The quest for Saguaro Fruit… is it the journey that makes it that much sweeter?
Deep into the heat of the Sonoran desert, the hottest days of the year, the giant saguaro cactus offers its deeply hued fruits to the winged folk—the white-winged doves, the woodpeckers and the bats—up to sixty feet above the ground. These green skinned fruits burst open like flowers, revealing their crimson flesh and hundreds of black seeds. This is the third year I have collected the fruits and it is not a casual task. Sometimes I get lucky and there’s a generous saguaro who’s large arm has become too heavy and bends downward, offering its nearly spineless fruit within reach.
At the beginning of my trip, I was able to grab a few fruits on a cactus that was conveniently next to a fence that I climbed on and used an extendable pool net to haphazardly collect them. They were completely unripe and unpalatable (but I still pickled them and they turned out great!).
The following night, on my evening walk, I noticed another cactus who’s fruits were bursting open—their tell-tale sign of ripeness. I had no pool net, ladder nor long stick to reach them so I grabbed a few nearby stones to toss at them hoping to dislodge a few. Apparently the cactus thought I was playing catch and bounced them right back at me. Noted: catching skills need improvement.
I went on my way, feeling a bit embarrassed, but remembering just down the path there was another cactus with the bent-down arm that I collected from last year. The darkness that was creeping in was fitting for the scene that I was not expecting. Within the year since I last visited, the cactus had died. This led me to wonder, was I the last human to eat its fruits? It had been a stately cactus with many arms, indicative of its age… possibly up to 200 years old. Had there been any other hungry wanderers that had enjoyed its fruit in that time? Surely it hadn’t been waiting for me… but that romantic idea had danced through my mind. Wistfully, I turned my gaze to the ground and noticed the remains of one of its arms. All of the flesh had decomposed leaving long thick ‘ribs’ of the cactus behind. It had left me a gift even after its death.
In the past, it was these sticks that were used by native people to collect the fruits. Some were long enough as they were, other times they were tied end to end to reach the tops of the highest cacti. I gratefully chose one stick and returned to the first cactus with the ripe fruit. I was reminded of the story by Shel Silverstein… “The Giving Tree” where the tree gives everything of itself, its fruit, shade, wood, and then it’s stump even after its death, to the boy.
I only took a few fruits. No more than what I needed to share with my family for this only once a year treat. No need for any special preparations with their delicate flavor. This fruit is mildly sweet, reminiscent of watermelon without the water and much less slimy than prickly pear fruit. It is full of tiny crunchy black seeds that can be eaten altogether with the fruit. One of my most favorites.
Is the taste that incredible and worth the effort? Or is it the journey to it that makes it that much sweeter?
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
Traveling affects the spirit in unimaginable ways. But it takes that first step into the unknown to expand the mind and to expand the perception of our world in a way that changes us forever.
This year, I co-lead a week-long foraging and botany adventure into the mountains of southern Baja. With the focus of finding and tasting local wild plants and mushrooms, we explored the different micro-climates of the semi-tropical Cacti and Legume Forests of the cape region and Sierra de Laguna mountains. Plants ranged from familiar variations of species I have found in Southern California (US) and the Sonoran Deserts of Arizona to completely unusual and rare species.
On the group’s first day together, we arrived at Sol de Mayo, our base camp for the trip where they had beautiful rustic cabins and a very basic kitchen. Because of the rural location, we didn’t have some of our ususal urban comforts—electricity, paved roads, hot water, and for some of the trip, cell service. We got to enjoy our dinners by candelight every evening. It was a great introduction to the countryside and helped everyone disconnect and unplug (literally). Our first dinner was huilatcoche (corn fungus) and squash blossom tacos from the local market.
From our cabins, we could hear the waterfall. For our first adventure, we hiked into the wilderness, exploring and identifying the plants we encountered and learned their edible and medicinal uses. After our trek up the river trail, we headed back down for a swim at the waterfall and its refreshing crystal clear water. Our dinner was battered squash blossoms and tacos with wild water leaf, puffball mushroom and purslane.
