Writer’s Notebook: The Huckleberry Haj
By Ed Hunt
Board of Contributors
We make a pilgrimage to the forests on the slopes of Mount Adams every August.
We go to pick the huckleberries.
Our first year into the woods – almost 10 years ago – we ignored the park ranger’s advice.
Instead, we followed my sister Mindy, who led us off the main road, and up another road. The weathered ruts had tortured the truck’s suspension, but yielded to a flat parking area surrounded by trees. Below the trees were the berry bushes, thriving in the light created by windfalls and clearings. A swarm of blue butterflies undulated through the sighing forest. They encircled our bodies, danced at our fingertips. It was magical.
The huckleberry is similar to a wild blueberry, but with more tartness and flavor. It grows wild in Indian Heaven and the forests on Mount Adams near Trout Lake, Wash., Ice Caves and Natural Bridges parks
In fact, if you drive along these roads in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, there is a good chance that the underbrush flashing by your windows holds this natural treasure.
So many pass this way without knowing what glory lies at their fingertips. If you only look. If you only stop and take the time to look, to pick, to savor.
Our first year, Grace was still in diapers. Each year we returned. The Huckleberry Haj became the must moment of our year.
That swarm of migrating butterflies painted this place with magic blue only once, but they cemented in us a spiritual connection to the forest around us. Like the annual Haj to the spiritual center of the Muslim world, this became an annual pilgrimage for my family. Each year we return to this place the pay homage to summer by gathering its fruits. This is the holy place of summer. The Huckleberry Haj is how we honor and remember.
My sister Mindy, my wife Amy, my mom, Alice, my daughters, Grace and Lindsay, and I spend hours in the woods on summer days. High on the mountain, it was cooler, quiet, save for the wind swaying the lodgepole pine, the chatter of a jay, the scurrying of chipmunk or squirrel.
Amy and Mindy were the most ardent berriers. Amy doesn’t like to return until we fill the old Coleman cooler with berries. The two of them would pick and talk the hours away, following the berry deep into the forest.
The Huckleberry Haj is the moment of transition from summer to fall.
After the Wahkiakum County Fair and before school starts again, we come up here to capture the last fruit of summer. When we get them home, we freeze them. You can use them in muffins or other baking if you like, but best of all is to just pop them still frozen in your mouth. Summer candy, on the darkest, rainiest winter day.
In the last few years, first Mom, and then Mindy, haven’t always made it up to pick with us.
Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago – it was in the fall, when the days were growing shorter. It was Mindy who was there to help her through the rough days.
It was Mindy who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer almost exactly one year later. Even with chemotherapy, they told her she only had six months to live.
By Christmas, she was so sick and frail and in pain, I did not think she would make it to the new year.
Miracles, sometimes, are just doctors and nurses just doing their job. Chemotherapy is a science of trial and error. It takes a stubborn and determined patient. Mindy would not give up so easily.
In early summer when her oldest son got married, Mindy was standing there in a gold dress, with long black hair, walking through the cherry blossoms, dancing in the sun.
We thought we had dodged another bullet. That, she, like Mom would now be OK.
We picked berries that summer – something I thought would be impossible six months before.
Yet doesn’t the summer seem impossible in the dark days of winter. Hope is a dream of a path through the winter to the spring.
Alas, Mindy’s cancer was caught late. It had spread throughout her body. Metastasis is a word that holds the appropriate malevolence. It is a diagnosis still whispered.
The cancer that both Mom and Mindy had was adenocarcinoma. It is the most common lung cancer contracted by people who never smoke. Mindy’s aggressive cancer soon returned.
After four years, we were out of options. She went on hospice. We went ziplining through the forest and rode my motorcycle – all with her oxygen tank strapped to her back.
She had her 49th birthday.
She would be strong and bright as friends and family visited, but increasingly she was tired and disoriented. She became confused, and frustrated at her confusion.
I brought her frozen huckleberries. The tart memory of our adventures came back, and we talked as we ate them. We recalled the secret hollow that Amy and Mindy had found a few years ago, where the berry bushes were thick and lush when the others were all picked over.
“The berries were the best last year,” she said. “There weren’t as many as you’d like, but the ones we had were so, so sweet.”
I started writing this four years ago when the dust from the rutted road was still on the dashboard of my truck.
I started writing this when the smell of the summer pine was still fresh in my mind.
I started writing this in a darkened hospital room alone with my sister, with snow falling outside and Christmas lights shining through her window.
The years since have been both cruel and kind, filled with torture, hard work and medical miracles. She fought for these years. She found the strength and joy each August to meet us on Mount Adams. To chat and laugh with Amy in the berry fields, not far from Indian Heaven.
The days of summer are deceptive and cruel.
The sun greets you in the morning and lingers late and warm into the evenings. It tricks you into believing in forever.
The days are long, but summer itself is short.
In the berry field, if we lose sight of each other in the brush and wood, we call to each other: “Marco!” and listen for the answer. “Polo!”
We lose sight of our troubles.
We lose sight of winter and dark days.
We take time out for the Huckleberry Haj each year to capture a little piece of blue fluttering by, a piece of summer that we will never get back.
The days we have are not as many as you would like, but the memories we have are so, so sweet.
Hunt’s sister, Mindy Whitmire, died in June of this year.
Ed Hunt is a writer and registered nurse who blogs on medical issues at redtriage.com and on other subjects at theebbtide.blogspot.com. He lives in Grays River, Wash.
The swarm of migrating butterflies painted this place with magic blue.