analyzed eight years of data on local homicides. Of the 38 murders committed during that period, 23, or 70 percent, were drug-related. The drug was usually marijuana. Most of the murders were business violence — say, a skirmish over wages or somebody getting shot during a rip-off. During that same period in Napa County, which has a similar population size and whose economy is based on a legal intoxicant — alcohol — there were only eight murders, and just one was marijuana-related.

Crockett knew since childhood that the potential for violence and rip-offs were part of the business, and Frankie had told him before he moved up to the cabin, "If the rippers come, don't risk your life. Get off the hill."

But Crockett had other plans.

Hidden under the tangle of blankets on his unmade bed was a loaded .22-caliber handgun. It was silver with a black handle, and weighed heavy in his hand. Crockett had too much riding on this. He had quit his job and worked too hard in that garden just to let it all disappear. If the rippers came, Crockett planned to stand his ground. It wasn't about the plants. It never was. It was about the money.

After Crockett exhaled a final cloud of smoke, he headed back outside. The main garden was farther out on the property. Dust billowed up behind him as he sped along in a Yamaha Rhino, an off-road vehicle that looks like a mini dune buggy. It was close to midnight, and there was only darkness and trees and the high-pitched hum of the Rhino's engine.

When he pulled up at the final gate, Crockett killed the motor on the Rhino, and the lights went out. Again, it was pitch black until the four enormous greenhouses came into view. They were covered in translucent white polyurethane, which gave them a ghostly glow. The three on the right were cylindrical and about 100 feet long. From above they must have looked like enormous joints. The fourth was square and about twice the size of the cabin. The whole setup looked like a commercial nursery — an illegal commercial nursery.

Crockett unlocked the gate and strode toward the nearest greenhouse. The thick, musky scent of marijuana hung heavy in the air. The plant's trademark odor was often compared to a skunk's spray; it was the smell that had led to a million busts. He swung open the door of the cabin-shaped greenhouse to have a look at the girls, as growers call female marijuana plants. They were still there, lined up obediently in tidy rows.

They were the same strain he had smoked earlier, O.G. Kush. But whereas the plants he and Zavie grew under bright lights in the house would reach only a few feet tall before they flowered, sun and time coaxed these ladies to heights of around 10 feet. They were tall and skinny and manicured in a fiercely attentive way, like premier cru grapevines.

A few days earlier, Crockett and Zavie had gone through and removed the larger leaves on the plants and tied the heaviest branches to wooden stakes with blue plastic ribbon. As the flower clusters, known as "buds," thickened nearing harvest, the plastic tape and stakes would prevent branches from snapping under their growing weight. O.G. Kush was known among growers for having a weak stem and being prone to mold. The blue tape would help support the stems. As for the mold, there was nothing Crockett could do about that but pray.

Crockett shut the greenhouse door and did a quick walk around the other structures. Between each one was a row of heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers, chard, and beets. Frankie had insisted that Crockett and Zavie grow the vegetables. In case someone buzzed the greenhouses with a plane, Frankie somehow thought they'd think it was a veggie farm.

In all, around 700 marijuana plants grew on this property. Come harvest, Crockett hoped each would produce at least half a pound of pot. But that was still a couple of months away. So much could happen before then. Rippers could come. The cops could pay a visit. In the meantime, Crockett would sit in the cabin and guard the crop with his life. It was late, and he had to be back to water the garden early the next morning. Crockett started up the Rhino, revved its tiny engine, and sped off into the darkness in a cloud of fast-moving dirt.

It was only a matter of days before someone would be shot in a remote Humboldt garden filled with emerald green plants much like his.

 

Excerpted from the book HUMBOLDT: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier by Emily Brady. Copyright © 2013 by Emily Brady. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Emily Brady, a journalist who lives in Oakland, has written for the New York Times, Time, the Village Voice and other publications.

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