Arnold Harris and I had another adventure this past autumn. We met in Trinity County, he from up north in a purple Ranger and me with all my shit in my minivan driving slowly over bumps and spending last dollars on reintroduced Chicken Littles and Reeses Mini bags. One arm that had been holding the Thule in place had broken, and on the freeway the Thule flapped in the wind, catching gusts of wind and slamming back hard onto the top of the van, causing me anxiety. I pulled into Brad’s and Arnold was already there. ‘The ganja was gone’. The feds had been building a case against Brian since last year. He was cocky, he had invited his dad over to look at the trimmers one day, and while we bitterly estimated their combined net worth he bragged about taking acid at some sort of important real estate meeting. Drug fed and rich, he had apparently worshipped his own balls back then. Rural cops and feds alike don’t like balls displays, and Brian’s acid abetted notion of his own innate freedom has only resulted in a prison term for his father. Meanwhile he’s on the run, probably phoning his representation at inconvenient hours, and when his dad doesn’t mention him it’s out of pride. No, he was not a discerning boss, and his lack of acumen left me very inconvenienced. No one had told me not to come. Arnold and I hit the honey oil proffered by a former authority figure and passed dazedly into unconsciousness on the couch. In the morning Brad led us out to look at at the hacked marijuana stalks, picking up crushed buds here and there and reminiscing about the size of the plants. The crystals shimmered brightly in his memory.
The next morning Arnold and I were very confused about what to do. I tailed him to Weaverville, stalled awhile at the only store, then drove back up 3 looking for a campground. Rush Creek was the second place we stopped. We were there for a week, too timid to even light a fire the first few nights for fear of being discovered by people who didn’t actually exist in the vast wooded expanse of Trinity County. Gradually we settled in. I drained the Quest’s batteries listening to the Orioles defeat the Rangers in half-static, and after that we would just put the Droid in a bowl and listen to male voices tell tales. Frugality quickly became a matter of pride. When the illusion of choice is eliminated, pride often takes its place, and every treat from this point on was more delicious because it had to be mentally earned through a practice of abstinence in which we usually only rarely indulged. After the third night we gained enough confidence to start small fires and quickly phased out the waterlogged salami, replacing it with bunless hot dogs or potatoes in foil. People would often pull into the campground at strange hours to fill jugs of water for their gardens, but one night several ‘visitors’ came at once and, only barely accustomed to strange night time rustlings of the unmotivated kind, we were both terrified by the sudden presence of human intentions in the dark. I was naked in a sleeping bag; truck lights flooded the tent. Who knows what they were doing? I was very weak in that tent. In the early morning hours of the following morning I woke up bathed in sweat and stumbled out into the eerie moonlight. I ran to an area of the forest where the ground was littered with the tissue paper of past campers and shat diarrhea in the nude. Horribly, pitifully. On the whole it was peaceful; I washed my face in the river. After a week we still hadn’t found certain jobs, but we decided to leave Rush Creek to be nearer the rumor of jobs.
After a few days of mildly celebrating our return to civilization with midday beers and conference series matchups, we fell under the employ of some dusted Mississippian playboys, 21st century ganja hicks who no one actually knew. We wound up a series of dusty roads segmented from each other with numeric keylocks, threatening signs and roving dogs. Our destination farm had formerly been the premises of an AIDS hospice service in the 80’s; it was beautiful, with unfamiliar trees bent low against the cliffs and expansive views across the valley where campfires burned suspiciously in the distance. The usual strange cast of trimmers assembled, but these seemed stranger than that still. Perrell, a half-Jamaican nerd, got drunk on the first night and noticed that April was ignoring him. Sitting in my lap, he acted familiar, warning me away from her. “I’ve been here for three days”. He was already in love, a territorial romantic, very uncomfortable. This was the first instance of his obliviousness. More would follow; he eventually had to be called out when he followed April back to her tent strumming a jazzy line on a borrowed guitar and freestyling an awkward paean to his misunderstood lust. Later, the drunk bosses paid him a hundred dollars to swim in a filthy goat pond, very shallow- the next day he was gloating. Perrell was sensitive to growing discomfort, but it seemed as though he was unable to stop its spread. He was the sower who couldn’t discover the cycle. “Out on the street, some call it murrrrr duuuurrrrrr!” he would sing the lines in a throaty baritone during moments of relative silence in the trim room, birthing titters that grew into rebellious allegiances that gradually aligned against their father. He was aggressive, we all agreed- not physically but in his verbal presence.
