Don't shoot me! I'm just picking mushrooms!

On the trail of exotic -- and valuable -- mushrooms with amazing adventurers, in some very unsafe and hostile lands

Published September 8, 2013 1:30PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America"

Communication with Doug was a haphazard affair. He had no phone or email address. Sometimes he used the phone of his roommate in Westport, a guy who claimed to have once been a stockbroker and a documentary filmmaker and was now living on disability after a Navy diving accident. Other times Doug borrowed a phone from a friend or relative. Calls came through at odd hours on lines listed as blocked or restricted. As frustrating as this could be, it was hard to be annoyed when the voice at the other end impersonated a game-show host or IRS flunky. “Allo, allo? Ees dees Monsieur Cook? Congrat-u-lations! You are zee winner . . .” Whatever I was doing, I always dropped everything to join Doug for a day of picking mushrooms. Even when it meant a hostile patch.

Doug looked out at the sea stacks and sighed. For once the Pacific was living up to its name. He pointed to some rock piles offshore. “On a calm day like today, you’d get into some serious rockfish jigging right out there. Or surf perch off the beach. It’s a day to fish.” Though Doug took pride in his past as a commercial fisherman, he wasn’t too happy that both his sons were now fishing up in Alaska. “It’s a macho thing,” he said to me. I wondered if he really thought so. Doug loved to fish and dig clams. His crab boat had been his prized possession before the bank took it away. It was hard to believe that he disapproved of his sons’ decisions to fish, even if such jobs were among the most dangerous imaginable. We drove across the hardpan beach, Doug stopping every now and then to scope a tasty-looking rip or rock pile, until we came to a spot where the woods met the dunes. It was the intersection of past and present, a spot where Doug’s working life could be viewed nearly in its entirety. To the west, ocean; to the east, woods. Signs everywhere declared the place private property. He turned to me, his brown eyes wide, trying to make me understand what was ultimately indefensible. “I’ve been picking this patch for twenty-five years. A few lousy signs don’t make no difference to me.”

Trees standing at the edge of the continent look shell-shocked. Storms blow in off the Pacific and batter the shoreline. The coastal fringe of forest gets tossed and pounded, sprayed by salt and lashed with sand. This happens storm after storm, year after year, and after a while the bravest among them begin to falter. They spill down the slope in contorted fits, like drunks stumbling down bleacher steps at halftime, and get swept away. It’s a landscape of perpetual disintegration.

Here and there, weathered shore pines twisted up beneath a line of stunted spruce, determined to make a stand. Briars filled in the pockets. Signs nailed to the trees, in contrast to the vegetation, looked fresh, like a new coat of paint on an otherwise dilapidated house. The property had recently changed hands, and the new owners of this oceanfront acreage were keen to announce that its management would be new too. We got out of the car and walked up the beach, then turned to face the land. No one was around. “Don’t worry, I won’t get you in trouble. Just stay behind me.” We walked up and over the dunes. I followed Doug on a guerrilla trail, one he’d obviously made himself, through a thicket of beach scrub, then into a desultory woods of shore pine and spruce, until we could go no farther.

A six-foot-tall high-tensile woven wire fence marked the property line adjacent to the public beach. A taut strand of barbed wire ran along the top as if it were a prison camp.

Doug paused before the fence. “This is where I get in,” he said plainly, as if judgment never existed. He pointed to a section that had been bent back to allow a gymnastic sort of entrance. Golden chanterelles, bright blips of brilliant yellow, bloomed in darkness along the length of the fence. We could see troops of them marching up the hillside. These were a type of chanterelle variously called fluorescents, rainbows, peaches, and spruce chanterelles. Unlike the most common species of chanterelle in the Pacific Northwest, which grew in Douglas fir forests, these mushrooms were mycorrhizal with spruce—Sitka spruce on the coast and Engelmann spruce in the mountains—and they flashed an intense neon color in the light. Some mushroom fanciers considered this the most beautiful and best tasting of all the North American chanterelles. Cantharellus cibarius var. roseocanus was the scientific name. Nearby a stout king bolete stood all alone, beckoning us. The king is the BMOC of mushrooms, the quarterback, the one voted most likely to succeed. Modesty doesn’t become the king. It juts from the earth on a solid, trunk-like stem. Its head swells with the rain: broad, dome-shaped, a trophy atop a solid foundation. Pedigree demands that it attend only the best habitats: high mountain passes and exclusive coastal real estate.

