A Mountain Personified

A Mountain Personified

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“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey

The mountains are my mentors, and my most trusted advisers. They constantly challenge me, forcing me to think, to learn, to explore, and to grow in unanticipated ways. When I take a wrong turn, or stumble and fall, they patiently wait for me to regain my footing and continue my journey. They demand respect, and through their silence, force me to gain confidence in myself and in my own voice. When I get to the peak, they proudly share their beauty and understanding, all the while reminding me of the vastness of the world, and the infinite possibilities awaiting me as my journeys continue.

The mountains of the Appalachian (2013) and Pacific Crest (2014) Trails have been my most recent mentors, but long before those mountains, I had the privilege of having a different Mountain as a mentor: David Mountain. Like many mountains, I have to admit that I was intimidated the first time that I met him. I was a Ph.D candidate studying the mechanics of hearing and I was in his office asking him (one of big names in the field) to be on my thesis committee. He had slightly disheveled curly white hair, and a white beard and mustache to match, but it was the intensity of his gaze that made the biggest impression on me. When I sat down and proposed my thesis he fixed me with that gaze and just waited… the quiet intensity of his gaze cut right to the heart of things, and made me squirm… he didn’t say anything, he just waited as I explained my project, my thoughts, and my ideas… his gaze never wavered, his expression never changed… It was incredibly nerve wracking! As I gained confidence, however, his intense gaze was broken more and more frequently by his smile, a smile that had the same intensity as his gaze and was just as memorable. It was a smile that lit up the entire room. I successfully convinced him to be on my qualifying exam committee and thesis committee and have been proud to consider him one of my mentors ever since. He challenged my assumptions, and forced me to think, learn, and grow, both as an engineer and as a person.

As with any journey, my scientific journey was fraught with unforeseen challenges, challenges that at times seemed insurmountable… it was in these moments that I would turn to Mountain for counsel… He didn’t hand me the answers. Instead, he reminded me that we were explorers in uncharted territory, and that the unforeseen was part of what made the journey so incredible, so worthwhile, and so beautiful. After I finished my dissertation I wrote thank yous to the people that had advised and supported me on my epic scientific endeavor. For David Mountain, I thanked him for reminding me that “complications and unexpected outcomes often lead to the most interesting results.”

The idea that “complications and unexpected outcomes often lead to the most interesting results” is relevant not just to my scientific journey, but also to my thru-hikes… The most amazing experiences I had on the trail were not things that I could have predicted, they were the result of complications, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Earlier this week I learned that my mentor, David C. Mountain, Ph.D., had passed away. It was impossible for me to envision the scientific landscape that I had grown up in without Mountain there, in the middle of it, with his steadfast gaze, his brilliant insights, and his heartwarming smile. As I struggled to wrap my head around the news I decided to go for a hike… I hiked into and above the clouds… Standing there on top of the mountain with the vastness of the world spread out around me my thoughts wandered… they wandered to Sir Isaac Newton’s cannonball thought experiment in which he envisioned a very tall mountain with an imaginary cannon at it’s summit launching things into orbit, things that would keep circling and moving long after the cannon and mountain were gone if only they had enough velocity… It made me think about the robot that landed on a comet earlier this week… It made me think about humanity and the way that ideas propagate through time… It made me smile, and I launched into a thought experiment of my own… envisioning David Mountain there, at the top of Newton’s imaginary mountain, adding more and more gunpowder to the proverbial cannon, giving his friends, family, colleagues, and ideas the extra boost that they needed get into orbit… We are the cannonballs, still moving forward on our journeys, even after the Mountain is gone.

My sincere condolences to David’s family. He was an amazing person and he will be missed. His funeral will be held at the Conte Funeral Home at 193 High Street in Newburyport on Saturday afternoon (11/15) with visitation hours from 1:00 to 3:00 pm. For more information about David Mountain’s life and scientific contributions see this article in Boston University’s BME news.

No One Left Behind…

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Over the course of the last two years I have had the privilege of hiking 5000 miles on two of our National Scenic Trails (the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails), and I’ve gotten to know veterans from all across the country… They don’t always share my politics (my facebook feeds can attest to that!), but I’ve learned that we have one very important thing in common, our willingness to drop everything and go the the aid of a fellow in need… We strive to leave no one behind… Growing up I associated this “leave no man behind” ethos with one of my heroes, my dad, a Vietnam combat veteran, but it wasn’t until my AT and PCT thru-hikes that I began to associate it with the military and with other veterans.

