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Hikers stumble upon marijuana plantation in Cuyamaca State Park

Citizen pot bust

"This is Steve Reed with the DEA," said the man on the phone.

“You called the DEA several months ago about a possible irrigation line you found in Cuyamaca State Park,” he continued. “I have a Post-it note on my bulletin board with your phone number.”

The growers’ breakfast was still cooking via a small fire under a flat rock that served as a griddle for tortillas and beans.

“Ah, yeah, I did call that in,” I hesitantly confirmed.

“What do you think it is?” pressed Agent Reed.

“Well, it was an irrigation tube about one inch in diameter, buried in the pine straw and way off the main trail.”

I thought about the spring day my two hiking buddies and I were off-trail, crashing through dense thickets of tangled brush. It was growing dark, and the three of us had gotten separated. I stopped to rest and happened to look down and I saw a plastic pipe. I wondered why an irrigation tube would be way out there.

Another rope held strips of freshly killed deer meat.

To the agent I said, “I followed the black pipe for about 20 feet before it disappeared into a thicket. At first I thought the park rangers were watering trees or something, but I wised up when I saw how well hidden it was. I hooked up with my buddies, and we returned to check out the hose before we headed back out to the main trail.”

The gun's plastic sheath lay on the ground, along with an open box of 12-gauge double-ought buckshot shells.

“Can you tell me how to get there?” Agent Reed asked. “We recently had a bust at Cuyamaca, and I’m trying to find out if it’s the same location.”

I’d read about that bust in the Union-Tribune, one of the top five drug busts in San Diego County, a marijuana field with a street value of $300 million.

The weed was trimmed here, as evidenced by half a dozen petite scissors hanging from a branch.

“No, it was too remote, real thick brush,” I said, “and it was getting dark when we left. But I think I could find it again.”

“That would be great.”

“When do you want me to look for it?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” My brain whirled with the logistics of a deep-brush penetration on such short notice. “Would it be all right if I brought my buddies along?”

“Sure,” said Steve. “Call me if you find anything.”

I sat in my oversized La-Z-Boy, trying to sort out what had just transpired, and what was expected. I was going to assist the DEA with looking for pot in the bowels of Cuyamaca park. What, exactly, had I volunteered to do?

My hiking pals and I have nicknames we use when embarking on deep-woods diving. One friend is Bull, the other Shark. I’m Goat. I gave my friends a call.

Bull said, “I’ll have my gear packed tonight.”

Shark said, “Hell, yeah, bro, frickin’ frickin’ bro bro bro! I’ll be packin’, bro! I’ll bring MREs [meals ready to eat] for all of us.” Shark was the only one of us with military service.

When the Princess got home, I switched gears from, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” to a more nuanced, “This is a civic duty, honey.”

Before the sun had risen above the mountains east of Santa Ysabel, Shark, Bull, and I were packed into my Dodge Ram pickup, our full packs bouncing in the open bed as we drove to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Arriving before the park kiosk opened, we self-registered and geared up.

Shark handed out the military MREs encased in brown plastic. “Bro, these are great! Twenty-five-hundred calories each. This is what the SEALs eat on special ops.”

Bull pulled a megaphone from his pack to insert the MRE.

Shark asked, “What’s that for, bro?”

“In case we run into any dopers,” Bull said.

We stepped off onto a well-groomed trail. Our boots crunching dirt made a muffled sound. High-pitched bird calls emanated from the dead pine treetops, announcing us as intruders. After a half mile, the trail gently dropped to a creek bed. Clear water gurgled between white-barked mountain lilac saplings and tall weeds choked with poison oak.

“This is it,” I said hesitantly, not quite trusting my recollection.

“You sure?” said Bull.

“It must be. I remember this creek.”

“Let’s go,” whispered Shark, not wanting to be seen out on the groomed trail.

We headed uphill into heavy brush, looking for a deer skull we’d found on the previous trip; we hoped to use it as a location marker. Inevitably, we parted ways, as each man chose his own brush-choked maze.

For the next half hour, we tried in vain to penetrate the green wall, finding no passage short of a belly crawl into the labyrinth. We retreated back to the trail. We were breathing deeply from our failed efforts, our camouflage outfits embedded with twigs and leaves.

I apologized for the energy and time lost. “I could have sworn we came out just before a creek last time.”

“We’ll never get through that mess,” Bull said. “Let’s keep going on the trail.”

A few minutes later, we felt the cooler, moist air of another brook ahead. We crossed the water and ascended the left bank. The brush here was patchy, with gaps between clumps. Shark motioned with military-style hand signals that he’d found the deer skull; we knew it was the same one by a puncture wound below its right eye, probably a cougar kill.

With renewed resolve, we now became human pinballs, bouncing off impassable bumpers of brush into narrow passes that ejected us finally onto a grassy hillside. The buckwheat-covered slope ran along the same creek we’d crossed earlier. The creek was choked with thickets and blackened trunks of oak and white fir, the dead titans mutely testifying to the devastating Cedar Creek fire.

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“Man, I smell a skunk,” I whispered to Shark.

“I smell it, too. Frick, it has to be close, bro.”

It dawned on us simultaneously — it might not be a skunk. Shark halted. He pulled out his camo binoculars, glassing the wall of emerald foliage below. “Goat, take a look there, bro.” He handed me the binoculars. I swung the glasses in the general direction of the creek. “Do you frickin’ see it?” Shark said. “Between the two trees, 30 yards into the brush, bro.”

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?”

“Yeah?”

“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.

Steve said, “I can’t believe we didn’t spot this before. You can tell this farm has been here for years.”

We passed several campsites filled with heaps of trash. In one, the growers’ breakfast was still cooking via a small fire under a flat rock that served as a griddle for tortillas and beans. All the bags of food stores contained Mexican cuisine: bottles of Tapatio hot sauce, cans of refried beans, packages of corn tortillas, and an assortment of chilies.

Steve answered his cell phone; it was his ground team at the park’s entrance. “You won’t be able to find us,” Steve informed them. He looked at us and, holding the phone away from his ear, asked, “Can one of you lead my team in?”

It was a fat mile of brush-stomping back to the parking lot. Shark was already limping, and I didn’t have the energy. An awkward, silent moment ensued. “I’ll get ’em,” Bull offered, cinching up his backpack. Then he disappeared into the forest.

Knowing we were in for a long wait, Steve took a seat on four rocks that formed a chair with back and arms. No direct sunlight or heat penetrated the leafy canopy. He seemed pleased and content to rest and survey the mega-garden, relishing the size of this day’s conquest. He looked like a hippie emperor on a petrified throne. He was one happy narc.

