The Huckleberry Haj

The butterflies were all around us.

Wave after wave, spasms of blue flowed in and out of the space between us like a shimmering, levitated river threading through the forest of high, silent pine. The brown dust of the road covered the waist-high berry bushes.

Yet, we couldn’t keep our eyes off the butterflies.

They were migrating through the Cascade mountains and we were there -- in the right place -- to not only see them, but feel them, to be enveloped in their flashing color. It was a surreal, perfect moment that could have easily been missed.  

A perfect place. A perfect moment.

We were there to pick the huckleberries.
The Berry

That first year, we had not gone where the park ranger told us to pick. Instead, we followed my sister Mindy, who led us off the main road, and then 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.

The huckleberry is similar to a wild blueberry, but with more tartness and flavor.  It grows wild in the Indian Haven and the forests on Mount Adams near Trout Lake, 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. Juice, purple and blue. In places you need only stop and walk 10 yards into the waist-high brush to see the dark spheres of sweetness.

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.

The year of the butterflies was the first. Grace was still in diapers. Mindy showed us where to find the berries. Each year we returned. The Huckleberry Haj became the MUST moment of our year.

The butterflies painted this one place with magic blue only once, but they cemented in us a spiritual connection to the forest around us, to this time and this place. 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, me and my daughters -- all of us out in the woods for hours on summer days. High on the mountain, it was cooler, quiet, save for the the wind swaying the lodgepole pine, the chatter of a jay, the scurrying of chipmunk or squirrel.

My mom has picked berries since she was a child. Her Swedish-born mother would send her into the New England woods with a pail and tell her not to return until is was full of blueberries.

When we moved west, we would go berry picking too -- to make jams and jellies.
Amy and Mindy were the most ardent berriers. Amy doesn’t like to return until we fill a Coleman cooler with berries. The two of them would pick and talk the hours away, following the berry deep into the forest.

The girls are better now, but in the early years would just fill their stomachs rather than the little plastic buckets tied on ropes around our waists or hung about their necks. Suspending the buckets allows you to pick with two hands. Yet for every plunk in the bucket, three more berries always went into Grace’s mouth.

When the girls got bored, it was my job to corral them and keep them occupied. To stay close so that Amy and Mindy and Mom could stay on the trail of the berry. Mom’s yellow Lab Wendy ran relay between the pickers and the dilettantes who meandered back to the truck for sandwiches and juice.

The Huckleberry Haj is our summer constant. Our annual rite taking us 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. We store it away in little tupperware containers in the cooler. 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.

We make this pilgrimage every year to pay homage to the sun and the good slow days before they slip away.

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 Stage 1 - caught early on an x-ray looking for something else. She had a surgery to remove one lobe of her lung, then chemotherapy to eradicate any remaining cancer cells. The chemo was hard on Mom, but Mindy lived just a few blocks away. 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. Paying attention, making the right change at the right time, taking chances.. Chemotherapy is a science of trial and error. It takes a stubborn and determined patient. Mindy would not give up so easily. At times her husband drained a liter of fluid a day out of her lungs through a valve sewn into her side.

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.

My mom’s cancer was caught early -- just a tiny shadow in a single lobe of one lung.
Mindy’s cancer was caught late -- 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. My aunt and cousin were also diagnosed with adenocarcinoma -- on the far side of the country -- about the same time.

Mindy’s was the most aggressive, it seemed.

So it seems there is some sort of genetic predisposition, but as far as I can tell, it is little understood. Mindy had never smoked, was young and otherwise healthy and active. Perhaps that is what helped Mindy get accepted into clinical trials at Oregon Health Science University for oral medications genetically matched to her tumors.  

Four days after she started taking the pills, she called me.

“I think this medicine is working,” she told me. “I’ve stopped coughing.”

The spasmodic cough was so agonizing it could silence a room. It was a hallmark of her malady.

“It can’t be,” I told her. “Nothing works that quickly.”

Yet, a few weeks later she was scheduled for a CT guided biopsy of the tumor in her lung. She lay on the table in the room waiting for the radiologist. There was activity in the control room, but no word to her. Finally, they told her - the tumors had shrunk so much, there was not enough there to take a sample. The tumors had shrunk by 85 percent.

She saw her youngest son graduate from high school that year.

Last year she was there with us, picking huckleberries, but Mom was worried.

The experimental drugs were miraculous, but not enduring. Her cancer was so aggressive that it mutated around the drugs. So her oncologists got her into another trial -- this one with no significant effect -- and then another trial with better results. She lost her glorious black hair. Rather than wear a wig in the hot summer of Eastern Oregon, she got a henna tattoo to decorate her bald head. Each drug that worked, worked a little less than the one before. She had good days and bad days. She had radiation for tumors in her brain and in her breast. There were complications of the medications, complications of the cancer.

Her days got shorter. She woke late and took time to get going, for the spasmodic cough to subside enough for her to eat. At night she was tired but stayed up late, unable to shut off a racing mind.

After four years, we were out of options. She went on hospice. The same week the decision was made, 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 and disoriented.She became confused, and frustrated at her confusion.
I brought her frozen huckleberries for her to eat. 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.

She turned to her son Zach.

“I want there to be huckleberries in the house this year,” she said to him. “If I can’t make it, promise me you’ll go, so there will be huckleberries.”

“I promise,” he said.

“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. 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.

Each year our scheduled lives more crowded with clutter. Once the kids were in school and 4H, we had to make sure we scheduled the haj around fair and the onset of the new school year.

In the berry 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.

Summer is short.

We take time out for the Huckleberry Haj each year to capture a little piece of blue flying 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.


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