If you are a Monty Python fan, you may recognize that title. If not, sorry, you’ve missed out on kooky British comedy from the 70’s, though I imagine some quick web searches will put you in touch with their surreal and somewhat stream-of-consciousness act.
They often stopped their sketches with the catch-phrase: And Now for Something Completely Different. So, here I go again, stopping my “ART” blog for something else. Though, to be fair, it’s art in a different form. Most likely inspired by writing this blog, and then definitely inspired by my Library and REI lecture series on the Wilderness Of Women, a lovely Powerpoint presentation I whipped up and delivered from Portland to Medford. The feedback I received was very positive and it inspired me to start writing a book. A book I’d been writing for over 30 years. A book about my trail life and my off trail life, how they intersect and influence each other. When my shoulder got hurt and grounded me from hiking last year, I took advantage of my in-firmed circumstances and used the time to write.
My book has morphed into something else, however, and just like all the best of my art, it took on a life of it’s own. Part memoir, part trail journal, part coffee table art book, part philosohical and spiritual exploration, The Spiral Trail is heading for parts unknown. Like it’s title, it spirals around and comes back to lessons learned, growing and developing into a story about a life lived on the trails and woods and translated into paint, guided by source.
I’m still working on it, and I’m still painting and hiking and doing all the things that need to be done. I’ll try to pop into the blog from time to time to say hello and share a new piece. For now, here’s an excerpt from The Spiral Trail to start my literary exploration into the writing of a book. I hope you find it enjoyable and interesting. Wanting more is good! So, come with me and lets take a walk in the woods…
I took the dogs out on another gold hunting excursion. As I understand it, there are places where one can still pan for gold, actual gold nuggets that wash down from creeks and rivers, but that’s not the gold I am looking for. I’m looking for Chanterelle mushrooms, a gloriously school-bus-yellow fungus that litters the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest each year when it gets cold and wet. They are delicious, meaty and mild tasting mushrooms, sought by gourmet chefs as well as poor college students because, for those of us who have access and knowledge, they are free. I was taught how to find Chanterelles by a couple of Dead Heads (fans of the Grateful Dead), both of who were deep into their respective studies at Oregon State University at the time. One in Forestry, and the other in Mycology, the study of fungi, so they knew what to look for as well as where to look for them. My first taste of a Chanterelle had me rolling my eyes upward in delight, they are that good. I paid attention to the where’s and what’s of Chanterelle hunting and I learned my lesson well.
I began hunting for Chanterelles by myself the moment we landed in Alpine and found them at low elevations in those early days. But the craze for Chanterelles took off and the economy did not, spurring hundreds of mushroom hunters to take to our local woods in search of quick cash. Which in turn spurred another form of industry, the mushroom buyer, one of which put up a sign on their driveway and gave the hunters an easy stop on their way out of the hills to cash in on their gains. I’d like to say “ill gotten gains” as they tromped over public and private lands alike and yanked up the mushrooms without regard to keeping the root system in tact and leaving a few to grow and spread their spores for future mushrooms. Chanterelles will return year after year if you treat their ground gently, but that was not to be. Our woods were inundated with groups of hunters, they’d park their beat-up cars along the mountain roads and carry in white 5-gallon buckets intent on finding a large haul.
I felt a twinge of disgust at these interlopers, these were my woods they were bustling about in, yelling back and forth, disturbing the quiet as they raped the forests of their delicious yellow fungi fruit. They pulled up every one and left nothing behind but beer cans, candy wrappers and toilet paper. I frowned every time I saw them out there, failing to see the irony that I, myself was heading out for a mushroom hunt. Their presence was forcing me to range farther from home and I was irritable about the idea I couldn’t prowl about in what I considered “my woods”, which of course, weren’t.
I learned early on to keep quiet about my mushrooming grounds, having once taken a friend out and kindly taught him how to identify and find Chanterelles only to learn he later took a group of his friends back to my spot where they cleaned out the entire hillside. I never quite trusted him after that and our friendship suffered. But such is the nature of gold fever, it changes one’s ethics when you are in the midst of a find.