I narrowed my eyes to get a better view. It was dark inside these stunted woods, nearly dark as nighttime. I could hear the surf rolling in, could smell the salt water. Doug looked this way and that, shifting his gaze like a bank robber in the middle of a heist. The week before he had been picking another favorite old patch that had recently changed hands. The new owners were scions of some sort—Doug couldn’t remember what business or which family—and had hired an entire army of guards to police their new estate. It occurred to me this might have been added incentive for a man like Doug to poach the patch. He took a friend with him, and they snuck in through a quiet corner far from the main compound. Buckets filled fast. Doug thought he was in the clear. That’s when they heard the voices. Hey, you, hold it right there! They took off through the woods. His friend lost his bucket right away. Doug clutched his close and tried to bull his way through the underbrush without spilling anything. It was right out of "The Most Dangerous Game," one of his favorite movies. Doug could hear a call for backup on the radio, so he and his friend split up. Surprisingly, the guards kept pace. These guys were good. Like a hare at the betting track, Doug led his pursuers in frenzied circles and was starting to put distance between them when, just as he was about to launch himself free from the scrub and make a hasty exit, he tumbled. The mushrooms went flying. No time to gather his prize, he abandoned bucket and mushrooms where they lay and vaulted a roadside thicket of blackberries to make his escape. In the end, even though he didn’t get caught, he called it a “Pyrrhic victory.” That patch was off the list.

For a moment I thought Doug was going to pull his lanky frame over the barbed wire. Instead, he spun around and paced along the fence line.

“We won’t get you in trouble today,” he said again.

We both admired the bolete on the far side of the fence. In the darkness its silhouette looked like a hamburger bun atop a pedestal. It was impossibly large and beefy. “I guarantee you that whole hillside is loaded with kings. Them people don’t even know. Don’t even know what royalty lives in their backyard.” This made Doug chuckle slightly, his mustache twitching on either end. I could tell it took restraint not to leap the fence and go grab that big mushroom. It looked so fat and vulnerable there. I wanted to pick it myself, and the more I looked at this one lone king bolete, with its promise of nearby kin, the more I was prepared to break the law.

“What do they call information in the CIA?” Doug asked finally, interrupting the sort of long silence that is a prelude to misbehavior.


“Right. Intel. What we have here is intel. Kings are on. We’ll pick a different patch tomorrow.” He ducked back through the brush to the beach, where he stood upright in the light and gazed out across a leaden expanse that stretched to the horizon. Sea and sky looked like a dish rack of pewter mugs in need of polish. “Yes, a new patch tomorrow, laddy. We’ll be kings for a day.” The ocean view seemed to take Doug elsewhere momentarily, and then he snapped to and strode away down the beach.

Back at the car, he was looking for and not finding a soda can with which to fashion a smoking pipe. In the eyes of law enforcement, this was Doug’s one big vice, aside from the occasional trespass. A couple of years ago he received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and now he was a habitual marijuana smoker. The drug helped calm his nerves. When he smoked pot, he didn’t get the shakes and his hands remained steady. I asked him why he didn’t simply get a note from his doctor and a medical-marijuana prescription card. Doug grimaced. He told me a complicated story that involved the VA, lawyers, doctors, and his own frustration with bureaucracy. In the end, it appeared, he was more comfortable being an outlaw, even if it meant smoking out of old cans that wouldn’t be noticed by a police officer and keeping a stogie in the car to mask the sweet, skunky smell of quality herb. After all, he was a mushroom picker; the cops knew that all the pickers smoked weed.

After an intensive search through back and front, Doug accepted the fact that he must have thrown out his last can and went back up to the hostile patch, where he picked a single chanterelle through the fence and returned to the car. “I bet you’ve never seen anyone do this before.” He pushed a thin twig through the chanterelle’s stem and bored it out, then scooped out a little bowl in the cap, into which he packed a small green marijuana bud. I watched Doug smoke his pot through a mushroom. He was right. I had never seen anyone do such a thing. Afterward, we drove back down the hardpan beach in the gray, splintered shards of the Pacific and onto Highway 101.

