Traveling the Coast One Step at a Time
You are from Santa Cruz if you know that summer starts at noon. So, we know the overcast morning will lead to a golden afternoon when we hike up from Gazos Creek to check in on the iconic redwood, the scorched but thriving Candelabra Tree. For the past fifteen years, every three or four weeks I’ve hiked with three guys. In five mile increments, we have walked the beaches and cliffs from Santa Cruz to the Golden Gate Bridge and back, three times. The game is to walk as close to the ocean as possible, in it if necessary, but today we climb the mountain of the Candelabra Tree.
Meet The Pillars
With deep sarcasm we call ourselves The Pillars, the joke is we see ourselves as rebels without a compass. Sleepy John came up with the name while on a beach south of San Francisco, when we came upon four massive cement columns, one hundred feet tall that were attached to a cement wall high up on a cliff. Ocean wave erosion had removed the base below the columns and these giant pillars hung in mid-air. We stood beneath the pillars and took photos pretending we were holding them up. Pillars not touching the earth reminded us of our unmoored ways and with the psychotropic help of medical knee-medicine, we decided that we were pillars, floating in mid-air.
Our leader, radio legend Sleepy John Sandidge, recently retired from his iconic show Please Stand By on KPIG radio, is tasked with being El Jefe. He must make the final decisions. Sleepy John is where the “what-the-fuck-were-we-thinking?” stops. The founder and initiating spark of the group, he always seems to get it more or less right. Everyone who knows Sleepy John agrees, he is good at telling people where to go.
As the owner, operator and impresario of the Rio Theatre, and a leader in the Midtown resurgence, Laurence Bedford is our point man and link to all things French. Laurence is our pathfinder. His fearlessness terrifies me, but I follow him anyway. One day he got so far ahead we’d thought we lost him. One lost pathfinder… last seen on his way to work.
While Netflix has The Lincoln Lawyer, we have The Tesla Attorney, the famed defender of liberty, the group’s consigliere, Ben Rice, tasked with keeping us out of jail. And that is the point, for us to transcend structure, be it laws or time. “Pillars” is a laugh on us, but I think for the alternative Santa Cruz, Sleepy John, Laurence and Ben really are pillars of the community. I think of myself as a stump.
Why do we hike? Of course, hiking does have that financial benefit, free travel. Why do we do this? This is not “recapturing our youth,” we are well aware of our physical decline. The other night Julie says, “Richard, let’s run upstairs as fast as we can, and then make violent love.” I go, “Whoa baby, one or the other.”
I ask the guys, “Why do we do this? Why do the four of us meet every three weeks or so, and schedule an entire day, or more accurately unschedule an entire day, to walk and talk together until we are exhausted?” This is not the movie Stand By Me where four coming-of-age boys take off together on a lark, these are four mature men (mature at least in terms of age) who never stop working on their careers. Why do these workaholics do this?
Sleepy John says, “To me it’s the bonding. These hikes are number one on my list of things to do and I think they deepen the bond with you guys.” Ben Rice laughs and cuts in, “Bullshit! I come on these hikes because I need to keep you hoodlums out of the slammer.” As we all laugh I’m thinking that John and Ben are both right. What is up with bonding?
The Consigliere To The Rescue
Today we rendezvous at 9:00 am on Western Drive at Highway 1 and choose to walk into the mountains seeking forest majesty. The Candelabra Tree up Gazos Creek captures our imagination. The massive 200 year old redwood, with five limbs coming out of the twenty foot base in the shape of a candelabra, survived last summer’s wildfires and today we hike to check in on the burnt but alive tree. “Burnt but alive” reminds us of ourselves.
I hop in Ben’s blue Tesla, Laurence and Sleepy John join our buddy John Leopold in the second car. Our consigliere is taking it easy in his Tesla, trying not to get too far out in front of the second car and this is a great thing because about ten miles north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1, there are six CHP cars hiding behind every curve, and they are pulling people over.
Oh shit! Our boys back in the rear car are probably speeding to catch up to us, they could be smoking weed (sometimes they can display a frightening proclivity to indulge) and if they get pulled over this hike could take a turn towards jail. We try calling them, but our phones have no signal. Fuck! Ben turns his Tesla around and heads south to warn them about the CHP speed traps ahead. G forces from the Tesla acceleration give me a facelift and an instant cardio workout, and we spot them coming on a long straightaway. Ben flashes his headlights again and again, the universal signal for “cops ahead.” As we pass them, they are hardly speeding but we can see their big, shit-eating-grins pressed against the windows. We meet up at the trailhead and I ask them if they got our signal to slow down.