After collecting damiana and bouillon bush herbs, we visited a nearby Eco-Community located on a permaculture mango farm. We learned about permaculture, eco-friendly building and sustainable community with the founder Ryshek. He offered us a generous tasting of the abundance of fruits grown on the land. We found a tarantula and several other wild creatures along the way.
Explored San Dionisio Canyon with guides who took us to some amazing waterfalls and swimming holes with natural slides. Afterwards we went on a hunt for the Baja Black Sapote, also known as the Chocolate Pudding Fruit. After climbing the one tree we found with only a few ripe fruits, we got to enjoy its unique taste. We collected acorns as well and shelled them under candelight to prep for other meals.
A tropical storm started to settle in, but we headed to the Santa Rita hot springs to warm up and relax. For some of us, it was our first time soaking in a hot spring! Then, we rock-hopped through the canyon, at some points crossing the river waist deep with our packs precariously hovering over the water. We made it to a natural pool that seemed as if it was artistically carved in the rock with a shallow and deep ends, diving, slides and even rock benches to sit in the water. Afterwards, we headed back to base camp to relax. Dennis made a mushroom and seaweed soup using the bouillon bush herb (it smells like Top Ramen!) and the Agaricus mushrooms we found. I made savory acorn cakes, socca style, with lots of toppings.
The tropical storm settled in and rained all day, causing flooding and washed out roads. Not a problem, we had our robust “El Burro” van to take us out to the Sierra Cacachillias to search for rare desert honey persimmons. We didn’t find many ripe ones, but just enough to bring back to make a syrup for the next day’s acorn pancakes. It was a wild ride through the wet sandy roads that were more like rivers on our trek back to the mountains, dodging the heirloom cattle that liked to sleep in the roads at night.
November 28 With the intense rains, many of the roads were washed out and witnessed several cars stuck in the mud. But, again, “El Burro” got us out to the coast to Cabo Pulmo. Our original destination at the coral reef for snorkeling was closed unfortunately, but we still found a great spot to swim in the warm water of the Sea of Cortez and collect coral on the beach. Afterwards, we headed to the Buena Fortuna gardens for a Mexican-style “thanksgiving” dinner. Most of the foods were gathered from the 11 acre gardens and ended with an epic “pumpkin pie”. We then took a tour through the garden led by Dennis exploring unusual and exotic plants. After the tour, a few of our group partook in hapé.
November 29 Departure back to the united states.
This trip has opened my eyes to a larger and more complex abundant world. Traveling enlivens the soul and challenges our routines and comfort zones. I hope to share many more exciting adventures with you all in the future.
Foraging Baja 2020
If you would like more information when it is available, please send me an email with “Foraging Baja 2020” in the subject line. firstname.lastname@example.org
“What am I doing?!” I said to myself as intense panic began to set in. I was standing on the edge of a mountain, 20 miles deep into Montana’s national forest with no phone service or map after I had wandered off in search of a trail with plants, mushrooms and land I had never seen before. I was 33 and had just ended a 14 year partnership. I had embarked on a ten day solo trip for the first time in my life, taking advantage of my incipient freedom. The trip had gone smoothly up until then, staying with friends in Portland and Idaho, but then continued on by myself with my newly fledged confidence into new territory.
It was in that moment that I realized I had no one else to rely on except myself. Any predicament that I got into I would have to deal with. After never living on my own or traveling by myself in my life, this was The “what-ifs” began to run rampant through my mind. What if I encountered a bear? I put my hand on my pocket. I had bear spray that my mom had given me and I kept my keys loudly jingling to ensure my presence was known. What if the car broke down? I sort of know my way around a car and there’s a few things I know how to fix. If not, I had everything I needed to camp for at least 5 or more days, plenty of food and water. Plus 20 miles are a doable to walk back to the interstate if it came down to it. I took a deep breath and decided that I had the situation handled. I hiked the several miles back to my car. As soon as I sat down in the driver’s seat, I smiled one of the biggest smiles in my life.