The second day we were put to work, and it dragged on for seriously long weeks. Marijuana brought to light the nearly unfathomable depths of ridiculousness within each individual aspect of every situation. It was very difficult to turn off, to enter into a ‘normal’ state. Drinking was employed in this regard, encouraging dramatic outcomes. The small dramas of subtle rebuffs and slowly shifting social allegiances became my chief source of entertainment. Arnold and I would mutter sentence fragments and bits of accent and laugh hysterically, then rush out for Solo cups of chili or a plate of chicken-on-the-bone. Meat eaters were forced to eat meat for nearly every meal; access to the healthier looking cooked vegetables and grain mush was denied by reason of our hosts extremely meager food budget. All the action was in repetition. I became obsessed with the way that personalities slowly reinforced themselves through actions that became predictable in their form but always surprising in their detail. Jon became Jon, realer by the day. It was hilarious.
Of the actual work little of meaning can be said. Take a stem of nugs from a box and place them onto a cardboard tray, snip the nugs off the stem and throw the dry twigs into an overstuffed bag or onto the floor, twist the nug in the left hand while snipping constantly with sticky bonsai scissors with the right, removing the tiny leaves from the tiny pipebowl nug and placing it into a bag when completely bald. Many discussions about technique took place, but the only real advantage came from violent mental conditioning and irrational focus. We worked in a series of small dusty barns lit by fluorescent lights. Kif flakes and farm dust filled the air and people developed wretched hacks and, occasionally, rashes. Flies would land on the back of the arm, be shaken awkwardly off with a little jiggle, and then land on the back of the neck one second later. Hours passed, during which inane fantasies of moderate and temporary wealth would proceed by rote through our famished brains. Bodies, rebelling against our general sensory deprivation and its subordination to material aspects of our present circumstance, would develop creaks at the wrists and tension spots at the base of the neck. These were ignored by the strong, but weaker members of the group would often indulge themselves by standing, milling aimlessly or sleeping late and showering. Activities that would indicate and promote health in regular circumstances here become symptoms of general confusion or weakness. Every time someone returned to their filthy chair after a cleansing stroll or drink of water I could not help but calculate the opportunity cost of their mental health in terms of real world dollars. A group of goats wandered the property. One of them was a three legged goat, it’s fourth leg a fragment of exposed bone jutting unpleasantly out of goatskin. Because it could not keep up with the other goats it had acquired a blood curdling shriek that sounded though a human child were being dipped in liquid fire. We appreciated this sympathetic shriek. Earnesta adopted a very accurate version of it for herself. When the work became too tedious and the environment too oppressive, she would give the humanistic goat’s shriek. It was a great description of the task always at hand and an example of a relief that could be permitted, as it allowed the hands to twist and clutch thoughtlessly on while it occurred.
Power. Who had it, what did it consist of? One morning three bosses came into the trim room in turn, upset by some absurd rumor of petty theft they had self-indulgently believed. “I will PISTOL-WHIP-” yelled Jay, with the squalid authority of a man disciplining a dog who has been shut in all day and unhappily resorted to the rug. The thought of corporal punishment ‘pistol whipped’ him into a frenzy, and the subordinate boss’s (as well as those workers who shamed themselves by displaying that they were in sympathy) quick adoption of this vengeance scenario demonstrated what depths their collective boredom out on the mountain reached. Shauna began sleeping in Billy Wayne’s bed- the only bed available, and presumably, only available to her. This action provoked us strangely, and our jealousy of the physical bed was identical to our disgust at its crudely imagined terms. At other farms the bosses would attempt to disguise the power structure with vague references to the medicinal qualities of the herb they produced, or by laying a thick hippy fog over the proceedings by means of heavily seasoned lentils and invitations to hit exclusive pipes. Here it was more naked. Billy Wayne would come in routinely in the afternoon after Budweisers and threaten the trimmers with termination for not turning the hose off, or wildly boast that he could buy Ipods for every worker before going outside and taking potshots at the escaped pig that I once witnessed trying to break into Arnold’s truck (and later spied tumbling down the mountain with a symbolic beer can in its mouth). Then he would return to the barn and crouch near Shauna, saying quiet sentences punctuated by loud ‘Huh?’s. Our young country king for a month, he exploited the position he held at the locus of nervous activity in our minds to the point that we could no longer sustain the illusion that we were at his mercy. He seemed ridiculous- the timbre of his voice approached a neutered whine. The pistol was bullshit, its significance buried beneath the pile of indiscriminate allusions to it.