Since then, I’ve sworn friends to secrecy before taking them to known places but as the hunter hoards continued patrolling my local hills, those known places became found and decimated. We had dry falls and late rains and some of my best spots were clear-cut, spelling the end of any nearby Chanterelles. They need deep mature forests, cool weather and rain. I found myself travelling farther from home to find my gold.
Still, every year I’d get a few for dinner. And sometimes I’d stumble across a new patch and manage to put up some for later, though really, frozen Chanterelles are never as good as freshly picked. There were some good years before the big local clear-cut happened, I’d bring home bags of them and then spend hours cleaning them all. But after they cut the hills directly behind us, it got harder on everyone. Even the hunters began to range along the Alsea river drainage, the backside of our local hills and my last-ditch effort at mushrooming. It seemed as if all the best spots were picked over, my hunts became hikes. Those were lean years, it was lucky if I’d find one or two and that would be it for the season.
But still I tried, I felt as if I was missing something… there had to be a place I’d looked over, some patch of woods I’d yet to explore. I’ve been riding and hiking my local section of the coast range mountains, keeping to about 5 or 6 square miles and had come to learn this land pretty well over 30 years. But I hadn’t been everywhere between the roads. Between the roads is lots of brush and the mature woods needed to cruise about without risking life and limb, or at the least, a few scratches from the dense understory, was getting harder to find. But there were still a few patches of them, it’s just that I had transitioned from being a deer path following bush-whacking hiker to a road follower. I could take my horses on the road, either an abandoned logging road or an active one, and had cut a few trails to link up roads so I could make a big loop rather than backtrack, so I hadn’t been doing much off road hiking. Not even when I decided to return to backpacking and was planning and prepping for the PCT. I was after miles and conditioning exercise and you can’t get a work out pushing your way through the underbrush. That kind of hiking is slow and meticulous as I wander about, carefully taking note of the terrain and topography, making sure I do not get lost in the “it all looks the same” woodland. My deep wood exploring days seemed to be behind me, and with it, my lack of mushrooming luck.
Until last week.
I took a friend on another excursion, hoping the old places would have some kind of nostalgic luck, but no luck was to be found. Doreen is somewhat new to me as a friend, but we get along well and she was game for hiking about, looking for mushrooms. We drove further out to an old patch I knew of and when that panned out, I took her off trail and off road, but again, nothing. We did not go far from the road as I am reluctant to drag tourists along on these kinds of bush-whacking hikes. I’m quite concerned about becoming lost in the woods, so I work hard paying attention to the hundreds of details that will allow me to back-track my way to safety in the event I’m not sure where I am. After my jumpy nerves at finding the staircase on the “moonlit” beach, I’ve had some concerns about my state of mind in an unknown situation where no map is at hand to guide me. The woods beyond my woods are just the same kind of unknown situation as I am not nearly so well acquainted with their topographical peccadillos as I am for my own side of the mountain. This emotional state does not blend well with chatting with friends as we prowl the woods. I have to concentrate out there and so, I have not been exploring as I mushroom hunt.
Needless to say, Doreen and I got skunked. I found two mushrooms in the old patch, one for her and one for me. We shrugged, it was a nice day and the dogs were having a joyous time racing about the forest, it was fun just to watch them and hike about. We didn’t care all that much so we started back for the car which was parked about a half mile away. I guided us back to the road and took an alternate road, making a loop of our hike. I always make a loop if I can, there’s something about a circle that makes me feel like my hike is complete, even if it’s a small circle at the end of a straight out and straight back trail. I call those keyhole loops, and they serve the purpose of “not backtracking” that I like.
We were on this loop when I spotted an opening in the trees off the road. Something about it said “check it out!” to me, so check it out we did. I led Doreen off the road and onto a deer trail that disappeared through a brush tunnel and into a deep and open patch of mature forest. It didn’t look like a deep wood from the road, choked by brush on both sides, I had assumed it was a young stand of trees. These young stands are usually so thick with underbrush you can’t get through without serious effort, frequently jungle hacking your way through isn’t even worth the pain.
