It has been raining steadily for days, but the evening sun now pierces the haze like a pink, flaming orb, its broken rays angling downward through a gallery of 30-foot-high windows recently carved into a towering wall of redwoods along the riverbank. The trees are maybe 30 years old, new-growth trees just a few feet wide at the base but already 60 feet tall. A century ago, the entire valley had been clear-cut by loggers, the lumber stacked like wet cordwood on the flat cars of a southbound train whose long-abandoned tracks now lay below the ridge, rusting and overgrown with weeds.
Like dragon's breath in an illustrated children's book, smoky tendrils of the after-rain mist swirl up the steep hillside on the opposite bank of a gully whose ancient creek drains into the main river below. Atop a wide swath of grassy slope stands a house with a wraparound deck. Everywhere in the sky are fine sawdust particles wafting down from the treetops, refracting the sunlight as they descend. The chain saws and wood chipper are silent now; the staccato slap of water against shoal echoes from the fast-running river, swollen from a month-long inundation.
Even though its foundation lies 100 yards or so uphill from the river, the house has a flood-compliant basement for a first floor. Twice, in the 1950s and 1960s, the river flooded out entire towns in this valley; today, few houses or cabins still stand. Below the house is a trailer, where a tree-trimming crew from Santa Cruz bunked last night, and a wooden shack near the river that has a stone fireplace on its front porch bisected by the trunk of a sturdy redwood. In the middle of the clearing, between the cabin and the main house, is a trio of 60-foot-by-30-foot greenhouses rigged with a pulley system so that the roof or walls can be rolled up or down at a moment's notice.
Inside each structure, row upon row of 5-foot-high marijuana plants—4-month-old clones of a high-end Sour Diesel strain created by graduates of UC Berkeley's botany department—sway in the breeze. The farm is one of at least a dozen outdoor growing operations in Humboldt and Mendocino counties that are either owned by B. Lucky (a pseudonym, like all of the names in this story) or by one of his associates, in which case Lucky gets a share of the profits in return for helping distribute the harvest.
In addition to the regular outdoor growing season each summer, this farm typically produces three separate indoor crops per year by using powerful lights inside the greenhouses. In a good year, the total yield is 300 pounds or more of high-grade, medical-quality marijuana that can gross anywhere from $750,000 to $1.2 million, depending on how much of it Lucky sells. In California, awash for years in a glut of pot, a pound might go for $1,500; the same buds would fetch two to three times that amount in Manhattan.
Lucky is a middle-aged man with a chiseled chin, short hair and ubiquitous facial stubble who is partial to hip-hop-style, baggy, athletic gear. As usual, he's wearing a baseball cap perched jauntily on his head. Among various other pursuits, legitimate and otherwise, he's the director of a major Orange County medical-cannabis club that boasts more than 3,000 members. On paper at least, a large portion of the marijuana grown at this farm is for his patients; the rest, he says, is destined for collectives in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
"We're really selling shit all around the nation," Lucky says, quickly explaining he's not referring to himself, but rather to people he knows, and that the same truth applies to most local growers, not to mention the Mexican cartels known to operate massive gardens in the nearby mountains. Although California boasts some 400 medical-marijuana dispensaries, Lucky says there's already so much indoor weed on the market that Northern California mostly ships its marijuana out of state.
"Sure, you maintain your collective so that you have legal validation for your distribution, even though those few collectives are ultimately just 3 percent of your business," he says. "You go to a collective in Southern California, and you might sell 5 or 10 pounds—it's just a small deal. Meanwhile, there are guys who move hundreds of thousands of pounds, in hundred-pound packs, all across the nation."
To reach those customers, whether they're college students in Cambridge or Greenwich Village, buying off the black market, or legitimate medical-cannabis smokers in San Francisco or Santa Ana, the marijuana is stashed inside trunks of cars, hidden within kayaks latched to the roofs of SUVs, or secreted away in vehicles in a dozen other ways. It must navigate a gauntlet of Highway Patrol speed traps and random encounters with drug agents who operate between Eureka and Ukiah, patrolling every road leading in and out of Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties. Cops and smugglers alike have a nickname for this infamous chunk of real estate.
They call it the Emerald Triangle.
* * *
My journey north with B. Lucky to the heavily forested breadbasket of America's largest illicit cash crop had started at 10 a.m.—and badly. An unseasonably heavy downpour followed us from the Bay Area. B. Lucky had brought along an ounce of marijuana in his carry-on luggage after verifying via telephone calls to the airline and the local office of the Transportation Security Administration that he wouldn't be hassled so long as he had on him a valid doctor's recommendation to smoke cannabis. The aroma of his fragrant stash quickly filled up the vehicle.
