The first time I came to the city of Arcata in Humboldt County, CA was in 2002 as a graduate student on the very bus I’ve been wrangling up and down the Pacific Coast all semester. Almost fifteen years on, not much has visibly changed. The Emerald City Laundromat is a bit nicer and the some of the more dilapidated neighborhoods have that spiffy, gentrified look, but the North Coast Co-op is still massive and full of delicacies, dreadlocks abound, and the general vibe is still trés “it’s all good”. I’ve been back since 2002 of course, for a year and a half of study and work at an alternative healing school up in the King Range. I call it my “hippy healing school”.
That rustic utopia was either baked by the sun or enshrouded in mists, dappled with ancient forests, and steeped in indigenous legend. My personal hippie heaven wasn’t always a haven, however, as it was also encircled by a wide ring of clandestine industrial marijuana growing operations. With such places came guard dogs, circling federal helicopters looking for signs of malfeasance, and randomly fired gunshots should one’s morning stroll take one too far off the main road. I never would have thought to see the day that marijuana would be decriminalized, or that I would be retreading the same turf with a troupe of students in tow, trying to understand how Humboldt County (which has been called “the center of the marijuana universe”) has adapted to the legalization of the industry for which it is most famous.
The Emerald City Laundromat, which was our second port of call (after the Co-op, bien sur), was cleaner and better organized than I remembered, but that musty skunk smell still emanated from the newfangled front loaders and radiated from the nooks and crannies of its patrons. It brought back my days up at the healing school, where I worked after graduation as director of the Wellness Center. My most challenging days occurred during trim season, when the King Range would be flooded with seasonal workers looking to cash in on the high rates paid by weight for those who could separate a bud from a stem with lightning dexterity.
Everybody who walked through my door during trim season reeked of pot. Even if the trimmers chose not to partake of their free allotment, the resin penetrated their skin, saturated their blood stream, and got cranked back out of their pores, leaving them giddy and misty-headed. Their smell preceded them, giving me ample time to pull the jars of milk thistle, dandelion, and ashwaganda from the shelves. I knew they would be seeking these remedies in a fruitless attempt to keep their livers clear of the daily deluge of THC.
The mountain changed during trim season, beyond the odor of its denizens. The latent thrum of paranoia fed by a steady diet of helicopter noise and rifle shot amped up to a dull roar, which contrasted sharply with the fact that a very big illegal thing was happening all around us that no one was talking about. Not in the dining hall. Not in class. Not even at faculty meetings, when even the educational director showed up with resin on her hands (the healing institute’s pay scale being historically inadequate).
I loved the mist of the King Range, but the pot fog drove me bonkers. Suddenly, all of the bright-eyed folks I’d come to depend on in our mutual rural isolation were worlds away in their own THC-induced fugues. Every conversation that had previously plumbed the depths suddenly started swallowing its own tail, like a doped-up ourobouros. I haven’t been back to the King Range since legalization, but I know that in Arcata, one of Humboldt County’s biggest population centers, neighborhoods have been taken over by industrial grow operations. Growers rent residential homes and set up systems that not only wind up consuming three times or more the amount of electricity of a regular home, but bring in vicious guard dogs, harmful pesticides, and caches of guns in the process. The unregulated environment that makes the area so pot-friendly has made it distinctly unfriendly for people.
The local City Council fought back by taxing residences that were posting these huge electric bills, but it remains to be seen how far this goes towards keeping Arcata weird but safe. I’m excited to dig into this issue while we’re here, getting a deeper look at a place that was such a huge part of my life. I’m grateful also that, for this trim season anyway, the only skunky smells I have to contend with are the wet socks dangling from the bus’s overhead bins, and the odd, white-stripped critter wandering into camp.