I was surprised and delighted by this find and after picking our way over the old dumped trash at the entrance (I will never understand why people uses the forest as their personal dump) immediately saw scores of mushrooms all along the game trail. There were pink ones and slimy brown ones, some yellow boletus and white death cap kind of mushrooms, not what I was after but still, there were mushrooms here and there were quite a lot of them! I was encouraged to follow the deer path as it hugged the side of the hill just below the roadway, my boots cutting into the soft needle strewn soil as if I was marching across a snowy mountain field. Continuing on, I came across our first white Chanterelle, a rare variety, but not that unusual for this area. I’d found white Chanterelles near where we parked the car once, even though, and it’s hard to believe this, but that was 25 years before and before the woods had been selectively cut.
A selective cut will only take say, every other tree, and even though it preserves the forest as a forest, it’s harder to do. I like them, but once the forest is opened up, more brush will fill in between the trees and the Chanterelles won’t return. It’s too light and airy for them. Seeing this white Chanterelle here gave me hope. I bent down, carefully pushing aside the fir needles and debris, I cut it gently at the base. Doreen came over to see the mushroom and exclaimed, “Here’s another one!” and she set to the task of cutting that one for herself. Again, we had found two, one for me and one for her. But this time, the conditions were better. No brush and a swath of deep woods. I followed the path as it paralleled the road above and came across another scattered patch of Chanterelles.
“I found some more! Yes!” I picked a few and left a few for her to take before moving down the trail to another scattered patch. We were ecstatic at finding them, and I was happy to find them in such an easy place. I didn’t need to worry about getting lost or loosing sight of Doreen as we fought our way through dense underbrush. This hillside was open and the road was a laidback climb out. We left behind the small ones to grow and talked about coming back for them later. I pushed on ahead of her and went from patch to patch, finding them and then calling for her to take the ones I’d left for her to harvest. Sometimes she saw a few I’d missed entirely and her bag began to fill up with a good haul. As she was delicately brushing off needles and dirt, I wandered down a draw to see if there were more downhill but came back empty handed, unwilling to get beyond earshot of Doreen leaving her alone in the deep woods. Bringing her out here was my responsibility and I take that seriously. I seem to have been the pathfinder in most of my hiking relationships, it’s not like I tried to take that role, but that’s just how it worked out. Jane once called me the “human GPS” and I laughed. I may be good in the woods, however, don’t trust me in the city. I get all turned around when confronted with streets and buildings. There’s too much data for me to process.
I don’t think of myself as a confidant pathfinder, more like a nervous pathfinder, I’m worried about getting lost. I try to remember Daniel Boone, that great Kentucky backwoods explorer who was supposedly quoted as saying he’d never been lost, he just didn’t know where he was for a couple of days.
But still, Pathfinder is my trail name and so, I have a reputation to live up to; regardless of my nervousness in the woods, I also know I have the skills and abilities to untangle myself from a backwoods mishap. What I don’t have, on this day, is an actual map of the area, which, without a compass would be useless as the woods are so deep, dark and topographically convoluted it renders a map useless without the means of pointing one in the right direction. I also don’t have a compass. Just my faith and skill and backwoods prowess, somewhat like Daniel Boone! I also have my nervousness which keeps me close to the road and checking to make sure we haven’t wandered away from it as we go from patch of gold to patch of gold.
Eventually, we run out of mushrooms and of the deep woods as we get closer to an old overgrown cut which is full of brush. I suggest we climb out and head back. We’ve managed to find about a couple of dozen mushrooms a piece, so we turn for the road. Doreen takes the time to pick the ones we come across on our way out and I let her have my share as my bag is full and I’m content with my haul.
I’m content with all of it as I feel I’ve broken the Chanterelle curse that seems to have been hanging over my head the past few years. I didn’t know if pickings were scarce because of the buyer (but I have noticed they aren’t in business anymore so that’s good news) the dry fall seasons and the new clear cuts or just my inability to get off trail and take the time to find a new place to hunt. Probably a combination of it all, but the dry spell is over and now I have a new patch of woods to check out… the draw that leads away from the road has me intrigued.