“So, Steve,” Shark said. “How much is this frickin’ worth, bro?”

“See this?” Without getting up, Agent Reed grabbed a huge gooey bud. “Three thousand dollars.” He grabbed another, “three thousand,” and another, “three thousand.” Each resin-encrusted bud was larger than a man’s forearm.

Shark asked, “What keeps you from taking some of this, bro?”

Clearly, Steve had been asked this question before. Without hesitation he said, “I’m the third generation of law enforcement in my family. Not one of my relatives has ever gone bad, and I’m not going to ruin that legacy.”

The pungent odor was giving me a throbbing headache. I left the garden and ate lunch with Shark on the buckwheat hillside. We were finishing our hot MREs just as Bull led two green-uniformed men out of the woods. One was from the Bureau of Land Management Narcotics Task Force, the other from Army Reserve Drug Enforcement. Both men were armed.

Back in the hidden pot plantation, we spread out to probe the size of the field. We followed the extensive system of irrigation hose. In the approximate middle was the growers’ trash-strewn camp, years’ worth of human refuse. Shark found a walkie-talkie that worked and stashed it in his side pocket. A pile of resin-soaked clothing stood two feet high; the green-colored shirts and pants were too sticky to wear anymore, so they’d been discarded. Dozens of garbage bags — stuffed, ripped, and overflowing — littered the forest. I remembered an old television commercial that had showed a Native American crying when he saw his once-unspoiled environment trashed. This scene would have sent him on the warpath.

Along another trail, the growers had cut down four trees. Fifteen-foot-long logs formed a crude frame three feet off the ground. This frame had been lashed to trees, then woven together with sturdy rope, forming a cargo net–like platform that held several sleeping bags off the cold ground. The frame was worn smooth from years of use.

A long rope stretched between two trees, and on this rope hung dozens of drying, upside-down, bud clusters. Another rope held strips of freshly killed deer meat — no hunting permit required here. Cured by the sun’s rays, the deer’s translucent flesh had a pink glow, similar to cherry taffy. Bambi had been blasted by a long gun; its plastic sheath lay on the ground, along with an open box of 12-gauge double-ought buckshot shells.

Farther along another trail, an irrigation tube had been strung over a tree branch. An off/on irrigation valve controlled water flow. The crotch of the tree held bars of soap and bottles of shampoo, and a film of sudsy iridescent residue colored the earth.

Open bags of fertilizer and stashes of chemical growing supplements had been strewn all over the vast cannabis garden. Half a mile of black irrigation tubing and thinner feeder lines watered thousands of marijuana plants. At the lower end of the grow, alongside the creek, we found a hand-dug 15 x 15 foot pit. About six feet deep, it was half filled with rotting garbage and decomposing trash. There was no plastic, non-permeable liner to block the rancid leach.

Back at Steve’s throne, we six huddled up.

“Just once, I wish I could catch the bastards,” Steve fumed. “Make them clean up this mess.”

“What happens to the growers, now that they’ve lost this year’s crop?” I asked.

“With a garden this big, someone will die. The Mexican drug cartels are ruthless.”

“Do you fear for your life?”

“They know that the first time they kill one of us, we’ll come down on them hard. They don’t want to go there. Right now, it’s a serious game of cat and mouse. They grow their gardens, and we bust them. Sometimes they win, and sometimes they lose. This time they lost big. This pot field was planted on a north-facing slope. The sun doesn’t shimmer off the plants like it normally does, so we didn’t see it from the air. These little pricks were smart. This is one of the best grows I’ve ever seen. And they’ve used this field for years.”

Steve and his team got down to business. Drawing machetes from their packs, they started to cut down the plants. Shark, Bull, and I decided to go up the creek bed and scout for more grows.

“Should one of us go with them?” the Bureau of Land Management guy asked Steve.

“Naw, they’re okay.” Steve hacked at an inch-and-a-half-thick fibrous stalk.

I hope so, I thought.

We located the source of the irrigation, main lines immersed a hundred yards upstream. Then we continued on, hiking for an hour in thick brush. Briars ripped at our gaiters. Limbs slapped my face, raising welts. I hope we get a reward for all this effort, I thought. I belly-crawled into a promising spot, but there was nothing. After another hour, with no sign of pot or trash, we headed back.

At the garden, the scene had changed drastically. Thousands of pot plants had been cut down and stacked in neat piles throughout the grow. The three men looked like sugarcane-cutters harvesting a crop, machetes swinging high before slashing a stalk.

“Can we help?” we asked.

“Sure,” Steve said, his shirt soaked with perspiration. “But be sure to cut the plants below the lowest leaf, or it will grow back.”

We found pruning saws at one of the growers’ camps and pitched in.

“Keep track of how many you cut,” instructed the guy from the Army Reserve.

The task of felling the crop was hard, as real work always is. The THC resin got on everything; my gloves, pants, shirt, and saw soon were sticky from the clear tar. At one point, I had to leave the garden because the skunky bud stench made my pounding headache return. This cannabis garden was more than some coffeehouse hippie’s dream grow: This was a pot-production factory.

By late afternoon, the last few marijuana plants were whacked and stacked.

“What happens now?” Bull asked, sawing at a final stubborn stalk.

“We’ll call in a clean-up crew tomorrow,” said Steve. “They’ll pull all this weed out from below the tall trees, then pile it onto cargo nets in the clearing. The choppers can lift it out from there.”

I swilled a few last gulps of warm water. “How many plants, Steve?” I asked.

“Sixteen-thousand five-hundred eighty-two.” Sweat dripped from under the do-rag and trickled down his cheeks, gathering in his bushy beard.

“Hey,” said Shark, “what if the growers come back tonight and take it all, bro?”

“We’ll have a guard here all night,” said Steve. He had a don’t-get-any-funny-ideas edge to his voice. “We’re going to trace some of the doper trails that lead off the back of the grow. This place is lousy with ’em.”

Bull, Shark, and I were done with our long dope-day adventure and elected to leave the way we’d slogged in, not wanting to get tangled in more unknown brush as darkness fell. In 40 minutes, we arrived at the parking lot. Ten minutes later, we heard Steve and his posse crashing toward us from the woods.

Hard labor and a job well done are great equalizers among men. And so it was as we six leaned around the ground crews’ trucks, savoring icy cold soft drinks from a cooler.

“So, Steve, heh-heh, what’s our reward for this, bro?” Shark chuckled.

“Oh, we’ll see if we can get you something,” Steve said. “Give me your contact information, and I’ll see what I can do.”

It had to be worth something, 16,582 bud plants off the streets.