“We couldn’t figure out why you were flashing your lights. We were driving slow anyway; we were pretty stoned.” Yet another close call averted by complete incompetence.
One for All and All for One
This anecdote is a not only a testament to Ben Rice’s character, but it really is One for All and All for One. We are the Four Muscatels, albeit a cheap wine needing fortification, but we do have spirit. When I was stumbling-stoned, lurching sideways, Laurence got between me and the edge of the cliff to protect me from going over. We’ve crossed cliff trails where a section of the trail had fallen away, and we pulled each other across the abyss.
Put your life in the hands of your buddies, it gets pretty easy to open up about personal problems and revelations. I’m sure our wives and girlfriends shake their heads at our hikes, but sometimes you can get your head together on the trail with your comrades. I can bullshit myself, but I can’t bullshit them. What we’ve found over time is, when one of us is having tough times with his lady or his children, there’s nothing you can do but listen. You let him talk about how it feels to bleed and let that clean the wound. With time, it always does.
Endorphins – give me more!
We get to the Candelabra Tree trailhead. Maps are flat, and they make the trail look flat, but I’m huffing and puffing within a minute. Taking care of business on the trail has two goals. In: oxygen. Out: carbon dioxide. After a spring and summer of leg injuries, this is the first hike I’ve felt leg power since I took up running. People tell me that running can damage my joints, that’s why I smoke them before I run. After four months, I got too high and pushed too hard, my knees went sideways, and it’s taken me until now to stay up with the boys on the trail. It’s worth hiking with these guys just for the serotonin and endorphins. Does cannabis increase dopamine levels? Well, they do call it dope.
Sleepy John hands me a joint and I hit it so hard, the power of speech leaves me. Too high to talk, I take the lead and start pumping, feeling my recovered legs powering ahead, climbing with rhythm up this mountain. The sweat pours off me, my heart pounds and endorphins light up my brain. I feel natural ecstasy. After a few minutes I turn around to see how far back the boys are and Sleepy John is ten steps behind me, 83 and climbing.
We walk to the Candelabra Tree, it is blackened but still strong. We sit at the base of the tree, sharing food and knee medicine. It’s remarkable how much the old tree looks like us; weathered, burnt, with a a wary eye out for what might come. The unique shape of its trunks have been formed by living through past trauma, just like us. The trunks of the tree could be a symbol of our hiking group. The Candelabra Tree is doing fine, and just like us, it may be scorched from living through fires, but for now, it stands tall and stretches to the sky.
Richard Stockton’s latest book of personal short stories, Love at the In-N-Out Burger, is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz and at Amazon.com.
The Horse Therapy Tales
For humans, a horse may be the greatest bio-feedback tool on earth.
In Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, a therapist uses a horse as the emotional barometer to get you to a moment when what you feel on the inside is what you project. You may be able to bullshit your therapist, you can certainly bullshit yourself, but you cannot bullshit a horse. Horses have many times the number of mirror neurons as humans, and they fire when it acts, and when it observes the same action in you. Call it empathy.
Here are five tales of equine assisted psychotherapy.
The Comedian’s Tale – my story
It’s day one of lockdown, March 15, 2020, my comedy performance career just shut down, and I am unemployed for the first time in thirty years. Cat Glass gives me a job taking care of nine Arabian horses on the Corralitos farm where I live in my Airstream trailer. I know nothing about horses, but it is a good job, a stable job. I’ve had the job for three days and tonight I’ve finally gotten most of the horse manure out from under my toenails. I’d prefer to clean the stalls with shoes that didn’t have holes in the toes, but the stores are closed and to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, “You shovel shit with the sneakers you have.”
I was afraid of Moose the moment I met him. He took one look at me and turned away. Cat says that he indeed can be a shit, looking down on everyone. In fact, Moose does look down on everyone, he is a 1,200 pound Arabian, with chiseled muscles that flex and roll with every step. He rules the herd of 9 Arabians on the farm and suffers most humans, like me, with skepticism.
I meet Moose with fragmented energy, it is a fearful time. I wonder if the end of my species floats through the air. I’m terrified of not being able to work. I focus on the idea that we are spirits having a human experience, and I pace the floor, repeating, “I’m not broke, I’m having an out-of-money experience.” Nowhere is safe, there is evil in the air, we are afraid of breathing. I floss every time I eat. I think I see Trump rising out of the sidewalk but when I get closer I see it’s a safety cone buried in gravel. I’m fragmented. To pay my rent I shovel shit.