The following week, after a solid week of rain, we get a gap between storms and I decide to take the dogs back to the woods and explore the draw. I figured to look and see if I missed a mushroom or maybe two and then work the hill below this new spot with the hopes there are more Chanterelles to be found. I go by myself, because I need to explore and not worry about another person. I don’t have any confidence that the dogs will help me in any way, they are too busy sniffing and digging and running about doing their doggy thing. I’ve never lost a dog but one time, though like Daniel Boone, she wasn’t unsure of her location more than a couple of days. I hunted all over for that dog, called through the woods and then knocked on any doors in the vicinity. She must have followed something deep into the forest and got turned around because it did take her two days to come home whereupon after much tail wagging and famished eating, she fell asleep for a good 12 hour stretch.
Needless to say, I don’t trust dogs to get me out of the woods.
I parked in the same spot and walked down the road to our exit spot. I followed our line of mushroom stumps and only saw one seedling mushroom that had grown enough to make it worthwhile harvesting. I put the Chanterelle in my little orange Osprey daypack, then after getting it back on again (not as easy of a task given my less than 100% shoulder range) I picked up my hiking sticks and headed down the draw. I began to note the changes in terrain, the hill on my right covered in moss, the hill on my left covered in shrub. I went down, threading my way through small trees, ducking under and stepping over dead branches. I came across a dry creek bed, noting the stump next to the bed was covered in small, translucently white, spindly mushrooms. I marked this as my landmark and stepped over the bed, forgetting to look behind me to see the path as it would look if I was returning the same way. My plan had been to follow the draw down to a logging road that I knew was below me, but the hills had folds and contours I was unfamiliar with, I wasn’t sure exactly how far down the road lay and I was anticipating mucking about as I was hunting, crisscrossing the terrain as I went. It’s easy to get turned around in these coast range hills, distances become hard to judge so I was expecting a long haul across and down slope before hitting the road.
On the other side of the creek, a hillside of tall timber opened up into what I thought was prime mushrooming grounds, so I began traversing the curve of the hill over to a set point before reversing my path and coming back to the creek. I zig-zagged twice before getting all the way to the creek but instead of a dry bed, I now came across a flowing stream of water. I guessed it was the same creek bed but that where I had crossed, the water had gone underground. It was a significant amount of water and I followed it uphill until I came to a series of ponds, obviously springs tucked away in this fold of woods. It was a lovely find, very private and nestled into the woodland like a love note hidden in a drawer. Precious and sweet, I wondered how many animals used it as their personal drinking pool. I looked over my shoulder quickly, I had come across a cougar kill the previous day and my neighbor had seen a big one crossing the road. The odds were small that cougar even knew about this pond, but still, I glanced around before chiding myself for unfounded fears. My two terriers would be thrilled to take on a cougar, or at least bark at one anyway. They also were more likely to be a cougar’s lunch than I was, but since that’s a story I’ve never heard or believe, it doesn’t bother me to let the dogs have the run of the woods.
I wandered about the pond, checking its size and considering if would be a viable personal swimming hole in the summer, or if it would turn into a mush of mud once the rains were gone. The dogs drank from the edge and we turned back to the creek, following it downhill. But when I got to where I thought I had crossed the creek, everything looked different. The hill on my left had changed direction, opening out into a wide flat spot with scattered grass. There was a stand of alder trees I didn’t recognize and a bank of moss that hadn’t been there before. I stopped, frozen. How did this happen… in my checking out the pond, did I forget about a fold in the hillside, did I follow the wrong creek? Is there another creek I missed? Nothing looked familiar and I began to cast about, returning to the creek bed, looking for my marker, the stump full of tiny mushroom. There was no stump. I stared at the creek. How can there not be a stump? Where is the stump?! I crossed the creek anyway and looked at it from the other side. Now it too looked unfamiliar. I hadn’t crossed here, I must have gone downhill too far.
I took a deep breath, I wasn’t scared, not yet, I just needed to look about a little more. I crossed the stream again and walked back towards the hillside where I had been hunting mushrooms looking for anything that looked familiar. I thought back to a movie I’d watched last week, On Golden Pond. There is a scene where one of the main characters, an 80-year-old man, gets lost in the woods around his summer home. He’s scared because nothing looks familiar, he can’t remember his surroundings and he begins to run through the woods looking for something, anything he can recall to place him in the world of known things again.
