Hippie Migration

The Hippie Migration to Mendocino and the Establishment of a Cannabis-Based Economy

Although the hippie movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s may seem like a historical curiosity, its consequences were profound. It continues, moreover, to be a contentious topic, often used to score points in political debates. The New Republic, for example, is currently running a slideshow entitledThe Weekly Standard’s Obsession with Hippies Continues,” which pillories the conservative magazine for conflating hippies with Democrats. But as one savvy commentator pointed out, the images used do not necessarily reflected hippiedom: “Whoa, whoa there — hipsters and hippies are totally, completely different! You guys need to get your categories straight!” Hipsters, unlike hippies, are closely identified with contemporary urban culture.

As the previous GeoCurrents post mentioned, a “hippie migration” of the early 1970s resulted in a partial relocation of the subculture from San Francisco and environs to California’s north coast. The larger movement took members of the 1960s counter-culture to a number of rural areas, both in northern California and elsewhere. One of its most famous outposts was “The Farm,” near Summertown, Tennessee, founded in 1971, according to the Wikipedia, “by Stephen Gaskin and 320 San Francisco hippies.” The Farm is still a going concern, although its population has dwindled from some 1,600 at its height to around 175 today. Most hippie communes and intentional communities from the counter-cultural heyday vanished altogether, as eco-romantic dreams were seldom matched by rural realities.

In California’s north coast, however, hippie culture was able to put down roots. Key to its survival was the creation a viable economic niche: the cultivation of premium marijuana. In the early 1970s, the low end of the California cannabis market was dominated by goods from northern Mexico, especially Sinaloa, while more potent products came from southern Mexico (Michoacán especially, which became “Meshmican” in stoner lingo), Panama, Colombia, and Thailand. By the mid-1970s, north-coast hippies learned how to produce something much stronger still, which was first known as “sinsemilla,” from the Spanish “without seeds.” Key to the process was eliminating all male plants and allowing the female buds to become engorged and highly resinous. Before that could be done, however, geographically correct strains had to be obtained. One could not simply plant seeds from market varieties, as they were adapted to tropical conditions. As Jared Diamond emphasizes in Guns, Germs, and Steel, latitude is crucial for day-length adapted crops, which move much more easily in an east/west direction than along a north/south axis. Crucial to the northern California industry were temperate cannabis cultivars, brought back from Central Asia by adventurers straying off the “Hippie trail” (northernmost Afghanistan has the same latitude as Mendocino County).

The hippie migrants to Mendocino faced rough conditions in the early years. Local residents were often unwelcoming or even hostile, as were law enforcement officers. Aging hippies today tell stories of their handmade, un-permitted houses being torn down by county officials, as well as of stints in the county jail for cultivation. Acquiring land was a major hurdle; many pooled resources with friends in the Bay Area to buy plots of cutover forestland, resulting in complex land-partnership agreements, and more than a few fallings-out. As roads were often unimproved, many had to walk to their homesteads for several miles over mucky tracks during the long rainy season. Land parcels were usually off the electricity grid, requiring a Spartan life-style, elaborate adaptations, or dirty diesel generators. Some used water to generate power by way of Pelton wheels, seldom an easy arrangement. As one pioneer described the drawbacks: “In a January rainstorm your power would go out and next thing you know you’d be waste-deep in a frigid, raging torrent, sparks flying everywhere, desperately trying to get your system back on line.”

As the years went on, the living got easier. All-weather gravel roads were pushed deeper into the woods, power-lines went up, and solar cells became available. Intriguingly, not all hippies took to the solar revolution; as one once told me, “never get a photovoltaic array unless you are already connected to the grid and can sell power back to PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric]; otherwise you generate a useless surplus when the sun shines and then you have to store it for nights and rainy days with evil batteries.”

Most importantly, Mendocino County came to accommodate the newcomers, just as the migrants discovered that they had a lot to learn from the established residents. Accommodation was facilitated over time by the generational shift. As the children of the hippies grew up with those of the previously established families, cultures merged in a seemingly oxymoronic “hippie-redneck” synthesis. The offspring of local ranching and logging families now often grow marijuana, while plenty of hippies and their adult children have no problems with guns, bulldozers, and off-road vehicles. The merger is by no means complete and tensions persist, but overall the mood is relaxed and relatively harmonious. The local Hispanic population generally fits easily into the mix; Mexican immigrants came initially to labor in the vineyards and wineries, but many also work for aging growers and quite a few cultivate their own small plots as well.