There is no time clock, my day starts at dawn. I push my cart piled high with hay and grain to Moose’s pen. Moose does not like to wait and as he paws the ground, I feel the earth shake. While the outside human world descends into madness to fight over masks on their faces to prevent infection of their lungs, it’s my job to put fly masks on the horses’ faces to prevent infection of their eyes. The horses can see through their eye masks, but it is still an intimate maneuver for me to reach under their necks and lift the masks over their faces, adjust it over their eyes and fasten it with Velcro. I am terrified of Moose. You could put a half dollar in his nostril. A few years ago, Moose was abused by a man and injured. Moose is not mean, but when I come through the gate his eyes go wild, ears go back and he runs in circles, kicking and snorting. He is as freaked out by our encounter as I am.
Cat says, “Moose is mirroring your fear. He can’t understand why you are afraid of him and it’s making him afraid. Lean into him, closer is better, he will trust you. He wants to make you a member of his herd.” Wow, 50 Shades of Hay.
“He is non-judgmental, he senses how you feel and responds with empathy.”
“What do I do?”
“Tell him what you want.”
Sure. My breath shakes.
“Moose. I’m putting this mask on your face to keep flies off your eyes.”
He looks at me with one eye and turns his head to look at me with the other. I deflate, my shoulders slump.
“Moose. We are putting this mask on to protect you.”
He sniffs the air around my head. All I have left is to level with him.
“Moose. Man, I just want to protect your eyes from these goddamn flies.”
He lowers his nose to mine; I feel the powerful suction as he inhales me. He puts a nostril over my nose and blows air into my lungs. He lets me scratch his neck and lifts his head with pleasure. He leans into my hands so I will scratch him harder, and it nearly knocks me down. Then he lowers his head to receive the mask.
At a time when I worry my breath will kill someone, Moose teaches me how to breathe again. At first I think this magic must be unique to Moose and me, but I learn that horses have been healing humans for five thousand years.
The Warrior’s Tale
Joe Rodriguez served in the Marine Corp for eight years and did two tours in Iraq. He was in the 4th Armored Light Reconnaissance Battalion in tactical combat – nuclear, biological, chemical defense. Joe is certifiably bad ass. Joe tells his story…
I checked myself into rehab last February. After thirteen years of drinking, doing drugs, I had a really bad night, firearms were involved. With Cat’s help, I checked into the VA psych ward in Palo Alto. I was so glad to be there, on the ride there I was really drunk. You should never go to rehab sober. My buddy and I were lit. I got busted trying to smuggle in my vape pen. Nope, strip search. That place is no fun at all. I call it Prisoneyland. There are no ledges, no place you can hang yourself on. The desks are heavy, you can’t pick them up and throw them. But then I got lucky, a doctor told us about a program called FOR, Foundations of Recovery. Me and my buddy made it in. I knew that if I went back to drinking I would kill myself or somebody else.
We got to go to one called Equine Therapy. Really what it is, horses aren’t full of shit (apparently Joe has never been a stall cleaner, but I get his point.) They don’t want you to be freaky and weird around them; you gotta be cool, then they’ll be cool. It’s a horse, so I can let my guard down. When I walk up to a horse, it is inspecting me, and if my energy is off, the horse will not get near me, it’s not going to trust me. As addicts, we all have our little twitches, and I have to let that go. Horses are a gateway to getting in the moment. I saw my buddy hang on one horse for forty minutes. You could see them breathe together. And that’s it, you learn how to breathe through the hectic moment, like when things get hectic in my classes at Cabrillo or even talking to you right now. I know what it is to get in the moment, cause with a horse, you can feel it. Everything gets calm. I used to be nervous, I’d hear voices and see people on roof tops all day long. I wanted to be concealed, have cover and evade. Drinking gave me the courage to fight those feelings. Now I trust Cat’s horse Faith, and I don’t want to drink.