Lucky isn't nervous driving with pot in his car inside the Triangle. Last year, a cop pulled him over while he was driving south to Orange County in an SUV. Following him at a safe distance was a tow truck hauling Lucky's other car, which happened to be laden with 100 pounds of marijuana. The cop, who had no idea about the tow truck, was nevertheless convinced Lucky was carrying weed in the SUV.
"You got some weed in the trunk?" the cop had asked. "You mind if I take a look?"
"No, it's cool," Lucky answered.
As he began to open the trunk, the cop stopped him. "If you've got 15 pounds in there, you're cool," he'd warned. "You've got 20; you get a ticket. You got anything more than 20, you've got a problem."
The worst time to be pulled over by a cop in the Emerald Triangle is at the end of the summer, Lucky says. "At the end of the season, when all the weed has to leave this area, 40 percent of the cops working up here are from Southern California, and they come up here just to rape the people, taking all their weed and money."
Between Oct. 15 and Dec. 15, Lucky explains, roughly four out of every 10 cars on the road is loaded down with marijuana, and both the freeway and the small towns it crosses are crawling with narcs. They're watching the hotels, where East Coast buyers stay for a week before blowing through half a million bucks, arranging pot deals, as well as the gas stations and car washes. "You never want to drive into town with mud all over your truck," he says. "That's a sign right there that you've just driven off the mountain, and that's probable cause. That's the first lesson of coming off the mountain :Clean your car. And never fucking stay at one of the shitty motels in town; they're crawling with undercover cops. It's so stupid that people think it's cool to do that."
Having made the trip south to Orange County more times than he can remember, Lucky has learned all the secrets to successfully smuggling weed, which is why he's hasn't been caught.
"You get your truck loaded down—I would never go over 150 or 200 pounds—and you get the fuck off the mountain at 4:30 in the morning on a Monday, and you're in the rush-hour traffic headed to work," he says. "There are so many thousands of cars on the roads that their odds of being able to pick somebody are just shattered, and your odds of getting through are that much more increased. Drive the speed limit and try to stay close to cars that are shady-looking—teenagers, kids—anyone who looks more suspicious than you."
* * *
Willits, California, is the hometown of the world-famous Skunk Train and the birthplace of the Proto Pipe, a small, metal contraption that allows you to store a gram of pot in a chamber that screws into the pipe and is held in place by a small poker that you can pull out and push into the holes in the bottom of the bowl for cleaning purposes. After dining on pizza at a restaurant there, we stop by a head shop north of town. The shop reeks of weed, and when we walk in, the red-eyed fellow working the cash register hastily puts out his joint in an ashtray.
Now that we've made it through most of the Triangle, Lucky is eager to purchase a smoking device so he can start puffing once we're back on the road. As he peruses the hundreds of glass pipes on display, he tells the cashier about the cop who was prepared to let him off for carrying anything less than 20 pounds of weed. The cashier's Latino friend, who is rolling joints on the countertop, curses in disgust.
"You have to be fucking white for that to happen," he fumes. "Because that shit does not happen to me. The cops up here will fuck with a local any time of day. The only people he won't pull over are a bunch of dread-headed niggas because he'll know he'll get shot."
The pissed-off joint-roller glances over at the cashier. "That shit ever happen to you?" he asks. "Get let go with 10 pounds?"
"Fuck no, never," the cashier responds.
Lucky's story seems to irritate the cashier. "You're lucky you're not from here," he continues. "You're from here and get pulled over with 15 ounces, and you're going straight to Lodi. You ever spend three nights in a holding cell with no shirt on, dog? Sleeping on concrete? Now, we've got all these fucking people coming here who are filling up the county—all these fools who think marijuana is legal. It may be legal everywhere else, but the reality up here is much more brutal."
Lucky selects a hookah-shaped pipe with a large glass bowl that can be filled with water and is designed to fit inside a car's beverage holder. As he pays, the cashier offers us some parting words of advice. "My family goes back four generations up here," he begins. "They lived here, they never left, and they're not going away, no matter what comes here or goes from here. There are a lot of people buried in these hills, bro. It's a lot deeper than just fucking scratching the surface. I wouldn't scratch too deep."
* * *
In the midst of a vast forest 20 miles farther north, Lucky steers around a steep curve, the river 200 feet below a cliff to our right. He's blowing pot smoke out the driver's-side window as we careen around the bend, pushing 70 mph. A police cruiser is parked on the opposite side of the freeway. Lucky lifts his foot off the accelerator slightly, puts the bong back in the holder and keeps driving. Thirty seconds later, he screeches to a halt in the gravel on the side of the road.