We drove toward Santa Ysabel and home, the Dodge’s cab reeking of pot. Bull said, “I sure hope we don’t get pulled over.” He rolled down his window to air out the cab.

It was late when we parted. I undressed in my garage, dropping the resin-soaked clothing on a piece of cardboard. A deer tick crawled along my stomach.

Several days later, the big Cuyamaca drug bust burst to the top of the local news. The story showed choppers hauling out bulging cargo nets of pot plants. Several officers stood around a clean-shaven Steve Reed, who was touting the big haul to the media which had gathered to glean the details.

“Hey, honey, we’re on!” I shouted, proud that Bull, Shark, and I had initiated this bust. Steve briefly mentioned something about how “hikers found pot,” but beyond that it was his bust. Oh well, I thought, surely the reward will be coming. A couple hundred bucks, a confiscated doper’s car, something.

We hashed and rehashed the adventure in detail for a few days, working ourselves into a frenzy of what-ifs.

Shark said, “Steve won’t forget us, bro! It says on the Drug Enforcement website that there’s rewards. Frick! Bro bro. Where there’s one [grow], there’s two, and where there’s two, there’s three!”

“Yeah, let’s get stompin’!” Bull said. “I’ve got a topo map of the whole park. Where the water is, the dope is.” Visions of big booty from the pot-park detectives danced in our heads.

Bull thought up an acronym for our group: LINC — Locate Investigative Narcotics Contact. We knew it wasn’t a game, but Cuyamaca was being thrashed. The Drug Enforcement Agency was stretched thin. If we could do some of the boots-on-the-ground work, maybe we could free just this one park from the pot pigs.

By the next Saturday, we were head high in brush, brambles, and manzanita before the sun rose. We followed an obscure park trail on the south side, several ridges over from our previous find. A dry stream bed crossed under the trail.

“No water, no pot,” I said, dejected that we’d come so far for nothing.

Bull stomped down the dry creek bed, crashing and then disappearing into a chaotic network of brambles.

“Bingo!” he shouted. “We got water!”

The faint flow increased as we followed the stream. With the growers’ confiscated walkie-talkie, we listened in on a voiceless communication code of clicks and clacks, unable to decipher the code. With our own walkie-talkies, we communicated in whispers. After 50 yards, we had a running creek. At 200 yards, Shark keyed his mic with our agreed-upon code word, “Bingo!” He was looking at a small segment of black irrigation hose in the creek bed, well hidden except for a one-foot section.

We traced the one-inch-diameter hose into a thick maze of lilac and burnt pines, tracking it under fallen trees, through briar patches, and into seemingly impenetrable thickets. We surged past each other in spurts, eager to find a new field, each man wanting to be the first one there. Twenty minutes of effort paid off as we stumbled exhausted into a zone that was underbrush-free. We huddled together to listen. Not hearing anyone, we began to survey a sapling forest that had been cleared by human hands.

We warily explored the acre-plus prepped zone and came to the conclusion that this was a fallow field waiting to be planted at a later date. It was nearly void of trash, a sure sign that no growers were around. Only a few hundred plastic starter cups in an open clearing and some green-handled shovels gave away the area’s intended purpose.

After thoroughly checking the immediate vicinity, we pushed farther down the ever-widening valley. We named it “la Drang Valley” and the elusive Mexican growers we called “Charlie.” Just like in the Vietnam War, these enemy combatants were stealthy and bush-savvy. Signs of Charlie’s presence were everywhere — burnt-up hoses from previous grows, old rusty shovels, empty food cans.

Long shadows grew even longer across the gorge as ebony fingers reached out from carbonized tree trunks. We were tired and knew that to retrace our steps uphill would be exhausting and difficult in the dark, so we continued down, knowing we would eventually hit the main road.

The profuse brush along the stream bed became impassable, forcing us to rise above it. We followed a worn deer trail a hundred feet up on the north slope, rock-hopping as the sun ebbed in intensity. It was slow going. Three wrinkled $20 bills at the Barona Casino couldn’t be more spent than we were. We had poked and prodded almost every thicket in the valley. Charlie was crafty and we were tired.

“That looks like Charlie’s kind of zone over there,” I suggested, pointing to a thick, shaded stand of burnt pine trees 200 yards back across la Drang Valley. “I can feel it,” I said. “That grove of trees is Charlie’s. It’s a north-facing slope with a stream next to it.” I had been wrong a half dozen times that day with my ethereal I-can-feel-it vibe.

Shark and Bull were decidedly not feeling it. They took off their packs to rest. “I’m going over to that grove,” I said. “That’s gotta be Charlie’s.”

An unstable, sketchy descent down a rock face, followed by a briar-filled stomp brought me to a brush-choked stream that burbled just out of sight. I approached cautiously, unsure where my next step would fall and acutely aware that I was solo. Teetering across the stream on rocks covered by weeds, I tripped, falling face-first into the far bank. Sprawled prone, I was vulnerable to snakes and bolted up from fear. At eye level, three feet away, stood a lone pot plant. The danger level jumped exponentially.

“Bingo! We have a Bingo situation,” I whispered into the walkie-talkie clipped to my shoulder strap.

“What ya got, bro? Over,” Shark said.

“Pot plant. Over.”

We were all physically out of gas, so Bull and Shark weren’t about to motor across the valley for another old shovel or burnt irrigation tube. However, motivated by my answer, they crossed la Drang in less than five minutes. I stayed put, not wanting to advance into Charlie’s garden alone.

We advanced single file. Shark, a loaded .45 in hand, took the lead.

After awhile we spread out.

“Hey, I got a hooch,” Bull radioed.

“There’s a bunch of military camo clothes over here,” Shark said.

Like Charlie’s other camp, this one was well hidden among the dead incense cedar, Coulter pines, and ubiquitous lilac bushes. It revealed its secrets slowly. We’d become smarter about the evasive Mexi pot farmers, and began to piece together the clues from their abandoned camp.

The intact pot plants were few, but hundreds of cut stalk stumps dotted the weeds extending beyond the camp. Either Charlie had harvested the weed or Steve Reed’s team had. We surmised it was the latter, possibly as part of the bust we’d read about in the Union-Tribune prior to Steve’s call. As at our earlier bust, this deserted camp was trashy, with discarded green military camouflage clothes in heaps, garbage piles, rotting food, chemicals, and open fertilizer bags scattered about with no regard for the running stream. Charlie was not a member of the Sierra Club.

We took what little spoils and trinkets we wanted, a flashlight, a folded military shovel, a battery charger, a small pick — trophies of war. Charlie was being out-maneuvered in la Drang Valley. And seeing what little regard he had for one of San Diego’s premier parks, he had to go.