* * *

The next day, a fall morning that reflected a mercurial mix of light and dark like a spun nickel, I met Doug at the Walmart in Aberdeen. This time he was accompanied by his friend Jeff. Bearded and heavy-lidded, with a graying ponytail, Jeff was about the same age as Doug. He, too, had worked as a commercial fisherman—until a rogue line whiplashed across the deck and took with it twenty feet of his small intestine. Jeff told me the story. He had been fishing for mackerel in 2004 off the coast of Cape Cod. With a hundred tons in the net during a paratrawl operation, the block broke and Jeff was called upon to fix it. He was about to thread the last screw into the block. “I heard someone yell ‘Line broke!’ It almost cut me in half. Lost a third of my insides.” He lay in a murky pool of blood and salt water on the deck, clinically dead. That’s when he went into the tunnel, he told me, a shiny tunnel “like a veil of water.” It was glimmering. There was a junction, with dark apparitions floating about. He understood he could either stay where he was with the shadow people or continue on. Just as he was about to make his decision, there was a whir of wings and two angels put him on a bed of feathers and whisked him away to a strange hospital. “There was a guy at the top of the hospital, and he was the watchman. I started coughing and choking and he said, ‘If you don’t stop coughing, you will surely die.’ I said there was a scratch in my throat.” The next thing Jeff knew, he awoke in an actual hospital and he was alive. His fishing career, however, was over. A year later, his old friend Doug lured him out to the West Coast for the morel harvest. He’d been picking ever since.

We drove north toward Olympic National Park. Doug pointed out a V of sandhill cranes flying high overhead. “They get in that jet stream and just haul ass,” he said, with an admiration that bordered on longing. A moment later the forest closed around us for the first time since getting on 101 an hour earlier. Doug knew this stretch due south of the Quinault Indian Reservation. He knew it well. The state had planned to cut it, he claimed, using—incredibly—the lame excuse that it was unsafe for vehicular traffic. A letter-writing campaign did nothing, so the day before the cut was scheduled to start, Doug and a friend skulked around after dark in camouflage clothing, tearing down every survey marker they could find. The loggers arrived to a scene of total confusion and gave up in frustration. Authorities decided it wasn’t worth antagonizing the locals and called off the cut. “My only civil disobedience,” said Doug now. I thought this over and then told him I might do a little fact-finding research on the cut, not because I didn’t believe it, I reassured him, just because it was an interesting story. He told me to go ahead. “You won’t find nothing,” he said. “The state’s always covering up one thing or another.”

The dance between loggers and those who make a living from non-wood timber products is a difficult one. Many of the people harvesting mushrooms, berries, floral greenery, and a wide variety of plants and fungi for medicinal use are former loggers themselves, just like Doug. They know the woods inside and out. Plus, there is the adrenaline of it all, a feeling an ex-logger never fully gets over. “You have to understand, old-growth logging, it was a thrill,” Doug told me once. “Dropping a thousand-year-old tree, that fucker cracking and popping . . .” Jeff was less conflicted. “I hate loggers,” he said without malice. “They fucked up the fishing.”

Hanging out with this pair reminded me of the sort of male camaraderie that develops in close quarters. You’ll find it in school dormitories, on fishing boats, in the military. Old pals, they knew each other’s foibles and weaknesses all too well and exploited them in an ongoing raillery of inside jokes, ragging, and general good-natured BS. They talked about women, football, and more women. Neither one was a paragon of the married life, and they goaded each other endlessly about their exes and sins of the flesh.

“We don’t need no stinkin’ wives,” Doug cried, grabbing the steering wheel with both hands and accelerating as if he’d momentarily lost his sanity. We sailed along on the Buick’s pillow-like suspension at a clip that had me thinking about rescue strategies in the event of a rollover, until Doug remembered the illegal substances in the car. He stomped on the brake and Jeff dutifully lit up the cigar. Doug pointed to a ramshackle tavern sagging on the side of the road; the place looked as though it had survived more than one grease fire. “Get you some for free in there.”

“Don’t ever come for free, man,” said Jeff from the backseat.

The tavern slipped behind us. “I tell you the story about the lady I met in that place once?”

“The one with the beard? Yeah, a hundred times.”