Though different branches of the service phrase it differently, “I will never leave a fallen comrade”- US Soldiers Creed, “I will never leave an Airman behind”-Airman’s Creed, “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy -Ranger Creed, the basic idea remains the same… No man left behind… To me, it is a dedication to our humanity even in the most inhuman of circumstances… It is a way of life… It is a willingness to make sacrifices in honor of a commitment to your comrades, a commitment to your family, to your friends, to your community, and even to the stranger that reaches out to you… To me it is an acknowledgment of, and a dedication to, our shared humanity and it transcends politics and religion… It is a sentiment that makes you a part of my family, whether you know it or not.

Saying thank you to our veterans feels like a start, one step towards acknowledging the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women, one step towards welcoming our veterans back into the civilian world, but it is just a beginning. I want to do more than just say thank you… I want to recognize all of my friends and family that have served… I want to remind them that I am interested in their stories… I am interested in their lives… I want to take the time to recognize our shared humanity, and I want to grow our relationship based on that humanity, as perfect or as flawed as that may be… I want to hear the stories that you want to share, I want to respect your right to silence… I believe that no one should be left behind (in any sense), and I will strive, today and everyday, to renew that commitment to my friends, my family, my community, and to the veterans that I have had the privilege and honor of knowing.

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For other posts I’ve written about veterans: Getting Thru and The Silence.

The End is Nigh (PCT Days 165-166)

The End is Nigh (PCT Days 165-166)

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I’ve stopped, in the middle of the trail, and am bursting into tears. I’m not ready for it to be over… I don’t think that I will ever be ready for it to be over. I’m just 25 miles from the end. I’ll be at the border within days, but my legs have turned into lead weights. Each step is a struggle. I don’t want to hike. The scenery is absolutely stunning, the trail is amazingly beautiful, and there is no where that I’d rather be… I just want to stay here in these mountains, savoring every sunrise, every sunset, every songbird, every tree, and every blade of grass, forever.

This isn’t how I felt at the end of the AT, but I was in a very different place then… Both emotionally and physically. The AT had been a dream, but it was also more of a struggle, more of a required transition period… This has been more of a vacation, a brutal vacation at times, but a vacation none the less. Unsurprisingly, I don’t want my vacation to be over… Especially since I’ll be stepping off of the trail and into an uncertain future.

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I sit down in the dry grass beside the trail and try to collect my thoughts… On the trail I live in the now… I am supremely present, and I can give my full attention to the butterfly that lands beside me, to the bird calling from a nearby tree, to the subtle variations in how the light filters through the trees as the day progresses from dawn to dusk… I get to experience the joy of living in the moment and I love it… Both the past and the future are worlds away and feel almost irrelevant… I am here. I am exactly where I want to be. I am exactly where I need to be. Though life on the trail is fraught with hardships, the challenges tend to be very tangible and immediate. Where am I going to sleep? How am I going to stay warm? Where am I going to get water? How much food do I need? Why am I so hungry? Where am I going to get more food? When can I get more food? Can I have more food now? Is it going to rain? What kind of bird is that? Where am I going? Is there food there? (Yeah, I may be more than a little hungry.)

As I approach the end of the trail, the past and the future encroach upon my now and the questions are getting more complicated… What am I going to do when I get off of the trail? Where am I going to go? How am I going to reconnect to all the people and places that I care about? What do I need to do to find a job? These questions feel big and complicated and don’t have easy answers… The future is coming for me! I am both excited and terrified at the thought.

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The trail has been all consuming, it has been my everything for months (though it feels like an eternity), and I’m grieving for it… It has shaped me in ways that I didn’t know were possible, it has forged me into the person I am now… I have fallen in love with it, but in two short days it will no longer be my now, it will be my past… Another swell of tears burbles up to the surface as I think that thought… The PCT is going to be in my past… I’m going to have to leave it… I take a deep breath and I give myself permission to cry, to grieve, to worry… I also give myself permission to eat a snack… I’m hungry. Oh so hungry.

With that thought, I remember that there are lots of amazing things that will come with civilization and the end of the trail too, like food! As I eat my protein bar, I daydream about filet mignon, milkshakes, fish and chips, root beer floats, soft beds with pillows, warm showers, and the friends and family I’ve been away from for so long… There are definitely a lot of positives that will come with the end of the trail.

As the last of my tears begin to dry, I resolve to enjoy the remaining time I have on the trail… and to stay here, in the now, as much as possible, for as long as possible. There’s a mountain with incredible views about a mile away from the trail, that’s where I’ll head for tonight… another sunset, another sunrise, another day on the PCT!

I get two more nights on the trail… Two more nights of vacation… Two more days to luxuriate in the now! The trail still stretches out in front of me, and I look forward to the adventures that await me!

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Thru-Hiker Power! (PCT Days 163-165)

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Little white plumes of moisture puff up into the air in front of me as I hike… It makes me think that I’m like a train, like the little engine that could, as I hike through the mountains of the North Cascades in Washington.

