by Christina Ammon
It’s a sign of the season each spring when at the end of my dirt road, mushroom buyers park their pick-up trucks, set up their scales, and wait for the pickers to arrive. They are in the market for the coveted morel mushroom, which is prized by chefs for its deep, butter-holding cavities and meaty, umami flavor. They can’t be easily cultivated, so are mainly gathered, and since I see the hunters hauling bags to the scales, I assume the surrounding hills must be abundant.
Last year, I decided to hunt for some myself. I know that my travels have always been enhanced by a quest: once, during a layover in Frankfurt, I sought out the house of Goethe; in
Marrakech, I scoured the medina for nutmeg during a time when there was a shortage; and last year in Mexico, I wandered the old town looking for the perfect pair of flip-flops. A good quest winnows this chaotic world down to a simple search image, and infuses your otherwise random wanderings with purpose. Perhaps morel hunting would enhance my daily hikes in the same way.
I waited for the right weather sequence to arrive--a few wet days followed by sunshine—and then set off in the mornings, full of a first-cup-of-coffee optimism. My eyes were keen and searching, and the dog seemed to love my new slow hiking style—we moved across the land at sniffing-speed and he nosed every bush and tree stump. I liked it too: the way it heightened my attention to detail, and stilled me in the sharp light of early morning. We'd wander until my pant cuffs were soaked with forest dew and my stomach growled for breakfast. I didn’t find a single morel.
“Morels are everywhere but impossible to find,” a saying goes. My friend Malu said she wondered if they really even existed. It was clear from the buyers on my road that they did, but the pickers are famously protective of their spots.
Perhaps you just have to put in the time, or just get plain lucky.
I’d like to say I don’t mind—that the thrill of the hunt is enough. And for a while, this was true. But as poison oak rashes began to irritate my arms and ankles and as I found myself disoriented more than once, frustration set in. I could no longer enjoy a walk-in-the-woods because I was now too obsessed with looking at the ground in fear of missing a morel.
At one point my friend Caroline sent me a text: I found nearly two pounds of morels! She went out with some old-timers and they had a perfect day of mushroom hunting. She generously brought some over to my house to share. Each bite was proof that they exist.
The days grew hot, the land drier. The likelihood of finding morels diminished by the minute. “You know you can just buy them off Amazon” a neighbor told me when we crossed paths on the road. But, of course, this would ruin the mystique of this Oregon pursuit. I’d have resume my search the following year, which was fine by me. I was ready to raise up my head and start enjoying hikes again.
(originally published in The Applegater)