“She kinda tickled.”

“Like I said, never free.”

“Don’t go in that place,” Doug said to me. “Seriously, not good people. Full of rednecks. Hell, I’m a redneck, but you know what I mean.”

“Takes one to know one.”

“What I said. Rednecked rednecks. The worst kind.” Doug turned to me, deadpan. “You know I’m just kidding about the redneck thing.” I said I understood. “Because I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea.” Doug had a habit of doing this, letting me know when he wasn’t serious, as if I might not catch the subtle cues, a clueless college boy such as myself. He liked to use the phrase off the record too, invariably circling back around after a long, off-the-record digression about his dope-smoking or womanizing to say, “Ah, hell, it’s all on the record, I don’t care. Print whatever you want. I’m an open book.” He laughed at this, though he was careful not to show a mouth full of bad teeth, the one thing he was really insecure about.

We drove a ways north on the peninsula to check out a chanterelle patch, only to find out another picker or crew had beaten us to it. While settling for the dregs—only about eight or nine pounds’ worth—we stumbled on a few king boletes that had just come up. They grow fast, much faster than chanterelles, and it’s likely they hadn’t even broken through the duff when the competition cleaned out the chanties a couple of days earlier. Like the lone mushroom back at the hostile patch, this was a key piece of information. The kings were definitely on.

* * *

The king bolete is a member—indeed the favorite son—of the Boletaceae family, which is distinguished by its spore-bearing tissue under the cap. Unlike typical gilled mushrooms, boletes have pore-like tubes that form a sort of sponge. These tubes emit the reproductive spores. Boletus edulis, the king bolete, is the most coveted of wild mushrooms in Italy as well as in Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries. Russians call it beliy grib, the white mushroom, for its pure white flesh; the Germans call it steinpilz; the French cèpe; the Brits penny bun. Italians call the king and a few other closely related species porcini, and this is largely the accepted term of commerce. Restaurateurs happily pay big bucks for the privilege of printing this evocative word meaning “piglet” on their menus. In Italy, virtually everyone in their right mind hangs on the starting gun of porcini season like swimmers on the block, and people go positively mad in produce markets, pawing over the many varieties and grades available. In North America, the king is widespread yet mostly unknown except for those small, overpriced packages of dried porcini imported from Italy. My favorite kings come from the Cascade Mountains in late summer, a firm, flavorful variety that can fruit in astonishing numbers if conditions are right, which is rare. Their timing is something of a mystery that even professional foragers can’t always predict. By far the most anticipated harvest, and the most predictable, is the annual beach pick.

Each fall, usually starting around the beginning of October on the Washington coast—though sometimes as early as mid-September, depending on when the rain starts—king boletes will appear quite literally at the edge of the ocean beaches, even right out of the sand dunes. Of course, the sand has nothing to do with it. The boletes are mycorrhizal with Sitka spruce and shore pine, both of which grow near the beach and sprout root systems that spread underground beneath the dunes. The flush marches steadily southward as the season progresses, into Oregon late in the month and northern California before Thanksgiving, all the way south to the Monterey Peninsula. Probably these fruitings once extended up and down the Northwest coast. Now much of the habitat is gone, mowed down into golf course fairways and leveled for ocean-side condominiums. Where the habitat hasn’t been plowed, it’s now posted. The beach pick is almost entirely relegated to coastal state parks, many of which prohibit mushroom picking. The habitat is so limited in California that punitive laws have been enacted to keep the pickers out.

Unlike chanterelles and several other varieties of wild mushrooms, kings have a very short shelf life. Their flesh softens, and any bugs that might have been missed during the grading process will run rampant unless the mushroom is continually refrigerated—an impossibility for markets trying to show off their goods. This is a consequential problem for the kings of the Rockies; though they can be found in abundance scattered across high-elevation meadows and mountain passes, especially in Colorado and New Mexico, getting them out of the mountains and into the marketplace poses a range of difficulties. Rocky Mountain kings fruit earlier than their West Coast counterparts, usually during the monsoons of July and August, when Denver International Airport is often ninety degrees in the shade. The logistics of trying to outmaneuver such mushroom-spoiling heat is just one of the many obstacles facing a commercial forager in the Rockies who wants to export his stuff. And so the cooler West Coast supplies most of the market.