It’s the first hard frost that we’ve had since June, a clear indicator that fall is on its way… Before long, snow will blanket these mountains, but I’ll be gone by then… I’m less than 70 miles away from the Canadian border… I’m almost there!

I take a big sip of water, but the water feels thick as it hits my tongue and it crunches as I roll it around in my mouth… It isn’t until that crunch that I figure it out… The water in my water hose is beginning to freeze! The last time this happened was when I was on top of Mount Whitney!

Despite the cold, or perhaps because of it, I feel great. I have always loved the fall… the crisp, cool air… the changing colors of the leaves… the art that Jack Frost leaves behind… every step I take this morning reminds me of how much I love this life!

After hiking 2600 miles, I am in the best shape of my life… The trails from Stehekin to Hart’s Pass are well designed and graded, so I lengthen my stride on the uphills and the downhills and the miles just fly by… I feel powerful, I feel strong, and I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be… Here, in the mountains, on the trail, where my body and my mind are at peace with each other and with the rest of the world. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling…

I remember feeling this same way at the end of my AT thru-hike… A kind of thru-hiker confidence… Knowing that your body can just do it… You look at a trail, you look at a mountain, and there is never a doubt… your body will allow you to do amazing things and to go to amazing places! It has been a miraculous transformation for me… a transformation that was more than I’d dared to imagine when I set out for my first thru-hike in the spring of 2013.

At the beginning of my AT thru-hike I’d been sick for so long that I’d stopped trusting my body, and my body had stopped trusting me… Asthma had slowly, insidiously, crept into my world, and over the course of five years it felt like it had stolen my body and my life away from me. I fought it every step of the way, but my body and my lungs wouldn’t let me do the things that I wanted to do anymore. When I discovered that the job I loved was the source of the problem, that I had occupational asthma, I was heartbroken. I knew that I had to leave my job, but I just couldn’t do it… It had been my dream for so long, and I’d invested so much into it… how could I just leave? Besides, I wasn’t a quitter! Every fiber of my body rebelled against the inevitable truth… I was going to have to walk away from everything if I wanted to get my health back… Was I strong enough to do that?

Eventually, I figured out a way… I would exchange the old dream for a new dream. I’d always wanted to do a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail… Sure, it was a non-traditional approach for dealing with asthma, but I was confident that I could make it work. Knowing that I was going to live my dream of hiking the AT gave me the strength to do the impossible, to leave my job and my old life behind. My doctors had been skeptical (and so had everyone else), but I had faith… I had faith that I could do it… I had faith that I would get better… I had to!

I had started slowly, but over time my lungs had gotten stronger, and a new relationship was forged between my body and my mind as they learned to operate as one… It was the best feeling in the world! Standing on top of Katahdin last October I was filled with elation, it had worked! I’d let go of the fear that had consumed me for so long, the fear that my body, my lungs, and my asthma would prevent me from living my dreams. I thought that I had vanquished asthma from my life. I was powerful! I was strong! I was a thru-hiker!

Here, on the PCT, I had to come to terms with the fact that my asthma wasn’t completely gone, that I was an asthmatic. It was a rude awakening at first, but I gained a new respect for my body… I learned that I could manage my asthma, and that when I did, I could still trust my body to do amazing things and to take me to amazing places. I could be an asthmatic and still live my dreams!

A cold wind brings me back to the present as I climb the next hill. Thinking about how my thru-hikes have transformed my body and my life brings tears to my eyes. It’s been an incredible journey. Even though I feel great, I don’t want the miles to fly by… I want time to slow down… I want to take it all in, to savor it all, to catalog these happy thoughts, these happy moments… I want to stay here forever… I’m like Peter Pan, I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to leave the tail!

When I get to the top of the hill I stop and look around. It’s beautiful here in the Cascades. I take a deep breath of the cold morning air and smile as I let it out. Even though I’m asthmatic, even though I’ve been hiking uphill all morning and it’s cold, I can still take a full, chest-expanding breath of the fresh air! I can breath! I can hike! I can dream! These are the memories that I’ll keep for the rest of my life… 10 years from now, 30 years from now, 60 years from now, I’ll be able to come back here… to these powerful and happy memories… These happy thoughts, they’re going to help me to fly, and to keep flying, as I head into an uncertain future!

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Part 2: I’m Your Huckleberry

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One of the joys of hiking in the late summer and early fall is feasting on wild blueberries and huckleberries. Towards the end of my Appalachian trail thru-hike I feasted on the wild blueberries in Maine, and now that I was nearing the end of my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike I was feasting on the wild huckleberries in Washington. In the Northeast we take pride in our wild blueberries, and often snub the obviously inferior commercial blueberries. In the Northwest people seemed to take pride in their huckleberries, but they categorically snubbed all blueberries… including the wild Maine blueberries that I thought so highly of. “Are you sure that you’re picking huckleberries and not blueberries,” was a constant, condescending refrain that I’d heard over and over again, and it rankled every time. Though I’d learned how to recognize one species of western huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and was confident that I was picking huckleberries and not blueberries, there was another question that I wasn’t so sure about: “What is the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” None of the people I talked to really seemed to know. If they didn’t know the difference between a blueberry and a huckleberry, how could they assert the superiority of one over the other?

