California: A Cast of Characters

Swami and Tim Blake Cannabis Now

The people are what make the cannabis community come to life.


Occasionally I am asked what brought me to Mendocino County, this special corner of far Northern California. Was it the weed? The big trees and majestic scenery? The dramatic coastline? While all those are fantastic for sure, I’d have to say honestly it was the people.

I actually came to Mendo to party, not to grow herb. My excuse was looking for a place to have a big loud outside all-night party where the neighbors were few and far between and wouldn’t complain. In 1998, destiny via friends guided me to a funky pullout along Highway 101, just north of Laytonville. This guy from Santa Cruz, a longtime grower named Tim Blake, had recently bought this old gas station/general store, which had clearly seen better days, as it looked like a Hell’s Angels hide-out when I arrived. There were about 30 of us city folks ready to party and see if we could get away with a night of thumping psychedelic trance music. It worked and the rest is history.

It was a couple of months after that, and a few parties later, that the name “Area 101” in reference to Area 51, was adopted and that bit of land began to transform into the cannabis haven/spiritual sanctuary it is today. As Area 101 developed into a new locals’ destination, cannabis characters came out of the hills, and Tim Blake was always the first to welcome them. There was Mad Mike and Big Steve, Tony Mendocino and Mean Gene, the Angel family and so many more. Some were saints and others scoundrels. The common denominator, of course, was an affinity for good smoke and appreciation of a good time. It was clear from the start that this was a special community.

Just down the road from Area 101 is Black Oak Ranch, site of the Hog Farm, a more than 900-acre venue owned by a communal family of elderly hippies. Wavy Gravy is their inspirational non-leader. Among his many moments of glory, two stand out: Wavy as emcee at Woodstock and again when he ran as “Nobody for President,” many elections ago. Eventually the parties at Area 101 got too big for the space and things moved down the road to Black Oak Ranch where Earth Dance and Enchanted Forest eventually evolved.

We’re still newcomers here (anyone that’s been here fewer than 45 years). The old timers go way back to the mid-1800s. Some families are descendants of the original settlers, who had lethal encounters with the indigenous tribes. There’s also the old logging clans, who were the kingpins around here for decades, as they decimated the old-growth forests and sent the lumber south to the burgeoning Bay Area. They continue to do some business in vast timberland areas of the county, hoping their day will come again. One can still feel their resentment to the cannabis farmers.

Some old-time families are real salt of the earth types. Talk about characters! Take the local guy who pumps septic tanks. He had an accident in high school, broke his nose and lost his sense of smell. Being a smart guy, he started a Porta Potty and septic tank pumping company. His truck says “We haul milk on the weekends.” Then there’s the woman who made our little town of Laytonville world famous when her 15 black bear friends were discovered hanging out at her home. Her neighbors weren’t happy about it so they all had to move on. I love the people around here!

Mendocino County is almost as large as Connecticut, but there are only about 90,000 residents. It takes over three hours to drive from our ranch in the far north to Gualala, for example, in the far southwest. This makes it hard to connect with your friends, as they are miles away.

When we first moved up here, I had a house in the town of Laytonville (as well as our ranch) so I could meet some locals before moving to the hills full time. I feared that if I went there directly from the city, I’d become a hermit. So I opened a small shop in town selling statues of gods and goddesses and other sacred items which I had collected in my travels. The point was to meet my fellow “Mendonesians.” Not only did I find people of just about every spiritual persuasion, but these were warm and wonderful country folks, curious about the new people in town. With any village, one must make an effort to become part of the community.

Driving through the Emerald Triangle, on Highway 101, a tourist will appreciate the stunning scenery but perhaps surmise that there is not much going on in these hills. Who would expect several Buddhist monasteries, pagan enclaves and thousands of cannabis farms tucked away in these remote mountains? Aside from current clashes over some cannabis issues, the various area residents usually get along peacefully together. After living for years with hippie growers in their ‘hoods, the kids have grown up together and families mingled.

As cannabis legalization approaches farmers are threatened with myriad regulations, fees, inspections and taxes, I pray that the culture will continue. I pray that enough characters will remain to continue to weave the tapestry we have crafted over the years. In the Emerald Triangle of Northern California, we the people produce the best cannabis in the world. Without us, there is no heart and soul.

One of the ways farmers are working to sustain this culture is to establish what are called appellation zones for cannabis cultivation. These will delineate the particular climate, geology, soil and cultural heritage of the different sections of the county. The cast of characters changes everyday as rookies and speculators join the scene. This is California, how it always has been. A place for adventurers, dreamers and hardworking farmers — may the characters be here forever.

TELL US, have you ever met any cannabis characters?

Nikki Lastreto has been a judge in The Emerald Cup since it started in 2003 and is co-founder of Swami Select cannabis brand and educational website: www.swamiselect.com

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