Over the next month, we repeatedly scoured Cuyamaca state park, arriving early and leaving past dark. We made a dozen missions in total, all focused on finding Charlie’s hidden operations. Using our ever-accumulating intel on the enemy, we tracked his special shoe prints in the trail dust. The dotted sole pattern was between a size six and a size eight. Then the prints abruptly ended next to an ever-so-faint track that led into the brush. Hunting animals is easy; hunting humans is hard. The dopers made what we called slip trails — just wide enough for a human to slip through by tearing off face-high branches. These trails were almost imperceptible at first, but once on them, Charlie grew sloppy, leaving bits of trash, a Corona beer bottle, scraps of toilet paper, a green wool glove. These clues were not from stay-on-the-trail weekend gringo hikers who lived by the pack-it-in/pack-it-out mantra.

On one recon mission, we started out together as usual, but soon dispersed into our habit of following individual hunches. We stayed in contact via radio.

“Bingo! I’ve got lots of trash. Over,” Bull said. I could hear the hope of a big find in his voice.

Immediately, in the distance, I heard branches snapping as Shark plowed toward Bull’s last known location. I, on the other hand, was trapped in mountain lilac thickets so prolific that going directly through the bushes was the path of least resistance.

“Goat, where are you? Over.”

“I’m still brambled up. Over.”

Communications continued for several minutes, but the dense thicket of lilac had won. Immobilized, I panted, exhausted and out of options as to how to penetrate the impenetrable. I felt trapped and defenseless. This was Cuyamaca; a cougar had killed a woman here. We’d seen several deer carcasses, obvious cougar kills.

I was now imprisoned in this sapling snare, so entangled in branches, I was unable to get to my gun or knife. My energy was nearly expended. If a cougar wanted me, I was human jerky. Fear overwhelmed me. In desperation, I mentally aborted meeting up with my camo comrades. I cinched down my bush hat, and with lowered head, goat-rammed the thicket. Branches fought back, whipping and welting my face as I advanced a single yard. Again. Another yard gained. I was grunting like a lowland gorilla. Slowly, I head-butted through the green maze. Fifteen minutes later, the stubborn bush ejected me out onto a wide dirt trail. I was exhausted yet elated to be free.

Shark was concerned with my whereabouts. “Bro bro, hey, Goat, what’s your 20, bro? Over.”

“My 20 is I’m not coming into that damn green death trap again. What did you find? Over.”

“Frickin’! Bro, we’ve got a frickin’ camp with sleeping bags, cooking stove, food, clothes, trash. Looks like Charlie’s been here a long time, bro. We’re goin’ to check out some more trails. Over and out.”

I walked the dirt trail looking for doper signs. The slightest whisper of a potential slip trail beckoned now. Rested and newly curious, I followed it back into the thickets. Was it just a deer trail? I wondered. Deeper in, a lone, cleanly cut branch at eye level said otherwise. Finally, the slip trail gave up its mysteries, revealing black plastic trash bags, green tarps, and green canvas duffel bags. A clearing contained mounds of pot plant stalks and human trash. A heap of withered cannabis leaves gave off the heady smell of reefer.

“Bingo!” I whispered into the radio before slipping back to the safer dirt trail. Bull and Shark had to retrace their paths out of the bush, then hike on groomed park trails to reach me. It took them about 30 minutes. It lifted my spirits to see the rest of the LINC team members arrive.

We investigated Charlie’s hideout and concluded that it was a processing center. The weed was trimmed here, as evidenced by half a dozen petite scissors hanging from a branch. The finished product was put into black plastic garbage bags, then stuffed into olive-green military duffel bags before being packed out, probably at night along the nearby park trail.

The slip trail exited the rear of the processing area, leading directly to the growers’ campsite that Bull and Shark had just discovered. We followed numerous other trails, looking for the actual grow site, but sundown put a halt to the quest. As LINC hiked out, it became as clear as the star-studded night sky that Charlie had his own park inside Cuyamaca park. Over years, they’d built an extensive labyrinth of trails, grow fields, processing centers, and sleeping zones, complete with packed coolers and food-preparation areas. Ten sleeping bags meant ten growers, all living and working for years under the noses of the park rangers.

How had they stayed hidden so long? Were some or even one of the rangers in on it? “Look the other way, and we’ll give you, say, $100,000 a year.” How much money does a park ranger make? “Okay, ranger boy, make it $200,000. Just let us know when it’s safe to transport and when the DEA starts snooping around.” We didn’t rule out this hypothetical scenario.

One day, we got a late start. After gearing up in the main parking lot, two rangers on duty, one male and one female, approached us.

“Who do you guys work for?” the male ranger asked after seeing our camo attire.

“We can’t tell you, bro,” Shark answered firmly.

“No, really,” the ranger insisted. “Are you with the DEA or the sheriff’s drug task force?”

“We’re not allowed to say, bro,” Shark said.

“Are you here to recover that load of pot that the helicopter dropped awhile back?” the female ranger asked.

“Can’t answer that, ma’am,” Shark persisted, cool as a mountain stream.

“Well, we’ve seen your red truck in here a lot lately, and we need to know who you work for.”

Noting their shiny, black Glocks, I offered a compromise. “Sir, Ma’am, I can assure you that we’re on your side. There’ve been a lot of pot growers using this park, and we’re here to help with the eradication effort. ”

“Not in this park! I’d know if they were growing any more here,” the male ranger assured us. His green shirt was neatly creased; his matching pleated shorts revealed perfectly tanned legs without a scratch on them. This was a park ranger who monitored the groomed trails for hikers with picnic baskets. Yogi and Boo Boo would have felt right at home. But Charlie’s park existed in a different dimension. It occupied the same ground yet was separate, like the body from the spirit.

Satisfied with my conciliatory answer, the rangers let us go.

After that tense close call, we decided that our cover was suspect, and this was probably LINC’s last mission in Cuyamaca, especially since we’d never heard back from the DEA about a reward. We had thoroughly searched along every flowing stream and learned plenty about illegal pot-growing on public lands. We had morphed into hiking hybrids — part Jerry Schad, part Rambo.

On the twilight drive home, we discussed the day’s gathered intel. We hadn’t given up hope of receiving compensation for our efforts. Shark suggested a remote part of Cuyamaca for the next hike.

“Naw, Cuyamaca’s been searched thoroughly,” Bull said.

“What about Laguna?” I offered. “It has running streams.”

“Yeah, and there’s still Mount Palomar. Charlie will be all over that one,” bellowed Bull, excited about the prospect.

