The first serious marijuana garden I ever saw, before I became Cultivation Editor at High Times, back when I was still a lowly freelancer trying to impress the boss, belonged to a guy named the Dirt Farmer. He was a bit of a legend around the office—a friendly farmer with his own pot plantation somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. People would tell stories of this wild old hick with three hundred plants in his backyard just begging some aerial surveillance team to swoop down and hand out life sentences like bags of candy corn to trick-or-treaters.
Of course I’d seen pictures of these kinds of things in the magazine, but I always imagined them to exist in exotic locations—vast marijuana fields tended to by slaves who were whipped constantly by men in military uniforms screaming, “Faster, infidel! At this rate we’ll never destroy the American way of life!” I couldn’t envision a crime so blatant being committed in Uncle Sam’s backyard. The senior editors assured me it did indeed exist, and also hinted that a fledgling dope reporter like myself might rack up a few hash-brownie points with the powers that be if he paid the man a visit. I knew they were snickering among themselves—
“Just tell him Hunter Thompson would do it and he won’t even ask for expense money.”
The truth was they knew I’d probably walk a tightrope from one of the World Trade Center buildings to the other if I thought there’d be three hundred plants at the end of it. The “South” part of the deal worried me more than the potential prison term. My perception of the South was based primarily upon old Burt Reynolds movies: Gator, White Lightning, and the granddaddy of them all, Deliverance. Now if they thought Burt was an uppity, good-for-nothing piece of white trash, what would they think of me? And as I drove down the interstate through the woods and the farmlands, past the truckstops and the Quick E Marts, all I could think was that they used to call Ed Gein a friendly farmer before they knew any better.
As I rolled into the Dirt Farmer’s driveway, I was greeted by a mad assortment of dogs, cats, and chickens, all grunting and yelping for my attention. He lived in an old farmhouse—the kind of place the Waltons might have stayed in if Papa was a sociopath and a multiple felon. Cows stood chewing the grass and a goat gave me a malevolent stare from across the driveway. I was immediately put on the defensive. I imagined at any moment some grizzly bear eight feet tall was going to emerge from the woods and beat me over the head with a blunt object.
I rang the bell, and before I could say “hello,” the Dirt Farmer grabbed me and gave me a big hug. This is it, I thought, this guy’s gonna have me squealing like a pig before sundown.
He must have noticed the desperate, road-weary, and underpaid look in my eye because he steered me straight to his plants. Sometimes enlightenment can be the product of years and years of concentration, experience and meditation, and other times it comes to you in one blinding, emotional second. When I saw those plants, I felt like Ben Franklin must have as the lightning traveled down the string of his kite and lit his balls up like Christmas ornaments.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned!” I cried out, seeing the folly of my cosmopolitan ways. “I have seen the promised land!” Hundreds and hundreds of green and purple indica plants stood before me, all lined in rows, imparting upon the air the sweet smell of lollipops. Now maybe I was just stupid, but my fear of imprisonment vanished. I felt as though I were standing in a sanctuary, a little piece of Eden that God spared for himself and then forgot about.
I started to look differently at the Dirt Farmer. Standing there amongst the plants with his baseball cap and his white hair, he looked like the outlaw grandfather I never had. He scooped up a small white dog and stuck it inside his V-neck T-shirt so that its head poked out of the front. He pointed out his favorite plants, the ones with the purplest leaves or the biggest buds, then showed me a couple sick ones and explained to me where he went wrong. After thirty minutes with him, I was ready to forsake my true parents and draw up adoption papers.
“One day I just decided to join the Drug War,” he explained. “It seemed that this side needed some help, so I started growing. If circumstances were different and the other side needed some good people, I probably would have joined with them.” When I asked him if he ever feared imprisonment, he shrugged and said, “I’ve been to prison, son, and I tell you, they need good people there, too.”
When we finished with the garden, we poked through the barn and he showed me his moonshine still, his two off-road vehicles, and his dusty 1929 Harley-Davidson that he had bought new. He showed me his tools, machinery, and assorted bric-a-brac, sorting through piles of stuff he’d forgotten he owned. Back in the house he showed me his vast gun collection, with some pieces dating back to the Civil War. I was getting a crash course in country culture, and without his actually saying it, I could see it was important to the Dirt Farmer that I understood the way he lived.
We climbed aboard his Winnebago and he produced several photo albums. “Most of my life I was a salesman, and a good one at that. I could sell nudie magazines to blind people at twice the cover price if I put my mind to it. Half my days were spent apart from my family in strange cities trying to get people to give me their money. After a while I looked at my life—my hands shook, my hair was falling out—I’d become a monster. Then, by chance, I met up with some of the Rainbow People. Fifteen years ago I went to my first Rainbow Gathering. I couldn’t believe it. These people were so peaceful, so friendly . . . I came home, quit my job, and bought this farm.” He had lots of Gathering photos as well as pictures from road trips he had taken through Mexico and South America. I smoked myself silly (the Dirt Farmer didn’t smoke) and flipped dreamily through an album filled entirely with pictures he’d taken of the sun rising and setting over his property. Each photo had a mood all its own and together they depicted the entire spectrum of human emotion—from peace and happiness to rage and terror. It would be a perfect book to give to manic-depressives, I thought, or people on bad acid trips. It was a simple reminder that every day was different and anything was possible.