Marijuana cultivation, especially in the early years, was not as easy as it might seem. Plantings had to be widely scattered in partial shade to avoid detection. Pests and diseases, especially spider mites and downy mildew, still take their toll, and an early autumn rainstorm can spell disaster (such problems are amusingly recounted at length in T. C. Boyles’ Budding Prospects). Labor demands during harvest season, moreover, restrict crop size. But prices were high in the early years, and if few growers became rich, many made a comfortable living.  More than a few maintained a migratory existence, sojourning in Mexico or Costa Rica during the rainy season and returning to Mendocino in the spring. Many others, however, merely grew a few plants to supplement incomes earned in the formal sector. I have taught several students from backwoods Mendocino backgrounds at Stanford University, and when asked what their parents do for a living, the response is generally on the lines of, “my mother is a teacher/nurse/county employee, and my father, well, he, um, well, he …”

In this milieu of artisanal production, large-scale growers are not appreciated. I once attended a road-association meeting in which one member informed the assembly that he had been contracted by an Oakland medical marijuana co-op to grow over 1,000 plants; the news was most unwelcome, and his neighbors were relieved when his operation was taken down several months later. By early 2000s, many growers had actually come to appreciate CAMP, the “Campaign Against Marijuana Planting,” a multi-agency law enforcement task force, as it had come to focus on large-scale growers. Such cultivators, often connected with Mexican organized crime syndicates, operate mostly in public lands in the eastern half of the county. Their operations are often violent and environmentally destructive, and they threaten the reputation of the business. Whether they drive down prices is an open question, as they typically produce for a lower market-segment, growing the wrong strains, harvesting too early, and curing their buds improperly. Wine snobs have nothing over pot snobs these days, and extraordinary care is taken by serious growers in both pre- and post-harvest procedures.

Regardless of the activities of the big operations, prices have come down. Growers complain that they make less per unit than they did in 1980. Most attribute the relative price drop to the expanded number of small-scale cultivators, and especially to the spread of indoor cultivation in suburban and urban parts of the state. In response, they have taken to growing much larger plants, cultivating them in the full sun, and providing full-spectrum fertilizers. Organic cultivation exists, but the practice is rare, as authentication is impossible and the price premium is small. The real money in the business, I am convinced, is in fully licit growers’ supply stores.

After the passage of the California Medical Marijuana Act of 1996, the business gradually gained a quasi-legal status as far as the county and the state were concerned, as long as the scale of operation remained small, generally below 25 plants. When the county government decided to license the cultivation of up to 99 plants in early 2011, some saw an opportunity for serious money. Dreams were hatched of developing tourist-oriented “tasting rooms,” following the local wine industry. The U.S. federal raids of October 2011, however, demolished such plans, throwing everything into doubt. It is unclear what will happen, but it is all but certain that Mendocino County will continue to produce high-quality cannabis, and most of its residents will continue to be rather proud of that fact.


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The 1970s Transformation of California’s North Coast

The previous GeoCurrents post noted that Mendocino County remained in the Democratic-voting camp after California’s geopolitical transformation largely because it experienced a demographic transformation of its own during the same period. The first glimmerings of this sea change can be dated to 1957, when artist Bill Zacha settled in the coastal village of Mendocino and established an art center. According to a 1962 Look magazine article, the town was moribund, its dwindling population dependent on a dying lumber industry. But the village—as it is often called to distinguish it from the county of the same name—was blessed with a scenic location, as well as a stock of fine Victorian houses that had escaped the fires that had periodically devastated most other coastal California communities.

Northern California in the 1950s and early ‘60s had a booming economy and a thriving art market. The established artist colony of Carmel (officially, Carmel-by-the-Sea) had become too pricey for many aspiring artists. Enough demand had built up that where Zacha settled, other followed. By 1962, Look described Mendocino as “the most talked about art center in northern California.” The village’s population, the article claims, jumped from 500 in 1958 to 1,165 in four years later. It is now less than 1,000; Mendocino’s residents have adopted rigid historical preservation rules, making it all but impossible to build within the village. As the local arts community has expanded, it has been forced to spread geographically as well, helping change other parts of the county in the process.

The real transition, however, came in the early 1970s with the migration of hippies from San Francisco and environs. (I used the term “hippie” advisedly, as it is widely used for self-identification; a local 2008 blog post, for example, was devoted to “Celebrating Mendocino County’s Counter Culture Hippie Past [Which is Not Past in Mendoland].”) The hippie movement was originally urban, but its followers were soon gripped by a “back to the land” imperative, and Mendocino beckoned. A several-hour drive from San Francisco, Mendo boasted a mild climate, a stunning coastline, extensive redwood forests, and a thriving arts colony. In those days, it also had relatively inexpensive land, logged-over timberland newly subdivided into ten to forty acre plots (four to sixteen hectares). By 1970, a significant migration was underway.

