I eliminated the plants in the lens one by green one. “Yeah, yeah!” I whispered excitedly. “I see it now.” A huge jade-hued pot plant was perfectly camouflaged into the surrounding foliage. Bull was ahead of us. We trotted to catch up.
“Bull, we found pot.”
“Where?” Bull glassed the plant with Shark’s binoculars. “Yeah, baby! I see it…I want to get a photo.” He headed down to the green wall, pushing saplings aside.
The lilac thicket gave way to a small clearing, where a robust seven-foot-tall marijuana plant basked in the sun. “There’s another one and another, and another,” I said. Our vision now attuned, everywhere we looked we saw mature pot plants.
In a low voice, I said, “We’re in danger. Let’s get the hell out of here now.”
Shark had seen enough and slithered out, but Bull lingered. “I just want a picture,” he said, searching his pack’s side pocket for a camera.
My sense of danger was on full tilt. We were trespassing and could be shot any second. “Let’s get out of here now,” I pleaded.
Satisfied at last with his centerfold for High Times magazine, Bull and I retreated to the buckwheat-blanketed hill and met up with Shark. We all took cover behind the wide trunk of a huge, dead Englemann oak about 70 yards from the pot plants.
The hair-raising silence was broken by squawking birds in the pot farm below. Something big was on the move.
Shark slapped a magazine into his Kimber .45. He put another full mag in his pocket. My gut churned. The mood of the adventure had changed — this was deadly serious. Would the pot-growers snipe us? Would they flank us, or just charge up the hill with guns blazing? How many were there, anyway? Helping the DEA, I thought, might turn out to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.
Shark began rubbing soot from a burned tree branch onto his face for camouflage. The imminent danger made him seem more alive. I could almost hear Jim Morrison singing, This is the end, my only friend, the end.
Bull and Shark scanned the tree line for movement. I nervously dialed Steve Reed’s cell phone.
“This is Steve,” he answered in an I’m-really-busy-this-better-be-important kind of voice.
“Hello, Mr. Reed,” I whispered into the cell phone. “This is me, Harper — remember the guy you talked to yesterday?”
“Well, we’re at Cuyamaca and we found some pot.”
A pause. “Oh, yeah, Harper. What did you find? A couple of plants?”
“No, it’s the mother lode — plants as far as we can see.”
And now this narc was all over it. “I’ll get a bird in the air, and my ground crew will head your way. I’m about 40 minutes out — I’m coming from San Diego. When you hear the chopper, call me on this number and guide me in. Okay?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
Time passed like mud through an hourglass. A branch snapped in the forest. Bull, Shark, and I huddled behind our oak wall in silence, listening. Bull had followed Shark’s lead and rubbed charcoal onto his face; he looked like a recruitment ad for Special Forces. Not wanting to be the only white-faced target left, I did the same.
Shark called a friend of his who worked for the FBI and told him our location. “Hey, bro bro, if you don’t hear from me tonight, frick, search for us in Cuyamaca State Park, bro.”
Five more minutes of silence. Our breathing was shallow, ears alert to any sound. Hasn’t it been 40 minutes, for God’s sake, I thought.
Bull moved slowly, gently lifting his pack to get something out. Then came the piercing wail of a police siren, rising and falling. The sound came from Bull’s pack. In a panic, he fumbled to open it and kill the siren’s switch.
“Damn,” he said sheepishly. “Sorry about that, guys. I didn’t know the megaphone was on.”
Hide and seek was over. If the pot farmers hadn’t known where we were, they did now. Would they rush us, thinking we were the cops?
A dozen squawking birds bolted from the tangled woods, their high-pitched calls announcing a world of chaos below. The birds lifted in frantic flight in a steady progression away from us. More scrub jays and woodpeckers pealed off, one by one, signaling with their alarm calls that whatever or whoever was in the forest was also heading away. Bull’s megaphone faux pas had worked in our favor.
In the distance we heard a reverberated staccato cadence: wap wap wap. “That’s the chopper!” Bull said.
Into the cell phone I said, “Steve, you’re to the south of us.” A minute later, he was to the east. He couldn’t see us. Several more passes, several more phone calls. Then he spotted Shark, who had moved into a slight clearing, giving the chopper pilot military arm signals to land. The helicopter came down on the other side of a nearby ridge.
Talking to someone by phone, you get a mental picture of what he might look like. Steve, I imagined, was a no BS, by-the-book drug-enforcement agent, clean-cut, crisply dressed, an authoritarian figure. Maybe Clint-Eastwood-Dirty-Harryish. The chopper lifted over the ridge, passing low overhead before heading back to the southeast. Then a dirty, stout, bearded hippie dressed in a scruffy T-shirt, torn jeans, and with a do-rag on his head sauntered from the tall grass.
He introduced himself to our camouflaged band, checking us out with the same I-guessed-you-wrong look on his face that we had on ours. He’d probably expected three candy-ass hikers in DayGlo, with trendy gear from REI. Instead, he greeted a military-style, camouflage-dressed, wannabe tactical team.
Single file, we led Agent Reed to the pot garden’s entrance. He took the point with his sidearm unbuckled. Shark, ever on alert, took up the rear, making sure that no one followed us.
We walked along well-traveled, terraced paths lined with pungent pot plants without finding the garden’s end. “Wow! This is huge!” said Reed. Thousands of five- to seven-foot-tall marijuana plants, with bud tips as fat around as Louisville Sluggers, blended in with the native mountain lilacs.