About two and a half hours north of San Francisco is an idyllic little wine region called Anderson Valley. The Valley is noted for its beauty and lately for its Pinot Noir wines. I purchased a weekend retreat here in 1990. I worked in the hi-tech motion picture business and enjoyed the escape to my small ranch whenever I could get away. Since retiring in 2002 I have been able to spend more time there. Now, I can go for a week or ten days at a time. I have a nice, three bedroom Sea Ranch style house built out of redwood and lots of acres to roam around on. The place is secluded but not remote. In five minutes I can be in the small town of Boonville, with restaurants, a 1870s era hotel (whose own restaurant was made famous by the foodie culture of the 1980s), an old fashioned 1930s hardware store, and several other small shops.
The best part is that the Valley still retains the feeling of a small country town. It is nothing like the tourist towns of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. There are tourists that come through on the weekends but without many places to stay, most soon leave. The Valley is also somewhat protected by a long curvy highway that snakes through the hills for almost 30 miles before dropping into the Valley. Many people avoid quick trips here because of that road and only brave it to get to the Mendocino Coast, which is much more of a tourist destination. Many people know of the Valley because of a popular beer called Boont Amber that is made by the local Anderson Valley Brewing Company. All of this makes the Valley one of the last unspoiled places in America.
That is until last summer.
There is a little cottage-like structure on my property I have been renting out for the last five years or so, just for the spring and summer months. I often advertise it as a getaway from the city or a place to hide out and finally finish that book you’ve been writing. The cottage is in an idyllic spot with beautiful views of the Valley below.
A couple of young men drove up and pronounced it perfect for them. They wanted to chill out after graduation from college. It would be a time to reflect on what to do next. As I was about to leave for a vacation island off the coast of Florida, I grabbed their wad of cash and gave them the keys.
In California, a person with a doctor’s recommendation can grow marijuana plants for their personal use. In Mendocino County, where my ranch is, there is a hell of a lot of marijuana being grown, both legally and illegally. About one third of those who answer my ads want to grow, and I always tell them no. If they want to smoke it, that’s their business. If they had one plant I’d be OK with that, but not a growing operation. I usually answer, “Will you need a drying shed as well?” That ends it. They never write back after that.
So I told these guys, No growing. It would attract bad guys who think there must be large amounts of cash lying around (which there usually is in these operations), and they might want to steal your crop and shoot you in the process. No thanks.
When I returned from vacation, the field separating my house from the cottage was filled with marijuana plants, 22 in total, and they were all about six feet in height. The smell, in the warm summer air, was quite potent.
The pot was growing in a fenced-off area that the tenant from the summer before had built for his vegetable garden. I walked up to the fence and said to the tenant kid who came out to see who drove up, “It smells like dope.”
“Yeah, isn’t it great?” he said.
“I want this stuff out of here,” I said. “I told you one plant.”
The college boys begged and whined for a few days and then it got kind of nasty. They came over to my house trying to negotiate and I lost my temper and threw a plastic chair in their direction. It hit the ground and broke. That is when they called the cops.
In about 20 minutes, a deputy sheriff’s car pulled onto my property. The deputy was named Walker and he was talking to the tenants. I walked over and Deputy Walker said, “I will talk to you later.” So I went back to the house.
After awhile the deputy came over and I invited him in. I told him I had owned this place for over 20 years and that I sometimes rented out the cottage for the summer and I had told these kids they could not grow dope here. Deputy Walker was concerned that this could escalate. “You have liability here,” he said. “But this is my property,” I said with incredulity. “It’s a gray area,” he said. “It’s your land but the crop belongs to them. If I were you I wouldn’t go near it.” He gave me his cell phone number and said to call if things got worse.
I called my neighbor who lives about a mile away; she is a lawyer. “You should have had a ‘no marijuana’ clause in the lease.”
There was no lease; it was a handshake deal.
My next thought was to find out if I had any legal liability from having a grow operation on my property. It turns out Mendocino County is very hands-off on pot prosecution. It is legal to grow for personal use if you have a doctor’s recommendation. It is not a prescription, just a form stating that the doctor recommends that you smoke dope as treatment for some ailment. These statements are easily obtained in California. My tenant had obtained his from his doctor in Visalia, which is a central valley town five or six hours drive south of my ranch.