After a mammoth dinner of chicken, corn, and potatoes, the Dirt Farmer introduced me to his two farmhands, Jeff and Todd, and the four of us piled into the Winnebago and headed over to the local bar. Todd was a younger guy, about thirty with curly blond hair, and Jeff looked like Greg Allman would if instead of becoming a rock star in the seventies, he’d gone to Vietnam. Jeff and Todd were curious about New York and they asked me what we did for kicks. I told them about the clubs, bars, and bands, and they laughed at the fact that everything we did was indoors. I was equally incredulous that they were going out on a Saturday night dressed like Jed Clampett.
“I never had any desire to visit New York,” said the Dirt Farmer. “The times I’ve had to go there or pass through there, I just couldn’t wait to leave. I get claustrophobic real fast. I start feeling like a rat in a maze.”
We drove up to the “bar,” which was little more than a shack with a neon Budweiser sign in the window. It’s where Billy Carter would be hanging out, were it not for the tragic fact that he was dead. Inside, the wood-paneled walls were decorated with stuffed trout, pike, and bass. “I caught that one!” Todd said, pointing to a two-foot-long largemouth. “I mean, not that one, but one like it.”
“Taking Care of Business” pounded out of a jukebox in the corner of the room and a huge poster of Elvis watched over the bar like a patron saint. I knew I couldn’t impress anyone in there with my knowledge of hunting, fishing, or college football, but if there’s one thing we can do in New York as good as anyone else, it’s drink. Jim Beam seemed to be the house favorite. Me, Jeff, and Todd all got shots while the Dirt Farmer smiled, temperately watching.
“I met Rolling Stone,” a drunk older man with a beard and a baseball cap said to me. “Rolling Stone himself.” He was obviously trying to connect me, with my long hair and leather jacket, to something he could understand. This bold, toothless lie was his way of reaching out. “He shared his woman with me. I fucked her three times and he gave me fifty dollars.”
“Oh yeah? You ever meet the Beatles?” I asked.
“I used to manage them. A fine bunch of fellers.”
The song “Simple Man” came on and I sat and contemplated my like/hate relationship with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Me and Todd started taking bets on when the barmaid would break down. Not only did she have the impossible responsibility of keeping the peace in a bar full of two hundred-pound men in flannel shirts drunk on whiskey, she had to dodge constant advances from just about every guy in the place, and even a few of the biker chicks. That’s the simple problem with alcohol—it makes you plain stupid. But stupid, along with horny and self-inflated, were just local stops along the road to oblivion, which is where I knew me, Jeff, and Todd were to make our beds that evening.
“So what do you guys hunt out here?” I asked Jeff.
“Oh you know, deer, sometimes wild turkey, a lot of squirrel.”
“Squirrels? What do you do with them?”
“What the hell you think we do with ’em? We eat ’em.”
“Is that just you who does that, or is that a common thing?”
He looked at me like I was a moron. Until that moment I didn’t realize there existed a whole squirrel-eating population in America.
In New York when we drink, we usually sit around and try and convince each other how cool we are. This selfless “I’m-just-here-to-have-a-good-time, I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-you-think” kind of drinking was new to me. But I can make a fool of myself as easy as any country hick, and by the end of the night I was telling everyone that I wanted to go into the woods and pull a Jeffrey Dahmer trip on the local squirrel population. I told them that in another life I was Marlin Perkins, a man who, regardless of his age, really knew how to beat an animal into submission.
And after the Dirt Farmer drove us home and said good night, me, Jeff, and Todd ate enough squirrel for ten men.
The next morning the Dirt Farmer woke me up early. The four of us ate our eggs and before I could take back the previous night’s boasting, the Dirt Farmer was picking out a shotgun for me. Now, I’ve never shot anything in my life, and to paraphrase Muhammed Ali, no squirrel ever called me a nigger. Worried that I’d come off like a big-city pussy, I kept my mouth shut.
The Dirt Farmer had to tend to the plants and feed the cows, so Jeff, Todd, and I piled into the truck in search of game. To my surprise, we only drove about five hundred feet from the house to a little campsite with a picnic bench. Jeff produced a twelve-pack of Bud and I realized that we were just going to sit there, drink, and wait for something to come to us.
We set up a few cans on the other side of the pond and took some shots at them. We had a complete little arsenal and I started wondering, if by some chance the Feds did sneak up on us, whether these were the go-down-fighting sort of multiple felons you see on “MacGyver.” We had a .38 handgun, a .22 rifle with a telescopic sight, and several different shotguns that we kept loading up with these huge, single-shot slugs that probably could have grounded Rodan had he chosen to pass by at that moment. A shootout would definitely have been our only escape. If the Feds had busted in at that moment, they probably would have saved the taxpayers some money and strung us up from the nearest tall tree, passing my press pass amongst the junior officers for their amusement.
