I should have known it was too early. We had a very long and late winter. The ski areas were celebrating and the snow level was still low, but I was invited to be the visiting author/illustrator at the Methow Valley Elementary School Young Author's Conference on May 17 & 18. My friends Stew and Phil's daughters Corinne and Julia go to that school. Fellow author/illustrator Erik Brooks' daughter Keeley goes there, too. And Phil let us stay in this house that he built for his dad in Mazama.
Ponderosa pines and warm dry breezes beckoned and I started dreaming of spring morels waking up from their long winters' nap, popping up like, well mushrooms after a rainfall. The plan was to leave very early and stop in our usual spots in the Cascades and forage on the way to school... unfortunately the forest service road was closed because of snow... and we spent hours scouring lower level areas only to come up empty-handed.
However, the drive was beautiful. The mountains are spectacular. A beaver crossed right in front of my car as I drove up the Twisp River valley. My husband and I marveled over the incredible home Phil built as we got settled, and then we went to school for an evening event.
The Methow Valley Elementary School charmed us on all levels: the kids, the parents, the staff, the principal, Dr. Patrick, who seems to be like a cat- a tall, thin, very hip cat, who has had at least nine lives and tells funny stories. This was a school of engaged and empowered students- and talented way beyond their years. They were flying high on their celebration of their accomplishments, and I was merely there to smile, applaud, and sign some books... and in the parking lot afterwards, an osprey flew right over my head, slowly circled and landed in a tree.
On Friday I drove to school early, spotting a marmot and laughing at an irrigated field that had frozen in a perfect crystalized circle due to the freezing temperatures and a still-spraying watering system. The sky was impossibly cerulean. School was buzzing with activity and parent and community speakers all getting ready for the big day. I spoke to all of the students in three separate assemblies and facilitated a sharing circle, too. All students received a journal and I had them all create characters, which they totally enjoyed.
We broke for lunch and I went for broke. I was still on my mushroom mission and I told my story of "woe is me and no morels" to see if I could find anyone local who foraged. The news was good. I was told that there were some morels in the market. I tried to find more info and was delighted to find a "Methow Mama" who was not only a mushroom lover, but she was also a food writer. She writes this lovely blog called Caramelize Life and her name is Georgina.
At first Georgina was reluctant to reveal her mysterious morel location... but then when she learned that I knew of one in another part of the Cascades we decided to "trade" locations. We had the weekend to forage and my husband and I were hoping for success since we didn't find anything on Thursday.
I know I am obsessed with mushrooms. They are a delicious distraction for me- even more so than agate hunting. For one, I love spending hours walking in the forest in the mountains near cold, cascading creeks. For two, I get to eat what I find... and I love to find morels, king boletes, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, shaggy manes- and I feel blessed that prince mushrooms actually grow in our lawn under our hemlock tree on Lummi Island. Morels are particularly tricky because they look so much like little pine cones sticking up in the duff.
We couldn't find Georgina's location. She was not sure of the road names. She said this happens when you live somewhere for a long time. You don't know the names, but you know where you are going. That could be a metaphor for many things. So Booth (my husband) and I improvised. We headed up another forest service road and struck out on our own. In my head I knew it was still too early and it was way too dry... but then I heard Booth yell, "It's a Bingo!" He had been waiting to shout out that hilarious line from one of our favorite movies, "Inglourious Basterds"and there it was- a lovely little morel growing out of the sandy soil next to a root ball from a felled tree. Then I found my "Bingo" in the photo above.
Our mushroom basket had two morels in it, and we were stoked. We spent about five hours walking in the woods... and when we were done we had five mushrooms. Five. That is one, two, three, four, five. Not pounds. Mushrooms. Too early. Too dry. Too bad.
The next morning we left Mazama to drive over the recently opened North Cascades Highway on our way back home. There were still tunnels of snow on the sides of the roads near Liberty Bell and Washington Pass, but as we hit the "wet side" and as we descended below the snow line, I started to get a feeling. "Wet side. Below the snow... Let's pull over at a trail," I told my husband. We parked the car and took a preliminary walk down the trail and lo and behold... I saw the morel that I put at the top of this post.
Elated, we ran back to the car, grabbed our basket and knives, and paid the $5 forest service fee.
We hiked for over an hour and that was the only morel we ever saw.
My father refuses to pronounce morels properly. He calls them "morals." There weren't many morels to this story. Yet there were so many beautiful hours out in nature.
There are so many things that distract me, like mushrooms and agates, flat water days when I can paddle my kayak and scan for whales. I can spend countless hours picking blackberries and making jam. Sometimes I worry that I should be spending more time writing or illustrating, but I know that these "distractions" are what fuels my work. Maybe if I wrote and drew all the time I'd be richer in the bank, but not richer in life. I'd rather have a rich life- and mushrooms on my plate.
I'm not-so-patiently waiting for the snow to melt and the ground to warm... and then I'll head back to the woods. You'll hear me if you listen. I'll be yelling, "it's a Bingo!"