by Katrina Blair
“Have a great time at church.” These are my mom’s parting words as she drops me at the trailhead. It is early August in Durango and the berries are ripe.
She knows. The woods for me are about communing with the nature of the universe. I take a walkabout a few times each year during which I rely entirely on the wild abundance along the way for my sustenance. This solo time allows me to recharge and return to center. For the last five years, my August trek has led me to Telluride to teach at the Mushroom Festival. I take a different route each year. This year, my journey covers 90 miles and takes seven days.
I walk at a harvester’s pace, taking a few steps, nibbling along the way, and often wandering off trail for the choice berries. I make up time by moving fast when the land is sparse of edibles. Luckily my pack is light, containing only the basics such as a sleeping bag, tarp, raingear and warm clothes. I leave at home the food, stove, filter and cutlery.
My first day I feast on handfuls of serviceberries, chokecherries, Oregon grape berries, violet greens and pine needles. I unexpectedly find an apricot tree laden with fruit and a wild apple tree across the trail. I gather a few for later. My feast continues with thimbleberries, raspberries, wild parsley, watermelon berries, wild tarragon, rosehips, harebells and dandelion greens.
I carry a water bottle and refill at creeks I pass. I started drinking unfiltered water after many years of eating wild food. At one point I questioned my fear of wild water and began sipping from streams at high elevations with aerated whitewater. I gradually increased my intake of wild water until now my main water at home is unfiltered creek water.
The first two days are transitional and I experience a kind of detox. I go through moments of feeling lonely, hungry, cold and tired. Civilized life is stimulating and it takes time to unwind my energy back into alignment with the frequency of nature. Knowing this period is part of my journey helps me be patient as I question what I am doing. I don’t take my emotions seriously, otherwise I might hijack my plans. Instead, I take breaks as often as I need. Sleep is my one true escape. It’s been raining hard the last two days and I retreat under my tarp early for bed.
I awake to the morning sunlight feeling renewed and surrender into trusting the unknown. By day three, I remember that I love what I am doing and relax more deeply into listening to the symphony of the earth around me. After packing up camp, I spot a beautiful dandelion flower. I pick the stem at the base and pop the flower into my mouth. I try playing it as a flute. The taller stems make wonderful sounds like a kazoo and by pinching tiny holes in the stem for fingers, it will play different notes. This one doesn’t sing, so I use the enzymes in the sticky white sap on a sunspot on my hand while enjoying the honey flavor of the pollen.
My next feast is a bouquet of bluebells near a creek. I eat both leaves and flowers. As I hike, I chew on osha greens. They taste like celery and create a mouth-tingling sensation that cleans my mouth of bacteria. I gather plantain seed stalks growing on the edges of a dirt road for my staple food for the day. I eat the seeds when they are green and brown. The green seeds chew easily and taste like a nutty vegetable. The brown seeds I chew well knowing the mucilaginous paste will support my digestion. For dinner I eat flowers: harebells, mustard, fireweed, clover and bluebells.
Day four I feast on hundreds of strawberries. I lay myself prostrate to the strawberry goddess. I have a hard time hiking because the patches kept coming. I also indulge on three different species of gooseberries and discover a special treat of a few bilberries. I find two prime king bolete mushrooms and eat them raw. The stems are so juicy because of all the rain, that I prefer them over the caps. I lick some fresh sap off a pine tree that had recently been struck by lightening. I give the tree my appreciation and love. As I move through the forest, spontaneous songs emerge and become mantras for my journey.
This afternoon I enjoy the subtle licorice flavor of sweet cicely and roseroot, a high alpine succulent, which in the past I didn’t prefer, but now pleases my palate. When I bring salty crackers or sweet bars, the flavors of the wild plants don’t taste as good in comparison. When I am eating only what’s here, the flavors come alive.
One morning I rise before sunrise and come upon a herd of elk resting in a meadow. I attempt to sneak past them, but they catch my movements and disperse into the forest. Later, a young bear lopes towards me 20 feet down on the lower trail of a switchback. He sees me and disappears into the bushes. After wearing the same wool T-shirt for five days, I lay it out to dry after a rainstorm. I sit nearby journaling on a few scraps of paper. In the meantime, a chipmunk eats a hole in my shirt the size of a large pancake. The salts from my sweat are too tempting. This reminds me how nature is a resilient opportunist.
My days continue with long miles and multiple mountain passes to cross. The berries are far in between and I have to keep moving to make the passes before the storms prevent my travels. Luckily, wild food is potent and a little goes a long way, especially when eating directly from earth to mouth.
As I travel, I find myself meditating on the question “Where do we get our energy from?” I realize I gain energy from so many sources like doing what I love, breathing, laying on the earth, sunrises and sunsets, swimming in cold water, and gratitude. I feel a sense of freedom knowing I can open myself to myriad other nutrient sources that give energy needed to traverse the mountains when the food is minimal.
My co-worker from Turtle Lake Refuge joins me on the final day and a half of my journey and we make our way over the last passes and drop into the Telluride valley. We harvest a bounty of mushrooms, berries and greens to share at the festival. Although I will miss the spaciousness of the wild time, I am excited to visit the farmers market for a local peach and re-embrace the charms of civilization.