"Man, I have to wake up," Lucky says, yawning, and suddenly, it's apparent we're not being pulled over.
Lucky sprints back and forth on the roadside until he feels alert, and we continue north. We pass a hardware store that has a dozen or so trailer-mounted generators parked out front, all of which are going to power greenhouses. The rain, which had cleared up a few hours earlier, begins to fall again. In a forlorn parking lot on the other side of the freeway, a drenched hippie sits on a stool, hawking large Bob Marley and Hello Kitty blankets.
Soon, redwoods with trunks large enough to drive through are towering on either side of the road, blocking out the sun. Farther along, dingy trailers, overgrown with weeds, stand guard over small, tent-covered marijuana plots just yards from the freeway. As we climb uphill into the mountains, the trees become thinner, replaced with typically golden California grassland. A large, red barn crowns one of the hilltops. There's a late-model Ferrari parked next to a satellite dish and an array of radio antennas.
After zigzagging up and down the backside of a steep mountain, we reach a fern-covered ravine that narrows at a wooden bridge crossing a shallow creek. Waiting for us at the gate is Dave, a recently divorced horticulturalist from New Jersey who jumped at the opportunity to earn a handsome salary living on a pot farm. As is his ritual, Dave is ending the day the same way he started it: taking his two powerfully built Dobermans on a walk around the property.
Dave shuts the gate behind us and follows us up to the main house, which, along with the property and the greenhouses, is owned by one of Lucky's best friends, a pot smuggler from San Francisco named Anton. Like Lucky, he has spent most of the past two decades moving untold tons of weed to the East Coast. Besides smoking pot all day in massive joints rolled from the excess trim from last year's harvest, Anton's job is to cook meals and make sure the fridge is packed and the house is running tight.
At dawn every morning, Dave walks his two dogs and waters the plants. He spends most of the rest of his day tending to individual plants, ensuring each one is healthy. By the time they're ready for trimming, the number of workers on this farm more than quadruples with hourly workers, and the population of the Emerald Triangle itself explodes with an army of trimmers that spends weeks manicuring marijuana branches into ounce after ounce of shelf-ready buds. Until then, it's just Anton, Dave and Anton's brother Zach, who's permitted to leave the house only once a week to play golf. He practices his swing each evening by smashing balls into a large tree at the edge of the clearing.
"I've been here since March," Zach says. "It's a great spot, a great way to get out of the rat race, I guess." He also enjoys kayaking down the river in his free time, but there's never much of that to go around and even less once the summer growing season starts.
"It's beautiful up here," Zach says. "A beautiful prison."
* * *
The chain saws shred the morning silence shortly after breakfast, followed by the sound of the generator powering the wood chipper parked near the cabin by the river. For the next several hours, everyone on the property, with the exception of Dave, grabs fallen tree branches and tosses them in the chipper, which creates mounds of mulch on the edge of the clearing. The work stops when the drizzling rain, which began midmorning, turns to a downpour. It resumes after lunch, when the sun pokes through the clouds and once again burns off the mist.
Although it's messy, difficult work, everyone's stomach is stuffed, and nobody complains. Last year's crew was another matter entirely, Lucky recalls.
"Some of those guys were just a bunch of fucking whiners," he says. This place is five-star. I mean, look at the house—it's got showers, it's got cable, it's got wireless. What more do you need? A lot of people working up here are lucky to be living in tents all summer and shooting food out in the forest to survive. That crew didn't realize how lucky they had it. Now, they're calling back, trying to get jobs for this summer and being told they aren't needed."
According to Lucky, it takes two to three experienced trimmers all day to trim just 4 pounds of marijuana. That's why, at harvest time, the Emerald Triangle is swollen with hippie kids from all over the country eager to cash in on the hourly wages, knowing full well they'll get to smoke marijuana the entire time and, if they work hard, end up with a nice bonus, like an ounce or so of weed.
At the end of last year's harvest, Anton and Lucky realized their trimmers had left more than 50 pounds of decent pot lying on the cutting-room floor simply because they were too lazy to trim it. The buds didn't go to waste; now, they're being rolled into joints several times per day and are expected to last through the summer. "You have to have a small, tight, trustworthy team," Lucky says. "You don't want a mutiny on your hands, or people ripping you off, or maybe just taking off and telling the cops. It takes a lot of fucking work to run a farm like this."
Just as important as worker morale, Lucky says, is making sure the plants remain healthy and produce the highest-yield crop possible. This is the job of Dave the horticulturalist, who speaks in a soft, mid-Atlantic accent and always seems to have a pair of fingernail-trimming scissors in his hand, whether to clip unproductive branches off the pot plants he's growing or to snip up a joint's worth of weed when his work is done.
