Bicycle rider in blackberry heaven

Somewhere south of Portland–August 13, 2010: Even at a bicyclist’s easy-going pace (eighteen miles an hour), it’s hard to tell when the berries are ready. Clusters that look good as you ride by may have many berries still too tart to enjoy and others already drying up ready to fall to the ground. Even large clumps shimmering in protected pockets may turn out to have so many red or green berries that it is hardly worth the stop.

On Vancouver’s Lower River Road along the Columbia’s north side, some of the patches are low-lying, never producing more than a few good berries. Further out, the stands are more productive. A south-facing stretch rewards cyclists almost the entire season–mid August through mid September–while a half mile deeper into the countryside, west-facing blackberry patches reach the full potential of this species, towering as high as ten feet into the air, with a rich harvest of fruit.

Any time you stop along the road, of course, you have to pay attention to vehicular traffic. One time on Lower River Road, I was way to the side, when some guy driving a gravel truck with trailer, stopped in the middle of the only traffic lane going his direction to tell me I shouldn’t be out there at all because truckers had trouble seeing bikers. My sister-in-law tells me I shouldn’t eat them, “Think of all the fumes they’re subject too, and the DOT sprays sometimes.” Old habits (for me, nearly seventy years deep) are hard to break. Whatever they say, I’m going to be a hunter gatherer (gatherer, anyway).

On US 99W–the Pacific Highway, running from Portland through Corvallis to Junction City–things are different on Friday the thirteenth. For one thing, the paved shoulder is ten, maybe twelve, feet wide, with gravel and grass beyond that. More important, the stands of berries are more luxuriant than I can remember seeing in years. Although they are deeply shaded at 10:00 o’clock (on a day that will see temperatures climb into the upper nineties), it is clear that they receive unimpeded blasts of sunshine through long afternoons and evenings.

If there is an optimum time for these berries at this place, it must be exactly now. Every cluster is covered with berries, most of them at the peak of their sweet ripeness. Nearly all that I pick display the soft white-turning-purple spot where the stem has held them to the vine. None of them show the bloated dullness indicating that they are about to tail off into decrepitude. Few berries are not yet ripe enough to eat.

No one has stopped! No sign that any berries have been eaten by bird, beast, or bicyclist—until now, and I have no way to carry any with me except by eating them.

When I reached my friends’ house an hour later, my mouth was still purple.

When my family moved to western Oregon, in 1941, our place out in the country was well-supplied with wild blackberries, both kinds–Himalayan and evergreen.The evergreen bushes were neater, more like landscape plants, than their Asian cousins, but looks and thorns were about all they had. Never many berries, and certainly none that ever were sweet enough to eat.  But the Himalayans! They always seemed to offer sweet berries as long as anyone wanted to eat. When taken home, they made into pies, tarts, and crisps, filling the air with their deep aroma as they baked.

Imagine my shock thirty years later when I discovered that these blackberries are an invasive plant, an undesirable weed that threatens to crowd out Oregon’s own more subtle natural berries. To my surprise, I also learned that if there is a culprit to blame for giving the nation one of its most invasive species, it is famed, revered Luther Burbank, who in the 1880s lost control of the plant he had imported with such high hopes.

But today, as the sun climbs relentlessly up the skies, I’ll not demean the men and women of past generations for their mistakes. While Burbank’s name will be in my mind, with regrets that the berries that got away from him are so destructive of all things native, I will enjoy this luscious fruit now freely given to all who carefully reach their way past the massive, thorn-studded canes. And I will continue to stop along the highways and byways, beginning in mid-August and continuing as long as I find a few lingering berries, to feast upon this luscious gift.

And when a day’s hard ride is over, I will sometimes stop by a Vancouver-based Burgerville restaurant, for a seasonal shake featuring this delicious fruit: Oregon blackberries at their very, berry best.

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