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    The Road

June 14, 2007

Growing the Holy Weed

It is estimated that in Mendocino county alone, the illegal cultivation of marijuana is a five billion dollar a year industry. Teenagers write sorrowful letters to local papers bewailing the situation where a straight A student struggles to have enough money for clothes, while their near drop-out peers, already employed at $30 an hour to trim buds, are driving around in gigantic new trucks. Indeed, when many of my friends heard of our move to Mendocino, they asked, “You gonna grow pot?”

The answer is always no. However, I have recently discovered another weed which might prove quite lucrative in the future. Yerba Santo, the holy weed. Used in a variety of methods such a direct chewing or steeped as a tea it is widely hailed to relive respiratory problems, such as asthma and bronchitis. It can be applied directly to inflammations to ease hives, rashes and swelling or combined with other plants can be used to make a salve to alive these symptoms. Until I read this, I had more interesting names than holy weed reserved for the thousands of yerba santo plants littering the area around the cabin, which could miraculously re-grow in days after clearing an entire area. We have thousands of these plants.

In my Guerrilla Camping articles, many often commented on my avoidance of the topic of foraging. The reason has been because there are dozens of authoritative books on the subject with great illustrations and written by experts with a profound understanding of poisonous look-alikes, seasonal uses and a vast catalog of plants they understand. My foraging and wildcrafting abilities are narrow, yet regularly grow as I find myself living in new places, exposed to new flora. In short, I don’t want somebody to read something I write and then go and poison themselves with a poisonous fennel look-a-like.

One interesting piece of wildcrafted lore is that whenever one finds a poison in the wilds, you will find it’s antidote within fifty paces. So when I read that Yerba Santo, combined with a weedy yellow flower called San Francisco Gum Weed, is an excellent southing agent for the rashes of poison oak, I banged my head against the table. Of course! I have thousands of poison oak plants and thousands of Yerba Santo plants.

Yerba Santo, the ubiquitous weed up here is actually quite useful and grows out of control. The weed is sold, dried and powdered, online for $40 a pound, and 365 capsules (presumably a year’s supply) sell for slightly less. Yet my interest is in preparing a poison oak salve for the use of my WWOOFers, my guests and myself. Should it prove effective, I might try to prepare it for sale at the farmer’s market, combining it with Aloe and other soothing agents.

The lesson is this: before you go ripping plants out of the ground in hopes of growing something profitable, find out what earth has given you first. It will be easier (or unnecessary) to cultivate, will grow within the confines of your available water and soil condition and hopefully someday, when somebody asks what I do, I’ll be able to blow their minds by saying, “I grow the holy weed”. . .

June 11, 2007

Deepwoods salvage. The tank on my tank.

To hear my neighbor tell the story, fifteen years ago, the sheriff, the army and the DEA came rolling up the narrow dirt road to our side of the mountain and raided the entire community. Helicopters floating in the air, HMMWV’s in the road, machine guns and loud speakers. Often, Ryan and I will be walking around our parcel and wonder at what kind of chaos must have occurred to leave the place in such desolate shape. Off the side of one hill lies a stack of half a dozen aluminum framed windows, the animal pens are littered with old tin cans and random trash, ranging from the skeletal remains of a baby stroller to some very impressive aluminum machine parts. When possible, I salvage what I can, and thanks to some dedicated British WWOOFers, the animal pen area has been cleared of junk and rotting wood, leaving only the old coop and a grove of ancient Yerba Santo.

On their last day there, I promised something different than the incessant clearing and foundation work we had been doing. With three able bodied young men to assist me, I knew the time was ripe for some serious salvage.

Looking down off the side of the hill approaching the cabin, you can see an impressive length of ¾ inch PVC running from a culvert to a deeply wooded spot nearly half a mile away. There, overgrown by poison oak, surrounded by decade old trees was a thousand gallon water tank, doubtlessly used by the previous tenant’s marijuana cultivation system. Shaded by a grove of madrone, the tank was in remarkable condition and I had been figuring out how to get it out of the woods and next to the cabin where it would be the main storage for my rain catchment and fog harvesting systems.