In recent years, Southeast Asian immigrants have figured out the beach pick, a development that galls old-timers used to having the patch to themselves. “I don’t mess with it anymore,” says Doug. He admits he lacks the patience to wait for the beach mushrooms to pop. “The Asians find their spots and sit there, pacing back and forth until the mushroom is big enough to pick.” This is an exaggeration, though not by much. Once the flush starts, the boletes grow fast and furious. Unlike chanterelles, they mature rapidly, so rapidly that you could conceivably shoot a stop-time video of their growth from imperceptible blob of cells to large iconic mushroom in a few days. This fast growth presents a problem—or an opportunity. Even though a patch might be picked clean one day, it can have a whole new crop twenty-four hours later. Mushroom picking is already a competitive enterprise; with king boletes it becomes downright cutthroat, as the pickers rush to and fro, claiming productive spots and making their presence in the patch known. So Doug leaves the beaches to others and picks his kings farther inland, where the flushes are smaller yet less contested.

It’s an open question as to just how the many varieties in the Boletus edulis complex will one day get sorted out by mycologists. Currently there are a number of closely related mushrooms classified under the same species name in both the Old World and the New, a taxonomic combobulation that’s likely to change with advanced DNA sequencing. In North America alone there are several varieties of Boletus edulis that beg for deeper study, including a Rocky Mountain form with a dark-red cap and a Northwest form with a lighter-tan cap. Already, a pale whitish variety known primarily from the pine forests of the Southwest has been awarded its own species status, Boletus barrowsii, while another variety, perhaps the largest in the world and found mostly on the California coast, is now called Boletus edulis var. grandedulis. Porcini snobs who have been to Italy are generally quick to point out that none of these North American varieties, which seem to be mostly mycorrhizal with conifers, tastes as good as the hardwood-loving kings of the Boot, especially those found in common with chestnut trees. Of course, what they might not realize is that much of Italy’s prized porcini is now imported from Poland and China.

Whatever future mycologists have to say on the matter of classification, a porcino by any other name is still pretty damn sweet. Chopped and roasted in olive oil with a little seasoning is a classic way to enjoy fresh porcini. The mushroom has a distinctively nutty taste, and it’s great on a cheeseburger or crostini. Add more butter and some cream and you’re getting into the decadent corners where I like to operate. And of course there’s the famous dried porcini. This is how you’ll see it most of the year in the gourmet markets, though remember that porcini are generally dried because they couldn’t be sold fresh, whether because of age, worms, or whatever. No matter: Dried porcini have an earthiness that is quite frankly mind-blowing to the newcomer. Put your nose in a bag of dried porcini and inhale— and be prepared to suck in the woods and the duff and the very dirt where the mushroom lived. It’s a big aroma: toasty, terrestrial, rugged. I like to pulverize my dried porcini into dust—“magic mushroom dust,” I call it, not to be confused with the Psilocybe genus—and then reconstitute it with warm water to use as stock. Porcini stock is the secret ingredient in my cream of chanterelle soup. It’s also the bass note in my red sauce and essential in any self-respecting oxtail ragu. I go through bags of the stuff every year and give it away as presents at birthdays, weddings, and baby showers. As a consequence, I need to find lots of porcini on an annual basis.

Serious recreational porcini hunters know where to look. Beginners are usually, and understandably, flummoxed. King boletes require dedication. Knowing which tree species the mushrooms are mycorrhizal with in your region is essential. In the Pacific Northwest it’s largely spruce and shore pine; along the California coast it’s often Bishop or Monterey pine; in the Rockies it’s spruce; and in the Northeast it’s various conifers as well as hardwoods, in some cases. There could be many more hosts in any of these regions, though. You’ll know when you’re zeroing in on a porcini flush. You’ll see a few outliers and then they’ll be all over the place. A good porcini patch can put out more than you can possibly use. Frequently they’ll be hobnobbing around with the toxic fly agaric—Amanita muscaria—that iconic red-capped mushroom festooned with white warts. The largest fruiting of either species I’ve ever seen happened in the same place, a lonely corner of Wyoming where the mushrooms fruited along a wooded trout stream in such profusion that I felt as if I were hiking through a magical fairyland.

