This year I watched the weather in the Eastern Cascade Range religiously. The weather forecast doesn’t always show quick lightning storms, but that’s what I was looking for, and this was the perfect weather for it. So, I was constantly flicking over to Cle Elum on my weather map, hoping to catch it when it happened…and then there it was. A storm happening. Rain.
Rain means mushrooms. Specifically, at this time of year, rain means Morel mushrooms.
My philosophy on Morel hunting has always been to put myself in a place where Morels will be, and seeing as those places are gorgeous, woodsy landscapes with the first blooms of spring underfoot, it really doesn’t matter if I find them. A return to wilderness is reward enough.
During a long Seattle winter staying curled up inside sounds just fine, thank you. Last winter was a particularly dark one for me, even the brightest days were shaded by grief. The grand performance of late winter cherry blossoms usually scoops the gloom right out of me. This year the trees must have turned cotton candy pink, and the air must have swirled with petals, but I missed it. I was inside spiritually and literally. Cocooned. It’s hard to remember how healing the fresh air is, and the tricky thing about grief, at least for me, is that you don’t want to be healed. That feels like letting go.
But a thrilling culinary Easter egg hunt that only comes around a few weeks every year?
The perfect motivation to get off the couch.
I got skunked last spring. I only went up to look once, and didn’t find a single mushroom. The year before wasn’t great either. And while I never regretted a bit going out into the woods for a tromping adventure, morels or no morels, I was starting to wonder if I had completely forgotten how to find them.
So this year I was focused. I was not going to miss the perfect window.
Before I went to bed I stared at pictures of them, imprinting their design onto my brain, and reminded my hunting partner to do the same. It sounds silly, but it helps! Morels have a camouflage, a pattern to their cap that first makes them nearly invisible in their background, then disguises them as a pinecone. But once you get that pattern cemented in your noodle it no longer looks like a pinecone, or nothing, and they start popping out of the scenery like little soldiers standing at attention in the undergrowth.
My ritual for a mushroom hunt is first to pack a fantastic lunch to eat. Sometimes homemade, sometimes a sandwich that has been parking illegally in my brain like a culinary earworm. George’s Sausage and Deli on Madison in Seattle provided the liverwurst sandwich and as I went to the counter to pay, what did I find but a box of mushroom themed chocolate covered biscuits! MUSHROOMS!!!! This was an incredibly auspicious start!
A couple hours later, pulling up to my most reliable piece of the vast woods, I knew it was right for mushrooms.
What’s right for mushrooms?
I’ve pretty much got it down to a science:
It’s not too hot. It's not too cold. It's not too wet. It's not too dry. There are lots of trees around. Except sometimes when there aren't. Specifically, Ponderosa Pine Trees. But not just those. Sometimes those aren't around at all. If the Arrowleaf Balsamroot are blooming, your elevation is too low. If the Trillium is blooming you're too high. Sometimes.
Anyway, my spot seemed just like that today. Perfect.
We began our tromp.
Mushroom hunting isn’t hiking. There’s no trail. You tromp through the underbrush towards a patch that looks promising, you squat, you squint, you fuzz out your eyes like you’re looking at one of those hidden picture paintings. You look for other mushrooms, (“I found LBM’s!”) (That’s little brown mushrooms.) You identify bones, (“coyote?”) comment on the scat, (“That’s a big kitty!”) get startled by wild turkeys and wonder at the color of the sky. But mostly you just look down, scanning, scanning, scanning for that odd feature, that erect little soldier, camouflaged in the forest floor.
Ten minutes into walking into the woods I was sure we were going to get skunked again.
I’m an optimist by nature. I inherited that from my mom. (My brother Ryan and I always joked that my mom has ‘debilitating optimism’.)
But this has been a rough couple of years. The lockdown alone was enough to make us all distrust the ground beneath our feet. I also lost Ryan, that beloved big brother, unexpectedly last summer. My own ongoing health problems led to major surgery in the fall. Winter led to the closing down of the artistic venues that had become the core piece of my identity. While I know in my soul this choice was made for the best, my grasp of self became tenuous. At some point, not too long ago, my sense of self was a thick rope I held very tightly.
This spring, for better or for worse, the me I knew has unwoven, and I am combing out the threads to braid them back together. It’s possible that the optimism thread is newly entwined with a thread of lowered expectations. A warning sign: Do not hope for too much. I have learned that some stories don’t end the way you want them to, and others don’t even end at all, but stop somewhere in the middle like a book missing half the pages. Ryan’s story ended halfway through, and if that could happen it seemed completely plausible that out of nowhere I would just forget how to do a thing I knew how to do. Like find the mushrooms.
Everything seemed right! The ground, the air, the flowers, the trees. The smells. Ten years of mushroom hunting had tuned me in to the landscape so acutely. But two hours later and there wasn’t a morel to be found. We started to head back to the car to change locations. Should we go higher than this or lower? I could almost hear the little morels giggling like the munchkins at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz when they are hiding.
And then as we were tromping back towards the path that would take us to the car… MOSQUITOS!!!!
I had forgotten one of the missing ingredients in the Morel finding alchemy! MOSQUITOS BUZZING AROUND YOUR FACE!
And a few minutes into mosquitos buzzing around my face <POP>. A morel. Big. A couple days past its prime. A little scruffy. But there. And where there is one there are more. (But not always.)
This time, sure enough, <Pop>, <Pop>, Pop>! A boomtown of Morels. Many of them just under a thatch of grass. I laid down on my stomach, (this was a new move, but so many of these mushrooms were under the covers and it was time to wake them up!)
The thrill of finding morels, particularly a big patch of them, instantly transports me back to the wonder of childhood. Like bubbles, or running through a sprinkler in the heat, or a snow day. Pure euphoria.
Our haul wasn’t huge, but it was enough for a great meal of morels and height of season freshly shelled fava beans. We had left time in the day to soak our tired feet in the river and admire the colors of rocks when they’re wet. (Stay tuned – wet river rocks are going to be a theme in an upcoming blog post about my kitchen renovation. CAN YOU EVEN WAIT?) It was a good day.
One of the other tricks to finding morels is not to focus too hard. If you look hard at each pinecone, each piece of disrupted foliage, you won’t find them. (Usually.) It’s best to gently look a little ahead, scanning, breathing, and enjoying all the bits of the forest along the way. They are one of the amazing things that only come to you when you loosen your grip.