The year I moved to Montana, a man shot another man for picking huckleberries in “his” huckleberry patch. He claimed he thought the picker was a grizzly bear. I didn’t know which to fear more: grizzlies or men with guns. A city girl, I was used to people getting shot — just not over huckleberries.
Over time, I made my peace with the bears. I stopped watching Discovery Channel shows about animal attacks and started reading field guides. I put away books with titles like Night of the Grizzly and talked with forest rangers instead. They convinced me the bears didn’t want to eat me — though they might if I did something to threaten them. 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 lightning. Being safe in the woods wasn’t that different, really, from learning to hold my purse tightly on a crowded sidewalk. “Don’t walk alone on a dark street” equaled “Don’t hike with a steak sandwich in your pocket.”
I became addicted to the splendor of Glacier National Park, and bears were a part of that splendor. I accepted my place in the food chain and wore my new consciousness like a badge when out on the trail. If my walk in the woods ended in a blood bath, then it was still better than being stabbed on the subway. But in the back of my mind, it was the “huckleberry killer” with whom I had yet to make my peace — this breed of backwoods misfit who seemed so lethally confused about the definition of territory.
My awe at the beauty of life here is not often shared by visitors from the city. They’ll sit at my kitchen table, sipping their morning coffee and blithely anticipating a day outdoors under the big sky, and I’ll hear myself say, “Have a great walk, but, uh, if you see a bear, don’t move. If it starts coming at you, get small, cover your vital organs, and make sure you have sunglasses 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 tartare. And here’s some bear spray. If you’re getting charged, you can pull back this lever. Hopefully there won’t be any wind.” (I don’t tell them that the locals like to call bear spray “seasoning.”) “The family of black bears 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!”
One friend, visiting from New York City, peeped, “ ‘Scat’?”
“Yeah. Poop. I’ve got a field book if you want. With color photographs and a ruler that helps identify it. It’s a lot of fun, actually.” I could tell the thought of identifying scat was about as appealing to my friend as identifying the phlegm on the sidewalk in front of his apartment building. I tried to repair the damage with “You might find some huckleberries this time of year.” But then I felt I’d be remiss not to add, “Just remember, the bears really like huckleberries too.”
“I didn’t know huckleberries were a real thing,” my friend said. “I thought they were just a cartoon name, like Huckleberry Hound.”
“No, they’re real, all right. And those bears are no cartoon, either. They’re hungry this time of year.”
My friend dumped the bear spray and scat book — and the idea of a hike in the woods — on the kitchen table and slathered a piece of cold toast with about a quarter of a jar of my homemade huckleberry jam. It was late August. My jam supply was low. I suddenly felt a little territorial, like I might shoot him for it.
“This is not relaxing,” he said.
“Why do people accept danger in the city, but not in nature?” I asked him. “People are an OK threat, but animals are supposed to be furry little balls of Walt Disney fuzz? Tell me this: why is it that you’ll hop on the subway without even blinking, accepting that you are sharing an underground tin can with potential muggers, murderers, and rapists, but you’ll blow off your Montana morning walk due to a possible encounter with a bear?” I didn’t even mention the mountain lions, moose, and wolverines. “Has the natural world become so far removed from our lives that we don’t even see it as our intrinsic milieu?”
His answer was stunningly and depressingly 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 stay in my hotel room?”
“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 just is not a necessity.”
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 the hike we had planned, my friend and I went shopping at one of the myriad curio shops in town, where tourists drop a few hundred bucks on the myth of the American West in the form of turquoise-studded belts, spur ashtrays, and other ye olde crappe. As I watched my friend buy a pound of huckleberry taffy — made in Wisconsin — I had never felt more hungry for a walk in the woods. And I knew that I had come to trust nature more than I did my own species.
It has been a decade since I moved to Montana, and I have seen no mountain lions or wolverines. I have spotted grizzly bears, but never one that had any interest in me. Last week, though, I finally met my own personal huckleberry killer — or, rather, his morel-picking cousin.
