I arrived with the intent of transforming 150 pounds of marijuana trim into hashish. The process would finish the previous year’s agricultural cycle on a friend’s farm, where he produces medicine for the California medical marijuana industry.
I agreed to watch the property and help with processing. I was expecting the homie to join me shortly, but he had business in the city to finish first. Rather than wait, I caught a ride south with his mom and her two dogs – an ancient blue healer and a willfully ignorant pit mix. C-, my traveling companion for the 11 hour drive, ran the farm the first time I worked there two years previous. She was headed further south to visit family and offered to drive.
For the first week, I spent my days trimming the last 5 pounds of weed left in the house and running the dog up the mountain. Often absent, C- stayed for a week, traveling south to visit her son down the valley or visiting friends in town. When she was around we talked about the paper she was finishing for her MFA in printmaking. After 5 days C- took the car, the dogs, and her violin and left.
The work never materialized and neither did the homie, so I looked elsewhere for things to occupy my time. There was a nominal amount of processing to complete – about 5 pounds of trimming – and a garden to start. I set up a room and replanted 33 clones, hung lights and watered. They ladies arrived the same week I did – some 8 varieties of marijuana plants with names like Dairy Queen, Headband, SVF, Blue City Diesel and Deep Purple. I made a home for them, converting the second bedroom into a veg room with three T5s and a couple of fans, and played them Steve Reich and Max Roach to keep them heady.
Marijuana is beautiful as it grows… always searching upward, unfurling delicate green leaves which never fail, because of their five leaf arrangement, to remind me of human hands. The plants range from spindly sativas with thin fingers grabbing greedily a the light, to squat, bushy indicas looking like a collection of thick and sticky eyebrows questioningly raised. The plants are remarkably resilient, and grow amazingly quickly – starting as small clones when they arrived, perhaps six inches tall, some of the stronger sativas were two and a half feet tall by the time I left six weeks later. By the end of the season I imagine they’ll be 15 foot bushes yielding three to seven pounds…
Among the ranches, California oaks, manzanita trees and weed gardens is an unmarked, private road leading into the hills. Half a mile up the rutted gravel road, the humble house appears – behind it’s two cattle gates, it’s hardly more than 1200 square feet, it’s address appears in various places on Google maps, none of them correct.
Featuring all the modern amenities of the 20th century – wood heat, electric range, and an ancient TV – the house is a portrait of rustic living. There is no cable, instead there’s a vast collection of 90’s VHS tapes and a creaky VCR. Water is provided, unfiltered, from a spring up the mountain which turns green after heavy rain. With no garbage service, and recycling unheard of, I burn what I can, compost what I can’t burn, and try to reuse the rest. The waste I produce weekly half fills a plastic grocery bag – I take it to town and poach public trashcans.
The house is a joke among the local community. The owners, a couple from the Northwest, bought the 50 acre property from a local lawyer at the height of the market in 2007, just before the collapse, for $500,000. Now worth half that, impossible to sell and largely unusable, the property hangs over their heads. The house is permitted as an agricultural building, making it (officially) unfit for human habitation or rental – it’s a goat barn with plumbing. The owners can’t legally rent it, so there’s no lease, and they appear unexpectedly to show the property to potential buyers. Occasionally their realtor shows up to turkey hunt.
I had just put on pants one sunny Sunday morning when an elderly Asian couple appeared with their adult son – the story being they’re physicians from the Bay area looking for a property to park their motorhome. While not being by any means spectacular, the house is luxurious for a goat barn, I told them. They didn’t seem to notice the pot plants in the bedroom, or didn’t care.
This seemed to confirm the itinerant nature of my stay. I have an affinity for marginal architecture – and landing here seemed to confirm my habit of living only in spaces threatened, un-permitted, unlivable, disused or disabused.
The house is far enough back in the hills that there is no cell service. When I arrived the land-line phone was limited to call-in only – I was only able to take calls, not make them – long distance was disabled and the bill was months overdue. I could call K-, the only neighbor in close enough to be considered ‘local’ service.
To check email or send a text message I could walk a mile up the improved road – hard scrabble dirt and rock, climb over three gates, and knock on the neighbor’s door. The lack of internet and phone service lead to an accidental media diet. After existing in the city for a few months and falling into the obsessive habit of mediation, the instant quiet of country life was shocking. And not entirely pleasant – for the first weeks I remained haunted by specters of unanswered text messages, and disturbed by phantom anxiety, chased into the hills by ghosts of the modern world.
K-, the neighbor, has been growing weed in the California hills for 30 years. Kind on good days, absent on others, K- is diagnosed as bi-polar, and treats his moods with marijuana and Budweiser. Needless to say, it is uncertain what to expect upon arrival at his place…
Last year he was shot, in his home, by three young thugs looking for his safe. The bullet went through his left foot, cleaving his calcareous in half. Now he walks with a limp, aided by a cane. At least we have something in common – the shattered heal provides us the common ground of chronic pain, as I shattered my heel in 2007 and still often limp. The would be bandits also shot his pit-bull Cat in the head. Cat, always a survivor, is still fat and happy.
