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.


The Story Behind the Picture

See all the pictures HERE
I picked Mindy up from her house on a Tuesday morning.

The night before I had traveled down to do some work in the backyard for mom - building planter beds and hauling in garden soil.

I wanted to bring Mindy down to visit with the girls. I wanted her to get a change of scenery for a few days and to spend as much time with her as I could.

That Monday Mindy and Eric had gone down to Portland to talk with her doctor and to ask what was next.

"I asked him if he was trying to tell us that we were running out of options," Mindy told me after we had started down the gorge toward my house. "He said we'd run out of options awhile ago."

In other words, when the latest medication she was on stopped working, the only course of action left would be hospice.

Hospice is a different kind of medical care from chemotherapy. In many ways hospice is a reaction to our modern medical system's focus on attacking a disease regardless of the pain and suffering the body in which it resides.

Traditional chemotherapy is a prime example of torture for your own good. The side effects are legion as we attempt to kill off the very last cancer cell, while leaving the patient alive. Advances have been made in recent years. New cancer drugs are targeted and much better tolerated. There are pills rather than infusions and medications much better suited to treating and preventing many of the side effects.

That said, most cancer treatments can leave you miserable, exhausted and depressed. It takes a strong person to get through a year of it.

Off and on, Mindy had been through four years. A roller coaster of good days and bad. When she was first diagnosed, she had been given just 6 months to live. Four years later her doctors were done pulling rabbits out of their hats.

Modern hospice care originated with British Registered Nurse Cicely Saunders, who created a philosophy of medicine which focused on the patient's needs rather than the disease. The goals are directed at the physical comfort and spiritual needs of the patient and the patient's family during the last days of life. It is the course of care when curing the disease is no longer an option or a choice.

Simply put hospice seeks to keep the patient comfortable and see to their needs rather than make them well. Comfort, quality of life and living fully until the end are the goals.

It is difficult in our culture to talk about death and dying, let alone enter into a system where dying is the end result -- even if the goal is to make that transition as easy and life affirming as possible. It is a hard conversation to have. Battling through chemotherapy and its side effects is all about fighting. After years of it, it is hard to change our thinking. It feels like giving up, like quitting.

It is not.

Mindy and I talked about these things on our drive through the Columbia Gorge. By the time we reached  Stevenson, she changed the subject.

"Did you know they have zip lines now at Skamania Lodge?" she asked.
"We have them down on the coast, near Astoria, too," I said.
"I want to do that," she said. "Do you?"

After that, the plan was set. I called just after we got to my house and set up a tour for Friday morning. Meanwhile, we took a motorcycle ride around the valley -- with her oxygen tank strapped to luggage rack of my bike. We visited Mary and said hi to the donkeys. We sat and watched the storms blow across the fields. The girls made her giggle and cuddled with her while we watched Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Despicable Me. We ate at a Bosnian restaurant, enjoyed the strange food and laughed at the ranting waiter.

We both grew nervous as the day approached. I was worried about her. I called High Life Adventures to make sure they could have a cart to take her from one place to another so she wouldn't have to walk, and that it would be okay for her to ride the zipline with her oxygen tank. We watched the wind blow and the rain fall and wondered if they wouldn't cancel our tour.

We got up early and dressed in rain gear and warm clothes. We were just two out of a group of 12 people on the tour that morning. The rain stopped just as we started.

The first run is easy - close to the ground and you can see the end. The next one is higher. After a few shorter runs, you climb a tower and open a gate high above a lake and step off -- riding a line that travels hundreds of feet over water and through trees. You cannot see the end, which somehow makes it scarier.

One of the women we were on the tour with was afraid of heights. Mindy -- always taking care of other people -- reassured and encouraged her.

The woman was there with her two teenage daughters. She told Mindy that she used to be more adventurous. Then a few years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She survived and was cancer free, now, but had been more timid ever since.

Mindy understood.