I was driving up the North Fork, just west of Glacier National Park, with my two small children, on our way to pick mushrooms. Our part of the country experienced a major forest fire last summer, and among the burned animal skulls and ashen pine cones has grown a mighty crop of morel mushrooms. As we jiggled over the bumpy dirt road, I glanced down to my left to see a brown and swollen Flathead River, usually a perfectly clear window to the rose- and sage-colored rocks at its bottom. I should have taken the river’s condition as a warning.
This is not the Nantucket of my youth, where people grabbed designer buckets from their unmuddy mudrooms and romped off in pink pants and rubber boots from L.L. Bean to gather blueberries for their morning muffins. This is the land of charred tree snags, their roots so blazed through that they can fall flat without warning — “widowmakers,” the locals call them. This is the land of poisonous mushrooms that pose as delicacies; the land of grizzly bears, giant cats, and, yes, wolverines. I know all of this. But what I did not consider is that this is also the land of the migrant worker.
The road was suddenly flanked by rusted-out cars and small groups of soot-blackened mushroom hunters glaring territorially at us from the hillsides. I was driving by in my Suburban, high on Woody Guthrie and dreams of morel-and-Gruyère soufflé, and they were milling around old pickups with missing mufflers, carrying institution-sized plastic buckets and twelve-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the can. This land was very suddenly not my land. There were no friendly waves — not even the locals’ tip of the finger from the steering wheel. I heard my mother’s distant, city-spawned words: “Lock the doors and roll up the windows.” But I resisted. I know better than to judge people by their looks, I thought.
As we drove by, dodging icy stare-downs and interrupting illicit-looking exchanges, I recalled a sunny day in eastern Washington when my husband and I, then recent New England transplants, had done what most New Englanders do on a sunny Sunday in autumn: we went apple picking. The rolling hills of Wenatchee had us salivating over memories of farm stands complete with do-it-yourself apple presses and corn-husk scarecrows. We anticipated the same ritual: grabbing a few wooden-slat buckets, going out to the orchards for a small fee, and making pie for days afterward. Applesauce. Apple brown Betty.
By orchard after orchard we drove, with not a farm stand in sight. What we did see were beat-up vans parked on the side of the road and hoards of dirty, raggedy young men standing on rickety ladders among the trees. They looked stern and tired and pissed off.
We stopped at one orchard, where a lord-of-the-manor-looking fellow was addressing a new vanload of workers.
“How much for a bucket of apples?” we asked him.
“Ten dollars a bin,” he said.
“That sounds reasonable,” I said.
He gave us both deep pouches.
“What are these for?” I asked.
“You use them to fill up your bins.”
So out we went, sneered at by the other pickers. Thirty trips to the “bin” later, we returned with not-so-hearty grins, and my husband handed the man a ten-dollar bill.
The man cocked his head at us, 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,” he said. “You don’t pay me.”
I wished I were on Nantucket making blueberry muffins in my pink pants. “You mean, we were working just now?” I asked. “For you?”
“Yup. You pick the apples; I give you money.”
“What if we want to keep the apples and pay you for them?”
“Doesn’t work that way,” he said.
So we handed over our apples and drove away with ten dollars in our pockets. We didn’t talk until we saw the lights of Seattle. I think we went out for sushi that night and spent our little bounty on the tip.
As I pulled off the road, just past the mushroom pickers, my disposition was sunnier than normal — a little too sunny for my daughter’s taste.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“Nothing, honey. Let’s pick us some mushrooms!”
She doesn’t miss a trick. “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 stay away from the burned 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.” She is a Montana girl, born and raised.
“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 grudgingly. “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. Not only was I putting my children in the heart of a forest burn, with widowmakers swaying in the breeze and grizzlies lurking in the breaches, I was lying to them. I knew that this particular beaten-down and forgotten fragment of society was capable of what any beaten-down and forgotten fragment of anything is capable of: love, fear, hate, murder, grace. I was scared. But a-mushroom-picking we went.