The last night on his property we experienced his hubris. Blacked out on Zanax and Bud he pulled his gun on Jeffy for revealing him as a real world lame- Phish is not good, we’ve listened to an excessive amount of it, you’re silly, Billy Wayne. “Take your fuckin earbuds out! We’re listening to three thirty minute jams you fucking scrubs!” he yelled at everyone, most of whom had no idea what was going on, as they had been wearing earbuds. “What are you doing, south boy?” Earnesta chided him “where is you mother? I will spank your ass South boy. You are no gentleman”. Her experience with lovers in the Russian mafia back in Lithuania had left her impatient with feeble male aggression, with empty theatrical potency displays and with the abuse of trust. Billy Wayne pathetically flashed his gun at her, threatened to fight us one on one- “I’ve got a pistol who wants to go”- and stumbled off to the bed which Shauna would no longer share with him. Lesser bosses tried to apologize by rolling us each an individual joint- ostensibly because we were to finish the work on this property tonight- and it was at this moment I became most conscious of our degradation. Surrounded by marijuana, why would I want the boss’s joint? The illusion of a community of strange characters engaged in mutual enterprise was gone, and each individual left alone in sad awareness of the degree to which they had postponed actively engaging in a real world to participate in this sad puppet show on the fringes of humanity, to grub a measly dollar. The bosses made us stop working to light our joints in unison. One coerced toke to demonstrate our fake celebration, the rest of the joint discarded.
The next day we were moved to a new location, this one deeper in an alpine forest where horizontal perspective was greatly diminished. A huge barn, some white tarps, folding chairs, a fire pit, tents in the rain. Billy Wayne was replaced by Justin, who had a little more sense of how not to appear foolish through the myopic display of his limited power. Instead of threats when he was blackout drunk, he would occasionally leap into the air and land in the splits position, or express his insincere (or at least very temporary ) love for all his ‘mountain children’. More of a gentleman, ‘Mountain daddy’ allowed ‘people’ to use the shower in the camper- though by this I sensed he meant ‘women’ and I could not be convinced to go near the camper. At this point I refused everything besides the American Goulash (chilimac, peas and corn in a solo cup) which my hunger- understood as a socially acceptable reason to stop working for a moment rather than as an admission of physical existence on earth- left me no choice but to accept. I walked the 30 feet from my tent to the barn, the 20 feet to the campfire to stare at it for an hour after the barn closed, and back to the tent, where I often had some cheezits hid. In some circumstances it is healthier to take no interest in your feelings, thoughts or the world around you- each moment you spend situating yourself according to any logic counts against you, and you will have to spend double the time finding a reason to continue to hack away at 2cent nugs. Watching others grapple with this reality left no time for earbuds with the tired tunes about human desire and invitations to move the body. People’s success in accepting their degradation was measured accurately in the size of their trimmed bud bag at the end of the day. Workers are paid per pound, and since there is only a slight variance in the physical skill required to trim a bud, the size of our paychecks directly reflected the degree to which we were able to force our bodies to make the money that our minds insisted we needed, or how well our minds could predict its own inefficiencies and compensate for them in advance by means of a complicated system of bargaining and rewards- ‘three more nugs and then I will stretch my knee’ etc. Beyond the general absurdity of the Mississippi folk, the marijuana and the psychosexual power brokerage, the most entertaining stories from Kook Mountain are in the individual ways in which each worker coped with their own unruly thoughts and struggled to make themselves money. For my own part I relied on near complete disassociation. I didn’t shit for three days. I rarely spoke in other forms than puns, jokes and impressions. Even still, I couldn’t resist taking breaks, delaying the beginning of the next box or lying in the sleeping bag awake in the morning before beginning work. I ranked in the top third in terms of productivity, a ranking which didn’t surprise me considering my greater than average ability for bodily disassociation coupled with my general mental frailty; I am accustomed to degradation but short on will. A recipe for relative success at the weed farm, though not necessarily cause for celebration.