Nowhere is porcini fever more intense than in Italy. Unfortunately, I have not experienced this Old World mushroom lust in situ. A friend of mine recently traveled through Tuscany and had the opportunity to hunt porcini in the heart of it all. He plays the stand-up bass in an old-timey band named the Tall Boys, and he was hardly surprised when I found him at a gig recently and went right up to the stage during a bouncy rendition of “Pig in a Pen” to inquire about his porcini-hunting success in Italy. He just grinned and gave his bass a few extra plucks.

* * *

Doug called this one of his absolute favorite porcini patches. He figured it would yield for about two weeks, during which time he would visit it every other day to pick the newly emerged mushrooms that would start popping like bonus balls in a pinball machine. The patch was near the Hoh Indian Reservation. In fact, it might have been on the Hoh Indian Reservation. Neither Doug nor Jeff seemed to know for sure, nor did they care. Land ownership on the Olympic Peninsula is a farrago of state, federal, Indian, and private property lines, with sketchy boundaries and often little signage. Even within those general categories there are numerous designations, each with its own rules, rules that—when it comes to mushroom harvesting— are often fuzzy to begin with. Federal land includes Olympic National Park, Olympic National Forest, and several wilderness areas, each governed by its own specific statutes, while state land includes parks and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) areas. Private timberlands make their own rules, though as tax-exempt lands they are supposed to be open to the public. And no one seems to know exactly what’s up on the rez.

Commercial pickers, I was quickly learning, don’t think highly of the patchwork quilt of rules that’s been stitched together to regulate their work. The vast majority of mushrooms are harvested on public lands, places overseen by a hodgepodge of local, state, federal,and tribal bureaucrats, most of whom know nothing or very little about the ecology, life histories, or populations of fungi within their own jurisdictions. The regulations—where picking is allowed, how much, and what documentation is required—strike the hunters as totally arbitrary. More difficult to grasp than the rules themselves (which are rarely posted or even readily available online) are the processes and policy goals that led to these regulations. Some of those policies are the result of long-standing battles between the timber interests and environmentalists that culminated in the Clinton-era Northwest Forest Plan, which would ultimately preside over a major shift in emphasis from industrial-based forestry to ecosystem-based forestry. The word sustainability comes up a lot. For their part, the pickers have tried to argue that harvesting mushrooms is no different from plucking fruit from a tree. Provided you don’t harm the underground mycelium, the fungus should continue to produce more mushrooms the next year. The fact remains, however, that many concerned citizens, including environmentalists, look at mushrooms as a finite resource, like fish stocks, that can be mismanaged and overharvested, even though there is no hard data to support this belief, and they view commercial harvesters as a ragtag army of resource extractors. Because the harvesters move with the seasons—and because many don’t speak English—they almost never have a voice in decisions made about their livelihoods. Not surprisingly, they see the heavy hand of Big Brother at work. The rules seem designed to regulate them rather than the resource. Already occupying a marginalized corner of society, the pickers in many cases simply ignore the regulations. Rangers and other officers on the ground often don’t know what the rules are themselves. They have bigger problems to deal with, like big-game poachers, outdoor meth labs, timber rustlers, and writing tickets and collecting campground fees for cash-strapped state coffers.

We pulled off the highway onto a winding road. This was Doug’s first visit to this particular patch since the previous fall. He sped up and then slowed down, scanning for familiar landmarks. Just looking at the croplike rows of even-aged trees, he figured the forest here was a private timber parcel, which meant an entirely separate regulatory apparatus from that of public lands. “All the king’s deer!” he brayed. That was his response to many of these timberlands, an allusion to medieval laws that outlawed hunting for anyone other than royalty, and he enjoyed yelling it out the window as we passed the timber-company holdings. In theory, private, tax-exempt timberlands were supposed to be open to public use wherever logging wasn’t in progress; in practice, more and more of the access points were being closed except to those who paid for a permit or recreation pass. On the Olympic Peninsula, the owners used a color-coded system. A green dot on a spur gate meant the road was open, while a red dot meant it was closed. Doug said more roads were being red-dotted, and in many cases, he believed, the closures were meant to benefit elk hunters, who paid for the privilege. All the king’s deer.