I have gone on at least one solo adventure each year since then. The next one was to Telluride, Colorado where I spent ten days in and out of the wilderness foraging and writing my Master’s thesis. Another was a mushroom foraging trip that took me along the the coast and ended up at Mount Shasta in California. Each trip I returned with more than beautiful nature photos. I returned with a deeper understanding of myself and how I relate to this experience of life. This year I decided I had never seen the Olympic Peninsula and have been fascinated by temperate rainforests since I was a kid. With no plan in mind other than to head north as far as I could go, I went on yet another journey that I wasn’t quite expecting. I had been doing this solo thing for a while now and felt confident that I would have an enjoyable time wandering about the wild, searching for mushrooms and nibbling plants, photographing and writing along the way. I didn’t think there was much deep soul searching experience left to have at this point. In fact on day 4, as I sat on an desolate riverbank in the middle of the forest, it was one of the most powerful existential crises since my ex-husband moved out four years earlier, nearly taking everything but my car.
It seems rare these days, as a working mom especially, that I find I am ever alone for very long. From roommates, children, teaching, running a business and living in an urban area, its difficult for me to spend an entire day alone without someone needing to interact with me. So when I get the chance to adventure alone, I get tempted to stop and visit friends along the way, but end up politely declining because of how rare and how much I value my solo time. But then, as the days go on, I realize I haven’t interacted with a real person in a week. By intentionally journeying solo, especially in low populated areas, the traveler is suddenly subjected to one’s own company hour after hour, hundred miles after hundred miles, day after day.
It can become a very profound and spiritually enlightening experience. Those little underlying and long unresolved issues suddenly seem to bubble up to the surface. Those uncomfortable realizations about the self that have been avoided and shoved aside promptly make their way into the limelight. The layers are peeled away. Suddenly, the meaning and purpose of one’s life comes front and center. Fears and uncomfortable truths that seemed insignificant before, now are magnified. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I tend to prefer going without a rigid plan or itinerary. I spend so much of my regular life planning nearly every moment of the day, week and month that it feels incredibly refreshing not to have a pressing to-do list or the incessant feeling of always ‘having to be somewhere’ that I’ve become accustomed to in this busy modern life. However, take away that preoccupation for the brain and what’s left? For me, at the beginning it feels like I can be in the moment, make decisions on the fly and not be distracted with the next item on the to-do list. But then the mind starts searching for something to entertain itself. That’s where all the thoughts of self-reflection and analyzation crept in. We get so wrapped up in our modern lives, falling into monotonous routines, doing the same things every day, over and over, when suddenly we realize a year (or ten) have gone by.
Spiritual awakening, soul searching and loneliness aside, there have been some incredible moments on my travels that I will remember for a lifetime. The feeling of accomplishment of 10+ mile hikes into the backcountry, the victorious summits, the rewarding dip in a pristine alpine lake, reveling in the fact that I relied on no one else but me to get to that point. Those times worth every challenging moment along the way.
Food for the (spiritual) journey
I also like to change up my eating habits on the road as well, shopping at farmers markets and foraging along the way. No restaurants (although it was my birthday this last trip and I took myself out to a fancy restaurant in Portland) and no processed or prepared foods. Since food wasn’t as easily accessible, I was able to examine my unconscious eating habits. Snacking when I felt anxious, reaching for food when I felt overwhelmed or wanting to avoid something. If I wanted to eat, instead of mindlessly grabbing a bag of chips, I had to stop somewhere, open up the cooler, set up my mini-kitchen and prep food from whole ingredients I found along the way. For every meal. Snacking on foraged berries and plants was helpful in between. A majority of what we do in our daily lives is routine and habitual. We go throughout the day without thinking. If it worked easily, comfortably, in the past, we are more likely to continue doing it over again.
What about the loneliness?