We began the morning by walking tooless up to the tank, amazed at how invisible the road had become. The poison oak was everywhere, ranging from little spouts springing up from the duff to enormous vines, brushing dangerously close to our faces. After a winding trip up the hill, we found the tank and proceeded to scout out the path of least resistance.

The easiest way to get it out involved clearing a six foot wide swath through the woods, then abruptly turning west towards the drive way. Of course, once we got set to clear, the chain saw wouldn’t work, so I grabbed my cordless reciprocating saw, a brush cutter, a set of loppers and strapped my hatchet to my belt. An hour later, we had a passable road to the tank, which led to a six foot drop off beside the drive way. All that was left was to free the tank from the poison oak, and the thirty five foot madrone that had sprung up between the tank and the clearing.

The chainsaw would have made the task simple, but since we didn’t have it, I told the boys to go relax a hundred feet down hill and proceeded to get down to work with the hatchet. Now, this is not your standard deep woods hatchet, it’s an ultra light gerber camping hatchet. Fortunately, it’s light weight and short handle is offset by the fact that I keep it razor sharp, so wedging the tree and girdling down to the heartwood was easy. However, upon reaching the hardwood, the work slowed. Hearing my pauses become more and more frequent as my shoulder began to ache and a blister formed on my hand, the boys shouted up, “need some help?” I told them to send up one person, and a few seconds later, Tim arrived with his wry smile.

I showed him what we were doing and explained how the tree would fall. I pointed to a large tree to the left of the path of the fall to run to when he heard the crack. And we started at it again. Five minutes later, we shoved on the tree and Tom let out a bellowing “TIMBER” that echoed through the valley below as the tree fell neatly across a strand of brush I had decided not the clear for just that reason.

I limbed the tree and tied some of my climbing rope into a harness around the tank. Pulling it free from it’s foundation, we set it on end and used the downed tree to get the tank up and onto the trail we had cleared. It wasn’t easy work, but compared to clearing the trail, it was simple and not as exhausting. Once we reached the main trail, it became a downhill battle, and we split up, two men to push it down hill, two to make sure it didn’t go careening into a stump or branch and puncture.

Our goal had been to get it right to the edge of the roadside, and leave it there until Creek returned with the big brown truck. Looking down at my truck and back at the trail we created, I asked the guys if they wanted to give it a go and take it all the way. Their response was an immediate and resounding “YES!”

To get the tank onto the truck, we had to stop rolling it, and instead begin to tumble it, end over end until we could slide it onto the roof of my SUV, a 94 chevy blazer, which could have easily parked inside the tank. As we worked, we joked how the story would improve with age, about how the mountain lion that moved into the tank had chased us, how the tank and started to roll down the hill prompting a Raiders of the Lost Ark Moment and how the tank would get larger and the car smaller until we were pulling down a 20,000 gallon tank and slapping it on the roof of a Mini.

It took four 25 foot tie downs to get the beast strapped on properly and then the cameras came out. The appearance is farcical. My truck, which I once considered large was dwarfed by the immense tank and the only thing that let us know it was safe was knowing that the tank probably only weighed 100 lbs. I had used low four wheel drive to back my truck up the side of the driveway, and had only two feet of road between us and the hillside below. I carefully maneuvered the truck back onto the driveway, and Tom hopped in.


A few minutes later, we were parked in front of the cabin, still laughing at the absurdity of the incredibly large tank on my now dwarf sized truck. We maneuvered the truck around for a few pictures of the group before unstrapping it and rolling it off the side.

In place, we clapped and patted each other on the back. It was the Brits’ last day at work with me, and we had accomplished a lot, though this was the crowning grace, as we had started the project together, worked past various obstacles and completed it. Our spirits were high, through we were quite tired, and I drove everyone up the hill for a much needed Tecnu shower to rinse off the poison oak that covered us from head to toe.

Huge thanks to Dave, Tom and Stu who spent way more hours than they needed to, working way harder than they needed to to help make my dream of living in the cabin in the woods a reality. I’ll miss you guys and look forward to the kind of trouble we can get into when I get out to the other side of the pond for a visit. Another game of Kings Cup is definitely in order.