It’s a bit of a fear of mine, to be lost in the woods. And it’s another one to lose my faculties. My mother had dementia when she died, and before it became severe, she had these episodes of getting lost. Once going out into the woods in the middle of a snowy New Hampshire winter and falling, laying in a snowbank for hours before she was found. It was a chilling story for me to hear as I clutched the phone to my ear, 3000 miles away and a day after the event. She wasn’t allowed to be alone after that, but now I’ve inherited the fear for myself. What if I too forget where I am? What if I forget what the woods look like? It would be just like me to wander off alone as an 80-year-old and then turn left at the tree that looks like an owl’s head when I should have turned right. It’s not like my trails and paths have actual signs. My hikes are full of personal knowledge, I know where to go because I’ve gone there before. But not right now… right now I don’t know where I am because I can’t find my way back.
And so, I tell myself, I’m not going anywhere until I can find the way back and when I find my way back I am going back! I had made all sorts of mental notes along the way, so I knew I should be able to find them again, I usually do. I took out my mental list and went over it in order. The stump of mushrooms, the hill of moss, the hill of shrub, the pink flag left by a surveyor, the dented can, the narrow draw all the way up to where I found my last Chanterelle and then up and out to the road. I walk a large circle, get back to where the stream still has water in it, before it goes underground. I notice where the water actually becomes submerged, flowing between sticks and rocks and disappearing into the moist soil, dirt so fertile it looks almost black. I look up stream and down, here there is water, and there, just a dry creek bed that shows where overflowing winter rains carve a funnel that opens out into a flat trench. I take 5 steps to my right and suddenly, from where I’m standing, I see the mushroom stump. I take a deep breath and am relieved. I had overshot the creek crossing by about 20 feet and continued on until the terrain had changed and I was unexpectedly surrounded by a scene that was unfamiliar both backwards and forwards. The whole incident feels like I’m reading a book where I’ve accidentally turned two pages and now the narration makes no sense until I find my missing page and the story line falls back into place. I step back across and walk my path out but I only go about 10 yards before I turn back to the creek.
There’s no need to run back for the car. I’m back in the land of the known. I wasn’t lost at all, I just didn’t know where I was for a couple of minutes. It was disorienting and a touch disquieting but am I going to let this stop me? Of course not. I head back down the hill.
But this time, I do leave a few more markers, scraped boot prints in the duff, a couple of crossed sticks and I try not to veer off my trajectory by sticking to as straight a line as possible. It’s easier to see the way back that way. I come upon an old skid track from the original cut of this forest, it’s barely perceptible as time has eroded away it’s clean lines and random trees have grown inside it’s borders. It’s still clearly a flat place in the hillside, so I follow it down until I can see a road below me. The dogs run ahead and are running up and down the road, maybe showing me that it was here all along, maybe sniffing the path of a wild animal. Whatever their motivation, between the trunks of trees, I see their white bodies zipping up and down a horizontal line about 200 feet below me. I’m still carefully edging my way down across the soft needle strewn duff, my boots sink in and I watch for slick branches as I’ve already slid down one that lay like a trap just a fraction of an inch under the carpet of forest debris. I used to wonder why older people fell as if they were children again, but now that I am a little older myself, I get it. We aren’t as flexible or fit or even as balanced as we used to be. It’s easy and faster to get out of condition from hiking then when I was younger, my muscles don’t catch me and correct imbalances as fast as they used to. And so, sometimes now, I fall and slip and when I do, it’s startling and strange. I never used to fall. But I never used to be 56, so I take it easy and use trekking poles, they’ve become a part of my new high tech hiking world, just like bringing a cell phone and a personal locater beacon (which I hope to never need).
I drop down onto the road, glad that I reached my goal and surprised that it was closer than I thought it would be. Instead of hiking out, I make some side trips into the woods, continuing my search for gold. I notice that every time I wriggle out of my pack, pick a mushroom, then look about for more, I will not find one until I put my pack back on and head out. Then, sure enough, another mushroom! I struggle out of the pack, my not-yet-unfrozen shoulder is somewhat uncooperative with all this on again off again gyrations. But, if I only find one at a time, still, I am finding them, so I resign myself to fussing with the pack. On my way out, I find one last group and decide I’m done for the day. I have plenty for dinner and then some, so I hop on the road and climb up out of the draw.