My only access to the outside world is my weekly trip with K- into town. K-‘s license is revoked because of a DUI, so I drive him, in his truck, to his alcohol awareness class in Redding. The drive is about 45 minutes each way, and I budget my two hours in town carefully, checking my email at Barnes&Noble and grocery shopping for the week at the Trader Joe’s.
This is the only time I see other people during the week. And the only access I have to cellular service or the internet.
These trips serve to tie me to myself. The time in town acts as a tether connecting me to the life outside – my work with the theatre company, the projects I’ve applied for before I left, my tax problems, my family, friends, and lover. Even the drive in with K-, as he honks and waves at passing trucks and tries to harass people putting on the municipal golf green off Old 44, make me feel more human. I spend my time during the week reading philosophy or fiction, and allowing my thoughts to drift. My time in town is more concrete, and I feel as if I’ve fallen back into myself or awaken from a dream.
My daily routine varies, but has settled into a basic formula.
I wake, make coffee and tend the plants. I cook oats with raw garlic, miso, olive oil and parsley. I read a few chapters from The Golden Baugh, The Spectacle of Disintegration or Walking – it’s best to get critical reading done early, I find. Over breakfast I read fiction – Paul Bowles stories or a Le Carre novel. In early afternoon, I go out. Somewhere up in the hills behind the house there is always an undiscovered country; some road untravelled, perhaps leading to a secret stream, a brutal clearcut, or dissintigrating slowly under a carpet of pine needles.
I return and exercise – 100 push-ups, 300 sit-ups, 100 dips, 5 sets of 100’s, 5 minutes of plank, an hour of yoga. I eat two corn tortillas with some combination of raw cabbage, zucchini, mushroom, garlic, olive oil, almond butter, salt and Sriracha. I continue reading.
I make dinner – usually soup (beans & root vegetables, borscht) with rice or couscous. I draw, clean, or trim weed and watch a movie. I sleep.
Everything falls into the rhythm of the day – the conspicuous travel of the sun between horizons, the pages turned, the consumption of carefully counted provisions, the push-ups. The regularity and repetition assume a self justifying pattern, which after time, seems only natural.
I meant to give up drinking, but got bored. I meant to buy a wine key but forgot. I open my bottles of cheap cabernet with a drywall screw, a driver, and a hinge… if I’m good, I only spill a tablespoon.
The rough road that runs in front of the house extends into 100 miles of managed forest. Somewhere to the northeast is Lassen national park – I have yet to reach it. The house lies toward the bottom of a cut in the hills. Rumor says the road was formerly a stage coach route, though it seems too steep to be possible. After hopping a single gate a mile up, somewhere beyond an off the grid cabin (the only other architecture I see during my daily travels) the roads beyond are seemingly endless, devoid of activity though always hinting at it’s possibility.
The forest is private land, and heavily worked, but with a sense of abandonment. None of the roads are paved, and seem maintained based on how recently the forest they access has been clearcut.
The human hand is everywhere; our marks indelible and conspicuous. Our artifacts are surprisingly stark in their smallness, compared to the vast frame they occupy; an empty beer bottle, a flattened can blank with age, a single cotton glove its fingers bent back, a discarded shotgun shell, a length of rusted chain, an eviscerated television.
Even the shards of shattered taillights, candy wrappers and the smallest bits of metal assume a sharp clarity against the natural forms surrounding them. They imply the great effort spent subjugating the landscape, suggest machines that shaped it, and act as both marks and mirrors. Civilization is never far away, yet from a certain perspective, looking west across a clearcut at the intersection of two forest service roads, one sees nothing by cascading horizons covered with trees – not a town, or ranch, or any hint of human development beyond the hint of a road ribboning somewhere through the distant valley.
It seems a great purgatory, almost devoid of wildlife and hauntingly quiet. Sometimes I confuse the sound of unseen creeks, or the wind wandering among scrubby second growth pines, for traffic noise. Far off a human form, voices carried by wind – only ghosts here, or the leftovers of industry calling forward absent human shapes, or quails cooing echoing like laughter.
During my last week of residency, the house phone quit working altogether. While I hesitate to call this a media fast, as I still read eBooks on my phone (though there’s no cell reception here, ever), type on my computer and watch movies using the antique TV and VCR – it is certainly a communication diet. With no ability of immediate contact with the outside world every thought seems trapped in amber, and moments crystallize with surprising ease. Thought becomes cyclical, straying in and out of focus without a defining frame of reference, returning often to certain meditations and equally as often drifting free and empty as wind through the crooked branches of black oaks.
Without the mirror of society to remind me of myself, I might otherwise drift away. Through repetition I achieve a sense of balance, and physicality allows me to relax into a reverie – an exhausted trance that reveals the immediate truth about any situation. After a 16 mile run through motionless roads traveling up to the ridges above, I sit outside the house watching the wasps hover in the rafters, enjoying the late afternoon heat. I smoke a joint and the world moves around me, bright and still but for the birds flitting between the trees and the translucent white ghosts swimming in my eyes…
The days are long. As the sun traverses the bright expanse of sky, the shadows creep towards their own vanishing points. Around noon, even with the windows and doors open, a cool mountain breeze barely touches the interior of the house, and the only sound is the clock ticking ceaselessly forward and the sound bumbling black flies flinging themselves agains the windows.