 "You had to face up to what you might loose," Mindy told the woman. "Now you worry about losing all those things if anything goes wrong. You know what's at stake."

"I worry all the time," the woman said. "I never used to be like that."

"I'm terminal," Mindy said with smile and a little laugh. "I have nothing to lose."

As the woman stepped through the gate and zipped off across the lake, one of her daughters said in a tone of admiration: "my mom is such a badass."

In the four years since her diagnosis, Mindy got to do a lot of things. She saw her eldest son get married, her youngest son graduate and do well in college and a new job. She saw her middle son enter the Army and thrive. She flew across the country to watch him graduate from basic training. She swam with dolphins. She always worried about her boys, but she lived to see them grow in the world.

And when she couldn't travel anymore, there came a parade of family and friends and wishes from all the lives she touched, for she was a light in every room. She was a gift in every life she encountered.

By the end of the Zipline tour she was tired and her second 02 bottle was almost empty, but her eyes were bright and she smiled and giggled as we stepped off the top of the highest tower and raced 1200 feet across the lake.

My big sister was such a badass.


More photos from our adventure online here

Driving Lessons

My sister Mindy taught me to drive.

My brother Chuck used to send me out to warm up the old truck while he was getting ready for school and he would even let me shift gears -- left handed from the passenger seat -- in his Mercury Bobcat while his hands were full with a milk shake and burger.

Yet it was Mindy that actually taught me to drive.  She taught me the trick to driving is to keep your eyes far down the road.

Then she took me car shopping and helped me buy my first car.

It happened like this. Mindy had just bought a Ford EXP -- which was Ford's attempt in the 1980s to build a sporty two-seater out of the Ford Escort econobox. It is a car justifiably forgotten today. Beige on brown with a tan mouse-fur interior. At the time, however, it my sister's pride and joy.  A new off-the-lot car that was all hers.

It says a lot about Mindy that she would allow her 15 year old brother to drive it at all, let alone teach him how to drive on it. Mindy was like that, she was an instigator -- but in the best way. She was a "C'mon, it will be fun." She was "lets race the horses up from the hidden fields." She was a creator of experiences.

Her experience teaching me to drive was fraught, at first,  since her car was a stick shift, and we lived on back roads full of hill starts and two lane curves. She was as patient and calm with me as with the horses she trained -- even when I almost let her car roll into the guardrail while trying to work the clutch from a stop on a hill.

Maybe she was having second thoughts about using her new car for such duty, because one day she said "let's go car shopping."

Mindy. Always with the smile and the "C'mon, let's go."

AMC Matador: Mine was Maroon 
I had some money saved up working the hay and in my mom's restaurant. So we set off for town one afternoon, visiting the various used car lots, looking at old pickup trucks and thrashed Pintos. Finally we happened upon a 1971 AMC Matador. It was bone-stock with some melted plastic trim inside from sitting in the hot Eastern Oregon sun. It was big, slow and comfortable. She helped me negotiate the deal and arrange to get it home -- since I was still more than a year away from getting my license.

It was not cool. This was the 1980s and irony had yet to be discovered, but it was a good fit for me.

That car was a freedom machine for me during my teenage years. Before I got my license we practiced on the back roads, piloting the big boat around the curves and along the old highway to horse arena, or to my friend Danny's house.

After I got my license, the Matador was the favorite in school for hauling way too many kids down to the store during lunch our, or over to The Dalles on a Friday night. I got in trouble in that car -- it had a habit of backing into things -- parked cars, a restaurant on my first date -- but I had many more good memories.

It was in that car that I discovered a love of driving. Something I thought about often these past few weeks driving up and down the gorge to be at her bedside. Driving is where I did my thinking, my crying and my grieving. Driving through the beautiful hills and stark vistas, through white capped river and broiling clouds, through shafts of light and heart-stopping sunsets.

My sister Mindy taught me to drive, and so much more.


Good Fences

My last wood screw went into the last board as the rain began to fall.

