Around the tenth mile of any hiking trip, I start pining for a blackberry milkshake. Whether I’m trudging along the last stretch of a winding, dusty trail through sagebrush, reaching out now and then to run my fingers through the dry, tall grass cracking in the heat; or descending a glacier with an ice ax in one hand and my crampons jingling in my backpack while each step kicks up snow and I have to squint against the sun-blazing snow; or whether I’m plodding through mud and shoelace-deep puddles as a downpour thunders on my hood and soaks through my jacket, wool shirt, and long underwear—it doesn’t matter. I want a blackberry milkshake. Never chocolate, or vanilla, or peanut-butter-marshmellow-huckleberry. Always blackberry.
I grew up in the company of blackberries. Twenty feet from my bedroom window, a jungle weaved and latticed and writhed into new shapes every spring, ten feet high and aggressive. That jungle draped bunches of thorns, leaves, and berries over our fence and toward our yard, and every summer, my dad beat them back. He’d lop off the dangling limbs, and in the fifteen minutes or so before he brought the lawn mower over and hacked the detritus to bits, my brother and I would scurry outside and pick off the berries like a pair of vegetarian vultures. More blackberry bushes grew in the woods between our front yard and the road, as well as in the woods by the drainage pond and along our street and along Southworth Drive and along the path to the beach and more or less everywhere.
On August afternoons when my dad was at work, my mom would take my brother and me blackberry picking. We’d get out the large, plastic bowls and trek all of a hundred yards to the street. The perfect blackberry deserves the name; one with even a single red or purple bead bursts tart. We’d hunt pure black berries the size of a quarter, swollen tight with juice. I’d pop those ones straight in my mouth. Only the imperfect berries made it into my bowl.
Despite my graft, nothing I’ve tasted since can top my memories of my family’s homemade blackberry ice cream. We’d mash our harvest into a paste, strain out the seeds, pour rock salt and ice into the machine, and watch the ice cream maker hum and churn on the back porch. I could make it myself, fifteen years later, but that would feel sacrilegious. Blackberry ice cream is as holy as library reading logs or PVC swordfights.
Blackberries came to the Pacific Northwest via Europeans hungry for easy fruit. The plants thrived in our mild temperatures and abundant rain, and soon, blackberry gardens became unnecessary. The newcomers choked out the native vegetation and set up camp along roads, on the edges of yards, and in empty lots. Thickets of the thorny plants so thoroughly invaded that today, “control of Himalayan blackberry and evergreen blackberry is not required because the species are widespread throughout Western Washington” (King Country noxious weed policy). Blackberries out-compete native plants and build dense, inhospitable tangles, and their tangles build dense, inhospitable fields. Nothing else can grow in a blackberry jungle.
These plants funded a good part of my semi-adult life. I spent my high school and college summers mowing, weed-whacking, and clearing brush, which meant I cut blackberries with machetes and clippers, wrestled blackberries with gloves and boots, and pried blackberries out of the ground with picks and shovels. I would heap the detritus in a pile and burn it, only to repeat the process a month later. A blackberry bush can grow twenty-five feet in a year. Repeat. A blackberry bush can emerge from the mangled remains of a few roots. Repeat. My arms bled from blackberries thorns. Repeat. Amid sweat and thorns, I found hundreds of perfect berries.
Invasive blackberries don’t grow in the mountains. Out there, I’ll eat native thimbleberries when I can find them, or tiny huckleberries, sour salmonberries, or wild strawberries. I’ve seen the native, trailing species of blackberry deep in the National Parks and National Forests, although I’ve never eaten its fruit. Supposedly, it has a stronger flavor than the Himalayan variety.
But no matter. When I’m tired and sore, thirsty, and bored with trailmix and dehydrated food, I crave a blackberry milkshake. I’ll convince my hiking partners to stop at a diner on our drive home, the more homely the better. I look for peeling paint, advertisements from the 1980s, and a potholed gravel parking lot. The best diners possess aesthetics untouched by any corporate marketing team; their brand of grime and dilapidation come authentic. We’ll swagger in, proud of the dirt on our faces and the sweat in our clothes, and embarrassed about the same. I’ll look for a milkshake first. Most places don’t offer one, and if they do, it’s squirted from a machine that blends soft-serve and artificial flavoring into an overfilled, sugary disappointment. But every now and then, I’ll get a true one. A milkshake made with real blackberries plucked from a bush. An irregular, violet stain swirls through the mix, the same color as the splotches that showed up on so many of my childhood shirts, dotted by a few black and purple beads that survived the churning, like the smudges that make a painting authentic.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.