The road is steeper than I remembered, I haven’t been on it for some time and can’t recall a time I ever actually walked it. I’m usually on this road with my horse and they do all the hard work for me. It’s good to get a feel of the road from their perspective, I gain a little empathy every time I walk a trail that I usually ride. I stop to catch my breath from time to time, glad that I am not the kind of rider that pushes a horse too hard, I let them stop and breathe as well. Hiking with a heavy pack helps me to relate to how hard they actually work. Just when I’m about to reach the car, I see an opening in the trees that looks inviting. Without thinking too much about it, I wander in for a last chance hunt for mushrooms. What the hell, why not?
I find another old skid track, it’s faint and mostly gone, covered with moss and underbrush like huckleberry, salal, ocean spray and young alders who are trying to take advantage of the sunlight provided by the logging road I’ve just left. I weave my way through the thicket but stick to the flat ground. The brush thins out a little further in, and I’m walking in a mossy fairy forest of tall timber and soft earth. There are sword-tail ferns, their ostrich plume like fronds are still, no breeze can reach them down here even though the tops of the firs sing with the winds that touch the canopy up above. I follow the line across a curve of hillside, sometimes stepping over downed logs and limbs, sometimes ducking under them. I marvel in this hidden gem of a forest, surrounded by thinned timber stands and clear cuts. Most of these forest lands are considered a crop and are usually homogeneously full of Douglas Fir, but there are bits and pieces of more diverse forest and it’s always fun to be inside a stand of trees that feel somewhat wild in nature.
I walk until I come to some remnants of old growth, stumps from trees that must have been 100’s of years old, these stumps litter the woods near my home. They are as large as couches, rotted remnants of their former selves, they still fill me with a sense of wonder and awe at their immense size. At the bottom of the stump I find more chanterelles, they ripple out of the duff, golden flowers with wavy fungus arms. They push up the moss and the fir needles and curl around clumps of debris, hanging onto it like a baby’s fist. There is one large one in front of me, then one to the side, one above on a ledge of dirt and as I look, I see them everywhere. I’ve struck the motherload.
I carefully pull back the carpet of needles and cut my mushrooms, filling my bag, then another. I’ve picked more in 5 minutes than I found in the past hour or so. It’s lovely to find a place like this, a place where no one has discovered and disturbed. I have such a plethora to choose from, I get choosey and only pick the best ones, leaving some to continue rotting or to grow up into adults. I harvest so many, I run out of space in my bag. Any more and I will crush them, so I settle my pack carefully on my shoulders and collect my trekking poles from where I planted them in the ground.
Before heading out, I take one last walk down my personal yellow brick road. I want to see how much farther this streak runs and consider if I can return later for another go at it. I also want to see if I can resist the “gold fever” that grips me when I find a patch. Can I resist the temptation of taking more? I see a few scattered here and there, but I don’t feel the need to add to my harvest. The forest has been kind to me and provided a feast of mushrooms. I move deeper into the forest and come across a pristine patch of chanterelles in a bowl of moss. They look almost staged, they are that perfect. A shaft of sunlight streaks down between the trees and lights up their small golden glade, I can almost hear the fairy’s dancing about this sylvan fantasy.
I pause before getting closer to the patch, I don’t want to disturb the scene or be tempted by their beauty. But I do walk over, just to appreciate and marvel at how lovely a fungus can be. I usually see “delicious!” when I see a chanterelle, but this time, I’m thankful for their presence in the forest. It says, “I’m healthy” and “I feel good, all is right in the world.” Just seeing them makes me feel the same and I’m grateful for the bounty I’ve lovingly placed in my pack.
That night for dinner, I prepare my mushrooms in a wine cream sauce with garlic and pour it over white bean noodles. And once more, I touch heaven on my plate and my eyes roll back in joy. Yeah, they are that good.