The spectrum of mental mastery ranged from Jon on one end to Matt on the other. Jon had taken Ayahuasca 32 times. He had sold his bike taxi business in Martha’s vineyard, moved to Peru and probed the depths of his own being, experienced his own death as a result of his weaknesses, communed with the plant spirit and had committed to growth. He had been cradled by the incredibly wrinkled gray alien who had assured him that he is loved. As a result he was able to trim pounds and pounds more weed than everyone else, while simultaneously appearing interested in other people’s stories and engaged in life. He would listen to Tool on his headphones and chop away. I was pretty astounded and a little annoyed at his humbleness and self mastery. His success came from his ability to prioritize moving a scissor quickly above all other facets of his being, a skill which I envied. There was talk about the shagginess of his buds, but there are no criteria that matter for bud shagginess other than the boss’s. And the boss found him satisfactory, rendering the obsessive attention to detail which often slowed Arnold and I ridiculous. Jon took long walks to the barn, looked for work on his forced days off. It was too much, and ultimately we had to ignore him as comparisons between ourselves left us feeling bad. Sometimes, but rarely, he alluded to being horny. This I found funny.
On the other end was Matt, burned out from too many years involved in different aspects of the weed business. He’d sit for twenty minutes, scream “FUCK!” and retreat somewhere to take monster swigs of Ten High whiskey and chow Kit Kat. Coming back to the table, he’d work again for an hour, stopping as frequently as possible to yell another comedians jokes, berate someone with his overbearing sexuality, animate something he was saying with his hands or fiddle impatiently with an ipod. On days I would make 200 dollars, he would make about thirty. He worked on these types of farms and in affiliated sectors year round, so his ability to distinguish himself between the automatism required during trimming and the celebratory excesses of the day off was greatly diminished. His ineffectuality was a form of rebellion, and I respected it, as annoying as it was. He would come to the barn dressed in a too-small onesie, be drunk by ten AM and throw stale McDonald’s cheeseburgers across the room, then pass out and finish the day with a net income of about 10 dollars. All of this was for the sake of his own legend. It was a means to create the illusion that life existed and things happened beyond the simple truth of our dehumanization. It was valiant in its way. Of course, behaviors like this are known to get people fired, so another large portion of his time was spent ingratiating himself to the bosses by playing the fool. He and Richard, the sad Iraq war vet who worked the kitchen and lazed angrily about in a t shirt reading “You’re All Whores” in block letters would remain around the fire after most workers had returned to their seats after lunch and talk about who they wanted to fuck, or shoot stuffed animals with a glock in a brotherly fashion. I appreciated the way Matt would absorb people’s attentions, keeping it away from me. The bosses pitied him for his inability to make himself money, and occasionally they would make a show of holding up Matt’s tiny sack and admiring the perfection of his trimming. But any fool knew that quality in the trimming field had diminishing returns. We were not getting paid extra for immaculate nugs.
In the middle of these two extremes another we found Uncle Bill. A small time weed dealer in his mid forties from rural Pennsylvania, Bill was being paid in trade, and for every 1600 dollar pound he brought back east he would reap double, maybe triple that. A totally incompetent worker, he was allowed his repeated nights of being too baked/ drunk by reason would almost assuredly come off the mountain with more money due to the increased risks of his position. Uncle Bill was the camp mascot, and he was having a better time than anyone. He would put his glasses on and determinedly snip away for a couple hours, then drive into town in his minivan and pick up beer and wine, do laundry, eat burgers and return and just laugh. He hated the work, it’s true, but the ease with which he could shrug off our conditions and transform our experience into the type of vacation which he genuinely experienced it as was remarkable and appreciated. He seemed to understand only half of what was occurring at all times, but the joy with which he would seize on strange phrases and then bellow them across the room as an exuberant non sequitor was truly hilarious. “I’m willin out!” he would scream, and the meaning of his phrases were usually overwhelmed with his own human presence. This presence, his insistent Bill-ness, everyone began to understand as a precious glyph that redeemed its baffling context. Here was an individual who was able, by special circumstance, to fully enjoy what was not enjoyable, and did not allow negativity to inhibit our vicarious experience of this joy. He would take three full strength Oxycut diet pills, sweat profusely and yell that he was having a heart attack. He would fly into an impotent rage after being punched in the balls or goaded by a bored Jeffy, but his fear and anger always only made us laugh harder. He would find any excuse to stop working, because for him it didn’t matter. Whether he was here getting drunk or at the house he shared with his parents getting drunk it didn’t matter- he always had access to himself.
