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In ‘Rocky Mountain High,’ Finn Murphy’s brief stint in the Wild West of the cannabis industry yields no riches except stories

Christian Northeast for The Boston Globe

Anyone who read Finn Murphy’s best-selling debut, “The Long Haul,” will recognize the engaging voice that animates the pages of his new memoir, “Rocky Mountain High.” With savvy and sass, Murphy’s narration traces his 13 months in the industrial hemp business from the initial purchase of a 36-acre farm in Boulder County, Colo., to the dispersal of a lot of expensive equipment at fire-sale prices. Given the book’s subtitle, it’s not exactly a spoiler to say that things didn’t go well. Yet Murphy’s attitude throughout even the most trying experiences — and there were plenty — is to determinedly relish the many varieties of experience life throws at you.


He’s already had an all-over-the-map career as a small business owner, we learn in “Rocky Mountain High.” His companies imported sweaters from Ireland and cashmere from Scotland. He did private-label manufacturing, advised on warehouse space usage, opened high-end retail shops and a pest-control company. “I knew what I was doing when it came to business,” he asserts. And what his business know-how told him in 2019 was that the newly legalized industrial hemp trade was on the verge of a boom stoked by the craze for CBD, the oil from hemp proclaimed as an all-purpose health boon. “This hemp thing could become the big score I’d been looking for my whole life,” Murphy concluded.

He found himself in a flood of eager new hemp producers that so overwhelmed the Colorado Department of Agriculture that he couldn’t get the required license to plant in time for that year’s growing season. He wound up processing and storing hemp for neighboring growers with a license, agreeing that they would figure out a fee for his services later, when he could add up his total costs. You’d think that someone who talks knowledgeably about organization charts and risk assessment would spot that red flag, but Murphy’s point is that he was as snowed as anyone else by the promise of hemp as the Next Big Thing. He started spending money and hiring labor, confident that the horde of eager buyers currently paying $350 a pound would be there to do it again next year, making it easy for his growers to pay what he could already see would be a substantial bill.


Murphy loves to explain how things are done, and we learn a lot here about everything from how to build a hoophouse for drying hemp (laboriously) to how to find a bank willing to service a largely cash business of barely established legality (with difficulty). The dense details are occasionally eye-glazing, but Murphy strives — sometimes a bit too strenuously — to leaven his encyclopedic sharing of information with a breezy tone. He has a sharp eye for human absurdities and a wonderful ear for dialogue that spotlights it. Among the standouts is the smooth, slightly patronizing sales patter of a “budtender” at a Boulder dispensary flogging product to a visiting baby boomer eager to take advantage of Colorado’s legal recreational marijuana: “You appear to be a connoisseur from the twentieth-century cannabis vanguard. I mean that most respectfully.”

Murphy relishes the small business life for its proximity to a lot of different people, all of whom he finds worth knowing, if not necessarily liking. He’s a great storyteller who tells other people’s stories with as much gusto as he tells his own. To the gallery of vivid thumbnail sketches that enlivened “The Long Haul,” readers can happily add the parade of one-of-a-kind characters captured here. Tadziu, who services the porta-potty set up for Murphy’s workers camping on site, was a factory efficiency expert in Poland. “Big stress…People not happy to see me.” He prefers cleaning toilets, he declares: “[P]eople love to see me.” A young woman from Mendocino pulls up in an RV and promptly sets up a solar shower and some picnic tables to provide bathing facilities and after-hours beers to the crew. “I do love an entrepreneur,” Murphy deadpans.


His crew were “flotsam from the traditional economy,” among them a Vietnam veteran who came home with a heroin habit; his son, who came home from Iraq with PTSD; and Murphy’s crew boss, Manuel, so all-capable that “he could have been running a space shuttle launch” but instead is pigeonholed as a day laborer because he’s a Latino without a fancy college degree. Simmering underneath Murphy’s entertaining tales of his employees’ ramshackle lives is his open contempt for “the myth of the American Dream [that] you have the freedom to pull yourself by your bootstraps. Oh yeah?”

The Colorado hemp boom is fueled by another component of the American Dream: “Easy money, ride the wave, invest in farmland on the endless prairie.” That endless prairie is in fact, Murphy points out, a Great American Desert that American dreamers have been trying unsuccessfully to turn into productive farms for 150 years. A capsule history of the Colorado industrial booms preceding hemp (beaver, gold, silver, shale oil, a component of steel called molybdenum, and fracking) underscores his point: Booms are always followed by busts, and dreamers will eventually be forced to confront reality.


He was one of those dreamers, Murphy admits, but “I had a blast in the Hemp Space”; he enjoyed the ride and, most of all, the folks he met along the way. “Rocky Mountain High” is a cautionary tale told with a good deal of wit and a refreshing lack of self-pity.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH: A Tale of Boom and Bust in the New Wild West

By Finn Murphy

Norton; 256 pages, $27.95

Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”