From the peaks of the Rocky Mountains in Montana, you immediately understand why this American state has earned itself the nickname of “Big Sky” country. At 7-12,000 feet above sea level, all you can see above you is space, occupied only by a spectrum of blue, wisps of clouds, and cartwheeling birds of prey. Far below you, the landscape unrolls like a variety of foam mats, as if you’re viewing a yoga class from the ceiling. But to arrive at that breathtaking expanse, you have to move counterintuitively through the opposite of space. Hiking isn’t a straightforward climb. Ascent is just as much about the descent, even when you’re heading up. Trails are narrow, switch-backing footpaths carved through shoulder-high underbrush. Dangers, ranging from jutting tree roots to foraging bears, can trip you up at any turn. And even if you achieve the summit, you might not be in a position to appreciate that kind of space, as I was not, in this piece that follows.
They were blooming all around me, frilly lavender wigs bending and swaying on top of slender, tubular green torsos. A runway of near-identical floral models dressed for flower fashion week. But despite being a gardener, I hadn’t noticed them. Sitting on a flat boulder, the granite unsympathetic under my inappropriate Pilates leggings, I was trying to bring my body under control. Like many people who traveled to Montana in search of big sky, space, and an outdoors-y adventure, I had greatly misjudged the ruggedness of the state, not to mention my fitness for it. You probably discerned that, dear hiker, when you met me on the so-called “moderately challenging” Doris Ridge Trail, a 6.2-mile out-and-back hike on Doris Mountain.
But it wasn’t a run-in with a bear, elk, or moose that brought me down. Or a trip over the larch tree roots that protruded like Medusa’s hair from the ground every two feet. Or a fall on one of the narrow switchbacks.
It was the wild huckleberries.
Huckleberry season in northwestern Montana, around Kalispell and Whitefish, is all-encompassing. It’s impossible to escape. Roadside stands, bakeries, restaurants, breweries, and even the airport sell products ranging from the actual fruit to honey, syrups, pastries, beer, cocktails, candy, and barbecue sauce. Because they only grow in the wild, pickers—who make good money this time of year—guard their patches under the larch trees as zealously as mothers do their children when a white van has been spotted driving aimlessly around a neighborhood.
But the truth is that huckleberry bushes grow everywhere in this part of the Rockies. No one needs to fight for a taste. There are plenty for hikers (and bears) to feast on during their wanders, especially during shoulder season, which is the time when we were visiting. During the first mile of the hike, we were enchanted by the globular blue-black fruit, about the size of a pinkie fingernail, with a flavor like a tart blueberry.
“You can pick and eat them whenever you see them,” our guide, B., told us. In fact, the first thing he did, after we started on the trailhead, was crouch down in front of a bush and show us what the ripe berries looked like, rolling them around on his palm. “Just be sure to make noise. You don’t want to startle a bear. They love huckleberries, too,” he said. “And I don’t want to have to spray a bear who doesn’t deserve it.”
Fair enough. Suddenly huckleberry-crazed, my group—a handful of female travel writers who had been invited to explore this part of Montana by Explore Ranches, a conservation-oriented company that was helping owners of lodges turn a profit by renting their ancestral homes instead of selling off land to become condos—called out loudly to each other whenever we spotted the berries, scattered like drops of paint, among the leaves. Hiking single file on the tapering trail, we’d grab a few and move on, leaving some for the others. I must have eaten at least two dozen this way when I felt a familiar, albeit entirely unwelcome, sensation.
While crossing over one of the many streams, a sharp, cramping pain stabbed my abdomen, and I bent over double, leaving a violet puddle to mingle with the running mountain water. Then it happened again, a few minutes later. My pulse started racing like a driver in Miami, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I was so suddenly sick I couldn’t even be embarrassed.
Then again, this has been everyday life for me. I’ve vomited on the sidelines of my son’s soccer games. In Michelin-starred restaurant bathrooms. In Caribbean airports before I’ve even left the terminal. Chronically ill since I was 24 with a handful of disorders, in the past few years my alternately depressed and over-active immune system has been giving rise to inconvenient food allergies and intolerances: eggs, dairy, pineapple, quinoa. Before I figured out that I was allergic to eggs—thank you, pandemic, for shutting down all the restaurants and forcing me into an elimination diet—I’d lost 15 pounds and people were not-so-politely inquiring if I had an eating disorder.
Now I never can guess when a new sensitivity will reveal itself. I should have known better than to eat something I’d never tried before, especially a wild berry that protects itself from being consumed by birds so that it can reproduce. Vegetation like that usually contains high amounts of saponins, a natural chemical that winged creatures dislike and to which my body reacts as if it were poison. (See the aforementioned quinoa.) But as a food-travel writer who is desperately trying to retain the last vestiges of a career, I suppose I willfully forget. Or I take a stand of deliberate perversity. Or I am still in that last tiny bit of denial, where my brain whispers: This time it will be okay.