The three of us leaned into a sharp, hairpin turn.

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"This is Steve Reed with the DEA," said the man on the phone.

“You called the DEA several months ago about a possible irrigation line you found in Cuyamaca State Park,” he continued. “I have a Post-it note on my bulletin board with your phone number.”

The growers’ breakfast was still cooking via a small fire under a flat rock that served as a griddle for tortillas and beans.

“Ah, yeah, I did call that in,” I hesitantly confirmed.

“What do you think it is?” pressed Agent Reed.

“Well, it was an irrigation tube about one inch in diameter, buried in the pine straw and way off the main trail.”

I thought about the spring day my two hiking buddies and I were off-trail, crashing through dense thickets of tangled brush. It was growing dark, and the three of us had gotten separated. I stopped to rest and happened to look down and I saw a plastic pipe. I wondered why an irrigation tube would be way out there.

Another rope held strips of freshly killed deer meat.

To the agent I said, “I followed the black pipe for about 20 feet before it disappeared into a thicket. At first I thought the park rangers were watering trees or something, but I wised up when I saw how well hidden it was. I hooked up with my buddies, and we returned to check out the hose before we headed back out to the main trail.”

The gun's plastic sheath lay on the ground, along with an open box of 12-gauge double-ought buckshot shells.

“Can you tell me how to get there?” Agent Reed asked. “We recently had a bust at Cuyamaca, and I’m trying to find out if it’s the same location.”

I’d read about that bust in the Union-Tribune, one of the top five drug busts in San Diego County, a marijuana field with a street value of $300 million.

The weed was trimmed here, as evidenced by half a dozen petite scissors hanging from a branch.

“No, it was too remote, real thick brush,” I said, “and it was getting dark when we left. But I think I could find it again.”

“That would be great.”

“When do you want me to look for it?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” My brain whirled with the logistics of a deep-brush penetration on such short notice. “Would it be all right if I brought my buddies along?”

“Sure,” said Steve. “Call me if you find anything.”

I sat in my oversized La-Z-Boy, trying to sort out what had just transpired, and what was expected. I was going to assist the DEA with looking for pot in the bowels of Cuyamaca park. What, exactly, had I volunteered to do?

My hiking pals and I have nicknames we use when embarking on deep-woods diving. One friend is Bull, the other Shark. I’m Goat. I gave my friends a call.

Bull said, “I’ll have my gear packed tonight.”

Shark said, “Hell, yeah, bro, frickin’ frickin’ bro bro bro! I’ll be packin’, bro! I’ll bring MREs [meals ready to eat] for all of us.” Shark was the only one of us with military service.

When the Princess got home, I switched gears from, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” to a more nuanced, “This is a civic duty, honey.”

Before the sun had risen above the mountains east of Santa Ysabel, Shark, Bull, and I were packed into my Dodge Ram pickup, our full packs bouncing in the open bed as we drove to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Arriving before the park kiosk opened, we self-registered and geared up.

Shark handed out the military MREs encased in brown plastic. “Bro, these are great! Twenty-five-hundred calories each. This is what the SEALs eat on special ops.”

Bull pulled a megaphone from his pack to insert the MRE.

Shark asked, “What’s that for, bro?”

“In case we run into any dopers,” Bull said.

We stepped off onto a well-groomed trail. Our boots crunching dirt made a muffled sound. High-pitched bird calls emanated from the dead pine treetops, announcing us as intruders. After a half mile, the trail gently dropped to a creek bed. Clear water gurgled between white-barked mountain lilac saplings and tall weeds choked with poison oak.

“This is it,” I said hesitantly, not quite trusting my recollection.

“You sure?” said Bull.

“It must be. I remember this creek.”

“Let’s go,” whispered Shark, not wanting to be seen out on the groomed trail.

We headed uphill into heavy brush, looking for a deer skull we’d found on the previous trip; we hoped to use it as a location marker. Inevitably, we parted ways, as each man chose his own brush-choked maze.

For the next half hour, we tried in vain to penetrate the green wall, finding no passage short of a belly crawl into the labyrinth. We retreated back to the trail. We were breathing deeply from our failed efforts, our camouflage outfits embedded with twigs and leaves.

I apologized for the energy and time lost. “I could have sworn we came out just before a creek last time.”

“We’ll never get through that mess,” Bull said. “Let’s keep going on the trail.”

A few minutes later, we felt the cooler, moist air of another brook ahead. We crossed the water and ascended the left bank. The brush here was patchy, with gaps between clumps. Shark motioned with military-style hand signals that he’d found the deer skull; we knew it was the same one by a puncture wound below its right eye, probably a cougar kill.

With renewed resolve, we now became human pinballs, bouncing off impassable bumpers of brush into narrow passes that ejected us finally onto a grassy hillside. The buckwheat-covered slope ran along the same creek we’d crossed earlier. The creek was choked with thickets and blackened trunks of oak and white fir, the dead titans mutely testifying to the devastating Cedar Creek fire.

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“Man, I smell a skunk,” I whispered to Shark.

“I smell it, too. Frick, it has to be close, bro.”

It dawned on us simultaneously — it might not be a skunk. Shark halted. He pulled out his camo binoculars, glassing the wall of emerald foliage below. “Goat, take a look there, bro.” He handed me the binoculars. I swung the glasses in the general direction of the creek. “Do you frickin’ see it?” Shark said. “Between the two trees, 30 yards into the brush, bro.”

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?”

“Yeah?”

“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.

Steve said, “I can’t believe we didn’t spot this before. You can tell this farm has been here for years.”

We passed several campsites filled with heaps of trash. In one, the growers’ breakfast was still cooking via a small fire under a flat rock that served as a griddle for tortillas and beans. All the bags of food stores contained Mexican cuisine: bottles of Tapatio hot sauce, cans of refried beans, packages of corn tortillas, and an assortment of chilies.

Steve answered his cell phone; it was his ground team at the park’s entrance. “You won’t be able to find us,” Steve informed them. He looked at us and, holding the phone away from his ear, asked, “Can one of you lead my team in?”

It was a fat mile of brush-stomping back to the parking lot. Shark was already limping, and I didn’t have the energy. An awkward, silent moment ensued. “I’ll get ’em,” Bull offered, cinching up his backpack. Then he disappeared into the forest.

Knowing we were in for a long wait, Steve took a seat on four rocks that formed a chair with back and arms. No direct sunlight or heat penetrated the leafy canopy. He seemed pleased and content to rest and survey the mega-garden, relishing the size of this day’s conquest. He looked like a hippie emperor on a petrified throne. He was one happy narc.

