Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Road Less Traveled, part II

NOTE: be sure to read Part I first.

The delicious Eel RIver passes through California's ancient redwoods and eventually feeds the Pacific. It's shallow enough to dive to its sandy bottom, and deep enough to jump in from the banks. It's swift enough to enjoy a mildly vigorous upstream swim, but calm enough to simply float downstream to another town. Rejuvenated by a long swim in the peace of the river, I was ready to get back on the road. I called Bijou to join me and we headed back up the bank. As instructed, I stopped just below the ridge and called out "Blind man! Blind man!"

It was silent but for the occasional snap of a bullet in the distance. "BLIND MAN! BLIND MAN!" I yelled.

"Blind man! Hold your fire!"
"Blind man! Hold your fire!"
"Blind man! Hold your fire!"
The call ricocheted through the woods.

The process repeated itself, until it seemed each member of the battalion had ceased fire. The familiar voice of the group leader called out "OK! Clear! Come on up!"

I had just popped over the ridge, when the unmistakable zing of a bullet whipped through the tree tops. I just caught Bijou's collar as she pounced back towards the river.

"@!#%!@!" he screamed, "I said hold your fire, @^#%!^&"
"Sorry..." someone replied, feebly.
"Are you ready NOW?"

"OK, CLEAR! Come on up!"
"Are you sure?" I ventured.
"We're sure, gal, come on up."

Cautiously, I peered into the woods as I stepped onto the trail, but I saw no one. With Bijou in tow, I bolted all the way back up the trail to my truck, calling "thank you" as I ran.

Safely back in the truck, I sat at the wheel for a moment, shook my head, kicked the ignition, and left Redway behind as I continued down the Redwood Highway. "What a trip."

Several days later, I picked up a hitch-hiker outside Ukiah, a few hours north of San Francisco. He looked young, a little bit dirty, but harmless. He was a bag-head, as a friend describes the hippie boys who tuck all of their hair into woven wool, sack-like hats.

His name was Scott, and coincidentally, he was from Redway.

"Oh my God, I have got to tell you this crazy thing that happened to me." I reiterated my Eel River swimming saga.

"I'm not surprised," Said Scott. "I've only heard talk of those guys, they're something of a rural legend. I believe you stumbled upon the Humboldt County militia." Scott went on to describe a group of Humboldt County locals who believe that the time of a resource-based ground war is imminent. They fear food and water shortages that will send a surge of the urban masses up toward the relatively plentiful water, soil, and land in the redwoods. The militia has plans to counter the assault by taking out all access routes from the surrounding areas. You know, blowing up highway bridges, blocking waterways, and protecting air space. Huh. It sounded to me like the stuff of rural legend, but then again, I've heard folks in Wasilla, Delta Junction and the outskirts of Fairbanks at least SPEAK the same sentiments - I'm not sure if anyone is acting on them. Just a quick web search on the concept of a Humboldt militia yielded some pretty out-there info, such as this futurist's vision of the Humboldt Nation.

"You don't understand," Scott said. "California is at war right now. Between the pot growers and the corporate farmers and the folks who just want to raise a family, there is a lot of competition for resources here."

I started paying a little closer attention. For example, in Hopland, CA, a town formerly known for it expansive fields of hops, but that is now home to extensive vineyards that serve the upscale tasting scene, I noticed hand-made signs posted in the grocery, bar, and coffee shop. The notices were pushing a proposition to repeal Proposition 215, which had essentially legalized possession of up to 25 mature plants for personal use. Locals were rethinking its legalization, as problems arose, including the life-threatening issue of water use in the parched region.

A few days later, I was traveling a segment along the coast and picked up one of those fascinating left-end of the dial pirate radio stations. It was a call-in program, and yet again, coincidence ruled. The discussion over the repeal of Prop 215 was getting ugly. Callers, who seemed to consist largely of those who supported the decriminalization of pot, were furious, and wanted - yikes! - government intervention. One man raged about how his well had gone dry from the increased water use within the aquifer. A mother seethed that her children couldn't walk to the school bus anymore, as their previously small town became a seasonal host to 'unsavory" workers hired to harvest the pot. One caller started a whole string of angry listeners with a discussion about the Drug Enforcement Agency presence in Eureka. "They're telling us they're here for training, but there are like, 100s of these guys here! I mean, we need help, yes, and we want help, but our town has become a police state!"

Only hours later, I was passing through Eureka. Low and behold, I was stuck behind a large, UPS-style box truck, government green, with the DEA seal clearly printed on the back door. Whoa. I flipped on the local radio station in time to catch the news of a DEA raid somewhere in Humboldt County. One witness who lived in the neighborhood where the raid occurred decried the effort. "We're a family, we live here. They screamed at my wife, they scared my kids, and no one would tell us what was going on. This is NOT helping things."

A couple months later, I read of a raid on a medical marijuana dispensary in Culver City.

Holy cow, I thought. Scott was right: there WAS a ground war going on in Cali.

So maybe the idea of a local militia wasn't as out there as I had thought.

I didn't know what to make of it. What I do know is that, though I saw nothing in the larger media, something was going on in Mendo and Humboldt this summer and people were getting twitchy. I could certainly see how "stealing" someone's water, truly or just perceived, could be intuited as an assault. Yet the men I met at the Eel River were kind, friendly, and made me feel safe. Seriously - I felt absolutely no threat from them. Could these same men really be capable of rallying a ground war to defend what they see as rightly theirs? I don't think I'd want to be the one on the front to find out.

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