From a scholarly perspective, the hippie movement, both in Mendocino and more generally, is an understudied phenomenon. It is not the sort of topic that graduate students would be encouraged to select for their dissertations. Some good works of journalism, however, have been produced, along with some excellent fiction. T. C. Boyles’ novel Budding Prospects, set near Willits in north-central Mendocino, is something of a classic. Also recommended is Nicholas Wilson’s limited-edition photo-essay, Mendocino in the 1970s: Peoples, Places, and Events of California’s Mendocino Coast. But overall, as academics are wont to say, more research is needed.

As I find Mendocino County and the hippie movement that transformed it significant, interesting, and understudied, I have long given it some attention. My connection to the county dates back to my earliest memories. In 1962, when I was five, my parents bought a minuscule share of a 29,000-acre ranch in northeastern Mendocino County. The land was slated to become prime recreational property along a new reservoir that would arise with the damming of the Eel River, a project that would have flooded out Round Valley. The highpoint of every year of my childhood was a camping excursion to “Mendocino,” where we had the run of the vast ranch. The thought of reservoir inundating the property helped turn me into a radical environmentalist, a position that I later repudiated in full. Interestingly, plans for the massive dam were killed in the late 1960s by then-governor Ronald Reagan; according to some, Reagan was motivated by his sympathies for the Native Americans of the Round Valley Reservation.

My early visits to Mendocino were in the pre-hippie 1960s. I subsequently got to know that subculture fairly well, although I did so in a different part of the state. Hippies did not move just to Mendo and Humboldt, but rather streamed out to almost all rural, wooded parts of northern California. (Only in the so-called Emerald Triangle of the north coast, however, did they move in such numbers as to fundamentally transform local cultures.) I encountered the movement in the early 1970s, after my family moved from the Bay Area to rural Calaveras County (population 12,000 at the time) on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Hippies in Calaveras were not scarce, “wannabe” hippies were numerous, and the attitudes of the movement deeply influenced certain subcultures of the local high school. After graduating from Calaveras High in 1975, I went to the University of California at Santa Cruz; UCSC’s mascot, the Banana Slug, tells you all you need to know about its proclivities. I have, in other words, gained a certain understanding of the movement through close observation.

I was reacquainted with Mendocino in 2002, when I moved back to California from North Carolina, and my best friend from high school moved to the Anderson Valley. In visiting him, I met a number of his neighbors and friends. I have also gone to many local community events: county fairs, concerts, variety shows at the local (all-solar) grange hall, and even road-association meetings. I have talked to local residents at length, many of whom have been more than happy to tell their stories, and several of whom are both deeply knowledgeable and as intellectually sophisticated as any university professor. Actually, a few of them are, or were, professors themselves. This list included for many years Kary Mullis, Nobel laureate in chemistry. I never met Mullis or attended any of his legendary parties, but I have certainly heard stories. From his Wikipedia article:

Mullis writes of having once spoken to a glowing green raccoon. Mullis arrived at his cabin in the woods of northern California around midnight one night in 1985, and, having turned on the lights and left sacks of groceries on the floor, set off for the outhouse with a flashlight. “On the way, he saw something glowing under a fir tree. Shining the flashlight on this glow, it seemed to be a raccoon with little black eyes. The raccoon spoke, saying, ‘Good evening, doctor,’ and he replied with a hello.” Mullis later speculated that the raccoon ‘was some sort of holographic projection and … that multidimensional physics on a macroscopic scale may be responsible’. Mullis denies LSD having anything at all to do with this.

My forays into Mendocino County over the past ten years have been conducted in the spirit of cultural-geographic fieldwork. I trained in a geographical school that emphasized—some would say fetishized—fieldwork, especially as done in the tradition of Carl O. Sauer, founder of the (old) Berkeley School of Cultural Geography. Fieldwork to Sauer meant getting to know the land as closely as possible, which essentially meant getting to know the local people and learning from them. My first book, Wagering the Land, based in Northern Luzon in the Philippines, was wholly within the Sauerian tradition. But in the mid-1990s, I abandoned my local specialization and instead focused on the global scale. But I never lost interest in old-school fieldwork, and I have been re-engaged in it, albeit in an unfocused and desultory manner, for a number of years.

In the next post, I will draw on these experiences to describe the hippie migration to Mendocino County and its consequences in more detail.

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