“So, Steve,” Shark said. “How much is this frickin’ worth, bro?”

“See this?” Without getting up, Agent Reed grabbed a huge gooey bud. “Three thousand dollars.” He grabbed another, “three thousand,” and another, “three thousand.” Each resin-encrusted bud was larger than a man’s forearm.

Shark asked, “What keeps you from taking some of this, bro?”

Clearly, Steve had been asked this question before. Without hesitation he said, “I’m the third generation of law enforcement in my family. Not one of my relatives has ever gone bad, and I’m not going to ruin that legacy.”

The pungent odor was giving me a throbbing headache. I left the garden and ate lunch with Shark on the buckwheat hillside. We were finishing our hot MREs just as Bull led two green-uniformed men out of the woods. One was from the Bureau of Land Management Narcotics Task Force, the other from Army Reserve Drug Enforcement. Both men were armed.

Back in the hidden pot plantation, we spread out to probe the size of the field. We followed the extensive system of irrigation hose. In the approximate middle was the growers’ trash-strewn camp, years’ worth of human refuse. Shark found a walkie-talkie that worked and stashed it in his side pocket. A pile of resin-soaked clothing stood two feet high; the green-colored shirts and pants were too sticky to wear anymore, so they’d been discarded. Dozens of garbage bags — stuffed, ripped, and overflowing — littered the forest. I remembered an old television commercial that had showed a Native American crying when he saw his once-unspoiled environment trashed. This scene would have sent him on the warpath.

Along another trail, the growers had cut down four trees. Fifteen-foot-long logs formed a crude frame three feet off the ground. This frame had been lashed to trees, then woven together with sturdy rope, forming a cargo net–like platform that held several sleeping bags off the cold ground. The frame was worn smooth from years of use.

A long rope stretched between two trees, and on this rope hung dozens of drying, upside-down, bud clusters. Another rope held strips of freshly killed deer meat — no hunting permit required here. Cured by the sun’s rays, the deer’s translucent flesh had a pink glow, similar to cherry taffy. Bambi had been blasted by a long gun; its plastic sheath lay on the ground, along with an open box of 12-gauge double-ought buckshot shells.

Farther along another trail, an irrigation tube had been strung over a tree branch. An off/on irrigation valve controlled water flow. The crotch of the tree held bars of soap and bottles of shampoo, and a film of sudsy iridescent residue colored the earth.

Open bags of fertilizer and stashes of chemical growing supplements had been strewn all over the vast cannabis garden. Half a mile of black irrigation tubing and thinner feeder lines watered thousands of marijuana plants. At the lower end of the grow, alongside the creek, we found a hand-dug 15 x 15 foot pit. About six feet deep, it was half filled with rotting garbage and decomposing trash. There was no plastic, non-permeable liner to block the rancid leach.

Back at Steve’s throne, we six huddled up.

“Just once, I wish I could catch the bastards,” Steve fumed. “Make them clean up this mess.”

“What happens to the growers, now that they’ve lost this year’s crop?” I asked.

“With a garden this big, someone will die. The Mexican drug cartels are ruthless.”

“Do you fear for your life?”

“They know that the first time they kill one of us, we’ll come down on them hard. They don’t want to go there. Right now, it’s a serious game of cat and mouse. They grow their gardens, and we bust them. Sometimes they win, and sometimes they lose. This time they lost big. This pot field was planted on a north-facing slope. The sun doesn’t shimmer off the plants like it normally does, so we didn’t see it from the air. These little pricks were smart. This is one of the best grows I’ve ever seen. And they’ve used this field for years.”

Steve and his team got down to business. Drawing machetes from their packs, they started to cut down the plants. Shark, Bull, and I decided to go up the creek bed and scout for more grows.

“Should one of us go with them?” the Bureau of Land Management guy asked Steve.

“Naw, they’re okay.” Steve hacked at an inch-and-a-half-thick fibrous stalk.

I hope so, I thought.

We located the source of the irrigation, main lines immersed a hundred yards upstream. Then we continued on, hiking for an hour in thick brush. Briars ripped at our gaiters. Limbs slapped my face, raising welts. I hope we get a reward for all this effort, I thought. I belly-crawled into a promising spot, but there was nothing. After another hour, with no sign of pot or trash, we headed back.

At the garden, the scene had changed drastically. Thousands of pot plants had been cut down and stacked in neat piles throughout the grow. The three men looked like sugarcane-cutters harvesting a crop, machetes swinging high before slashing a stalk.

“Can we help?” we asked.

“Sure,” Steve said, his shirt soaked with perspiration. “But be sure to cut the plants below the lowest leaf, or it will grow back.”

We found pruning saws at one of the growers’ camps and pitched in.

“Keep track of how many you cut,” instructed the guy from the Army Reserve.

The task of felling the crop was hard, as real work always is. The THC resin got on everything; my gloves, pants, shirt, and saw soon were sticky from the clear tar. At one point, I had to leave the garden because the skunky bud stench made my pounding headache return. This cannabis garden was more than some coffeehouse hippie’s dream grow: This was a pot-production factory.

By late afternoon, the last few marijuana plants were whacked and stacked.

“What happens now?” Bull asked, sawing at a final stubborn stalk.

“We’ll call in a clean-up crew tomorrow,” said Steve. “They’ll pull all this weed out from below the tall trees, then pile it onto cargo nets in the clearing. The choppers can lift it out from there.”

I swilled a few last gulps of warm water. “How many plants, Steve?” I asked.

“Sixteen-thousand five-hundred eighty-two.” Sweat dripped from under the do-rag and trickled down his cheeks, gathering in his bushy beard.

“Hey,” said Shark, “what if the growers come back tonight and take it all, bro?”

“We’ll have a guard here all night,” said Steve. He had a don’t-get-any-funny-ideas edge to his voice. “We’re going to trace some of the doper trails that lead off the back of the grow. This place is lousy with ’em.”

Bull, Shark, and I were done with our long dope-day adventure and elected to leave the way we’d slogged in, not wanting to get tangled in more unknown brush as darkness fell. In 40 minutes, we arrived at the parking lot. Ten minutes later, we heard Steve and his posse crashing toward us from the woods.

Hard labor and a job well done are great equalizers among men. And so it was as we six leaned around the ground crews’ trucks, savoring icy cold soft drinks from a cooler.

“So, Steve, heh-heh, what’s our reward for this, bro?” Shark chuckled.

“Oh, we’ll see if we can get you something,” Steve said. “Give me your contact information, and I’ll see what I can do.”

It had to be worth something, 16,582 bud plants off the streets.