The Artist’s Tale
Julianna Zito is an artist who paints how she feels. Her paintings are complex and represent how she sees what is going on in her brain at a given moment. In her early 30s she had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and got on a heavy cocktail of psych meds. Julianna tells her story…
I was trying to analyze my way to peace and going over and over things in the past. The schism puts me at war with myself and I make bad decisions. At 40, I started working with Sandy, a psychotherapist, and her horse Toby. A live bio feedback machine is what Toby is for me, he takes a reading on whether my inner and outer self are aligned. If I am congruent, truly calm and peaceful, Toby will turn an ear toward me. Maybe he’ll turn his body toward me. Rejection is my most vulnerable place; if I feel rejected it triggers panic. I was terrified of being rejected by the horse, and after six months of looking for Toby’s acceptance, I came in crying. I was a ragged, jagged mess and I knew that Toby was not going to have anything to do with me. And he didn’t, Toby moved to the other side of the stall. I said, “Oh Sandy, Toby’s not going to want to have anything to do with me today. What a waste, I feel so dark and angry and sad.”
I had my sketch book with me and one thing I can do is draw how I feel. Sandy said, “Share with me what you drew.” Still crying, I sat down and started talking about the artwork that represented how messed up I am and that’s when Toby came over to me and laid his head on my shoulder. That’s when I discovered what it felt like to be seen, heard and felt when my inside self and outside self were the same. Toby was telling me, “You are real now, we are both safe now.”
I was blown away that this beautiful creature wanted to be close to me, even when was I was my imperfect, ragged self. I’ve tried a lot of different therapies, and it took six months with Sandy and Toby to get here, but I can’t imagine anything else getting me to this place of awareness like I have with Toby. I go to Sandy and Toby one hour a week, I know I’m not bi-polar and don’t take psych meds.
The Healer’s Tale
Charlie Jenks did two combat tours in Afghanistan. In 2006 he moved his family to Hawaii and started having panic attacks when public speaking. It got worse and he searched far and wide for effective treatment. He retired from the military in 2016 and his attacks became debilitating. Charlie tells his story…
I masked it all. I didn’t look for mental health help, that was for other people. My symptoms were that my lower back would sweat, profusely. Doctors would prescribe pills for my panic, but I’m not about that. It snowballed. It got to the point, people could ask me questions, I felt cornered, and it triggered the panic. I was good at masking it, but when I retired from the army I started interviewing at companies with HR people and they’d say, “So, tell me about yourself.” It was like a big spotlight came on me and I felt like I was back in my vehicle in Afghanistan, when the vehicle in front of us blew up. The panic comes from holding the fear of this happening again, and I stayed in a state of readiness. I’d wear multiple shirts to absorb the sweat, and I discovered that drinking alcohol helped. With my PTSD buddies, I kept drinking more and more. I knew I had to do something, and I knew that I’ve always felt good around horses. I found The Horse Whisperer, Monty Roberts, whose class Horse Sense and Healing establishes a trusting relationship with the horse without the use of dominance or force. The idea was to get the horse to come to me untethered, just because it wanted to be with me. I didn’t get it until the third class and then the horse woke me up, the horse is just a mirror of me! Monty teaches diaphragmatic breathing to calm down, and the horse calmed down. I was blaming everybody else for my problems, and the horse showed me that it was me. It changed my life. Then I incorporated my own Qigong practice and started my own healing horse meditation class.
Now my symptoms are gone, no sweat. My dream is to show this to others, my combination of breath work and horses. That’s why we do the Friday morning horse meditations, where the horses end up leading us. And this is not just for Vets, we offer this to everyone.
You can learn more about Charlie Jenk’s healing work at https://connectingveterenswithhorses.com.
The Horsewoman’s Tale
Cat Glass is the owner of the nine Arabians on the farm where my Airstream trailer sits. Her horses are family. Cat tells her story…
When my cancer had me doing chemo, I was losing hope and just wanted it all to end. Moose would walk up to me, sniff me all over and nuzzle me until I would burst out crying and throw my arms around his neck and hang onto him and we would cry together. Moose saved my life. I was ready to give up, but Moose gave me hope; faith that someday I will be back out in the corrals, taking care of my horses.
Moose has to be in tune with his herd, we have mountain lions. He includes me in his herd. If I’m scared, he feels scared too. Moose has moments where he can be really tough, he’s dealing with PTSD of his own. He came so far to wrap his long neck around me, support me, to hold me. He knew I hurt, and from his towering intensity, he took it all the way down to the gentlest, kindest Moose there is, and it healed both of us. He met me where I was.
In these five tales of horse therapy, they all found a horse-human bio-feedback loop. A horse can hear your heartbeat from four feet away. A horse can smell when you’re afraid, sad, or mad. If your inside feeling is a different story from what you are projecting on the outside, a horse will have nothing to do with you. More people every day are discovering that this interspecies feedback loop can be a way to self-discovery. A horse will synchronize their heartbeat to the other horses in their herd. A horse will synchronize their heartbeat to yours.
When Santa Cruz songwriter Keith Greeninger sings in Glorious Peasant:
Don’t matter where you been
I love you for the shape you’re in
Poems draped across your skin
The gift you bring to me…
I hear that all I need is to have the poems on my skin match the story I’m running through my head. I remember just how easy it is to bring those two stories together when I’m out breathing with Moose, when I feel safe to be in his herd.
Richard Stockton’s latest book of personal short stories, Love at the In-N-Out Burger, is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz and at Amazon.com.
How I Got Busted Trying To Smuggle Cash Out of the USSR
…I was a Cold War American teenage oligarch.
by Richard Stockton
(Note: the following account is from the writing a of young man, the 17-year-old Dick Stockton who did these things. At 73, I add my thoughts about that kid parenthetically.)
In 1966 I was one of sixteen kids chosen to represent The United States on a YMCA Goodwill Friendship Tour of the Soviet Union. In conjunction with the US State Department and the Soviet public relations office called Sputnik, the YMCA took us to Leningrad, Moscow and Minsk to meet with Russian kids to improve Cold War relations. It’s bizarre that I was chosen to go to The Soviet Union with the YMCA – my main interest in Christianity was to determine whether I was agnostic or an atheist.
I was the first kid at Rio Americano High School to smoke weed (still proud of that.) I was the quintessential privileged American boy and my cynicism to work the system knew no bounds. Even my mother grilled me, “Dick, some parents say that you do the same things as the bad boys, but you know how not to get caught.”
(Really Mom, they get to be the bad boys because they want to get caught. Not my brand. I’m one of the “good” kids.)
I became friends with a kid on the tour named Bill. Together we would climb out of our hotel window late at night to meet with pro-rock & roll Russian kids. In Moscow, a teenage Russian named Alex latched on to me when he heard I played in a high school rock band in California. Alex had a reel-to-reel, battery operated tape recorder and he played the Beatles and Beach Boys at every opportunity.
Alex said, “Rock and roll is my life.”
I said, “Mine too.”
One night Alex and I were riding a subway through Moscow. The Stones blared out of the tape recorder on his lap. A shadow fell over us. A huge figure wearing a military uniform, grey with red trim, glared down at us with a clenched jaw. With his black leather glove, he pointed at the tape recorder. Alex’s face turned white. He turned the recorder off. We shrunk in size and both stared silently at the floor. We did not look up until the shadow was gone.
I said, “So Alex, where did you get these recordings?”
“I made them from broadcasts of The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.” I did not have to ask if his recordings were legal.
It didn’t take Bill and I long to find Russia’s financial underbelly. When you entered the Soviet Union, you had to declare exactly how much money you had and then declare your money total once again when you left. No one was allowed to make money that the state did not control. The U.S.S.R. controlled every ruble in the country and officially valued their ruble as equal to one dollar US. On the free market one dollar equaled four rubles. Upon arrival we were ushered to a bank where all of us cashed traveler’s checks, getting one ruble per dollar. Bill told me about a Russian he met on a park bench in the city square who was willing to give us four rubles per dollar. We went into business. Bill would meet the guy on the bench and buy his rubles at four to the dollar. Since I would never be suspected of doing anything “bad” by the YMCA counselors, I saved the tour kids a trip to the bank and exchanged their dollars for our rubles, one to one, right in their rooms. Then Bill would go back to his free-market buddy on the bench. We quadrupled our money every day. In a week we had a lot of money.
(OK, OK… capitalism rocks.)
The second week of the tour I announced, “Ladies, it’s time to go shopping.” We bought fur hats and fur coats for all of them. I took them to lunch at a restaurant in downtown Moscow. Then our YMCA counselors began asking where all the money was coming from and we closed down our operation.
After three weeks, our YMCA Goodwill Tour was over and it was time to leave the Soviet Union. I was filled with such good will, “I love these Russians!” Even after buying dinners and furs for the girls, bottles of wine for the guys and literally raining money on a panhandler out of a bus window, I still had hundreds of dollars more than I had entered the country with. I could have given the money away. But no. I carefully filled out the custom forms so it looked like I had spent a modest amount in the U.S.S.R. and put the appropriate amount of cash in my wallet. The extra hundreds went into my suitcase.
(Oh, young Dick Stockton, you naïve child.)