Looking further into the law I found that the license needs to be posted at the pot garden and that the garden needs to be fenced with a locked gate etc. Of course no one is going around and checking any of this. Deputy Walker didn’t even know about these rules, as near as I could tell, or he would have mentioned them.
Mendocino County has become a magnet for pot growers over the last few years. It has, since the early 1970s, been a pot-loose area as the “hippies” gradually left San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” and formed the “back to the land” movement. But now, with California making medicinal pot legal, and Mendocino taking a hands-off attitude, the floodgates have opened. Everyone from retired schoolteachers to single mothers are paying their mortgage with pot profits. It is the largest cash crop in the state. “Mortgage lifters,” they call the plants.
Now, I was interfering with the fundamental nature of the new economy. To some locals, I might as well have been planning a post-pot holocaust. Would I be shunned by my neighbors? Was I to be a pariah in this paradise valley? I needed to find out, to take a sampling of my neighbors, but I had to be discrete; it was not easy to tell who was with you and who against. But I wasn’t for or against anything; I was innocent, wasn’t I?
I called the doctor listed on the “recommendation” form. He wouldn’t talk to me, but his secretary said it was a license for “indoor” growing only. I called the “Legalize Marijuana” or some such office. They sympathized and didn’t support outlaw growers. “If you could get yourself some “male” plants and place them near the offending crop that will kill them, but I don’t have any idea where you could get any.”
I thought about renting a small herd of goats until I talked to a local goat herder who told me, “Marijuana is about the only thing goats won’t eat. But they won’t.” Then I remembered that my neighbor Frank, who is a logger and woodcutter, had all kinds of heavy equipment, including huge bulldozers and other monstrous vehicles that can rip down whole forests.
I reached him at his logging operation at the other end of the Valley. “Hello, Frank? I’ve got a problem. “I can be there in ten minutes,” he said. “And I’ll bring my big truck, that will scare the crap out of them.”
The two of us went over and confronted the tenants, who had brought in a friend, “For legal advice,” they said. I lost my temper and started yelling at this guy to get off my property. Frank later told me, “I was just waiting for him to take a swing at you.” That would have solved my problem but he was too smart to fall for it. Through it all, Frank stood shoulder to shoulder with me, and I’ve lived long enough to know that there are very few people in the world who will do that for you, unless I suppose you hang out with Hell’s Angles and such. It doesn’t happen much in the wine and slow food crowd. That is another thing I like about this Valley, there are some real people here. Neighbors in the country all rely on each other. They have to.
Frank had some eviction notices at his house, so I rode over to his place and got the forms. The next day I called the Feds in Sacramento and was referred to the agent in charge of my area. It was a woman and I left her a message laying out the whole story for her when she called back. While it is legal to grow and smoke under California law, it is still illegal under Federal Law.
I knew she wouldn’t do anything but I did get a laugh out of her when I said, “Consider it a training exercise for the boys and I’ll buy them all dinner.” Thanks but no thanks, was the reply.
Next stop was the District Attorney’s office in Ukiah, which is about 25 miles to the East. They didn’t laugh at me but they suggested I go down and talk to legal aid, to see what they could recommend as far as how to serve papers and all. I learned that if I served them with a three-day eviction notice, they could challenge that and appeal it. But if I served them with a 30 day notice there was no appeal. They paid by the month so all I was required to do was give a month’s notice.
Since our law is based on English common law, and since everyone used to be a tenant or worse, a peasant, the law has evolved over centuries to make it difficult to throw people out of their homes, rented or not, and this is as it should be. It just makes it hard for landlords to get rid of the occasional crook or deadbeat.
When I got home I found my sledgehammer and spent the afternoon knocking down the fence that surrounded what used to be a vegetable garden and was now a pot garden. This was an open invitation to the herds of deer that pass through my property every morning and evening as they go down to the river to water. I wasn’t too hopeful regarding this tactic since my tenants had a dog, (a pit-bull mix to round out the druggie connection) and deer stay clear of dogs. I was now reduced to placing my faith in the abundant gophers that normally frantically search my place for something to eat other than the wild grasses. I was never there enough to tend a garden; I left that up to any tenants that might want one.
