A Different Kind of Pioneer Trail

A trip along the Cannabis Trail

By Hollie Ernest

There are counties across the U.S. celebrated for heirloom tomatoes, ancient golden wheat and rich mollisol soils. Northern California’s reputation for high quality cannabis has been growing in the dark for decades. Now it’s out in the sunshine. 

There are so many parts to the complicated and not always pretty story of weed in Northern California. The Cannabis Trail (www.thecannabistrail.org) is a nonprofit whose goal is to develop a physical and digital map to tell the story of this region and its role in the journey of cultivation and legalization. 

The focus is to educate on the history and culture of the cannabis pioneers — those who first set the plant’s literal roots here in Humboldt County, as well as those who first fought for legalization in the Bay Area. This is a story told through videos, podcasts and a Cultural Competency Certification, a multimedia information module. Their mission is to create understanding of what came before, in order to more fully appreciate what it is now. 

The physical part of the trail is still in the inception phase, existing as sketches and ideas, with a few concrete pillars. According to its founder Brian Applegarth, “It will have a life of its own,” as it develops. Spanning nine counties, the Cannabis Trail has been compared with the Napa Wine Trail and the Marin Cheese Trail. The nonprofit hopes to “draw travelers, history buffs, cultural connoisseurs and cannabis enthusiasts.” 

For those wanting immersion in the elusive fable of the Emerald Triangle, a combination of physical and digital storytelling aims to do just that. The blueprint is for the trail to be a 14-plus-hour, connect-the-dot road trip weaving through six regions of “Emerald Country,” from Santa Cruz to Weaverville. The dots will be legacy cannabis farms and places of historical or cultural interest, often accompanied by a short video (possibly via phone apps) explaining the significance of that place. 

There are currently three official designations: Cafe Flore in San Francisco, Huckleberry Hills Farm outside Garberville and the Hemp Connection in Garberville. There are plans to add three more cultural landmarks here in Humboldt and two more in Mendocino sometime around October. Eventually the hope is to include close to 20-30 cultural landmarks, nine art installations and many points of interest (existing signs, statues and structures). The art monuments might cover a wide range of ambitious topics, including: patient access, sustainability, community organizing, the journey to legalization, the “War on Drugs,” the back-to-the-land migration north, farmer life off the grid and the role of cannabis as medicine during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

These are far-reaching goals but, as Applegarth said, “This is an evolving, lifelong project … I don’t want to rush this, I want to do this right.”

On a conceptual map, the Cannabis Trail starts in Santa Cruz, paying homage to the first medical marijuana dispensing collective, the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana. The trail will cross to Oakland and weave back to San Francisco, “the epicenter of the cannabis legalization movement,” according to Applegarth. It’s also where Cafe Flore resides, with its history of incubating activism with the likes of Dennis Peron, known as the father of medical marijuana, and Brownie Mary, who drew attention to AIDS patient access, and was an ardent activist for decriminalization. From the city, the trail nudges you north to San Rafael, home of the 4:20 legend and its requisite statue.

Next we head to the “Emerald Gateway” region, otherwise known as Sonoma County, which includes the Russian River Valley, or “Kush Valley,” stretching from the coast towards Guerneville. The trail will continue north to the Emerald Triangle, the well-known gem covering Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. Applegarth hopes to have an art installation at the junction of all three counties. The Cannabis Trail organization is adamant about educating people on how the hippie trail and the back-to-the-land migration of the 1960s and 70s essentially brought cannabis cultivation north. 

Here in Humboldt County, Huckleberry Hills Farm outside Garberville and the Hemp Connection in Garberville are the two most recent additions to the trail. The story of each place parallels stories of many others in the region. Huckleberry Hills Farm, owned by Johnny Casali, is a second-generation cannabis farm that suffered setbacks when Casali was imprisoned in the 1990s, serving eight years. Today the farm is the first of its kind to have a tourism license, its landscaped property welcoming outsiders and providing an opportunity to understand its crops and complex history. They have hosted several groups already and aim for more in the future. The Hemp Connection, owned by Marie Mills, was the first hemp clothing store in the United States. When Mills was challenged to remove her sign featuring a marijuana leaf, she stood her ground and won. This landmark “represents bravery, self-reliance, life off the grid and sustainability,” says Applegarth. 

The Cannabis Trail has a lot of ground to cover but plenty of time to do so over the coming years. It will focus not only on places that are important to the Northern California economy, but also the communities and individuals who have been instrumental to the progress and process. Where once there were 10-year jail sentences, there are now tourism permits and second-generation farmers. Where there were years of land degradation, there are now healthy streams and ponds, with much more restoration work to be done. Specialty strains that were bred with military helicopters overhead are now passed down to the next generation and included in top-dollar marketing campaigns via Willie Nelson. It’s been a wild ride. And more cultural history lessons along this multi-day, meandering drive are coming down the trail.