I mistook it for a pinecone: the pale little mushroom half-buried in the bed of soil and pine needles. I reached for it anyway, just to confirm, and my fingers landed not on charred, crumbling pinecone, but on supple fungus. “I found one!” I shouted, shuffling away the dirt from around the mushroom. I snipped the base of the stalk and held aloft my prize: the morel. The cone was a creamy beige, tapered at the top, a latticework of little honeycombs atop a thin, sturdy, white stem. It was one of only five we found that day, and by far the largest, approximately the size of my thumb. I didn’t mind that we didn’t find many: the hunting was half the fun, and the thrill of finding even one was enough to compel us to keep looking, to step further into the burn area, placing our feet carefully, eyes low, sweeping.
In a landscape of orange and black, a landscape of ash and dust, delicate brown-and-white morels can be hard to spot. But in the fertile, nutrient-rich soil of recent burn sites, or sprinkled among the bases of dead or dying trees, these mushrooms thrive. Morels tend to congregate in huddled groups, meaning that if you find one you can often take just a step or two more and find another, and another. But sometimes you find just one, and have to try your luck another day.
We owe it to luck and keen eyesight that we even noticed the spot, a recent controlled-burn area, a swath of land dominated by towering Ponderosa pines, all blackened bark and naked limbs. Pale, spindly bushes, stripped of their leaves, huddled in tight clumps. Dead grass sprouted up in bleached-blonde clumps here and there, vivid against the black soil. We came upon the spot after a bend in the road. We drove past the burn site before slowing, making a three-point turn on the deserted road, and going back again.
I had worn the wrong shoes to be out in the dirt: leopard-print Mary Janes with thin, nubby soles. My feet sank deep into the soft, lush earth. With every step, the shoes’ fabric was getting darker and darker, its pattern more and more obscure, but I focused on where I was placing my feet rather than how dirty they were getting. The excitement, the anticipation, had hit me already. My fingers twitched, my knees bent, ready to lunge. I was ill-prepared in my leopard-print shoes and beige sweater, sleeves pushed to my elbows to keep them from falling, but at least my pants were black: jeans cuffed above my ankles, a better choice. Even so, as I got back in the car and placed the five lonely mushrooms to rest in the back seat, I noticed large swaths of ash and dirt swept across the denim.
The densely wooded High Desert of Central Oregon is flush with burn sites, sunny, south-facing hillsides, and other morel-friendly habitats. Yet, as many know, morel hunting has quite a community built around it, and morel hunters are not keen to divulge their favorite haunts. Stumbling upon a new burn site was a stroke of good luck. I am not generally a mushroom aficionado (read: I hate culinary mushrooms of most kinds) but I was promised that, properly cooked, morels yield a delightfully nutty, rich flavor and a firmer, less chewy texture than the average grocery-store fungus. I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy them. