Originally published in “The Sun” literary journal
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The year before I moved to Montana, a guy shot another guy for picking huckleberries in, what he had so self-deemed, “his” huckleberry patch. Said he thought it was a Grizzly bear. Like that’s supposed to make it safer for huckleberry pickers everywhere. At that point, so new to my life in the Northern Rockies, I didn’t know what to fear more—the Grizzly bears or the homo sapien with the gun. I was a city girl. I was used to humans going amuck. Just not over huckleberries.
Over time, I made my peace with the bears. But this shift took practice. Tectonic practice. Many walks in the woods. I redefined my notion of surrender—from a letting go, to a moving in. I stopped watching shows about Grizzly bear attacks on The Discovery channel and started reading field guides instead. I put away my books with titles like “The Night of the Grizzly” and started talking with Glacier National Park forest rangers whose jobs entailed tracking these creatures, not sitting on their couches worrying about them. And they convinced me: the critters higher than I on the food chain, really didn’t want to eat me. They could, if I did something stupid and threatened them. But as long as I paid attention, I was about as likely to get eaten by a wild animal, as I was to get struck by lightening. And I am not a woman whose reaction to lightening has always been to look at it in awe, but not fear, necessarily. It wasn’t that different really than learning to hold onto my purse tightly on a crowded sidewalk and affecting the blank You-can’t-see-me-if-I can’t-see-you stare I had perfected in my years as a city-dweller. Don’t walk alone in a dark street equals don’t hike with a steak sandwich in your pocket. That sort of thing. In short, I bowed to the notion of being on the food chain and wore my new consciousness like a badge out on the trail. Finally, I swallowed the necessity for my communion with nature and if it ended in bloodbath, then it was still better than being stabbed on the subway and dying in the din of public transportation. But always in the back of my mind, it was this “huckleberry picker” that I feared. This breed of backwoods misfit, more lost than found. And a peace with him seemed harder and harder to strike the longer I lived outside the city where we humans are only prey of one another.
At a certain point, for the most part, I stopped entertaining my fears in the woods, so agog was I to the beauty and splendor that is my life here. Except for when friends would come to visit. It was at that junction that I would see myself through their eyes, and question the validity of myself as a truly-swallowed-whole Montana outdoorswoman. They’d be sitting at the kitchen table over morning coffee, blithely anticipating their day playing out under the Big Sky, and I’d hear myself saying things like:
“Have a great walk, but uh— if you see a mountain lion, get big, but don’t run. And if you see a moose, stand up against a tree and circle around until you tire it out. You might have to climb the tree, however. And if you see a bear, don’t move. Stand still. If it starts coming at you, get small, cover your vital organs, make sure you have sun glasses on. But if it’s just minding its own business, then stand your ground. You don’t want to offer yourself to it by curling up in a little ball like so much steak tartar. And here’s some bear spray. If you’re getting charged, you can slip back this lever and deter it with the red pepper spray. Hopefully there won’t be any wind. The family of black bears over there in the woods shouldn’t be any problem, but there is a Grizzly up over the ridge that wanders down this time of year so pay attention to scat and scratch marks on the trees. Whatever you do don’t run!” I didn’t say, was “the locals like to call bear spray: seasoning.” I’m no bully. Just informative by nature.
“Scat?” is usually the one word which would befall my visitor’s lips.
“Yeah. Poop. I’ve got a field book if you want. With color photographs and a ruler which helps identify it. It’s a lot of fun, actually.” And I’d cut myself off then, because I could tell, this thought was about appealing to my visitor as trying to identify the origin of the phlegm ball on the sidewalk in front of his or her apartment building.
Sometimes I’d try to launder the situation which I had just, in one fell swoop, laid limp, with a “the fairy slippers are in bloom” or “check out the four foot tall ant hill when you turn your first corner” or “you might find some huckleberries this time of year.” But then, it is remiss not to add, “just remember the bears really really like huckleberries too. And you don’t want to be their toast.”
One friend visiting from New York City peeped a pained, “I didn’t know huckleberries were a real thing. I thought they were, like—you know—cartoon characters—story people—Huckleberry Hound, or like, Huckleberry Finn– that sort of thing.”
“No, they’re real alright. And it’s no cartoon when you’re out there, either. The bears are hungry this time of year. And they don’t have the Consciousness Gene people are supposed to have. In other words, they don’t really care about you. You shouldn’t take it personally.”
Then he dumped the bear spray, scat book, and idea of a hike in the woods on the kitchen table, sat back down to the remainder of his cup of coffee, and slathered a piece of cold toast with about a quarter jar of my homemade huckleberry jam. I felt a little territorial, like I might shoot him for it. It was late August. My jam supply was low.
“This is not relaxing,” he said.
And here was my litmus test: am I really this person now—is the language of wildflowers and mule deer beds in the winter wheat really imprinted on my heart more than the Sunday Times crossword puzzle? Am I really more in touch with what’s singing in the larch snag out back, than what’s playing at the MET? Or am I an imposter?
So I shot him with this: “Why do people accept danger in the city, but not in nature? People=threat. Animals=furry little balls of Walt Disney fuzz. Have we forgotten that David had his Goliath? Ahab, his Moby? The Old Man in the Sea, his Fish? Jonah, his whale? Have the realities of the natural world become so far removed from our lives of urban and suburban sprawl that we don’t even see them as our intrinsic milieu? Tell me this: why would you, without even blinking, hop on the subway, accepting that you are sharing a small underground vessel with potential muggers, murderers and rapists, but blow-off your Montana morning walk due to the possible encounter with a cat, bear or—ah heck—I didn’t even mention the wolverines?”
His answer was the absolute stunning and depressing representation of what makes us Human: “Laura, I’m on vacation.”
My response was small and defensive (probably because I had just heard the phrase intrinsic milieu come out of my mouth): “So next time I’m in New York City, I guess I should expect to be exempt from muggers as I wait in line for Lion King tickets.”
“Honey, getting from point A to point B in the city is about necessity. We accept the inherent dangers therein. Taking a walk in the woods is just not a necessity.”
And I felt a hot wind inside me: “I guess I don’t agree with that idea anymore,” I said. “Pass the jam.”
And instead of taking the hike we had planned, my friend opted to go shopping at one of the myriad curios shop that plague my western town, pandering to folks who travel through here and have no problem dropping a few hundred bucks on the turquoise-studded belts and suede-covered picture frames and spur earrings and other total Ye Olde crap that feeds the myth of the American West. That day, as I sat in a taffy shop watching my friend buy a pound of huckleberry taffy made in Wisconsin, I have never felt more hungry for a walk in the woods. And I knew that I had slipped over into a perhaps tangled, perhaps mountain-lake-clear world in which I had come to trust nature more than my very own species.
It has been a decade since I moved to Montana, and I have seen Grizzly bears but never one that had any interest in me, no mountain lions, no wolverines. But it wasn’t until last week that I finally met my Huckleberry Maker, or his cousin, Morel Mike.
I was driving up the North Fork road that runs just west of Glacier National Park, with my two small children, to go mushroom picking. Our part of the country experienced the top-priority fire in the nation last summer, and the thousands of burned acres have produced, amongst a jigsaw puzzle of burned animal skulls and stray black bones, charred tree snags and ashen pine and fir cones…a mighty crop of morel mushrooms. As we jiggled over washboards above a brown and swollen and broiling Flathead River, usually a perfectly clear window to the rose and sage colored river rocks at its bottom, we should have taken that Montanan’s pause– should have taken the river’s condition as warning.
This was not the Nantucket of my youth where the bonny rogues grab nicely designed buckets from their un-muddy mudrooms and romp off in pink pants and rubber boots from the L.L. Bean catalogue to gather blueberries for their morning muffins. This is the land of Grizzly bears, burned tree snags– their roots so blazed through, that they fall flat in the wind without warning; widow-makers, they call them. This is the land of poisonous mushrooms that pose as delicacies. The land of giant cats, and yes, wolverines. I know all this, like I know the folds of my knuckles. But what I did not consider, is that this land is all this, and too, the land of the migrant worker.
The road was suddenly flanked by rusted-out cars and small groupings of blackened mushroom hunters, glaring territorially from the hillsides. I was driving in, high on Woodie Guthrie and dreams of morel and gruyere soufflé, and they were driving in on rusty floorboards missing muffler, tailpipe, wife, children, and dog with institution-sized plastic buckets and a twelve-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the can. Woodie Guthrie would have stopped mid-song phrase—this land was very suddenly, NOT my land. Not made for nothin’ except these fifty dollar a gallon fancy-ass mushrooms that my six-shooter can convince you fastern’ a flash on a flood that you’d better skeedaddle back to that Suburban of yours and go back to your air-conditioning, little girl. There was no friendly waving—not even the local’s too-cool-to-wave tip of the finger off the steering wheel, like, hey, bro, we belong… There was no slowing to make cute little local’s comments, like, hey—nice mushrooms. Where’s a girl go to get a mushroom like that in these parts? No Tell ‘um Ridge over near Never Wuzzer Pass? This was the land of my mother’s distant city-spawned words: “Lock the doors, roll up the windows.” I resisted, because I know better than to judge a person by the way that they look whether I’m in the city, the country or any other place. I thought.
As we drove through, stone silent, dodging dicey stare-downs, and interrupting illicit-looking exchanges by our very SUV-ish presence, I flashed on a sunny day in Eastern Washington in the early 90’s when my husband and I, then recent New England transplants, did what most New Englanders do on a sunny Sunday in autumn: we went apple picking. The rolling hills of Wenatchee had us salivating with eastern memories of stopping by red barn farm stands complete with do-it-yourself apple presses and attractive corn husk scarecrows. We anticipated the same ritual—grabbing a few wooden-slat buckets and going out to the orchards for a small fee. Making pie for days after. Applesauce. Apple Brown Betty.
By orchard by orchard we drove, with nary a barn in sight. What we did see were beat up vans parked on the side of the road, and hoards of dirty-skinned raggedy-dressed young men standing in trees on rickety ladders. Not at all the stuff of Apple Brown Betties. They looked stern and tired and pissed-off. We stopped at one orchard that had a Lord-of the-manor looking fellow addressing a new group of van-people, and approached him once he’d finished with the others.
“How much for a bucket of apples?” we said.
“Seven dollars a basket,” he said.
“That sounds reasonable,” I chimed.
So out we went, filled a few buckets, got sneered at by van people all the while, and returned, with hearty grins, but not quite Apple Brown Betty ones.
“Thanks,” my husband said, handing the man a twenty.
He looked at us, cocked his head as if seeing us for the first time, and let out a roar of a laugh that smelled like stale cigars and rotten apples. “I pay you. You don’t pay me!”
In that moment, we wished we were on Nantucket making blueberry muffins in pink pants. “You mean we were working just now? For you?” I whimpered.
“Yup. You pick the apples, I give you money, you give me the apples. This is America, in case you didn’t know it.”
“What if we want to keep the apples? And pay you for them?” I said, a little bigger, a little more American.
“Doesn’t work that way,” he said.
So we handed over our apples, and drove away with fourteen dollars in our pockets. All that and a liberal arts education can buy you a few cups of coffee at Starbucks. We didn’t talk until we saw the lights of Seattle. I think we went out for sushi that night. Used the fourteen dollars on the tip.
As I pulled off the road, past the mushroom pickers, I collected my children, a little sunnier than normal, a little too perky for my daughter’s taste.
“What’s wrong,” she said.
“Nothing, honey. Let’s pick us some mushrooms!”
She doesn’t miss a beat. “Who were all those people?”
“Mushroom pickers. Now remember, if you see a bear, stand still. Don’t run. And if Mommy has to use the bear spray, stand behind me. And avoid the trees if the wind picks up. This will be fun.”
She looked up at me deadpan. “I’m not scared of the bears or the trees. I’m scared of those men down by the road.” Remember, she is a Montana girl, born and raised and nature-fed.
“Oh, no! Don’t be scared of those people. They’re just people, like you and me. They’re just a little…dirtier. That’s all.”
She grabbed her bucket, begrudgingly. “Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure.”
And it occurred to me in that instant that I was perhaps the worst mother on the face of the planet. Because not only was I putting my children in the eye of a forest burn with widow makers blowing in the breeze and a healthy habitat of Grizzlies surely lurking in the breaches, but I was judging a book by its cover and lying about it, both, never mind the very real notion that this particular breed of human being represented a beaten-down and forgotten fragment of society which was capable of what any beaten-down and forgotten fragment of anything is capable of: love, fear, hate, murder, grace. I was scared, then, of it all. But a-mushroom picking we went.
As we knelt in the black-bottomed forest, we teetered on that thread of fear and wonder, picking morel after morel, my two year old clinging to my neck, like he knew something we didn’t. Then a beat-up old pick-up pulled in next to ours, not ten yards away, and a guy got out and sat in the cab, smoking a cigarette. My daughter looked at me, and I kept up my smile, clinging to the faith that carries us across that fine thread.
“There’s a whole cluster of ‘em! Look!” I chimed.
And her fears were forgotten to ten more morels.
I eyed the man, smoking, shirtless. And then we heard a shrill howl. My god, I didn’t think of wolves. We jumped—even my two year old jumped. And then we realized the howling was coming from the man in the pick-up truck.
I started laughing then. Nervously but unabashedly laughing. Just who had I thought I would see out here, up the North Fork, picking this bounty of morel mushrooms that go for fifty dollars a gallon to the local buyers? Travel writers for Gourmet and Bon Appetite? Foodies in khakis and chef’s clogs? Wolfgang Puck and Julia Child picnicking on checkered tablecloths sipping Sauterne, frying up morels with a beurre blanc sauce? Maybe Jacques Peppin would pop out from behind a tree, stuff an extra pint full of these prized fungi into his chef’s pants and rejoin them for goose liver pate ala` cognac and morel. Am I the type destined to buy the morels in the store, jacked up to twenty-five dollars a pound? Tell me that my friend from New York City would laugh at me, and go back to picking with new steam, new faith in the utterly predictable craziness of man, as long as I could hold up the faith in the bear spray and scat identification.
We held our ground, picking until we had buckets overflowing all to the tune of this mad-man-made howling. And then we had no real choice other than to return to our car, which entailed passing this howling gentleman. I had visions of using my bear spray on him. Visions of him heisting our harvest, kidnapping my children, cutting us up into tiny pieces and rendering us fodder for the six o’clock news—Oprah, even. This is the stupidest thing I have ever done, I thought, walking tall, holding my daughter’s hands, and hugging my son in tight.
“Howdy,” he said, mid-howl.
“Hello,” I said, not altogether impolite, but not altogether brimming with cheer, ushering my daughter to the promise of that thick steel American-made vessel of ours, not ten feet away.
“Hey—c’mere, little girl. I got sumthin’ fer ya,” he said.
Oh god, we are going to die. “That’s okay,” I said, not wanting to ruffle anybody’s feathers.
“C’mon. I got sumpthin’ fer y’all. C’mere, little girl.”
My daughter stopped and turned and looked at him. “What?” she said.
I grabbed her and gently pushed her car-ward.
“I got so many a’those damn things. C’mere. Aw c’mere, why don’tcha.”
And she lifted up her bucket and started moving toward him.
“No,” I said, pulling her back. “Get in the car,” I whispered to her. “Now.”
And he started toward us, his chest black with ash, holding a white plastic bucket.
I stood in front of my daughter as she climbed into the car, my son hanging off my neck. He’s got a gun, I thought. Walk slowly back into the car, Laura. Grab your keys…slowly slowly.
But he was coming at me with this bucket, fast. “Here. Take it. I got so many of these damn things I don’t need ‘em all.”
And he shoved the bucket in my hands and backed off fast, like maybe it was me with the gun.
I stood there, paralyzed, while he got into his truck. And I dared gaze down, and there, dangling in my hand, sure enough, was an entire five gallon bucket of the biggest fattest morel mushroom Wolfgang Puck never saw.
And I think I said something like, “Well, gosh. We appreciate the kindness of strangers,” like he was going to get this little word play—like he frigging knew who Blanche du Bois is.
And he leaned over his passenger seat and out the window closest to us he hollered in a perfect put-on Yosemite Sam, “Cuz Lord knows I’m steeeerange!!! Heh heh heh!”
And he drove off.
And I got into my car, hands shaking, heart pounding, and started the ignition and put my forehead on the steering wheel because I realized that I had just done everything wrong. Everything.
And my daughter said it all then, as usual. “Huh,” she said, “Just because you don’t look nice, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t nice.”
“Yep,” I said, staring at the morels.
“What are we going to do with those mushrooms?” she said.
“We’re going to take them home,” I said, “Wash ‘em, and eat ‘em.”
And with that, the man’s car backed into my vision.
My heart clenched.
“Name’s Mike, by the way. You shouldn’t go mushroom picking alone,” he said. “Fer what it’s worth. Less yer packin’ a gun. It’s not the Grizz’s ya gotta watch out fer.”
And he drove away, his car back-firing in time to all that thinks it is predator and all that thinks it is prey.