[Note: this was originally published on These Fifty States, an online periodical for sense of place in America. Read the original at http://thesefiftystates.org/ancient/]
For the first twenty minutes or so, everything is familiar. These roads are the common roads, the ones that lead to the places I go every day. These are my stompinggrounds. But a few minutes later I’m in Canyonville, Oregon and it’s one left turn off of Main Street onto Tiller highway. The Tiller highway is an old tradition, a summer road – one that I roar down in my truck doing sixty, loping in 5th gear with one hand resting lazily on the wheel and the other hanging out the open window. It’s early August and it leads to only one place: the huckleberry patch.
The journey to the huckleberry patch is tribal family tradition. Like all the other Cow Creek natives on my dad’s side of the family, I have made it every year since I was born. This is my eighteenth time. The Tiller highway chases alongside the South Umpqua River through the curves of the valley up into the ranges of the Cascades, where they both peter out. The road is a two-lane highway – wide, open, and fast. The Oregon mountain ridges slope upwards on either side, the timberland a patchwork-patterned quilt of the timber industry. After an hour of cruising the curves, I call a halt. It’s time to swim.
I nose the truck onto the gravelly road shoulder and slide down the bank, barefoot. The water is freezing from the snowmelt, but it’s been a hot ride and I know that it’s only going to get hotter, so I dive in. The swimming hole is almost perfect: deep and clear, shaded by Douglas fir trees and hidden from the road by the towering piles of gravel in the DOT’s rock yard next to it. The swim is part of the journey – I can’t remember a time I have driven by without stopping – but it is only a part and the road calls me back. I scramble shirtless up the bank to the steaming asphalt and climb into the hot truck cab, burning my hand on the hot metal door handle. My bare feet push pedals and the tires spit gravel, then grab pavement. It’s back to racing the river.
After the swimming hole it’s another ten minutes of curves and whipping wind before I make it to Tiller, which is little more than a store and a post office. Two minutes past the store is the turn for Jackson Creek. I wave to a giant plywood Smoky the Bear (fire danger today: high) and crank the wheel to the left. Immediately, the road goes from free and open to cramped and curvy, littered with potholes and washouts. The river, like the road, gets tighter and more cramped, faster and more dangerous. I sit up in the seat and drop a gear, but I’m still going a little bit too fast – the race with the river isn’t over yet.
After twenty minutes of weaving around potholes, I downshift again and start looking out for the next turn, because it’s the one that sneaks up on you. Black Canyon road sits on the other side of a questionable looking one-lane bridge that spans the waters of the South Umpqua. It’s time to give up the race, part ways with the river, and cross the bridge.
Huckleberries only grow above four thousand feet, and now the journey starts to get vertical. The pavement ends with the bridge, and the road from here is varying states of gravel and dirt. Like always, the change of road triggers a change in mood.
I trade the lethargy and laziness of the paved highway for the eager alertness of the narrow gravel road. Before I was old enough to drive, I would stand up in the back of my dad’s truck away from the dust and scan the banks for deer.
Rutted by log trucks and wash-boarded by rainfall, the road is dusty, rough, and steep – one thread in the tangled web of mountain logging and fire roads that lay over the area. The shocks on the truck pound and I sway back and forth in the cab, bumping my shoulder against the door. The air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror taps a steady rhythm against the windshield. Side roads that lead nowhere split off in every direction, but I stay on the main road. Black Canyon bumps up for miles, switchback after switchback, but eventually leads to a plateau and a five-way junction. I nose the truck towards the easternmost road that leads out the ridgeline, the last leg of my journey. At this point in the drive the road gets steeper, rockier, and a hell of a lot narrower. Now is the time to stop, put the hubs in, and shift into four-wheel drive. The passenger side door is inches away from scraping against the nearly vertical cut-bank and the driver side door is inches away from hanging space – a drop hundreds of feet down into a rocky canyon. The driving is slow and focused.
Before I could drive I would ride up with my sister and my dad, crawling up the road in one of his battered trucks. We would poke fun at my sister, who was so afraid of the heights she would refuse to open her eyes. When I was thirteen my dad taught me to drive on this same road, sitting calmly in the passenger seat: “All right, you’re driving. If you screw up we’re going straight off that bank and we’re both gonna die. So go slow and don’t screw up.”