We continued down the road at a herky-jerky pace, trying to find our destination. This was a secret patch, one ferreted out by Doug years ago when he was working on some theories related to bolete mushrooms. He scouted the area scientifically and discovered his theories to be correct. It was, he said, a killer patch that cranked out porcini like nobody’s business, and he wasn’t about to be deterred by some dumb regulation that didn’t know the first thing about mushrooms. When we turned the corner, though, Doug was dismayed to see another car in the pullout. “Well, Christ almighty!” he bawled, letting out a string of coarser invective. We all jumped out, anyway, with our buckets.

“You two go that way,” Doug said, pointing to a far corner of the patch. “I’ll see who’s invited themselves to the party.”

“Crashed the party is more like it,” Jeff replied, scowling.

“Let me deal with it.”

“Might not be mushroom pickers at all,” I suggested, fearing a confrontation.

“And I might be the prince of Monaco. Let me do the talking. I’ll holler if I need backup.” With that, Doug made a beeline for the heart of the patch. This was a spruce reproduction plantation, all of it planted after the first cut of old-growth spruce, which might have happened nearly a century ago. Doug and Jeff called it “reprod.” The trees were all about the same size and growing in a grid pattern. It was dark inside. Unlike the average chanterelle patch on the fall line of a fir-choked ravine, this was easy going, despite the overwhelming sense of gloom. We found a far corner and started to walk the rows. A plush carpet of moss covered the ground. Right away we saw the handsome tan caps of porcini buttons peeking from the duff.

A king bolete patch in full flush is a lovely sight to behold. Chanterelles may be beautiful nuggets of gold in the dark woods, but kings are something special. Even after years of picking king boletes, I still get a thrill with each find—and this thrill would come a hundred times over on these few acres of second-growth timber as we settled down and started picking. For reasons beyond my understanding, certain individual trees hosted three, four, even a dozen mushrooms. They rose from the duff and moss with their classical mushroom form: bell-shaped cap and thick stem. Thinly sliced lengthwise, these boletes were the silhouette of a perfect mushroom. Small yet dense, they made a satisfying plop sound as they landed in our buckets. We pulled each one out of the ground, trimmed off the dirty tip of stem, and moved on to the next. Later, the mushroom buyer would grade them. Young buttons such as these were known as “number ones” and commanded the highest price. The number twos were generally larger and softer than the ones. The number threes, also called “dryers,” were past their prime and got sliced up and dried for later use. My pulse quickened as my bucket filled. I raced through the forest with eyes glued to the ground, intent on the next score—too busy to even recognize the inexorable pull of a new addiction. I had porcini fever.

An hour later, Doug reappeared. “No threat,” he reported. “Just a Mexican guy and his wife.” He said he had a friendly conversation with the couple and even gave them some pointers about cleaning their mushrooms. A glance in their bucket suggested they were picking only the number twos, a grade that generally earned the forager about half of what a number one was worth, and sometimes they were wormy at this stage and worth nothing at all. The number ones were our prey, buttons that had just fruited, some of them only a few inches tall. Often their caps were barely visible in the duff. You had to train your eyes to see them. Once you found a bolete, you needed to look closely for others nearby. Frequently they ringed a particular tree that, for whatever reason, was putting out boletes that year.

“This is what’s known as a day-saver,” Doug said. A near skunking in a chanterelle patch had nevertheless led to a beautiful pick elsewhere—a pick that was just getting going and would go strong for a couple of weeks at least. “But you wait,” Doug cautioned. “Jeremy will find something to complain about.” This was the buyer. “He’ll bitch and moan about something. It’s never good enough for Jeremy.” Doug told me not to get the wrong idea. “See, we’re friends and all, and we’ll pick together, but when he wears his buyer hat he has other concerns.”

“Car payments,” Jeff said. “House payments.”

“Yeah, concerns,” said Doug, “Maybe a vacation in the Bahamas.” The pickers laughed together and then Doug told me he was just kidding around. “We like Jeremy, he’s a straight-up guy, just like to flip him some shit, you know?”

What I knew, based on the little I had gleaned so far, was that the relationship between pickers and buyers was complicated.

After a few hours, the patch played out. It was time to meet up with the buyer, who was driving the two-plus hours from Seattle in an empty van so he could fill it up with wild mushrooms to take back to restaurants all over the city. Doug was feeling good. He tuned in a pirate radio station broadcasting from somewhere in the hinterlands.