One of the most common questions or comment I get about my travels is “doesn’t it get lonely?”
Of course. But why does one get lonely? What makes it so uncomfortable to be with yourself?
Surprisingly, it doesn’t take actually being alone in a forest somewhere to feel lonely. Many people living in urban areas admit to feeling lonely at some time AND at least sixty percent of people who feel lonely are married, according to research. It comes down to the quality of relationship you have with yourself and relationships with others in your life. That feeling of loneliness which arises during solo travel can help us examine and reconsider some of our habits and relationships.
A journey taken solo, I have found, is a completely different experience than when we travel with a partner. There are the positives of traveling with someone: You get to share those exciting and thrilling moments together: achieving the summit of a mountain, admiring an awe inspiring landscape, the elation of finding flora and fauna for the first time. Having someone to talk to about the meaning of life on those endless hours and hundreds of miles makes a world of a difference. A second opinion offered whether to turn left or right. But then there’s always a second set of needs and wants, other routines, other paces and differences to consider. It is more difficult to fully interact with the people you meet during the journey. There’s much, much less privacy. And of course, the more time you spend with someone, the more likelihood of disputes and disagreements. Is one better than the other? Not necessarily, just drastically different experiences.
For women, unfortunately, it can be a lot more intimidating to travel alone especially if you haven’t done it before. Even though I don’t usually have an itinerary, I always have the first night planned before I leave my house. After that, I let everything unfold from there.
My biggest suggestion is to stay observant. Keep an eye on the people around you and pay attention to your surroundings. Since I sleep in my car, I’m very aware of the places I choose and observe the local activity before I decide to commit to a spot for the night. If at all possible, I park and hop directly through to the back of the car to set up my sleeping area without going outside of the car which may attract unwanted attention.
I usually keep to myself most of the time when I travel, which has its own disadvantages, but in a safety sense, it works. When interacting with others though, it helps to be vague with people you meet about where you’re staying and where you’re going, even when posting to social media. I also don’t usually make a big deal about the fact that I’m traveling solo in casual conversations.
At the beginning of my first solo adventure, I stayed with friends each night with the next day’s destination being the next friend’s home. That made it incredibly easy. Someone was expecting me and generally had all the accommodations I could have wanted, even dinner. After that though, as I’m not always a very social person, I opted for campgrounds. There were people around but I could keep to myself. It was a plus if there was a shower. Then, as finances were a little tighter and nightly campground fees became more than what I wanted to spend. I opted for national forest camping at times or, highway turnouts… my favorite have been along Highway 1 overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A good app that I have been using lately is the iOverlander app that offers suggested boondocking sites with reviews.
What are my essentials?
Every time I travel, my “essentials” list gets shorter and lighter. It changes during the seasons and depends on what I plan to forage. Here’s what I brought with me last time on my 10 day roadtrip from Southern California to the Olympic Peninsula, sleeping in my car (no tent or chairs needed).
Kitchen necessities (cast iron skillet, chef knife, backpacker’s stove, chopsticks, spoon, bowl, and my favorite mug) Basic cooking spices and oils Phone* DSLR Camera Journal Field guides for the local area Backpack with waterbottle/filter Pocket knife A few changes of clothes Appropriate footwear for the destination Basic toiletries (just because you’re solo doesn’t mean its ok to skip brushing your teeth, or maybe it is..?) Bath towel Kitchen towel (or paper towels but I try to reduce waste when possible) Cozy bedding (because those long days of driving or hiking should be rewarded with a good night’s rest. I recently splurged on a memory foam mattress topper that fits perfectly in the back of my car and its pretty much the best purchase I’ve made) Music and/or podcasts downloaded (because there’s many times without phone service and internet radio is nearly useless without signal unless your songs are downloaded)
*I’m considering the level of comfort that having a phone provides which makes me curious what the experience would be like without GPS, Google and the various apps I use to guide my journey. What if I had to ask a human for directions or recommendations? How would that change my experience?