There had been a steady drizzle, but now the dark ceiling opened up to a torrential downpour. 

I scrambled to put my tools away, slipping in the mud.  It took me a few moments to realize that it was the very last screw in my pouch - the last 3.25 inch construction screw I had.   It took still longer for me to get inside  the warm house and out of my wet clothes, to stand at the window looking at the green gray fields and admire what I had accomplished.

The fence was finished.

It still needed a coat of white stain on the last section, but that would come on a sunny day. My daughters love painting the white stain.

 I love good fences.

I never thought much about fences until we moved out West in 1978. I was Grace's age then and the forest hills and hidden fields seemed vast open wonderlands to me compared to the crowded suburbs of New Jersey. To be sure, we rambled through the wooded swamplands that backed up to our home there, but it nothing like 82 acres of field and forest. 

There was a great hill overlooking the whole property that we would climb in the last hours of a summer day with the night hawks already diving for prey. It was a grand thing to me then, to stand in an open field on the crest of a high hill, counting the white capped mountains as the pink fire of sunset painted the sky. 

The fences were barbed wire, which tears your shirt if you slide under it, and is too unsteady to climb over. Best to have a friend hold the wire for you,  if you want to climb through. Still they seemed few and far between.  We could ride our horses for miles without touching a road by simply finding the gates between properties, and making sure that we closed each gate we opened behind us. 

I never liked barbed wire. It rips the flesh of spooked horses and his hard to see in the trees. 

The fences I loved were at Crosby Stables. White painted rails around the whole property including the arena where Jim Crosby trained his Tennessee Walkers. I remember the mint green barns and the ink-black Schipperke dogs that Jim and Eunice used to keep. Little Tasmania devil dogs that would run and hop up to land on the rump a moving horse that never lost its stride. Jim was an Iowa man who landed out West with the railroad. We would ride over the hill to his place for 4H sometimes and he gave our family invaluable advice on horses when we were just starting out. Crosby Stables was like a microcosm of a Kentucky estate, four rail white fences cutting serenely through rolling hills. 

It is the fences of his idyll that I have tried to recreate here on my little patch of land. 

When we moved in, 22 years ago. The house was in need of attention more than the property so it became our priority. 

 The borders of the land were blackberry bushes with barbed wire buried somewhere underneath. 

When we had time and energy from our busy low-paying just out of college jobs, I hacked at the blackberries with a machete. Year by year cutting away at the invasive plant's empire of thorns. It was cathartic, but my desk job left me too weak to counter it's ever encroaching vines. It took years -- and eventually Hank's excavator -- to clear the last of it. It opened our property up so we could see the open fields beyond. We put in posts -- some dug with auger on the back of the tractor, other's dug by hand -- until finally the bright white-stained rails emerged. 

Just in time for little girls to clamber over them for walks out in the field. 

You see a good fence does more than just keep livestock in. It keeps animals -- and children -- safe. Lindsay and Grace love climbing the fences, or sitting on them and waving to grandpa as he goes by on the tractor. The white brings bright beauty in the dark gray of winter. 
I ripped out the last of the barbed wire a few weeks ago. 

Dug the post holes by hand. A good post hole digger will beat a week at the gym for building upper body muscles. There was a layer of gravel to go through too and some concrete from the old dairy barn that used to be nearby. At times, I was hands and knees pulling up rocks from the holes. 

Of course I never count right when it comes to how many boards I need, and that means another trip into town. No matter. There was a time when we could only afford to do a few sections of the fence at a time.  

Now I can even afford to buy a store-bought gate and latch. Much better than the home made gates that now want for replacing. 

The girls are helping me paint now that the weather has turned. Lindsay is dreaming of horses that will one day lean their heads over the top rail trying to see if there is a treat in her pocket.

As Lindsay and I paint, I tell her to take a step back every now and then and look at her work.

"Why?" she asks.

"So you can look at how far you've come," I tell her.

 "So you can see how much better you've made it by your hard work."