After close to a year with the circus, we are finally back on our own, back in our bus, and back to traveling in whatever direction we choose at whatever speed we like. And it sure does feel good.
Years ago, when we were just about to finish the bus, we picked the pacific northwest as our first destination. I’d worked up there for a summer some years prior, and I don’t know what it is about that part of the world, whether it’s the moody skies, the dense, green forests, the stunning, snow-capped volcanoes, or the mountains that run right into the sea, but it has a magic about it that I find absolutely enchanting.
Unfortunately, the first summer in the bus, we didn’t make it. Nor the second. Our first attempt failed as a result of COVID, with us living in a driveway for six months, and the second attempt had to be called off because Bea spent most of that summer at the mechanic getting about half of her engine replaced. All of this is to say that this time, our third attempt, when we finally made it to the impossibly beautiful forests of the Olympic Peninsula, we were absolutely elated. It was always going to be an incredible experience, it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, but it is made all the more special by those two summers that we spent stuck in Boulder pining for those tall trees and cool, coastal winds.
We finally made it, and our first stop back on the road was fantastic. We found a gorgeous little Washington DNR campground where we could park the bus for a week for free. It was pretty minimal, just a handful of sites and a couple of pit toilets in a grove of giant fir trees outside of Forks, but it was perfect. The days were pleasantly warm, the nights cool enough to cook over a campfire, and the thimbleberries were just starting to set fruit.
Thimbleberries are like a friendlier raspberry: they produce loads of delicious red berries, but lack the defensive thorns of their cousins. Well now, if the fruits are so lovely and the plants so harmless, why have I never heard of thimbleberries, you might be asking. Unlike blackberries and raspberries, thimbleberries have resisted domestication due to their very delicate nature. Thimbleberries, when ripe, practically drip off the plant. Picking a few cups means lots of mashed fruit and sticky, red-stained hands. They are jammy, tart, and delicious, but they don’t do too well in a carton.
While this might seem like it makes them an inferior fruit, I’d argue that their delicate nature is one of their greatest characteristics. Like our trip to the northwest, which was made so much more significant by the failures of the previous two years, these fruits, which can only be had in the right place and at the right time of year, become an ephemeral delight. Add to that the delicious, jammy flavor, and you’ll understand why I was so excited to see these little red berries peering out at me from the ditch while I went for a run near our campground. As soon as I got back to camp, Ayana and I grabbed a canvas bag and took the dog for a walk through that same rural neighborhood.
I’m always a bit nervous to forage around what could be someone else’s property, so we stuck to the roadside ditches and fully prepared ourselves to apologize and hand over our haul if any of the locals were to take offense. Fortunately, everyone that we met on our walk was very friendly, and within a couple hours we had not only gotten in a nice stroll, but we had also gathered enough fruit to make a cobbler. Thimbleberries are pretty small, so we were thankful to also find a few blackberries and salmonberries to fill out the pie tin (and give us the name ditchberry cobbler, which we both immediately fell in love with).
This cobbler recipe is perfect for a forager’s dessert, as it takes very little time and doesn’t require a ton of fruit. After your evening walk, in which you’ve managed to collect a few meager handfuls of berries from the ditch, all you need to do is whip up a quick batter, toss the fruit on top, and stick it in the oven for half an hour. It’s definitely one to keep in your back pocket, if only for the shoulder seasons, when the fruits are less numerous.
2 cups assorted berries
2 tbsp melted butter
1 cup flour
¾ cup whole milk
2 tsp baking powder
½ cup sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
Pinch of salt
Pour the melted butter into a 9” pie or cake pan, and swirl it around to cover the edges.
Make a batter with the flour, baking powder, pinch of salt, and ½ cup sugar. Pour this into the greased pie pan.
Sprinkle the berries over the top, and then the ¼ cup brown sugar.
Bake at 350 for around 30 minutes, or until cooked through in the center.
It’s great by itself, but you can serve it with ice cream, if desired.