Dave has his portable stereo turned up so the plants can hear the Puccini opera he's playing above the deafening roar outside. He explains that the 5-foot-to-6-foot plants that fill the three greenhouses were all tiny plants just 6 inches tall only four months ago; these are the Sour Diesel clones, which Lucky instructed him to reproduce. To clone a marijuana plant, Dave explains, you clip a branch from the original containing three or four nodes, dip the twig in a rooting-hormone solution, clip the leaves to prevent them from sucking up too much water in the crucial first few days, and finally scrape the bottom of the stem to create injuries, which help the plant develop roots.
While the clones in the greenhouse are now almost ready for flowering, the next crop of clones is spread out on the deck and in the basement of the house, in dozens of 50-cube trays, each square containing a pinch of soil and a single clone. The soil, Dave says, is called Formula 707—after an Emerald Triangle area code—and in the greenhouse, each plant is in a camouflaged plastic sack made by a Sacramento-based company called, appropriately enough, Camo Pots, which also has a small shipping office in Costa Mesa.
"This is as tall as the plants will get," Dave says. "We're pruning for production, high yield, and for airflow to prevent mold and diseases, so these plants are shorter and wider, with more terminal ends that have energy flowing to them. Right now, we're doing preventative care, so I'm pruning out insignificant growth that won't make much of a bud and is taking energy away from the rest of the plant."
In about a week, the plants will be ready for "light-dep," pot-growing parlance for light-deprivation therapy. Because 12 hours is the magic amount of time plants need to begin flowering, the strategy is to use as much natural light as possible to provide a half-day of light, and then, when 12 hours is up, to immediately cover the plants under a plastic tarp, thereby tricking them into thinking it's now almost autumn, and therefore time to reproduce, which, in the case of pot, means to blossom into sticky buds.
"If you do this right, you get your crop earlier than you would otherwise," Dave says. "With two people and a decent system of winches and pulleys, it's pretty easy to do. And then in three months, you have big, beautiful, sticky buds, and all you have to do is dry them, cure them and trim them."
Dave has been at the farm since last fall, just after the outdoor harvest had ended. He has rarely left the property, although once, during the spring rainy season, he came close to driving up the mountain when the river began to flood. "If you have the right personality, it's a lovely place to be," he says. "You're out in the woods, secluded. It's 6 miles to the main road, 3 miles up and 3 miles down. I've spent days here without even thinking of leaving."
Whether the farm can provide Dave and the rest of the workers with a living ultimately depends on Lucky's ability to sell the weed once it has been successfully harvested. Although the level of quality of the marijuana depends on countless factors, it helps to ensure the clones belong to the correct strain to begin with.
"There is nothing worse than spending six months of your time, money and effort on a crop, only to realize you're growing the wrong fucking strain," Lucky says, and it's clear he's speaking from experience. "I have 140 pounds sitting in New York right now that's turning to powder because it's not the right strain. I can't move it for any price. It's a quarter-of-a-million dollars' worth of shit sitting in Manhattan that nobody can touch, and that's just so fucked-up."
* * *
The foreman of the chain saw crew, Red, a lanky giant from Santa Cruz with sinewy arms and a weather-beaten face, is covered in sweat and sawdust. He's standing on the deck of the main house, examining his day's work now that the sun is starting to set in the exact spot he'd predicted, newly devoid of redwoods and open to the light. Red and Lucky are guzzling Bud Lights. Red is Lucky's cousin; he jokes that he's not necessarily the best trimmer in the Yellow Pages, but with an underground operation like this, you can't just let your fingers do the walking and hire anyone in the book.
"I almost thought they were going to blindfold me and my guys when we came up here," he jokes. "Then we figured, once we finished the job, they wouldn't let us leave and just feed us to the pigs. In this business, it's all connections; it's all word-of-mouth and grassroots. It keeps the money among the bros, so everybody has a vested interest."
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Looking west at the setting sun, Red clutches a cigarette between the tobacco-stained knuckles of his left hand and waves at the open space where five or so redwoods used to stand along the gulley until a few hours ago, when he chopped them down. "We did good," he tells Lucky, belching loudly. "Now you can see all the way to the ridgeline, and the good thing is, we put all the debris down there in the gulley so you don't have to haul that anywhere—and it'll stop anybody from hiking up that fjord and finding this fucking place. Nobody can get through that mess."
Lucky isn't looking at downed trees so much as the wide-open sky.
"That's just beautiful," he says. "Look at all that light, bro."
The official start of outdoor marijuana-growing season may still be a week away, but on this corner of America's Emerald Triangle, summer has just begun.