It is never okay.
The guide, B., was concerned, as was A., the owner of Explore Ranches, who was also on the hike. “Do we have an anaphylactic situation here?” B. asked. Technically, we probably did. According to an allergist I interviewed for an article about peanut and tree nut allergies later that fall, anaphylaxis is greatly misunderstood by the general population. “It’s not just about your throat closing up,” she said. Two or more symptoms that do not resolve on their own (such as vomiting and tachycardia, both of which I was experiencing) equals anaphylaxis and requires treatment.
But I didn’t know that then. I told him no.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “Because this is bear country, I’d rather not split the group up and send you back to the van. If you can make it to the lakes, we can decide what to do there, whether we all continue on to the peak or we all turn back. Sound good?”
It didn’t. But it sounded worse to be the cause of everyone else missing out on the hike. So, after a few minutes’ rest, we walked on.
Truthfully, as B. had said, it wasn’t much further to Doris Lakes. We followed the trail to the left, to one of the larger of the three glacial lakes. An absolutely stunning hue of blue, the lake looked as if the sky had decided to come drape itself on the earth, the water so clear that all the stones on the bottom—a magnificent marbling of russet, ochre, umbria, and ivory—appeared magnified. It’s a colour palette that many, no doubt, have tried to replicate in their bathrooms and kitchens and never gotten quite correct.
That’s where you found us, dear hiker.
Here’s what you saw: Aside from the guide, a group of women, all with varying kinds of backpacks and yoga pants. Some of us were clearly more suited for hiking than others, although none of us had so much as a walking stick. Everyone was gazing at the lake or dipping a finger in its melted glacial depths. Everyone was standing but me.
Here’s what we saw: A woman in her late sixties, maybe early seventies, wearing walking shorts and a belted backpack, a hat with a chin strap, and using two trekking poles. You were accompanied by two men—one likely your husband, the other your son—outfitted in the same sensible gear. You all appeared hale and hearty, like you had done this trail many times before, like you knew what to expect. You seemed capable. Very, well, alpine.
You looked like how I wanted to look.
But dear hiker, I am your sickly shadow self. Sometimes I can barely walk up a flight of stairs. Why did I think I’d be able to tackle a mountain?
You didn’t make me feel out of place. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” you called. “Perfect for a hike!”
Was it? The sun was proving coy, and in two hours a thunderstorm would drop just enough rain to dampen us to the skin. Later that afternoon, a shattering violence of hail would interrupt our drive through National Glacier Park—just five miles from the truly gorgeous Green Valley Lodge where we were staying—right after we’d spot our first and only black bear crossing the road toward the river.
But your optimism was catching. As my fellow travelers built up energy by snacking on nuts and jerky, I desperately sipped at electrolyte-infused water, praying it would stay down. It did. Gradually I felt my stomach settle a bit and the tachycardia ease, my heart no longer twisting out of my throat like a rainbow trout on a fly-fishing line.
That’s when you pointed out the chives. “And look at this field!” you exclaimed. “Imagine how resilient these chives are, to blossom here like this. You can even smell them! We should pick them.”
Immediately five pairs of eyes swung my way, widening with horror in the slightly onion-y air. “Don’t worry!” I raised my hands. “No more strange foods for me.”
But while I didn’t take a bite from them, I did take heart from those perennials you pointed out. The nerve to come up in this craggy mountain environment, year after year! I thought about their tendencies: how they’re cold-hardy enough to survive a surprise frost or two; how they’re great companion plants, deterring bugs from others; how left to their own devices, they’re insistent enough—okay, greedy enough—to take over an entire plot of land.
You left us after that, continuing on your hike. We never saw you or your companions again. But when B. asked if I wanted the whole group to return to the van or if I was well enough to continue to the peak, your voice stayed with me, whispering resilience. And I chose to trek on toward Doris Mountain’s summit of 7,437 feet.
Dear hiker, it wasn’t easy. I was dehydrated. I was weak and nauseated. I slowed the group down when I had to stop on the switchbacks, clinging to a larch tree’s bare trunk, stuck with tiny little limbs like a child’s snowman, to rest. But I made it to the top, where I could see the Flathead Valley quilting out to the west, and to the south and the east, the peaks of the Swans and Flatheads, spiking all the way out to Glacier National Park.
From the trailhead, the gain of altitude was almost 2,000 feet. And then, of course, we had to return. Overall, the trail is supposed to take about 3.5 hours, generously speaking, to hike; it probably took us around 4.5 because of me.
The reward awaited us in the van when we finally returned to it: plenty of water, beer if we wanted it, and sandwiches. B. made sure to keep his special—a meat-and-cheese combo spread with huckleberry jam—way out of my reach. But I couldn’t help thinking, also thanks to you, dear hiker, how much my Italian sub might have been improved by a handful of Rocky Mountain wild chives.