We drove south, listening to obscure soul singles, and passed the derelict-looking tavern again. “Those kings really did come through for us today,” Doug said. “It’d almost be worth stopping by the watering hole for a drink, like the old days after cutting cedar.” But the gray afternoon light was giving in to a gathering darkness, and just as soon as the thought occurred to him, he vetoed it and kept driving. “We’ll kick back somewhere else after we make our money,” he decided, changing the radio station to a news program with the usual ominous reports from around the globe. “Not too many pickers that can find NPR on the dial,” he said. Jeff snorted at this and called him a hippie. “I’m okay with that,” Doug said. “Most of these guys around here are all rah-rah, nuke the towelheads. The white guys, at least. Hardly none of them pay taxes.” As for the mushrooms, within twenty-four hours they would be for sale at a farmers’ market, perhaps even on display, perched on a throne of tasteful ferns, with a piece of parchment tented nearby: $30/lb. in gracefully looping ink. Or they’d be packed in baskets in the walk-ins of a dozen different one-syllable restaurants in the trendiest part of town, where glass and brick fronted busy sidewalks and people dressed in long coats perused window menus as they passed.

* * *

It was dusk when we pulled into the small coastal community of Raymond, Washington, to the south of Aberdeen and Hoquiam. A logging and fishing town of fewer than three thousand souls, Raymond was twice that size in 1900, before beginning its long decline into a tourist town that attracts very few tourists. We parked behind a tidy house on a residential block. A Japanese sports car and a large American SUV occupied the gravel driveway. Inside, a Vietnamese man sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor, a stack of large king boletes arranged by size on newspapers spread at his feet, fastidiously cleaning his mushrooms. Doug and Jeff stood outside by the back door. Everyone was waiting for the buyer.

After looking at the immaculate kings inside, I wondered what the buyer would have to say about Doug and Jeff’s work. Doug had told me he took great pride in delivering the best product, though it would be hard to top what I had just seen in this kitchen. I was feeling protective of my new companions. Meanwhile, the picker inside, a man named Sang, who appeared to be in his forties, worked patiently with a penknife, scraping away every last speck of dirt from the stem and whittling away each little imperfection. He wielded a piece of foam packing material like a stiff-bristled brush, using it to clean and shine the caps of his boletes. In front of him on the newspaper was a small midden of forest debris and dirty mushroom shavings. The mushrooms themselves looked so clean and perfect that you almost wanted to bite into one like an apple.

I went out back to check on Doug and Jeff again. The buyer had arrived and they were in the process of unloading their baskets. As I had feared, the transaction didn’t seem to be going well. The buyer looked over a basket of dirt-flecked kings, then another, and shook his head. “Now, Jeremy—” Doug started in, and the buyer stopped him short, pulling out a soiled bolete and holding it up. Exhibit A. Doug turned away. He and Jeff stood tight-lipped in the driveway, hands in their pockets, shoulders hunched, shaking off the chill of the evening. The buyer looked over more baskets.

“This is hours to clean this up,” he said finally. “It’s game day tomorrow. Watch the game, clean some kings.” He weighed the baskets and loaded them into his van anyway, not even bothering to grade the mushrooms for quality. “Come on, guys,” he said, thumbing hundreds and fifties out of his money clip for the pickers. “I know you can do better.” That was it. End of transaction. The buyer, clearly in a hurry, collected his scale and a stack of empty baskets and went into the house. The pickers stuffed the bills into their jeans pockets without counting them, without even looking at the money. The day was over for them, though it didn’t exactly feel like happy hour. More pickers started arriving, pulling into the driveway and idling on the street. I decided to stay and watch the grading process, figuring I could catch a ride back to my car in town. I bid Doug and Jeff goodbye. We shook hands hastily and they drove off to Westport, the vandalized muffler audible long after the car rounded a corner and disappeared out of sight.

From the book, "The Mushroom Hunters" by Langdon Cook. Copyright © 2013 by Langdon Cook. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved

By Langdon Cook

Langdon Cook is a writer, instructor, and lecturer on wild foods and the outdoors. His books include The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America and Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager.

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