The huckleberry, for the rare Northwesterner who is oblivious to its existence, is a small, violet fruit. As legend has it, the huckleberry is untamable, an elusive entity incapable of being domesticated and bred in captivity.
A huckleberry must be caught. Perhaps it is this sense of the chase that drives hundreds of pickers into the evergreen-blanketed mountains of the Inland Northwest every summer, scavenging for a perfect patch among the towering trunks of ancient pines.
I have found this calling undeniable. Every summer it finds me once again scaling Big Secret Mountain in the back of an old Ford pickup, the dust of the old service road coating the sides like a dry summer snow.
My grandmother rides shotgun, a gallon milk jug with the top cut off already tied to her hip, the sign of a seasoned gatherer. My uncle drives.
We have been through this routine many times, a communal voyage into the great unknown, with my grandma’s homemade walnut fudge and the quiet static of an old Johnny Cash song on the radio. But as we climb higher into the mountains, the world does not disappear; it comes into focus.
Stepping out of the truck and into the elements, I slide down the nearest embankment and into a field of green-leaved plants, small, succulent orbs bending their frail limbs like so many violet ornaments on a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Nature has lured me in once again.
As I plunge into my task with the sound of snapping twigs and the naiveté of a novice, my grandmother begins her picking in a series of calculated and practiced steps.
There are two classifications of berry-picker. The experienced ones are those like my grandmother, veteran harvesters who will make the yearly pilgrimage to the mountains “until hell freezes over.” (I have also found that they are quite fond of using expressions like, “until hell freezes over.”) Many of them have not missed a chance to pick for more than twenty years, and they are the mentors to the next generation of huckleberry enthusiasts.
A veteran berry picker can be recognized by the look of determination in her eyes and the mostly full container of berries adhered to her hip.
Only in occasional comments from scattered points, their source hidden from view in the sea of green and scarlet and earth, am I reminded of my grandmother’s presence.
“I found another good patch!” she calls out excitedly. “But stay away! These ones are mine!” And I respond nonchalantly through a mouthful of berries that my patch is better anyway, so there is no need for concern.
You see, the other classification consists of pickers like me. They are easily recognized by the empty bucket tossed unceremoniously to the side, and the scarlet and purple stains around their mouth, as if they were participants in a two-finger fistfight with a horde of huckleberries and came out in second place.
And so I sit there, soaking in the sun and the mountain air and the smell of fresh rain, with a belly full of huckleberries and walnut fudge.
In the end, however, it is not the huckleberries, the experiences and laughs shared throughout the day with my uncle, or the occasional comment from my otherwise focused grandmother that make the day memorable. It is the feeling that I have captured a small piece of nature’s mystery that can’t be found in a grocery store or picked in neat, processed rows from an orchard.
I have captured the untamable entity, if only for a day.
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