Travel changes you. Solo travel changes you even more.
Every time I return from my travels, my perspective has shifted in some way. I feel just a bit more confident, just a bit wiser, happier and easy-going. And just a bit more ready to take on whatever life throws at me next. And maybe… just maybe… I’ll share an adventure with someone someday.
Jess Starwood is an herbalist, forager and chef, aspiring writer and photographer with a passion for solo travel. Follow the journey on Instagram @this.wild.path or food adventures @jess.starwood
Apparently traveling solo is a natural thing to do after a major life change. One study determined that at least 43% of solo travelers are doing so because they are newly divorced or widowed. I get that. It allows for an opportunity to get to know yourself again. It gives you that much needed space and clarity. It changes your perspective and puts you into situations where no one else is responsible for the outcome other than yourself. You have many hours of time to process your thoughts. And I mean A LOT of hours. For myself, as a single mom of two young kids that is accustomed to being fully occupied through all waking hours of the day, who had never lived alone and was with the same person for 15 years…this was a big difference. A game changer.
My first road trip after the initial separation last year lasted ten days. My kids’ father took them on vacation and there was no way I was staying at home by myself waiting for them to come home, drowning myself in despair and loneliness, waiting for them to call and assuming the worst if they didn’t. I hopped in my car and drove through all the western states except Colorado and New Mexico, totaling somewhere around 3,500 miles and visiting 7 national parks. I had only a loose plan and either stayed at a few friends houses on the way or camped. I learned a lot more about myself in those ten days than I had in the ten years we were married. It was just the start of some major unraveling.
This year I was faced with the same scenario. The unfortunate opportunity to spend 10 days away from my kids and the timing of the trip was out of my control. This summer I was finishing my master’s degree and my thesis was due by the time my trip would end. I had wanted to finish before I left so that I could enjoy my time away, but it just didn’t happen that way. So, on the road I went, in search of late night coffee shop hours with decent Wi-Fi.
My destination this time was inspired by an invitation from a friend to attend the Telluride Mushroom Festival. It piqued my interest and it just so happened to fall on the same weekend the kids were going to be gone. I wasn’t quite sure if I was in the mood to be around a bunch of people but I headed in that general direction.
My first stop was in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was somewhat familiar territory since I grew up in Phoenix, just a few hours south. I arrived early in the afternoon, located a coffee shop and checked in with my courses, ready to get some work done. However, I felt the need to stretch my legs and get some fresh air after so many hours in the car. I found a nearby trail and was greeted nearly immediately by an array of mushrooms.
I took it as a sign that I needed to attend the mushroom festival.
The following day, I arrived in Colorado and as I drove through the mountains, I was in awe of the beauty that welcomed me. It felt strangely familiar, like I belonged there, like it was home. Driving along the winding roads, I kept seeing signs for National Forest access…. I couldn’t resist. I followed an unknown road for a while, just in utter disbelief of the stark contrast of what I was used to in Southern California. I found
so much that delighted me in every way. The forest floor was covered in dandelions with leaves that were bigger than I had ever seen in the wild at home. Medicinal herbs that I had only seen in books were around every corner. It was like sighting magical creatures in real life.
The time I spent in Colorado was a mixture of writing while on the road (I finished my thesis and final exams while traveling through Arizona), hiking daily, camping in the forest and wandering the town of Telluride searching for wi-fi.
A few take-aways from my trip:
I became acutely aware of how technology and social media play significant roles in my life. It was great to be able to connect and share with so many people while I was traveling alone and to receive instant support and connection. It helped to ease the challenging times of solitude. I will be the first to admit that yes, it has become a big part of my life, healthy or not. But, that’s another post…
The strange feeling of isolation and disconnect when I initially retreated at night into the forest with no signal on my phone. This is when you sit front and center with your thoughts. It was refreshing, but terrifying at the same time. Once you get past the separation anxiety, and that’s exactly what it is, you begin to reconnect… to nature. By morning when it was time to head into town to make some progress on writing my thesis, it was almost saddening and overwhelming to have to turn my phone back on. There needs to be more “off” times in daily life.