The extra care I took with my currency declaration made me last in line at customs. I smiled when I saw all our kids get waved smoothly through customs, the big military uniforms parting for each kid to walk through the glass and stainless-steel doors, across the tarmac and onto our chartered plane. I handed my papers to the stocky woman in the thick grey uniform trimmed with red. She was bored. She started to wave me through. A man at another desk casually said something over his shoulder. My customs officer sighed, nodded and motioned for me to open my suitcase. I acted like I didn’t understand and tried to walk through. Her hand clamped onto my arm. Now she was not bored. It may have been a formality she’d rather not go through but in the Soviet Union nobody ignored formalities. She looked through my clothes, lifted the envelop and withdrew five one hundred dollar bills US. She counted them. She squinted at my currency declaration. She counted the money again. She stared at my currency declaration. She made a fist and pounded a wide, red button that set off a low-pitched siren and the room filled with big uniforms. Their coats were grey with red trim. The glass doors slammed shut. I could see police push our counselors onto the plane. The plane door shut. A squat, middle-aged woman appeared before me and looked at my currency declaration and the money.
“Where did this money come from?”
“I won it in a poker game.”
“Why didn’t you declare this money?”
“I won it from other kids on the tour. Was I supposed to declare that?”
(I was an ignorant American for sure, but I did show an early talent for improv.)
She talked to the men in the thick grey uniforms. They kept looking at our plane out on the tarmac. The whole room started arguing, voices got louder. There were men in suits arguing with men in military uniforms. My story, “Was I supposed to…” did not seem to work for the guys in the military uniforms. The only word in Russian I could understand was “nyet” and they shouted “nyet” a lot. It was clear that my fate was being decided. The word “Siberia” floated through my mind. Then my mother’s face. I tried to still my panic with my belief that by being American I was universally privileged, and everything would work out OK. This audacious belief in my own immunity turned out to be true. I had done what would have landed a Russian citizen in jail, maybe even a one-way trip to Siberia, but my captors decided that I was not worth an international incident. Being a privileged American kid was my ace in the hole. So cool to be American.
Just as suddenly as I had been surrounded and taken into custody, my money was returned to my suitcase, it was closed, and two huge men in military uniforms led me to the glass doors. The doors parted, they walked me across the pavement to the stairs and the plane door swung open.
(That smug kid who strutted across the tarmac had bet on the invincibility of his American Privilege Teflon suit, and he won. I forgive that kid. He was seventeen years old. He was a virgin. He thought about sex every three seconds. And seventeen-year-old boys dream about what happened next.)
I climbed the steps, and I could hear the kids in the plane cheering. As our YMCA counselor gritted his teeth, I walked up the aisle with eight American girls in fur hats reaching out to touch me.
In the ‘70s, seeds from Santa Cruz County became the basis for a worldwide weed movement. Here’s what happened when I found some of them.
By Richard Stockton
A woman walks towards me on Seabright Avenue in Santa Cruz. She is fastidiously buttoned up and well heeled, she carries a tiny dog, clearly from out of town. She stops me and asks, “Do you live here?”
I say, “Yes I do ma’am, how may I help you?”
“Well, I love Santa Cruz. But I do not understand why everywhere I go in this town I smell skunks. I do not see them, but I smell skunks everywhere here.”
I nod, “They’re shy. They like to stay in the backyard.”
The pungent Skunk strain of cannabis is the legendary genetic building block of thousands of strains produced today. What most folks – even locals – don’t know is that Skunk cannabis was first developed and grown in Santa Cruz County 50 years ago.
I tend to miss the most obvious connections. In the late 70s, long before I heard of Santa Cruz being epicenter of the Skunk cannabis growing world, I briefly served as a singer and guitar player for a country rock band called the Skunk Band. We opened for Larry Hosford.
When I asked the Skunk Band’s leader where they got the band name he handed me a joint. I still didn’t get it. I was all in on being a hippie but was stupidly naïve. While I was too innocent and dense to appreciate the band’s name, I did appreciate how I played my guitar on their pungent weed – it gave me an uncanny ability to focus on detail. I could look at the fret board of my guitar and see all the notes like they were laid out on the keyboard of a piano. Transposing a complex guitar part to a different key was effortless. Man, did their weed smell. My stint with the Skunk Band faded from memory and I forgot about them and their weed for forty years. Then I met Wayne.