I knelt in the black-bottomed forest, picking morel after morel, teetering on the edge of fear and wonder, my two-year-old hugging my neck as if he knew something I didn’t.
An old pickup pulled in next to our Suburban then, not ten yards away. A shirtless man sat in the cab, smoking a cigarette. My daughter looked at me, but I kept up my facade, clinging to the fine thread of faith that carries us across such fractures in parental judgment.
“There’s a whole cluster of them!” I said. “Look!”
And her fears were forgotten to ten more morels.
And then we heard a shrill howl that made us jump. Even my two-year-old jumped. My God, I forgot about wolves, I thought. But the howling wasn’t wolves. It was coming from the shirtless man in the pickup truck.
I started laughing, nervously but unabashedly. Just whom had I thought I would see out here, picking this bounty of morel mushrooms that go for twenty dollars a pound to local buyers? Travel writers for Gourmet and Bon Appétit? Foodies in khakis and chef’s clogs? Wolfgang Puck and Julia Child picnicking on a checkered tablecloth? Was I going to let this man scare me off? Was I the type destined to buy morels in the store, where the price is jacked up to sixty dollars a pound? I wanted my friend from New York City there, to laugh at my paranoia, shake his head, and go back to picking with new steam.
While the man howled, we held our ground and kept picking. When our buckets were overflowing, we had no choice but to return to our car, passing this howling gentleman on the way. I had visions of using my bear spray on him. I had visions of him heisting our harvest, kidnapping my children, and cutting them up into tiny pieces. This is the stupidest thing I have ever done, I thought, walking tall, holding my daughter’s hand and hugging my son tight.
“Hooowdy,” the man said midhowl.
“Hello,” I said, not altogether impolite, but not brimming with cheer, either, ushering my daughter toward the promise of our thick, steel, American-made vehicle.
“Hey, c’mere, little girl. I got sumthin’ fer you,” he said.
Oh God, we are going to die. “That’s OK,” I said, trying not to ruffle his feathers.
“C’mon. I got sumthin’ fer y’all. C’mere, little girl.”
My daughter stopped and looked at him. “What?” she said.
I gently pushed her carward. “Get in the car,” I whispered. “Now.”
The man started toward us holding a white plastic bucket, his chest black with soot.
I stood in front of my daughter as she climbed into the car. My son was still hanging off my neck. He’s got a gun, I thought. Walk slowly back to the car, Laura. Grab your keys.
But the man was coming at me with his bucket — fast.
“Here,” he said. “Take it. I got so many of these damn things I don’t need them all.”
And he shoved the bucket into my hands and backed off quickly, as if it were I who had the gun.
As he got into his truck, I gazed down. Sure enough, there, dangling in my hand, was a five-gallon bucket of the biggest, fattest morel mushrooms Wolfgang Puck ever saw.
I think I said something like “Well, gosh, we appreciate it, stranger.”
And he leaned out the window and hollered in a perfect imitation of Yosemite Sam, “ ’Cause Lord knows I’m steeeerange!”
And he drove off.
Hands shaking and heart pounding, I got into my car and put my forehead on the steering wheel. I had just done everything wrong. Everything.
My daughter said it all then, as usual: “Just because someone doesn’t look nice, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t nice.”
“Yep,” I said, staring at the morels.
“What are we going to do with all those mushrooms?” she said.
“We’re going to take them home,” I said, “and wash them and eat them.”
With that, the man’s car backed into my vision.
My heart clenched.
“Name’s Mike, by the way,” he said. “Fer what it’s worth, you shouldn’t go mushroom pickin’ alone — ’less you’re packin’ a gun. It’s not the grizzlies you gotta watch out fer.”
And he drove away, his car backfiring like a gunshot.