We drove toward Santa Ysabel and home, the Dodge’s cab reeking of pot. Bull said, “I sure hope we don’t get pulled over.” He rolled down his window to air out the cab.

It was late when we parted. I undressed in my garage, dropping the resin-soaked clothing on a piece of cardboard. A deer tick crawled along my stomach.

Several days later, the big Cuyamaca drug bust burst to the top of the local news. The story showed choppers hauling out bulging cargo nets of pot plants. Several officers stood around a clean-shaven Steve Reed, who was touting the big haul to the media which had gathered to glean the details.

“Hey, honey, we’re on!” I shouted, proud that Bull, Shark, and I had initiated this bust. Steve briefly mentioned something about how “hikers found pot,” but beyond that it was his bust. Oh well, I thought, surely the reward will be coming. A couple hundred bucks, a confiscated doper’s car, something.

We hashed and rehashed the adventure in detail for a few days, working ourselves into a frenzy of what-ifs.

Shark said, “Steve won’t forget us, bro! It says on the Drug Enforcement website that there’s rewards. Frick! Bro bro. Where there’s one [grow], there’s two, and where there’s two, there’s three!”

“Yeah, let’s get stompin’!” Bull said. “I’ve got a topo map of the whole park. Where the water is, the dope is.” Visions of big booty from the pot-park detectives danced in our heads.

Bull thought up an acronym for our group: LINC — Locate Investigative Narcotics Contact. We knew it wasn’t a game, but Cuyamaca was being thrashed. The Drug Enforcement Agency was stretched thin. If we could do some of the boots-on-the-ground work, maybe we could free just this one park from the pot pigs.

By the next Saturday, we were head high in brush, brambles, and manzanita before the sun rose. We followed an obscure park trail on the south side, several ridges over from our previous find. A dry stream bed crossed under the trail.

“No water, no pot,” I said, dejected that we’d come so far for nothing.

Bull stomped down the dry creek bed, crashing and then disappearing into a chaotic network of brambles.

“Bingo!” he shouted. “We got water!”

The faint flow increased as we followed the stream. With the growers’ confiscated walkie-talkie, we listened in on a voiceless communication code of clicks and clacks, unable to decipher the code. With our own walkie-talkies, we communicated in whispers. After 50 yards, we had a running creek. At 200 yards, Shark keyed his mic with our agreed-upon code word, “Bingo!” He was looking at a small segment of black irrigation hose in the creek bed, well hidden except for a one-foot section.

We traced the one-inch-diameter hose into a thick maze of lilac and burnt pines, tracking it under fallen trees, through briar patches, and into seemingly impenetrable thickets. We surged past each other in spurts, eager to find a new field, each man wanting to be the first one there. Twenty minutes of effort paid off as we stumbled exhausted into a zone that was underbrush-free. We huddled together to listen. Not hearing anyone, we began to survey a sapling forest that had been cleared by human hands.

We warily explored the acre-plus prepped zone and came to the conclusion that this was a fallow field waiting to be planted at a later date. It was nearly void of trash, a sure sign that no growers were around. Only a few hundred plastic starter cups in an open clearing and some green-handled shovels gave away the area’s intended purpose.

After thoroughly checking the immediate vicinity, we pushed farther down the ever-widening valley. We named it “la Drang Valley” and the elusive Mexican growers we called “Charlie.” Just like in the Vietnam War, these enemy combatants were stealthy and bush-savvy. Signs of Charlie’s presence were everywhere — burnt-up hoses from previous grows, old rusty shovels, empty food cans.

Long shadows grew even longer across the gorge as ebony fingers reached out from carbonized tree trunks. We were tired and knew that to retrace our steps uphill would be exhausting and difficult in the dark, so we continued down, knowing we would eventually hit the main road.

The profuse brush along the stream bed became impassable, forcing us to rise above it. We followed a worn deer trail a hundred feet up on the north slope, rock-hopping as the sun ebbed in intensity. It was slow going. Three wrinkled $20 bills at the Barona Casino couldn’t be more spent than we were. We had poked and prodded almost every thicket in the valley. Charlie was crafty and we were tired.

“That looks like Charlie’s kind of zone over there,” I suggested, pointing to a thick, shaded stand of burnt pine trees 200 yards back across la Drang Valley. “I can feel it,” I said. “That grove of trees is Charlie’s. It’s a north-facing slope with a stream next to it.” I had been wrong a half dozen times that day with my ethereal I-can-feel-it vibe.

Shark and Bull were decidedly not feeling it. They took off their packs to rest. “I’m going over to that grove,” I said. “That’s gotta be Charlie’s.”

An unstable, sketchy descent down a rock face, followed by a briar-filled stomp brought me to a brush-choked stream that burbled just out of sight. I approached cautiously, unsure where my next step would fall and acutely aware that I was solo. Teetering across the stream on rocks covered by weeds, I tripped, falling face-first into the far bank. Sprawled prone, I was vulnerable to snakes and bolted up from fear. At eye level, three feet away, stood a lone pot plant. The danger level jumped exponentially.

“Bingo! We have a Bingo situation,” I whispered into the walkie-talkie clipped to my shoulder strap.

“What ya got, bro? Over,” Shark said.

“Pot plant. Over.”

We were all physically out of gas, so Bull and Shark weren’t about to motor across the valley for another old shovel or burnt irrigation tube. However, motivated by my answer, they crossed la Drang in less than five minutes. I stayed put, not wanting to advance into Charlie’s garden alone.

We advanced single file. Shark, a loaded .45 in hand, took the lead.

After awhile we spread out.

“Hey, I got a hooch,” Bull radioed.

“There’s a bunch of military camo clothes over here,” Shark said.

Like Charlie’s other camp, this one was well hidden among the dead incense cedar, Coulter pines, and ubiquitous lilac bushes. It revealed its secrets slowly. We’d become smarter about the evasive Mexi pot farmers, and began to piece together the clues from their abandoned camp.

The intact pot plants were few, but hundreds of cut stalk stumps dotted the weeds extending beyond the camp. Either Charlie had harvested the weed or Steve Reed’s team had. We surmised it was the latter, possibly as part of the bust we’d read about in the Union-Tribune prior to Steve’s call. As at our earlier bust, this deserted camp was trashy, with discarded green military camouflage clothes in heaps, garbage piles, rotting food, chemicals, and open fertilizer bags scattered about with no regard for the running stream. Charlie was not a member of the Sierra Club.

We took what little spoils and trinkets we wanted, a flashlight, a folded military shovel, a battery charger, a small pick — trophies of war. Charlie was being out-maneuvered in la Drang Valley. And seeing what little regard he had for one of San Diego’s premier parks, he had to go.