The Man with the Seeds
In 2018, I moved to the south Santa Cruz county town of Watsonville when I found a farm out in the vineyards that let me set my Airstream trailer up as a Santa Cruz county crash pad. I became friends with Wayne, who would not stop rattling on about his frozen weed seeds. At first it all sounded like stoner-babble but little by little his ramblings about his seeds and some character he called “Sam The Skunkman” began to form a larger tale. I started researching the story of the legendary Sam The Skunkman. Wayne’s story turned out to be true.
It went like this: In 1978 Wayne bought 100 seeds of Flying Skunk from Sacred Seeds. He paid $1 a seed from a guy named David Watson who developed the cannabis seed strain in Watsonville and later became known as Sam The Skunkman. But life happened and Wayne could not grow out the seeds. He read on the back of the seed package that they would keep much longer if they were frozen and that’s what Wayne did, he froze all one hundred seeds. Like Bilbo Baggins’ obsession with The Ring, Wayne never could stop talking about his frozen seeds.
My All-Encompassing Disclaimer
In researching this story of the first Skunk strain and Sacred Seeds, I spoke with three Santa Cruz seed producers from the seventies about Skunk – and I got three different stories. All I know for certain is that these guys can smoke me under the table.
I have no idea if the controversial Sam The Skunkman is a genetics genius, a marketing genius, a benevolent scientist or a fast talking opportunist. Maybe he is all of those. His story has become legend and while we may each believe different portions of it, I take the legend itself as a tale of folklore for our times. Whether you accept Sam The Skunkman’s story as Johnny Appleweed or not, he did create the first cannabis seed company in the country, called Sacred Seeds. The seeds he sold in 1978 were called Flying Skunk, a strain that became the building block for thousands of strains we grow today. He did escape the clutches of the law and steal back his seeds. And we know that the first strain of Skunk was lost.
Roots of Skunk
The legend goes that before he took his seeds to Amsterdam in 1982 and became Sam the Skunkman, our hero called himself David Watson. (Hmm… a pot head dodging the law to grow a plant that is a felony moves to Watsonville and calls himself Watson. Sure, why not?) His former associate Phil Noland tells me in the mid-seventies, David Watson developed these seeds from Columbian seed mixes, these preceding his Skunk#1 by several years. He developed seeds to bring down the enormous height of his pure sativa plant and mitigate the odor to make it more grower friendly. He also wanted to reduce the long maturation period of the pure Colombian strain. Look at the front of the Flying Skunk seed package from 1978 and notice the thin blue font that says, “Extra Early.”
After a police stakeout and bust of his Watsonville seed operation in 1982 Watson sneaked back onto the crime scene and stole back his seeds from the cops, making off with 250,000 seeds that ultimately changed cannabis history. He took his seeds to Amsterdam to share with Nevil Schoenmakers of The Seed Bank of Holland, which started the development of Skunk based sativa brands that proliferate worldwide today. At that point David Watson became known as Sam The Skunkman.
The Lost Strain
Wayne knows a lot about his seeds, “The intense odor of this first strain led many to call it Roadkill Skunk. During his breeding program at The Amsterdam Seed Bank, Nevil lost the Skunk male. They had to replace that male with a male from another strain. That is one part of the story that is universally agreed upon – while developing and crossbreeding many different strains, Nevil Schoenmakers somehow lost the original Skunk male flower. He had to replace that male with male flowers from a different strain. The first pure Skunk is lost. Gone. Extinct. Unless some crazy hippie had a stroke of cryogenic genius, the first Skunk is no more. That amazing weed I smoked with The Skunk Band forty-three years ago is gone like smoke in the wind, and it would be preposterous to think that some nutso stoner froze the original Skunk seeds. But Santa Cruz is where preposterous happens. Wayne is our nutso.
Why Skunk Matters
What is this strain called Skunk? It is very high in Sativa, which makes you creative, focused, inspired and happy. Skunk is not like the heavy Indica-based dispensary herb that is so popular with young folks. A twenty-something turned me on to cannabis that looked like brown glass, a dab of concentrate. We used a blowtorch to smoke it out of a quartz bowl and I renamed it Flat On My Back On The Floor Weed as I laid on the floor. Sativa will not make you pass out on the floor. Sativa may make you dance on the floor. It may make you paint the floor. It may make you think you are the floor, but it will not knock you out.
I’ve got absolutely nothing against the idea of passing out and if you want to do that, delve deep into Indica. It’ll make your body feel good. But if you are trying to brainstorm what you could say to your wife about last weekend, Skunk is your junk.
