Let's be honest: There are few things more unexpected and slightly surreal than stepping out onto a hot tarmac on a shimmering summer day to the sight of a man running marijuana bushes through a wood chipper.
But let's go back to the beginning, shall we?
A friend of mine recently got his pilot's license and shot me an email, asking me if I'd like to go for a ride. Never deterred from adventure despite my unfortunate history in aviation, I said "yes, of course," and trundled out to the airfield on a sunny day with clear skies — precisely the kind of weather that made for good flying, he said as we walked to a charmingly and alarmingly tiny Cessna 150.
I am not, as we know, a very small person, and two not so small people have to be quite friendly in the cockpit of a 150, but we didn't let that deter us as we taxied down the runway and took off, soaring above the pygmy forest of Little River and quickly hitting the coast, where conditions proved to be a bit choppy, courtesy of our old friend cumulus.
You know those little white clouds that look so peaceful drifting above you in the sky? Well, I am here to tell you that they can go eat a bowl of dicks, because when they're merrily drifting overhead and you're in a small plane, the resulting turbulence is not, as one might say, desirable. However, I was willing to overlook that in light of the absolutely excellent view rolling out below us, because, as it so happens, Northern California is extremely pretty, which is part of the reason why I live here.
The ocean was a distant glitter below, waves frothing up against the cliffs, Mendocino a tiny collection of houses dotted across headlands. We both remarked that it was disturbingly easy to see the effects of the drought in the bone-dry meadows almost entirely bleached of color, the withered rivers, the trees slowly choking away without water.
But then we saw things like this and got tremendously distracted.
You have to log a lot of hours in a plane to get a pilot's license. Like, a lot — which is one reason I'd always thought of it as kind of a thing rich people did, but it turns out, my friend told me, that the aviation community is extremely supportive and many people are willing to make things work. If you have a passion for planes and hang out with other people who have a passion for planes, sometimes that's all you need. But even for someone who flies a lot, this view just doesn't get old.
This is the Coast Range, which buckles and folds up from the edge of the Pacific. Viewed from our altitude, it was a stunning array of trees — those occasional brown patches are, for the most part, clearings where people have homes or small ranches. We joked that it was incredibly easy to spot marijuana grows from overhead right as things got choppy and we decided to head inland for a enjoyable ride. We didn't know how prophetic our comments would be.
We drifted over the Anderson Valley and my friend asked if I wanted to stop in Boonville and I said: "Hey, why not," because really, how often do you get to say "I flew to Boonville to get a soda?" (Not very, because responsible people don't waste avgas.)
Anderson Valley, incidentally, is starting to become the new "it" wine country in California — see those bright green patches to the middle left? Those are vineyards, upon which we are pouring ridiculous amounts of water despite the drought that's turning the rest of the landscape brown. Because heaven forfend that we deprive one of the state's most prized agricultural products of water while the Central Valley is sinking by one to two inches a month.
As we headed for Boonville, we checked to see if the airspace was clear and a Mendocino County helicopter was making a descent towards the airstrip as well, but he kindly let us go in ahead of him — as it turned out, he was just dropping a load, and not actually landing. Helicopter logging isn't uncommon here so we both assumed that's what was going on when he swept overhead with a large green parcel as we tied down and unfolded ourselves from the cockpit, stepping out into the stifling air of Anderson Valley.
Normally summer in the valley has a kind of dusty, dry, slightly oaky smell. It's a tad too early for the grapes and the rich smell of the early stages of fermentation that's everywhere in the fall, and I have a kind of affection for it, though I don't enjoy the heat. The trick is to drive down 128 late at night, with the last of the day's heat wafting through the windows, carrying that indescribable smell with it, drumming your fingers on the steering wheel in time with Taylor Swift.
That day, however, we were confronted with a strongly vegetal odor that smelled vaguely like horse manure, at least, if the horse was having some significant gastrointestinal problems. We finished putting down the chocks and sorting ourselves out, my friend pocketed the key (for some reason I find the thought that airplanes use keys oddly ridiculous), and then we turned around to be confronted with this sight:
Yes, that is a man feeding an entire marijuana bush through a woodchipper, with, of course, a floppy hat to protect himself from the merciless sun. And yes, that is a high-sided truck filled with shredded marijuana. In strict point of fact, there were shreds of marijuana all over the airstrip, and because it was extremely hot, the entire air wafted with a, shall I say, half-baked aroma.
We walked past while the man studiously ignored us and the helicopter jauntily set off to the Southwest, clearly on the way out for another load — to be fair, the best way to clear a grow deep in the heart of the forest is to take it out by air, though the resources used are tremendous. (Helicopters, and pilots, don't come cheap, and the County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team spends a great deal of county tax dollars and federal funds chasing after grows.)
And, one supposes, the best way to prepare confiscated drugs for baling is to shred them to make them easier to compact, but there was something almost charmingly ludicrous about the situation: The man, the woodchipper, us walking off the airfield and past the high school, ambling towards town (where we, of course, got sodas).
When we came back, he was still hard at work, and the scene still felt equally bizarre. We duly swept off again over the mountains, air filled with nothing more than the sound of our engine and the occasional cloud attempting to surprise us unawares, and after a moment, we started chortling to ourselves.
"Someone," I said, "is having a very bad day."
It would appear that my peculiar luck with planes continues, because while I've seen a lot of strange things in my time, this was definitely one of the strangest.