June 9, 2007

I inspired a comic…

When I wrote “Guerrilla Camping 101.5 Burn Baby Burn”, I mentioned a fast way to get a fire started in the woods. The method was taught to me by an ex-con who said they would use these devices, known as baby bunsons to heat up food in their cells. All you need is a few few of toilet paper, which you wrap tightly around your hand, then fold the edges in. Put it in place of the tinder beneath your kindling and light. Voila, instant campfire.

Alex over at GNN liked the notion, especially when I said, “If you don;t carry toilet paper, you are a savage and can probably light fires with a hard gaze…” and produced a funny, if highly bizarre comic called Toilet Paper Donut.

Thanks Alex!

June 9, 2007

On this rock I build my house

Sorry everybody for the delay in this post. I promised myself that I wouldn’t blog until I finished the last project; shoring up the foundation of the cabin so we could move on to building up. Little did I know that the flurry of activity would make it impossible to blog until I had more than one blog to post, fortunately, I have a few days off, So I will be able to post BOTH blogs in short order.

With a morbid creak, the cabin started to move. Slowly, I pumped the handle to the 30 ton bottle jack I had propped between redwood slabs, cautiously peering between the concrete and the wood of our foundation. With each pump of the handle, the cabin raised a few more millimeters, the wooden supports groaning precariously, until I saw a fingernail of sunlight through the opposite side. Working quickly, I took a maul and knocked out the old wooden shim, and banged in an identically cut block into its place. Checking to make sure the alignment was perfect, I pulled the handle from the jack and using it to release the pressure, I slowly lowered the cabin back onto its concrete piling as the wood gave a sickening, stressful moan.

I was sitting under the cabin with Gabe, a WWOOFer from Washington who was on the first leg of a motorcycle trip around the continental United States. He had just come from working at an oil refinery, and I was grateful to have somebody with me who knew tools, and understood how they worked. As we worked we told stories and got to know one another. He liked metal, had remarkably similar political and apocalyptical views as myself and was out to learn everything he can about everything there is. Needless to say, we got along great. Meanwhile, Tom Stu and Dave, three British wwoofers were demolishing the old animal pens and loading the truck up with rotted wood.

The cabin now supported by a piece of wood that did not look like swiss cheese, we hollered off the measurements for the side blocks as Creek worked rapidly to cut the blocks on the chop saw in the shop. The difficulty of cutting 16×9 inch blocks of wood with a chop saw should be obvious, but the table saw killed the generator, so it was our only choice. We marked the eighth of an inch metal straps that would secure the cabin on the foundation, and sent them up to the shop to get drilled by Creek. We hammer drilled through the pilings, fit the blocks and straps together, drilled through them, using a 50 year old auger bit that belonged to my father, and slipped ¼ inch bolts through the whole shebang, binding them together with an impact driver.

Working there, securing the foundation of our cabin, I was forced to think alot about tools and collaboration. The drill bits and 6 foot pry bar were my fathers, the drill press was an early Shop Smith, which my friend Matt had sold to my friend Zack when he followed my lead; selling everything he owned to go wander Asia for a few years. The tape measure was a janky broken-locked 12 footer from Tap Plastics, which had somehow moved up here when we vacated the SF warehouse and which belongs to my old roommate Ed, the mad scientist. And, all the while, I was surrounded by men from around the world, who I had known for only a few days yet who were here helping me build my home for free. I knew that in addition to building memories for all of us, I was building upon memories: With each strap, I thanked Matt, with each hole through the foundation beams I thanked my Father, and wondered what he had done with these bits so long ago. And at the end of each day, I thanked the young men around me profusely, knowing that someday, soon, I would live in this house they were helping me build.

There were 12 foundation pilings to support and by the last one, I was lying prone next to a small patch of poison oak, with barely a foot of clearance as Dave handed me tools, and worked from the outside to get it all together. But now, the foundation is secure, the rebuilding can begin in earnest, and I will hopefully never have to pick up another house again. Whew!