Time Capsule Seed
In February of 2020 Wayne gives me forty of his seeds. We don’t know if they will sprout. I felt like Frodo putting on The Ring for the first time as I lay the seeds between damp paper towels on a plate. Are these seeds too old to germinate? I found myself looking at them throughout the day, keeping the towels damp. On the third day one cracked open and a tiny white sprout appeared. Over the next two weeks thirty-eight of the forty seeds sprouted at an incredible germination rate. I put the sprouts in potting soil and in May I re-planted them into a hoop house. They grew so tall I had to cut their tops off four times. The leaves were narrow and dark green, but the thing was the smell. My Airstream is one hundred feet from the hoop house and inside my trailer it smelled like I live with a skunk. If anyone in the neighborhood wondered if I grow pot, they know now.
We’re going for seed production so Wayne shakes the male flowers all over the female flowers. (And this at the height of the #metoo movement!) I kept trimming the tops. In mid-November we hung the plants upside down in a shed. And finally, it was time.
A Long, Slow Toke
My first inhale did not do all that much. I inhaled again. I felt pleasant enough but I wondered if this weed works. Was the legend of the first Skunk strain bullshit? I hit it a third time, deep. Then I looked at my guitar fret board and could see all the notes like I was looking at a piano keyboard. I thought of the Jimi Hendrix Chord (E7 #9) and a way to play it above the 12th fret appeared in relief on the fret board. In euphoria I played with intense focus. Would Aldous Huxley say that I had opened the “doors of perception?”
Wayne loves his seeds so much he has a vision for them, “I found something heritage that people love. So how do I share it?” Wayne’s vision is that everyone who wants to feel great could start by germinating twelve seeds, discard the males and grow their six plants that the state of California allows. Nice vision. He thinks of himself as a holy man. He is a holy man; he has a colostomy bag piped into his gut.
Wayne and I sit on his porch smoking the flowers grown from his time capsule Skunk seeds and I ask him how it makes him feel. “It’s the most creative weed I’ve ever used. You start laughing, talking, it puts you in a good mood. It’s more fun, it’s happy weed. In high doses it gets psychedelic.” Wayne’s Mission is to figure out how to legally distribute these seeds to anyone who wants to grow sativa cannabis. He says, “It’s the kind of weed you can smoke in the daytime.”
The way I encountered this psychoactive strain again and again makes me think that there is something beyond coincidence here. In the end, the story of the Skunk strain is a circle that coheres – a circle of legend, genetics, of a place that believes in it’s own magic and of our desire to open Huxley’s “doors of perception.”
Love At The In & Out Burger
by Richard Stockton
It feels like our divisiveness grows every day. We only speak to expose our differences and come together like a hospital gown. But I have a tale for you of Love At The In & Out Burger.
I’m coming in off the road, trying to make it back home as the winter sun goes down. I feel starved as I pound my little Prius down the freeway. I’m so hungry… and then I see the red and yellow sign of an In & Out Burger!
I get in the drive-thru line and I am right behind a gigantic pickup truck. American flags all over it, it’s got duel exhaust that look like they’re three feet off the ground. These exhaust pipes belch carbon monoxide with a rhythm that sounds like a heavy metal band, blowing over my little car. I can’t breathe so I stop and let the behemoth get way ahead of me. This messes up the operation of the drive-thru; for the windows to work efficiently you’re supposed to keep moving ahead and now I’m slowing the process for everyone. Cars honk behind me, I can’t help it, I gotta breathe.
I begin making up all kinds of stories about the pickup truck driver. I start with what I imagine is his political view (“I bet I know who you voted for!”) and devolve into stereotypes of who I imagine is in the big truck.
“Why all the flags, pal? Got a short-term memory problem about what country you’re in? You think you’re the only one who loves America? What gives you the right to co-opt the symbol of our country? Oh, I bet you are making fun of my Prius right now, a car that you probably think of as a wimpy liberal excuse for transportation. Sorry that I accept the science regarding global warming and that I oppose using catapults to hurl unaccompanied minors back into Mexico and have to deal with you not getting vaccinated because you don’t know exactly what is in the vaccine oh is that a Coca Cola you’re ordering up there? Like you have any idea what is in your drink…”
and yada, yada, yada, until I degenerate into insults about his mother. I turn the air in my little car blue with profanity.
When I get to the pay window the young man says, “Here’s your burger, no charge.”
“The guy in front of you paid for yours…”
“I don’t know, he said something about apologizing for exhaust.”
Now that… humbles me. I was making up stories about a guy who was paying it backwards.