Over the next month, we repeatedly scoured Cuyamaca state park, arriving early and leaving past dark. We made a dozen missions in total, all focused on finding Charlie’s hidden operations. Using our ever-accumulating intel on the enemy, we tracked his special shoe prints in the trail dust. The dotted sole pattern was between a size six and a size eight. Then the prints abruptly ended next to an ever-so-faint track that led into the brush. Hunting animals is easy; hunting humans is hard. The dopers made what we called slip trails — just wide enough for a human to slip through by tearing off face-high branches. These trails were almost imperceptible at first, but once on them, Charlie grew sloppy, leaving bits of trash, a Corona beer bottle, scraps of toilet paper, a green wool glove. These clues were not from stay-on-the-trail weekend gringo hikers who lived by the pack-it-in/pack-it-out mantra.

On one recon mission, we started out together as usual, but soon dispersed into our habit of following individual hunches. We stayed in contact via radio.

“Bingo! I’ve got lots of trash. Over,” Bull said. I could hear the hope of a big find in his voice.

Immediately, in the distance, I heard branches snapping as Shark plowed toward Bull’s last known location. I, on the other hand, was trapped in mountain lilac thickets so prolific that going directly through the bushes was the path of least resistance.

“Goat, where are you? Over.”

“I’m still brambled up. Over.”

Communications continued for several minutes, but the dense thicket of lilac had won. Immobilized, I panted, exhausted and out of options as to how to penetrate the impenetrable. I felt trapped and defenseless. This was Cuyamaca; a cougar had killed a woman here. We’d seen several deer carcasses, obvious cougar kills.

I was now imprisoned in this sapling snare, so entangled in branches, I was unable to get to my gun or knife. My energy was nearly expended. If a cougar wanted me, I was human jerky. Fear overwhelmed me. In desperation, I mentally aborted meeting up with my camo comrades. I cinched down my bush hat, and with lowered head, goat-rammed the thicket. Branches fought back, whipping and welting my face as I advanced a single yard. Again. Another yard gained. I was grunting like a lowland gorilla. Slowly, I head-butted through the green maze. Fifteen minutes later, the stubborn bush ejected me out onto a wide dirt trail. I was exhausted yet elated to be free.

Shark was concerned with my whereabouts. “Bro bro, hey, Goat, what’s your 20, bro? Over.”

“My 20 is I’m not coming into that damn green death trap again. What did you find? Over.”

“Frickin’! Bro, we’ve got a frickin’ camp with sleeping bags, cooking stove, food, clothes, trash. Looks like Charlie’s been here a long time, bro. We’re goin’ to check out some more trails. Over and out.”

I walked the dirt trail looking for doper signs. The slightest whisper of a potential slip trail beckoned now. Rested and newly curious, I followed it back into the thickets. Was it just a deer trail? I wondered. Deeper in, a lone, cleanly cut branch at eye level said otherwise. Finally, the slip trail gave up its mysteries, revealing black plastic trash bags, green tarps, and green canvas duffel bags. A clearing contained mounds of pot plant stalks and human trash. A heap of withered cannabis leaves gave off the heady smell of reefer.

“Bingo!” I whispered into the radio before slipping back to the safer dirt trail. Bull and Shark had to retrace their paths out of the bush, then hike on groomed park trails to reach me. It took them about 30 minutes. It lifted my spirits to see the rest of the LINC team members arrive.

We investigated Charlie’s hideout and concluded that it was a processing center. The weed was trimmed here, as evidenced by half a dozen petite scissors hanging from a branch. The finished product was put into black plastic garbage bags, then stuffed into olive-green military duffel bags before being packed out, probably at night along the nearby park trail.

The slip trail exited the rear of the processing area, leading directly to the growers’ campsite that Bull and Shark had just discovered. We followed numerous other trails, looking for the actual grow site, but sundown put a halt to the quest. As LINC hiked out, it became as clear as the star-studded night sky that Charlie had his own park inside Cuyamaca park. Over years, they’d built an extensive labyrinth of trails, grow fields, processing centers, and sleeping zones, complete with packed coolers and food-preparation areas. Ten sleeping bags meant ten growers, all living and working for years under the noses of the park rangers.

How had they stayed hidden so long? Were some or even one of the rangers in on it? “Look the other way, and we’ll give you, say, $100,000 a year.” How much money does a park ranger make? “Okay, ranger boy, make it $200,000. Just let us know when it’s safe to transport and when the DEA starts snooping around.” We didn’t rule out this hypothetical scenario.

One day, we got a late start. After gearing up in the main parking lot, two rangers on duty, one male and one female, approached us.

“Who do you guys work for?” the male ranger asked after seeing our camo attire.

“We can’t tell you, bro,” Shark answered firmly.

“No, really,” the ranger insisted. “Are you with the DEA or the sheriff’s drug task force?”

“We’re not allowed to say, bro,” Shark said.

“Are you here to recover that load of pot that the helicopter dropped awhile back?” the female ranger asked.

“Can’t answer that, ma’am,” Shark persisted, cool as a mountain stream.

“Well, we’ve seen your red truck in here a lot lately, and we need to know who you work for.”

Noting their shiny, black Glocks, I offered a compromise. “Sir, Ma’am, I can assure you that we’re on your side. There’ve been a lot of pot growers using this park, and we’re here to help with the eradication effort. ”

“Not in this park! I’d know if they were growing any more here,” the male ranger assured us. His green shirt was neatly creased; his matching pleated shorts revealed perfectly tanned legs without a scratch on them. This was a park ranger who monitored the groomed trails for hikers with picnic baskets. Yogi and Boo Boo would have felt right at home. But Charlie’s park existed in a different dimension. It occupied the same ground yet was separate, like the body from the spirit.

Satisfied with my conciliatory answer, the rangers let us go.

After that tense close call, we decided that our cover was suspect, and this was probably LINC’s last mission in Cuyamaca, especially since we’d never heard back from the DEA about a reward. We had thoroughly searched along every flowing stream and learned plenty about illegal pot-growing on public lands. We had morphed into hiking hybrids — part Jerry Schad, part Rambo.

On the twilight drive home, we discussed the day’s gathered intel. We hadn’t given up hope of receiving compensation for our efforts. Shark suggested a remote part of Cuyamaca for the next hike.

“Naw, Cuyamaca’s been searched thoroughly,” Bull said.

“What about Laguna?” I offered. “It has running streams.”

“Yeah, and there’s still Mount Palomar. Charlie will be all over that one,” bellowed Bull, excited about the prospect.

The three of us leaned into a sharp, hairpin turn.

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