Various cars would show up in the middle of the night and I didn’t know who these people were. Were they coming to transact business? Not with these plants, they hadn’t flowered yet. Just more friends, the tenants said. I really didn’t like this, the whole thing had gotten out of hand. I thought about just getting a bunch of local loggers (these guys are huge) and just paying them to bounce these college kids out of there. But then I thought, What if something got out of hand? I couldn’t risk that, although it was tempting.
I decided to ask for a meeting with the kid who had the license. His name was Alex and he was the only one who could legally deal with the plants. I was told by the friends that he was out of state visiting his sick mother. So I called the kid’s brother. He had been an original reference. The brother owned real estate and sounded like a businessman. He didn’t agree with what Alex was doing and sympathized with my situation. I hoped he would put pressure on his brother.
My survey of the neighbor’s feelings about pot turned up as many opinions as I had neighbors. This is a very liberal area. Radical even. But it is a mix. There are the old timers, Valley folk whose ancestors homesteaded here, and then there are the hippies and their fellow travelers who made homes here in the 1970’s, and then there are the wealthy weekenders. Mixed in with these groups are a few famous people like Alice Walker who lives here permanently and who originally wrote her famous novel, “The Color Purple” here. She says that she had tried to write it in many places but her characters wouldn’t speak to her. “Then I move to the Valley,” she has written, “and they wouldn’t shut-up.”
Kary Mullis, surfer dude and Nobel Laureate (who won a Nobel for his work on the PCR technique of DNA replication), is also a sometime resident. In fact, he had his breakthrough idea on the long, twisting road that leads into the Valley; his friends went out and dug up the roadside mile marker from where Mullis had his “ah ha” moment, and gave it to him as a present.
Another, famous local who bought a big old resort property here in the redwoods, is Jeff Skoll the multi-billionaire co-founder of EBay. He has a heliport and everything you would expect a billionaire to have. Also here, is the retired couple who founded The French Laundry in Yountville, which is often referred to as the best restaurant in the world. They run a small cooking school/farm retreat. Not to be forgotten are the many Spanish speaking families who have come here over the last 20 years to work in the vineyards and other local businesses.
And finally there are the winery folks, from the world-renowned Champagne maker Roederer who, I like to note, has two locations, one just outside Paris, France, and one just outside Boonville, California. There are also equally renowned Pinot Noir vineyards and other fog loving varietal growers and wine makers.
With too many opinions to count, I moved on with my most audacious plan.
One morning I got up early and drove to town for a cup of coffee and a roll. I knew that all hell was going to break loose when I got back. As I drove up to my house and parked, one of the tenants was yelling into his cellphone about “grand theft.” Fully half of the plants had been up rooted up and were missing.
“I have no idea where they went,” I told them. “It could have been an angry neighbor. We just don’t know.” The cops later told me that they didn’t even return the tenant’s call, and it slowly dawned on the tenants that they either get a truck and dig up the plants they have left, or they will soon have nothing.
Some may ask why this didn’t happen sooner, but this whole episode took a while to figure out. As it was, after they escaped in a rental truck with what was left of their plantings, I got a phone message threat from one of them for only getting part of their security deposit back. “You wouldn’t want something to happen to you or your family,” was the message. So you never know who you are dealing with. I relayed the threat to the local deputy, who I had by now become fairly friendly with, saying I didn’t think it was too serious. After all, who would leave a threat on a recorded voice machine? How stupid is that? But I wanted a record of the call just in case, so I transferred it to my digital recorder.
Even today, almost a year later, I still have to stop myself from getting angry every time I see a 20-something who looks like them. A little dramatic? Maybe, but this is a special place I have. I found a metal sign from a Paris flea market and it hangs by my front door. It says, “Mon ręve,” (My dream). I am just glad to have my dream back.
(This article first appeared at AndersonValley.net. Reprinted with permission.)
What a great read! Gave me a good chuckle. Sounds like another special place in California I can never afford to live in now. I found your little story here while reading about Alice Walker, as I just finished a book of hers.