Another mushroom search

Since starting this blog, I’ve come to regret not owning a digital camera.  If I’d had one this past Sunday while we were out looking for morels, I would have been able to post a picture of one of the weirdest mushrooms I’ve ever seen.

My friend Scott and I had left the main trail in Sugar Hollow, a river ravine that leads up to the Blue Ridge, and had quickly separated.  I knew this was going to happen.  Last year we’d gotten separated on a mountain we were both familiar with, but it doesn’t matter how deeply you know the topography – when you can’t find your hiking partner, when he doesn’t answer after you’ve screeched out his hard syllable name again and again, you’re probably not going to see him for a long time.  On that occasion I hiked back to my car, drove down the mountain and picked out some cute clothes at the Goodwill before I tried calling him on his cell phone.  Luckily for him, his phone had come back into service, and I picked him up.  Otherwise he would have had a long walk home.  Tip:  always stay close to the person with the car keys.

This time while we were still in the car, I’d suggested we come up with a plan in case we got separated.  His solution was to note the color of the clothes I was wearing.  In the interest of experimentation, I left it at that just to see what would happen.

When we’d both been hiking in opposite directions for long enough, I called his name.   I could hear him barely in the distance.  The next time I screamed his name, I could only hear the suggestion of sound.  I knew he wasn’t going to start moving closer to where I was.  That’s not the kind of guy Scott is.  When he gets in the woods, it’s like he’s 10 years old again, staying out in the West Virginia woods until it gets dark.  And he’s already dangerously childlike to begin with, turning his head to see some funny architectural feature when he’s driving, for instance, and then running the truck off the road.  In the woods this characteristic is accentuated.  I’ve never seen anyone get as excited by differently shaped rocks (he invariably carries out as many as he can hold), tree ears and leaf shapes.

Irritated, I decided to keep going straight uphill in the opposite direction.  “Having a plan doesn’t mean I’m the only one who follows it,” I thought.  “Two can play this game.”  I’d grown up in the woods too, mostly in Minnesota, and with the Moormans River cascading below, I could easily stay oriented.  I figured if I went too high, I could track over to meet the trail that ascended up to Skyline Drive.  I knew by then that the forest floor was all wrong for morels; that’s what I had wanted to communicate to Scott the second time I’d yelled.  But I also knew that I wouldn’t be bushwacking in these woods again this year.  One can really only hack around enjoyably during early spring before the vines and brambles start to clog up the forest floor and spiders start spinning their webs and gnats begin flying into your eyes.

I’d seen no fungi at all when I walked up to this pale salmon-colored growth, completely unlike the gilled-top mushroom silhouette most people are familiar with.  “What the heck are you?” I asked, continuously amazed by nature’s odd expressions.  This growth seemed twisted upon itself, its wrinkled surface translucent and smooth.  Once I knelt down to pick it, I realized that it constituted two mushrooms, grown so closely together that only after I’d released them from their stems did they fall apart, having fitted together like puzzle pieces.  Yesterday at the library I identified it.  A false morel.  I remember when we first found morels how my girlfriend had been afraid they were the false ones.   Now that I’ve seen one, I can say that these things look so unlike real morels that I can’t imagine anyone mistaking the two.  The only similarity between them is that they’re both in the forest around the same time of the year, although the only false morel I’ve seen so far grows in a completely different forest than the real ones.  Anyway, here’s a link that gives you a sense of what it looked like:

I hate going downhill, so I’d kept climbing, a mistake I needed to rectify and did so by falling on my butt numerous times down slick rock faces.  I scared a grouse out from the underbrush, but otherwise saw no other wildlife.  When I finally made it back to the trail, probably ¾ of a mile from where I’d separated from Scott, four hikers passed me by asking if I was looking for a guy in a blue hat.  “No,” I told them, “but I figure I’ll run into him eventually.”  One woman told me he’d described me to her as wearing a white hat.  So much for his “plan” – my hat was green.

He had been carrying lunch, a fact I’d kicked myself for while we’d been apart.  “Next time make sure you’re carrying your own food,” I said to myself.  I’d had the water, though, and when my stomach growled, I had placated myself by repeating that people can live without food but not without water.  Once we met up, I sat on a cool rock by the cascading Moormans satisfying my hunger, and Scott played in the cold water, collecting rocks.  We would be on the trail at least another hour, hiking past columbine, nettles, and wild ginger just coming up, and we’d detour in the level areas with poplar trees and spice bushes, the signature growth for morel territory at least in central Virginia.  We wouldn’t find a single one.  But it was a glorious day that can sweep so many bad ones out of consciousness and has its own, unanticipated pleasures.

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