“What is the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” The question ate at me as I hiked through Washington… I needed the internet… I needed to do some research… I wanted a scientifically rigorous end to the debate of huckleberry versus blueberry… When I finally got wifi, I started by looking up the definitions of the berries in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

That seemed simple enough, right? Huckleberries are from the genus Gaylussacia and blueberries are from the genus Vaccinium… (Let’s ignore that the second definition of huckleberry is blueberry for now). This definition was consistent with the berries I’d seen on the Appalachian trail, and the colloquial definitions of blueberries and huckleberries that I’d grown up with on the east coast. It also provided the key to telling eastern huckleberries from blueberries while hiking on the Appalachian trail: when you break open an eastern huckleberry, it has 10 chambers and 10 big seeds in it, but when you break open a blueberry it only has five chambers and is full of lots and lots of tiny little seeds.

If I was only concerned about the east coast and the AT I’d be done, but what about the berries on the west coast, the berries on the PCT? Do they fit into those same simple definitions? No.  According to the united states forest service there are twelve species of huckleberry in Oregon and Washington and they all belong to the genus Vaccinium! That means that by east coast standards (and according to the dictionary definition), all of the western huckleberries are actually blueberries.

My initial reaction was to laugh. No wonder why people on the west coast were so confused about the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. I briefly thought about invoking the classic east coast/west coast rivalry, and dismissing all western huckleberries as blueberries, but that didn’t appease my intellectual curiosity… there was definitely something different about western huckleberries… They weren’t the same berries that I’d grown up calling blueberries on the east coast, I needed to learn more.

I went searching for a better definition huckleberries and was surprised to find that in at least one state there is a legal definition of a huckleberry! In 2013 the Montana state legislature defined a “huckleberry” as: a berry referring to various wild species of the Vaccinium genus, commonly referred to in this state as a huckleberry or Montana huckleberry. Among these species are Vaccinium membranaceum and Vaccinium globulare. The legal definition gave merit to 2 of the 12 huckleberry species that I’d heard of, and listed four species that were not huckleberries, but it didn’t help me understand the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. I shouldn’t have been surprised that lawmakers didn’t have the definitive answer I was looking for, the definition of a huckleberry is really a question for scientists, not lawmakers.

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I returned to the literature and to the genus Vaccinium, which includes all of the blueberries, cranberries, and western huckleberries. Since the genus was the same for all of them, I looked to the next level of differentiation, the subgenera. Vaccinium is divided into two subgenera: Oxycoccus (cranberries), and Vaccinium (blueberries and western huckleberries). The subgenera are then further divided into sections. Four of those sections include the berries we call blueberries and western huckleberries: Cyanococcus (blueberries), Myrtillus (bilberries/western huckleberries), Vaccinium, and Pyxothamnus. The majority of western huckleberries are in sec. Myrtillus. I’d finally figured out how to separate the western huckleberries from the blueberry!. I also discovered that in the field (on the PCT) the berry organization can be used to distinguish between the sections: most western huckleberries (sec. Myrtillus) produce single berries on new shoots, the rest of the western huckleberries (sec. Vaccinium and sec. Pyxothamnus) produce small clusters of berries, and the blueberries (sec. Cyanococcus) produce larger clusters of berries on one year old growth.

Based on my new understanding of the differences between blueberries and huckleberries I revised the Merriam-Webster definitions to include the berries from both the east coast (AT) and the west coast (PCT):

Using these new definitions, could I separate all of the North American huckleberries from the North American blueberries? To figure that out, I investigated the taxonomy of huckleberries and blueberries, focusing on the differences between the species on the east coast (AT) and the west coast (PCT). The naming and separation of species is constantly changing as our understanding of plant genetics evolves, which means that the species definitions for huckleberries and blueberries are constantly changing. Although I used the initial list of huckleberries of the northwest (1972) as a guide, I used the USDA plants database and/or the GRIN Taxonomy for Plants to determine a more current list of species (click on the links to see maps of their growing regions):

Family Ericaceaethe heath family, includes all of the huckleberries and blueberries
Genus Gaylussacia – Eastern (AT) Huckleberries (10 chambered ovary)

 Genus Vaccinium – Blueberries and Western Huckleberries (5 chambered ovary)

Finally, after spending way too much time online, I’d convinced myself that I knew the difference between blueberries and huckleberries both taxonomically and functionally. On paper it was easy, the eastern (AT) huckleberries were the ones in subgenus Gaylussacia, the blueberries (AT & PCT) were the ones in sec. Cyanococcus, and the western (PCT) huckleberries were still trying to sort themselves out, but were mostly from sec. Myrtillus. On the trail, the eastern huckleberries were the ones with 10 large seeds in them that you find in the eastern part of the country, the blueberries were the ones with big clusters of fruit with lightish colored innards, and western huckleberries were the ones the brothers on the reservation had described to me (with bright purple innards and typically single berries).

