Brookings, Oregon to San Francisco, California (5,872 - 6,262 miles)
He wears a bullet-proof vest and has a gun on his hip, and he's been haranguing four trimmigrants from Quebec for the last five minutes. The trimmigrants speak French, very little English, and they seem ho hum about the ranger's annoyed look and angry voice.
I cycled into the campground ten minutes earlier, saw two long distance tourers at the far end, headed that way and struck up a conversation. Adrian and Anna—he's from France and she's from Argentina—were happy to see another cyclist and they invited me to share their campsite. I did the math in my head, 8 bucks divided by 3, accepted their invitation and went about pitching my tent.
The conversation at the other end of the campground now escalates in pitch, and the ranger repeats his complaint about trimmers not paying. He stalks from campsite to campsite, grabbing tents and shaking them hard.
"Anybody in here?" he hollers time after time.
The ranger gets into his truck and slams the door, wheels up the road in our direction. Anna, a short young woman with brown skin and a beautiful smile, has a pensive look. Her boyfriend nervously runs his fingers through his beard. There's no need to ask if they paid for the site; the answer is on their faces.
I'm about to get a $300 ticket.
The truck stops twenty feet away, and the ranger glares out the open window.
"We haven't paid," I say.
He speaks in a clipped voice. "This is how it is. You will put $8.00 in the envelope—IN FRONT OF ME—and you will go to the kiosk and drop the envelope in the slot—IN FRONT OF ME."
"Yes sir," I say.
He gets out and shakes the tents on this side of the campground, furious movements that reveal no one hides inside, drives back to the other side and starts up again with the four trimmigrants. Adrian, Anna, and myself, put together $8.00 and scurry toward the kiosk. We wait for the officer to finish hollering . . . wait . . . then wait some more. Finally, as he's catching his breath, I ask if he wants to watch us drop the envelope in the slot and he stares disgustedly at me.
"Hey, I just got here," I say. "I have 30 minutes to pay after arriving at the site."
The ranger blinks a few times, speaks in a normal voice. "Just drop it in the slot."
I do as he says, and he goes back to hollering at the trimmigrants. He finally leaves and peace returns to the campground. I'm not accustomed to having the law scream at me, so I'm a little shell-shocked. I'm also pissed at Adrian and Anna, but then they tell me they arrived a few minutes before me and had intended to pay for their site. I smile—they seem like good people—and we talk for a while. They traveled to California's Lost Coast to find trimming work, plan on making several thousand dollars before heading south of the border, where they will continue their bike tour until money runs out.
"Me too," I say. "About the trimming. I want to work at least a week up on the mountain."
The dirt campground sits in a valley, stream alongside, and mountains bulge the landscape. High-quality marijuana grows on the foggy slopes, cultivated by growers who grow both indoor and outdoor crops, most of which are smuggled over the narrow and lonely roads that lead out of Humboldt County to the east, where the green gold can sell for as much as $3,000 per pound. Trimmigrants travel here each year to trim the leaves off the buds, earning between $200 to $600 a day. Sexual exploitation is rampant among the growers, with some requiring sex from the workers, others paying the girls an extra $50 per pound if they trim topless. Trimmigrants have been robbed, killed, and cheated out of money . . . but the allure of big bucks is hard to resist and workers continue to migrate to this valley. Most of these folks come from foreign countries, and in the course of the next few days, I meet trimmers from all the continents.
Most of the trimmers are young and scruffy, some with dreadlocks, and they all have the vagabond hippie look that suggests an intimate relationship with marijuana. At night, back in the campground, mescaline is a drug of choice, and Anna, Adrian, and myself are often the only campers not tripping. I try some of the pot that constantly circulates in the form of cigar-size joints, mostly OG Kush, an indica that produces a heavy stone that can morph into paranoia. The THC content is too high for a light smoker, and I find myself turning down the weed whenever it comes my way.
I stay for three days and no one hires me. In the afternoons, the growers come to the cafe and drink beer, shoot the bull with the trimmers. I meet a number of guys who live up on the mountain, tell each of them I'm here to find
"I'm on a charity ride," I say. "15,000 miles . . . could use a little cash infusion."
A grower sits across from me at the picnic table. He has reddish skin, and his eyes are glassy and bloodshot. He speaks with a slight accent that I can't place. "No offense," he says, "but you could be a government agent."
I hold back a chuckle. If the feds wanted to infiltrate this valley, they'd send in a pretty French girl, someone who'd get hired on the spot. They wouldn't send an old guy up from KeyWest on a bicycle. I mean, come on. But that's the way these growers think. They are suspicious of people who don't fit a certain look.
"Or you could be a knock-off artist," he says. "That's why most of the growers hire girls first, less likely to get robbed."
He rolls a joint and hands it to me. I take a healthy hit, choke back a cough, pass the joint to a nearby trimmer.
"Or," the grower says, "you could be an undercover journalist."
This time I don't hold back my laugh. I hand him my card.
"Nothing undercover about it," I say. "I'm writing a book about my journey and I want a chapter on Humboldt County weed."
Revealing my profession wasn't a split second decision. I'd decided it was best to be up front about my reason for being here, did not want to go up on the mountain, have a grower check my id, then google me. I could wind up dead.