A little while later the Dirt Farmer drove up in his Winnebago. He brought us a .44 magnum wrapped in an Old West–style hip holster that tied around both the waist and thigh. He wondered how we were doing, but we told him we hadn’t had any luck yet. He didn’t join in the shooting, just watched us and smiled, petting his little dog still peeking out the front of his T-shirt.
“Back when I was a salesman, I’d take two days off, call in sick, and come out here to the woods,” he said. “I’d tell my wife I wasn’t coming home that night and she’d understand. You gotta get back to reality. I’d get so wound up sometimes I thought my head was going to pop off. I’d just come out here and sleep in the woods, do some fishing—anything to get my mind off the job. We’re not too fancy out here. We’re just a bunch of good ol’ boys, you know? I don’t worry too much about how big a mess my barn is or whether there’s mud on my shoes. I just like what I do and I do it.”
I had to ask myself why he invited High Times down to see his garden. It seemed a bit of a risk. I’d never met him before my visit, and yet he trusted me implicitly. I came to the conclusion that he really did have a message to bring to people. The plants were just a manifestation of a larger, “you can’t catch me” sort of total freedom he felt and was the only way he wanted to live.
I walked with the Dirt Farmer down to a small pond and he pointed out tracks of cows, raccoons, squirrels, and wild turkeys that had been there for a drink. No matter what part of his property we traveled to, there was something he wanted to show me. As we walked back into the pasture, a group of grunting cows started heading toward us. “They’re hungry,” he said and stuck out his hand for one of them to lick with its meaty tongue. “All these fellers do is stand around, eat, and shit. These cows produce a soil finer than money can buy. That’s why they call me the Dirt Farmer, because I got the best.” The dirt is where we all end up eventually—cow, plant, and bank teller alike. Laws and time clocks were of no interest to him. Whatever system mankind could devise, it eventually had to answer to Mother Nature.
My last night there I slept out in the Winnebago. When the wind kicked up, I could smell the plants and it seemed unreal to me that this idyllic, starry night could at any moment be raided by a bunch of pissed-off, caffeine-wired, wife-beating federal agents, and we’d all spend the next ten or twenty years behind bars. After all, what’s more down-home, Norman Rockwell–American than a farmer sowing a seed? Pushing buttons for IBM?
As I was getting ready to leave the following morning, the Dirt Farmer showered me with gifts: Moonshine, pot, hash oil—it was like Christmas would be if Keith Richards was Santa Claus.
“Wait one moment,” he said as he walked over to the Winnebago. When he returned, he handed me the photo book filled with sunsets. “I know you don’t see too many of these over there in New York City.”
“Man, I couldn’t . . . ”
“Take it,” he said and laughed. “There’s plenty more where those came from.”
As I was driving up the interstate later that evening, I watched the sun sink in the sky, just like the Dirt Farmer said it would. The bugs splashed against my windshield and I was listening to the evening news on the radio. It was around the time of the O.J. trial and the guilt or innocence of this man that I’d never met and never cared two shits about was all anybody was interested in. Everyday the Juice would fly past us and we had the pleasure of shooting at him like a clay pigeon from the comfort of our cars, desks, and TV chairs.
O.J. did us one favor, though; he showed us we have shitty aim.
When I got back to High Times with the herb and especially the hash oil, I found myself to be a popular man around the office. “I told you he was a good writer,” Hager said to the editors. We all went to Don Hill’s and smoked drippy oil-soaked joints, listened to Iggy on the sound system, and planned the future of the magazine. As I drank my beer and scouted the club for a woman crazy enough to be impressed by the fact that I was now a legitimate dope journalist, I wondered what all those little miscreants I used to teach English to would have thought if they could have seen me there—Mr. S on dope. I think they would have been very proud.
The Dirt Farmer was busted about a year later when one of his associates was looking at twenty-five to life and didn’t like what he saw. He called me from prison a few times, just to talk. I asked him once how he felt about being locked up. It was a dumb question; I knew it even before I asked, but I wanted to know.
“Oh well,” he said with a laugh. “I’m a talker and the people here, they gotta listen to me, they can’t go no place else.” He wouldn’t be there forever—he got two to five and that was lucky. He grew plants. As far as I can tell, O.J. murdered his wife and a total stranger, nearly decapitating them in the act, and all they did was take his money. If history is written by the winners then that’s justice plain and simple.
It's in this same manner that the Dirt Farmer’s life came to its sad conclusion.
After he was released from prison, the Dirt Farmer called me and told me he told me he was going to fix up the school bus on his property and drive it to South America. I was invited. It sounded fun.
One day shortly thereafter I was sitting at my desk when I got a call from the Dirt Farmer’s wife informing me that he was dead—shot down in his own living room by a relative after an argument about money. There were guns everywhere in that house. Anyone with a notion to end someone else’s life had all the necessary tools at their disposal. I don’t blame guns, they were a part of life down there and part of the Dirt Farmer’s vision of total freedom. I don’t know that there’s anything to blame other than a moment of drunken stupidity on behalf of the man who murdered him. All I know is there’s one less good man in this world. I’ve told you his story. It’s up to us to fill the void.