One of the interesting things I learned was that blueberries on the PCT are the same species as the blueberries on the AT.  I rarely saw anything resembling an east coast blueberry as I hiked through Washington. Though there are always exceptions, it seemed like all of the know-it-alls that were so adamantly reprimanding people for picking blueberries on the trail were wrong. Up on the mountain hillsides of the PCT, almost everyone was picking huckleberries… they weren’t always picking what Montana legally defines as a huckleberry, but they were picking Washington huckleberries (huckleberries of Washington (2007)).

If you are a professional huckleberry picker getting an estimated $40 a gallon for huckleberries, you should probably restrict your definition of huckleberry to Vaccinium membranaceum. However, if you are out there hiking in the mountains, with the sunshine on your back, why not enjoy all of the edible berries that sec. Myrtillus has to offer?

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Interesting huckleberry links if you are still thirsting for more information:

Part 1: I’m Your Huckleberry (PCT Days 162-164)

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“You’ve been picking berries haven’t you!” exclaimed a passing hiker. I was in northern Washington and my hands were stained a dark pinkish-purple from picking and eating huckleberries. The sweet perfume of berries filled the late-afternoon air. I grinned ear-to-ear, popping yet another warm, juicy berry into my mouth before replying, “Yeah, I’ve been picking huckleberries. My mom’s going to hike in to meet me at the border, so I’m making huckleberry wine for her!”

“Are you sure that you’re picking huckleberries and not just blueberries?” The hiker asked, looking at me skeptically. “Yes, I’m sure,” I replied, still smiling and picking my berries… One for me… One for the wine… One for me… One for the wine… I popped another one into my mouth, “Definitely huckleberries.”

Huckleberries seemed to be a hot topic here in the Pacific Northwest. I’d learned that huckleberries were to be prized, and that blueberries were to be shunned… The superiority of huckleberries over blueberries was uncontested, uncontestable… there was just one little problem… Which ones were the huckleberries? None of the huckleberries I saw on the west coast looked like east coast huckleberries (gaylussacia baccata) to me, so I’d started asking my west coast peers to show me which berries were the huckleberries. It quickly became apparent to me that the term “huckleberry” was being applied to multiple species of plants. There was, however, one species that everyone on the west coast seemed to agree was definitely a huckleberry, the vaccinium membranaceum, and that was the one that I was picking…

“Well, most people think they’re picking huckleberries but they’re actually picking blueberries,” he replied undeterred. I paused from my berry picking to look around me. Was there something that made him think that I was standing in a thicket of blueberries instead of huckleberries? No, there wasn’t. I was surrounded by big, juicy (unambiguous by west coast standards) huckleberries. This was the third person that had felt the need to stop me while I was berry picking to inform me that I couldn’t possibly know the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. None of them seemed to notice or care that I was surrounded by huckleberries and huckleberry bushes… There were lots of things about huckleberries that I was still curious about and wanted to learn, but I was getting tired of these conversations… the unsolicited conversations which started with the assumption that I didn’t know what I was doing, and was followed by their display of superior huckleberry knowledge (which was usually even less complete than my mine).

“I’m confident that the berries I’m picking are considered huckleberries here on the west coast,” I assured the hiker. “When I was hiking through the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon I ran into two brothers from the reservation that were professional huckleberry pickers. I asked them a few questions and they were kind enough to give me a comprehensive tutorial on west coast huckleberries. It was absolutely incredible and I’ve been picking huckleberries ever since!” I smiled again, and pointedly turned away from him and resumed my huckleberry picking. He took the not so subtle hint, and moved on.

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Unlike the more recent conversations I’d been having about huckleberries, the conversation I’d had with the two brothers back on the reservation had been really informative. “There are a dozen different varieties of huckleberry out here,” the brothers had explained, “but the best huckleberries are the ones with the dark, almost black fruit. We only pick the ones that are big, single berries on the top of the leaf clusters like these,” said one of the brothers as he pointed to, and then picked, a big, plump huckleberry. “If the berries are underneath the leaf clusters, or if there is more than one berry in the same cluster, it’s probably a blueberry and not a huckleberry. Even though the huckleberries can be lots of different colors and sizes, you can always tell if it’s a true huckleberry because the pulp inside the huckleberries is this deep red or purple color,” he continued, popping the berry between his fingers to demonstrate. “The blueberries have much lighter colored guts.” His brother then added, “the best huckleberries, the ones that we pick, are the ones with pointy leaves like these,” he said, stroking one of the leaves almost lovingly. By the end of their tutorial I was 100% confident that I could identify the best huckleberries (vaccinium membranaceum), the ones their family had been picking for generations, and the huckleberries they sold commercially.