Pretty soon things levels out – I can see the edge of the road when I look out the drivers side window, and the bank retreats to a safe distance on the passenger side. The road sneaks into the undergrowth of what are some of the largest and oldest trees in the entire world. The soft squish of loamy soil replaces the crunch of gravel. The air stills and the canopy filters the soft green light streaming down. Enormous trunks of ancient Douglas fir trees stand respectfully far from each other, old survivors all. I find my eyes following the trunks up and up and up into the crowns of the trees, so far overhead. I feel like I’m inside some giant building – bristly ferns carpet the ground and great wooden pillars hold up the ceiling. Here and there patches of ferns are crushed down, bearing the imprint of sleeping deer.
The transmission whines in 4-high as the truck crawls deeper into the trees. I’m reminded again of when I would drive up with my dad and sister, following a caravan of Cow Creek Indians, members of our tribe and family. We would go and camp beneath the shelter of the giants, sleeping in truck beds and teepees and tents. My younger cousins would run around and scream excitedly while the adults unpacked the tools of the trade: tin coffee cans, tied with bailing twine and attached to belt loops. And we would all venture into the undergrowth to find the bushes that hold the prize – the huckleberry.
The tradition is ancient, older than anyone can remember. I go to the huckleberry patch and the old trees every year and have since I was born, as have my grandmother and her grandmother and our ancestors. The huckleberries have called a yearly gathering of native tribes for as far back as oral tribal history extends, way back to the time when “The mountains were throwing rocks at each other” – the volcanic eruption of Mount Mazama, now Crater Lake. Families from the Umpqua and Klamath tribes would make the journey for the hunting and the berries, usually staying in camp through August. The first families to find the patch planted White Ash trees in a few places, which grows a bark perfect for making a smooth white deer hide. When the families came, they came as friends. Feuds were forgotten in the spirit of the berries.
My grandmother would tell us stories of the old ways as we picked. When the families first arrived, they would rest their horses and pick a young boy to run around the outside of the patch. Then, after a few silent moments of praying to the Great Spirit, everyone would get up and holler and run and dance around to celebrate good berries and nice weather and fat deer. I don’t pray to the Great Spirit as I arrive but instead park the truck cockeyed into the bank, stepping out to stretch and put boots on my feet. I rustle around in the back and come up with a rusty Folgers tin and tie it to a belt loop. The bushes are hard to find, but once you find one the others seem to give up and materialize. They look barren at first, but the trick is to get low – the berries are hiding beneath the leaves.
My main motivation to fill my can is the promise of a scalding hot pie in the future, but my ratio is still unfavorable: eat one, drop one in the can – plunk. At the right time of year the berries are fat and purple; sweet like a blackberry but tart like a raspberry. They smash easily and the juice gets everywhere and stains like blood. As a kid I spent more time running along the trunks of fallen giants and chasing bear sign than I did picking.
When we filled our tin cans we would come together to measure our harvest, which is always calculated in the number of probable pies than can be produced. I can never match the picking prowess of my parents, but all the berries wind up in one garbage bag in the end. We grab lunches and a small handful of berries from the bag and walk to a small, dry field. The Lake, as this field is called, hasn’t been a lake since the time of my ancestors. When I could barely walk I remember it as a marsh; now it is dry grass and hard earth.
After I fill my tin, I hike a short way past the Lake and listen for the sound of trickling water. And I hear it, the spring: hidden beneath a crook of rocks, covered by a clump of ferns. I get down on my knees in the mud and put my face into a trickle of the cleanest and coldest water I have ever tasted – so cold it hurts my teeth.
And then it’s time to go. The rays of sun are almost done filtering through the ceiling so far above and I have to get back to the pavement before it’s too dark to see. I trudge back to the truck and bump slowly down the rough road – always go downhill one gear lower than the one you came up in. I remember the cigarette smoke that would curl lazily out of the cab as my dad drove.
This place has a pull to it; a compulsion. When I look up and see the giants sway, when the icy spring water seeps through the knees of my jeans, when I cover myself in scratches climbing underneath a fallen log to get that one fat berry – that’s when I feel the pull. It’s there when I sit silently in the middle of the Lake, holding a sandwich with berry-stained fingers. I pause and see a deer staring back at me, and I remember the prayer: nice weather and fat deer and good berries. I decide that the pull isn’t about the tradition or the heritage or the history – it’s about the place itself. It’s just about being here. And that is what it has always been about, since the mountains threw rocks at each other.