Aside from these most fully inhabited caricatures, everyone was a character of some kind, and there was a danger that the outrageous affects of desperate personalities reacting violently to an environment that encouraged their extermination would in their turn become people and demand to be taken seriously. But there were grounding forces as well. I came to appreciate Mandy for her sly looks of disbelief in the midst of her performative engagement with people too ridiculous to be true, and Jenna for her upbeat repetitious phrases that indicated that, though she was willing to go along with the interactions that people might devise out of boredom, she was not willing to put thought into her responses. ‘The girls’, a group of attractive women used to making much more money off of binging tourists in the US Virgin islands that had been somehow tricked into working this season, had to put up with far more unsolicited attention than I or anyone else. Male minds would turn to sex, and soon they would be drunk on the belief that it was a possibility. This led to all sorts of outrageous behavior, from ‘Mountain Daddy’ sitting at the table and coyly asking for mixed drinks to strange acts of verbal self titillation in which people would begin describing vaginas and yell about jerking off. Occasionally it would culminate in things like Jacob – who called everyone ‘brethren’ and possessed an unironic enthusiasm for menial tasks (“I guess sorting larf will be my meditation today”) that the bosses exploited while trying to keep their distance- singing “Redemption Song” two inches from April’s face, believing that he was looking into her eyes while she was more conscious of the flecks of spittle landing on her cheek. ‘The girls’ bore it with fortitude and humor, wearing makeup even. It was by their example that I could determine that what surrounded me was not actually depressing, but funny because it would end.
Eventually it did end. In the face of widespread burnout on the part of the trimmers – who were on the verge of just crumpling nugs in their fist for the sake of a private fuck you – the bosses had begun to become very vague. ‘Eight to ten days’ they would quietly mutter when we began asking them for approximate end dates. The workers, discouraged by this, would trim slower, spend more time by the fire drunk and our release date would extend further into the future proportionately. ‘Eight to ten days’ became a bitter joke, a response to everything. When the end finally came I was surprised by the degree of bonding which had occurred between us. Everyone took pains to record everyone else’s phone number, though it was difficult to imagine a pretense for further contact once we had been released back into our separate lives. A real sense of solidarity had arisen on its own, and had bound us to each other, possibly even against our wishes. Some refused to acknowledge this, and I found this resistance disgusting, a stubborn individuality that was in the present context nothing other than a ‘boss mentality’. I was sad at leaving, and decided to spend one more night with the group at the Oroville Casino. Once there I showered luxuriously several times and shaved, revealing a face that had been hidden for the duration of my time at the farm. Everyone dressed in their best, or at least cleanest, clothes. I perceived this as an effort to show at least part of our ‘real lives’ to those from whom we had been forced to hide them. It was a gesture of mutual respect.
Arnold went our separate ways down 1-5 shortly after. What you earn after an experience like this is a brief one week window in which you feel entitled to party and consume whatever you wish while the memory of deprivation is still fresh. I had anticipated my release eagerly during my time on the farm. Unfortunately, the real world I returned to is not exactly the welcoming home I had imagined to remember it to be while on the mountain. The money I had earned allowed me the freedom to choose what to do with my time, but there are clocks out here and I can’t help looking at them. When I find myself exaggerating my prep cook experience on my resume or scrolling craigslist for entry level jobs, one can assume I’ll look fondly back at an experience in which the degradation was shared equally amongst many people who lacked the privacy necessary to keep it superficially away. On my own it’s a little less funny.