After the brothers taught me how to identify the huckleberries, they taught me how to pick them without bruising them, how to transport them, and how to store them. They proudly explained that the way they transported and stored the huckleberries now was the same way their family had been doing it for generations. As evidence, they showed me the huckleberry picking baskets they had tied to their waists. “These baskets are nearly 100 years old,” said one of the brothers, untying it from his waist so I could get a better look at it. It was a smallish (probably quart-sized) basket, stained purple with the juices of thousands of huckleberries, but otherwise it showed very little wear. “They’re beautiful,” I said as I looked at the weave of the basket. “They’re made from the bark of the cedar trees,” he continued. I looked at him questioningly, how could something this fine be made from cedar bark? Anticipating my question he continued, “if you look closely you can see the fine strands and the way they are coiled and tied together.” I was definitely impressed. He then showed me the loops across the top that allowed it to be tied to his belt. “After we fill these baskets, we empty them into the big basket,” he said bringing out a much larger basket with a different weave (twined instead of coiled if I remember correctly). “We line it with leaves to protect the berries. This one holds about seven gallons of huckleberries. We should have it filled by noontime,” he said and looked on, smiling, as I examined the basket. “This one’s 80 years old! Do you see the little loops at the top? They’re for tying a cover onto the basket for storing the berries.”

The baskets were amazing… steeped as they were in both huckleberry juice and history. We talked about some of that history, about the way of life of the Wasco and Tenino people before the reservation was formed… about fishing, hunting, and huckleberry picking… and about how things have changed. When the US government created the Bonneville dam, they flooded the traditional fishing grounds for the Warm Springs tribes, and altered their way of life. They said that the tribes still fish salmon, hunt, and pick huckleberries, but that isn’t enough to sustain their economy. Even in the world of huckleberry picking there are issues. “They forget whose land they’re on,” mumbled one of the brothers when talking about commercial berry pickers. “We usually pick up near Mount Hood at this time of the year, but they’ve been forcing us out.” The politics of huckleberry picking were entirely new to me, who was forcing them out? “Huckleberry picking is big business. They bring in lots of cheap labor from overseas, they don’t respect us and they don’t respect the land. The pickers from Vietnam and Laos are the worst. They’ll form a circle around us and pick all of the berries so there’s no where left for us to go. They make it so we can’t pick,” they said sadly. “That’s why we decided to come back down here. Usually this time of year its too early to pick here, but with the crazy weather this season we thought we’d check it out.”

“How are the huckleberries along the PCT on the other side of the road?” they asked. “They were pretty amazing! So plentiful that I stopped to take some pictures of them,” I replied and showed them some pictures I’d taken of berry-laden branches. “Good to hear, we were thinking about bringing our sisters out to pick with us tomorrow, sounds like there’ll be plenty of berries for all of us.” I nodded, and we wrapped up our conversation. I would have kept talking to them all day (and did in fact have more long conversations with them about the PCT and tribal lands), but I knew that they had 7 gallons of huckleberries to pick by noon, and I didn’t want to distract them too much.

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It was now a month later, but the conversation I’d had with the two brothers was still fresh in my mind. Every conversation I’d had about huckleberries since then reminded me of them and of the first mouthful of warm, black huckleberries that I’d eaten just moments later. The west coast huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum) reminded me of wild maine blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium), but they weren’t quite as sweet, and they had a slightly spicier flavor.

Regardless of whether people were calling them blueberries or huckleberries, everyone seemed to enjoy feasting on the fruits produced by the plants of genus Vaccinium. However, people weren’t the only ones feasting on huckleberries in Washington. The bears were were out in force! Going through Washington I saw five different bears feasting on huckleberries/blueberries (mile 2377- small brown bear, mile 2445- big black bear, mile 2491- small black bear, mile 2507- black bear, mile 2512- black bear). A couple of those times I only noticed the bears because I’d stopped at the same field planning to pick huckleberries too! If I was a safe distance away, I would just sit and watch them graze on those tiny little berries. It was fascinating and it was very different than watching them try to dig grubs. As I watched them pick huckleberries straight from the bushes with their mouths, I tried to imagine having to get all of my calories on the trail from huckleberries. At just 37 calories per 100 g, it would take a lot of huckleberries to fuel a human or a bear… we’d be better off eating the sweeter blueberries at 57 calories per 100g, but only slightly!

