Hey everyone. If recent posts have lacked a certain…um…immediacy, well that’s because I’ve been on the road since the kids got out of school, traveling around the West. Pitstops have included the charming hamlet of Shasta, CA, and nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park; Nevada’s Great Basin National Park; Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument; and most recently, Telluride, Colorado, where we’re visiting friends and just returned from a 3-day wilderness float through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River (sans children!).
Fortunately, Blogger’s nifty scheduling tool (available through Draft Blogger) enabled me to post a bunch of stuff before hitting the road. Foraging hasn’t been a top priority on this trip; it ranks somewhere behind “not getting a speeding ticket while driving at top speed across the desert.” Really, this has been more of a family vacation—as well as a chance for me to (try to) relax on the eve of my book‘s publication (August 30).
Vacation travel, generally speaking, is a time to throw food habits to the wind. We allow ourselves to put diets on pause, eat stuff we usually avoid, and dine at establishments of dubious repute. I wasn’t expecting to forage any wild foods on this trip. Time is short, we have miles to make, and the emphasis is on seeing the sights. At Dinosaur National Monument in Utah we journeyed back millions of years in time along the Fossil Discovery Trail and soaked up the high desert ecosystem on the Sound of Silence Trail. Petroglyphs and pictographs told the story of earlier foragers, the Fremont people, who hunted and gathered in this harsh yet giving landscape.
But at the end of the road, where pioneer woman Josie Bassett Morris homesteaded along Cub Creek, a tributary of the Green River, I was surprised to find an abundance of edible weeds, and incorporated one into my lunch.
Josie Morris was indeed a “tough old girl,” as I overheard another tourist say. Born in the 1870s, she grew up in Browns Park on the Colorado side of the Green River country where Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado meet, a place known both for its independent homesteaders and also as a refuge for outlaws. In 1914 she selected her own homestead site along Cub Creek on the Utah side in what is now Dino Monument and built her home. There she raised cattle, pigs, and chickens, grew vegetables, and lived off the land at a time when the rest of the country was discovering the conveniences of industrialized society.
Josie’s life is now part of the Old West mythology. She married five times, was widowed by one husband and divorced four. One of her husbands died of suspicious circumstances, and during her lifetime Josie was variously accused of bootlegging, cattle rustling, harboring outlaws, and a number of other colorful crimes. She was known to be a friend of Butch Cassidy—some say more than just a friend—and it’s said she helped him outrun law enforcement with fresh horses supplied from her own ranch.
It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise to find a number of edible weeds growing on her former property, including lush patches of watercress crowding the irrigation ditches, lambsquarters, wild mint, and other sources of free nutrition that can be harvested with little effort.
The cabin site was like an oasis. Songs of orioles, yellow warblers, and lazuli buntings filled the air. We picnicked in the shade, and as I lunched on a ham-and-cheese sandwich buttressed with a handful of watercress pinched from a nearby patch, the thought occurred to me that I was enjoying a fortifying mouthful of greens from the same patch that Butch Cassidy might have delighted in decades earlier during one of his interludes of seeking safety and nourishment while on the run. And looking back further, my lunch was one in a string of meals stretching back thousands of years in this very place.
Modern day foraging, like any other knowledge handed down through millennia, is a chance to chime in on a conversation that people have been having since we came down out of the trees. If nothing else, I find pleasure in keeping alive this particular dialogue.
Happy Independence Day!