It gets REALLY dark during the new moon in the forest. This is when your superhuman hearing powers kick in… then you undoubtedly believe that every little sound is probably a bear or a murderer.
It’s tough to see something breathtaking, intriguing or amazing and not be able to turn to your side and say “Hey! Isn’t that awesome!?” But, on the flip-side, there’s no one to roll their eyes and ignore you either.
Comfort zones and edges become very apparent. When we are at home, we are comfortable with a certain way of life, our routines and of course the luxuries of all our “stuff.” Each night I spent in a different place and didn’t have a plan on where the next night I would end up.
So there you have it. I’m looking forward to the next adventure because I won’t be bringing along my computer for schoolwork (I finished all my coursework while on the road! I’m done!!).
Some of the flowers and mushrooms that I encountered:
I had a surreal experience last week. A reminder that underneath all this superficial drama that we experience in the physical and waking world, there is a deeper connection… threads of a subconscious web that exists whether we are sensitive to it or not. We get so caught up in our daily lives that we become blind and ignorant to the connections and cues that seem to randomly appear out of nowhere. Do they mean anything? Are they guiding us in a certain direction? Do we really have a choice? And who or what is “they”?
On to my little story… This past week I was leading my usual Wild Friday hike, this time in Malibu Creek State Park. It was a hot and stagnant day so it was a small crowd. The kids in the group were 5 and under which encouraged us to go at a bit of a slower pace, and that was absolutely perfect as we encountered some interesting bugs and a few plants on the way.
We wandered a bit farther down the trail and at one point I randomly looked up into the heights of a towering oak tree. I noticed an unusual variation in the usual oak leaf patterns and realized that there was a clump of mistletoe growing there. I am mostly familiar with this parasitic plant from what I’ve known in Arizona where it can be seen a little more prominently due to the smaller and sparser leaves of the trees on which it grows such as the palo verde. I didn’t think much more of this brief encounter other than “Hmm, look, mistletoe, cool” and then went on my way.
A few hours later, the hike was completed and I was off on my own for a while, waiting until it was time for the kids to get dropped off by their father. I decided it would be a good time to call my dad who lives in Arizona. Which, regrettably, I don’t do enough. We talked and as always it was good to catch up on the drama of life.
Then he mentioned that he took a photo of a plant.
For some, especially me, this would be a completely normal thing to do. However, if you knew my dad, you would be equally surprised as I was. You see, he’s a car guy. He runs a large and successful concrete company. He’s got so many other things to do and think about than to stop on the side of a busy street, get out of his truck and take a photo of a plant that he knew nothing about. He explained that he wasn’t quite sure why he did it, but he saw something in this tree that struck him as unusual and was compelled to photograph it. This encounter left his mind and a few hours later, he received a phone call from me. I hadn’t called in few weeks.
He told me about the strange plant
and how odd it was that he stopped to look at it, knowing that I have an interest in plants. When he described it, I knew exactly what it was. Mistletoe. He sent a photo and I confirmed. My curiosity piqued and I quizzed him on the time that this happened.
The exact same time that I noticed the mistletoe here, in California.
What does this mean? Anything? Or maybe just coincidence. Or are the plants talking to us, bringing us together subconsciously? Who knows. Was I just supposed to call my dad that day? Maybe.
Or maybe not. I’m studying botany right now for my Master’s degree and I am compelled by the complexity and sophistication of plants. There is something more to them along with the algae, fungus and bacteria of our planet that have such a greater impact and connection to us than we most likely will ever understand. It is a reminder of the interconnectedness between us and our world around us. We are not separate, we are not special. We are a small part of a much greater and vast universe. And it knows more than we do. This is a topic that I am absolutely fascinated with and will discuss more in future posts.
And I think I’ll call my dad a little more often too.