Even though I’d learned how to recognize one species of huckleberry on the west coast (Vaccinium membranaceum), I still couldn’t fully answer the question, “What’s the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” Stay tuned for “Part 2: I’m your huckleberry,” where I’ll answer that question and more!

Moms (PCT Days 156-161)

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“If you remember, when you get up to Fire Creek Pass, say hi to my mom for me,” said the day hiker I’d just met. “My brother and I spread her ashes there 25 years ago. It’s on the west side of Glacier Peak, up passed Pumice creek, but before Mica Lake.”

“It’s really beautiful up there,” he continued wistfully, “the trail follows the ridge, and is mostly above treeline.” He then told me that he’d met another thru-hiker about a week ago and gave her the same message to deliver, but he seemed rather convinced that neither one of us would actually remember to do it.

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“Have you been able to make the trip into the pass to visit very often?” I asked.

“No, I haven’t been back,” he explained. “I love to hike, but I have back issues, so I can’t carry heavy loads anymore.” I sensed a complicated milieu of feelings; regret, frustration, and acceptance, in his tone of voice and in his body language. It reminded me of when my asthma was really bad and I couldn’t even walk, never mind hike… There’s a grieving process that you go through if/when your health deteriorates and you lose the ability to do some of the things that you love. I couldn’t imagine how hard that must be when it interfered with the grieving process of a loved one as well.

“Maybe we should get some llamas,” his wife suggested, “they could carry the load for you!” I have to admit, this was the first time that the thought of pack animals on the trail seemed like a good idea, and didn’t just make me grumpy…

Usually I just see the negative impacts of the stock animals… Their sh** in steaming piles in the middle of the trail that I need to either step into or veer of into the bushes to avoid… The uneven, eroded sections of trail as their hooves punch through the wet or muddy ground, accelerating the deterioration of the trail… Their sh** in the middle of the spot where I’d like to camp… Yeah, horses on the trail occasional hit the top of my list of pet peeves. All other trail users are required to clean up after their own sh**. Why are horses exempt from that rule? I’m pretty sure that in the parades in the city the horses have little sh** bags that get emptied later… Why can’t the horses on trail use those and toss their sh** into the bushes instead of leaving it in the middle of the trail? But I digress…

I forgot about all of that sh** for a moment, and was suddenly glad that the PCT allowed pack animals… Allowing people that couldn’t otherwise access the wilderness a way to continue going to the places they love, to continue doing the things that they love… That’s worth putting up with some sh** every now and then. I hoped that this couple would someday look into that option so that he might get the chance to visit his mom himself someday.

As I continued my hike northwards I realized that delivering his message was actually really important to me… I would take the time, find the spot, deliver his message, and reflect on all the mothers that I have known… My amazing mother, the grandmother I have, the grandmother I’ve lost, the expectant mothers I know (congratulations again!), and the expectant mother that we lost… When I got to that spot I was going to celebrate a Mother’s Day of sorts… Besides, any mother that raises backpackers is a mother to all of the backpackers… Being a thru-hiker you live that over and over again… All the mom’s that visit their children on the trail becomes mom’s to us all!

Now, what were those directions again? Doh! He was right, I’d already forgotten the name of the pass where he’d scattered his mom’s ashes, but I remembered the rest of the directions… I quickly jotted them down. I would find the spot!

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A couple of days later I came to Pumice Creek, the first place that he’d mentioned. It was in the middle of one of the most challenging, hardest to access portions of the trail. No wonder why he hadn’t been able to get back there. I pulled out my maps and sure enough, there was a big pass coming up… If I hiked the way I normally did I would cross it during the late afternoon and end up camping at the bottom of the next valley…

As I continued hiking northwards I started wondering if there might be a camping spot at the top of the pass… I was willing to bet there were stunning views from the pass… And in general I love camping at the top of things… Campsites where you can watch both the sunrise and the sunset are my absolute favorites… I hate it when I have to camp in the deep dark valleys.

There wasn’t a campsite listed up there in any of my guidebooks, but I was cautiously optimistic… I don’t need much space to cowboy camp (roll my sleeping bag out under the stars). When I got to Fire Creek I stopped and ate my dinner… It was only 4:30 pm, but if I camped up at the pass there wouldn’t be any water there… And water is heavy… If I camped in the next valley there would be plenty of water, but just in case I ended up camping in the pass I didn’t want to carry the extra water I would need for dinner up the mountain! Besides I was already hungry… I was always hungry… an early dinner sounded like a great idea.