"I want to write about you and your operation," I add. "I'll change the names and descriptions, won't hurt you in any way."
The man's eyes narrow and his jaw hardens. I feel a change in the air, in the vibe, a dangerous feeling that sends jitters through my body. My hands shake and I hide them under the table, make two fists to stop the quivering. A horseshoe clangs the post behind me—four trimmers have started a game—and I turn in that direction. The bad feeling persists through the day and night, is still with me the next morning. Maybe I should leave. Maybe I'm imagining it. Maybe I smoked too much weed. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
Word comes that a storm is blowing in, wind topping 70 MPH on the mountain peaks, and I decide to stay until the weather breaks. Unfortunately, it doesn't break for 6 friggin days! Adrian and Anna find work and go up on the mountain, and I stay below and keep an eye on the rising creek. Occasionally I cycle to the cafe and drink coffee, watch the growers come in and refill their propane tanks, buy gas and groceries. People are hired all around me, and I begin to understand I will never be offered a job. My bad feeling is still there, and one evening I catch a guy taking a picture of me.
He looks like a hit man in Breaking Bad, and my bad feeling escalates. I ride to the base of the mountain, where I try to hitch out of the valley, not wanting to face the wind, cold, and rain at the top of the ascent. I could die of hypothermia up there. . . . No one picks me up, so I begin a slow climb upward, stop four miles from the top and roll back down. Instead of returning to the campground, I ride past it and duck into the woods, pitch in a grove thirty yards from the road. I cut brush and camouflage my site, hunker down for another twenty-four hours, am relieved when I wake to clearing skies.
I crawl out onto the wet grass, stand and raise my hands over my head, freeze mid-stretch. A black truck is parked on the road, dark windows, no one else around. I duck back behind the bushes and cram my gear into my panniers, take down my tent, load up my bike. The trail out of the woods takes me past the front bumper and I glance at the windshield, wonder if anyone is behind the wheel. I cycle down the road and have my answer when the motor starts and the truck follows a few feet behind. I cycle faster and it speeds up. I slow and it slows. I stop and it stops.
It takes two hours to climb the 2,500 feet to the top of the mountain. Occasionally, when the wind blows off an unseen greenhouse, or across a hidden field, I smell a skunky cannabis odor. The truck is still there, my escort out of the valley, and I gradually relax. If something bad was going to happen, it would have happened at my campsite. I crest the mountain, stop and drink water. The truck rolls up beside me and the passenger window lowers. Two men sit up front, one behind the wheel, one in the passenger seat, and I don't recall seeing either one of them at the cafe. A pistol comes up in the passenger's hand, barrel pointed my way, then down the hill. My heart lurches into my chest, nothing like looking down the business end of a gun to get the blood pumping. I put my bottle away and coast down the road. The truck turns around, and it takes a long time for my nerves to return to normal.
I want to sleep in the redwoods, need their calming influence after my adventure in the valley, and I do just that after a long day of cycling through the Avenue of the Giants. I pull off the road and push my bike toward a river, over a carpet of redwood needles, through the mossy forest that absorbs sound and creates a hushed environment. I feel like I'm in a religious sanctuary, where people speak with bowed heads and their movements are small and unobtrusive, a respectfulness that emanates from being in the presence of something larger than themselves. Thick-trunked trees climb toward the sky, blocking out the sun and darkening the forest floor. I crane my neck upward, not wanting to pitch under a widow-maker, settle for a spot that looks safe from falling branches. It's suppertime and I cook two Pork Ramen Noodles over my stove.
I need a new diet.
This crap is getting old.
What a terrible time and place to break down. I'm in a town a few miles north of San Francisco, and it's mid-afternoon, which means if I don't fix this bike and cycle out of here I'll be sleeping with the vagrants. Plus it's raining. The screws have come off my rear hanger and my derailleur has sucked up into my spokes. The hanger will still work, providing I find new screws, but the derailleur is twisted into a new, unstraightenable shape. I push the bike through the rain, shiver at the cold wetness running down my back, stop at City Cycle in Corta Merdera, and the mechanic listens to my story.
"I need a derailleur," I say. "A used one if you have it."
I don't have the money for a new one, which will cost $40 or more, don't know what I'll do if the shop doesn't stock what I need. The mechanic pokes around in a drawer, pulls out a new derailleur.
"It's on us," he says. "We appreciate what you're doing."
I'm astounded, and grateful, thank him for his kindness and go back out into the rain. I push my bike to an Ace Hardware in an adjacent town, buy the specialty screws, work well into the night. I get the bike going again and cycle into the wind and rain, down the dark road, ascend a steep hill and pitch in the forest. Occasionally the clouds split apart and across the bay the San Francisco lights brighten the night. I am too wired to sleep and stay awake almost until morning. When I do sleep, it's only for a couple hours, then I'm off and cycling again. I cross the Golden Gate bridge, dodging people on rented bikes, some of them taking selfies while riding. The rain and breakdown have me in a bad mood, rare on a long distance adventure, or maybe I'm tired. I can't dwell on it, have too many miles to go on this trip.