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One of the things I love about climbing up to the passes is that you never know what you’re going to find on the other side… It’s almost always a completely new landscape that you’ve never seen before. This time was no different. As I climbed towards the pass, the scenery got more and more impressive until I finally reached the top… And there they were, stretched out in front of me, the North Cascades.

It was an absolutely beautiful place, and as I looked around I realized that the best views were to the east, and to the west, which meant I’d be able to see both the sunrise and sunset from this pass !!! My absolute favorite places to camp are the places with amazing sunrise and sunset views!

Even though it was still early, I found a nice little spot among the rocks, inflated my sleeping pad, rolled out my sleeping bag and prepared to spend the night there. It was an incredibly peaceful spot and I had it all to myself. Here, so close to the end of the trail, lots of people were hurrying up, racing to the finish, but me, I was slowing down… trying to savor every moment I had left. I couldn’t remember the last time I stopped so early in the day and hiked so few miles, but I was determined to make the most of the remaining days of this amazing journey.

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It seemed fitting to slow down and to really take the time to enjoy this place in particular because I knew that this was the place where the brothers had spread their mother’s ashes… It felt like a sacred place to me… As I thought about the son that couldn’t make it out to this pass anymore, I decided that I wanted to capture some of it on film for him… I was guessing that he didn’t have any good pictures of the pass, and I was going to be there for sunset and the sunrise… The lighting should be amazing, and I had my good camera (Sony NEX-5N)… I didn’t know his address or even his name, but I wanted to let him know that I had said hi, and I wanted to give him pictures of the pass (if you are the brother I talked to, please contact me at Patches or Patchesthru on Facebook or leave an email address in the comments)…

After taking some pictures I crawled into my sleeping bag and watched the sky shift through a rainbow of colors as the sun set and the moon rose. It was absolutely magnificent.

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As I drew my mummy bag around me something started to swoop in low just a few feet over my head… What was it?! It was after dark, but this thing was way too big to be a bat… It was also very light colored… It flew off and then swooped low over my head again… Definitely a bird, but what kind of bird waits until dark to come out, and it was huge! A wingspan of around four or five feet… It swooped low a third time, clearing me by maybe two feet, and I got an even better look at it… The head was too big to be any of the birds of prey I was used to seeing…

Suddenly it dawned on me, big head, the size of a raptor, waiting until dusk before coming out… It was an owl!!! I laughed at myself… I’d never actually seen an owl swooping around at night before, but it shouldn’t have taken me that long to figure it out. It did another circle around me and swooped down even closer… Wow! I wondered if I’d somehow invaded it’s territory and in a moment of panic was afraid that it was going to swoop down and peck my eyes out while I was sleeping… Having a bird that big dive bombing you while you’re getting ready to fall asleep is a bit disconcerting, but I reminded myself that I like owls, and that it likely had little to no interest in me… Also, I sleep with my glasses on, so my eyes at least would be protected.

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The next time it swooped low I just watched it. Owls are incredibly beautiful birds, and to get to watch one fly like this, in the fading colors of the sunset, less than three feet away from me… it felt like an honor. I also realized that regardless of whether or not it was intentional, the owl was going to protect me as I slept… Like most thru-hikers, I sleep with my food, and mice are a constant concern… An owl swooping this low, this often, meant that anything that tried to go after my dinner would become the owl’s dinner! I definitely didn’t have to worry about mice running around me tonight :)

Secure in the knowledge that I had an ever vigilant protector, I drifted off to sleep… I didn’t wake again until moonset, which was around 5 am. Whenever it is close to the full moon I wake up around moonset because it suddenly gets much darker and I’m very sensitive to changes in light. As I looked, I saw my owl still swooping nearby and smiled. It was getting much darker, but the stars weren’t out, so I looked around to see where the moon was… It was behind me, towards the west, and was a brilliant orangey-red as it began it’s descent into the horizon. I watched it, in awe of its beauty, until it completely disappeared from sight. From this amazing place I’d gotten to watch the moon rise, the sun set, the moon set, and I still had the sunrise to look forward to! I felt incredibly lucky to be where I was.

When I looked up half an hour later I was surprised to see the Milky Way stretched out above me… I didn’t think it would get dark enough to see it so close to the full moon! Apparently, however, there is a small window of time between moonset and sunrise when the night sky is truly dark and all the stars come out to shine.

Still smiling I drifted off for one last time, but awoke in the predawn light… I luxuriated in the warmth of my sleeping bag as I watched the eastern horizon waiting for the sun to rise with the excitement and anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve. Slowly, ever so slowly, the sky turned colors and brightened as the sun prepared to rise… After almost 5000 miles of hiking in the last two years, my appreciation for the wonder and majesty of the rising sun still hadn’t faded!

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My night at Fire Creek Pass had been one of those perfect nights… The kind of nights that make me wish that I could keep doing this forever…

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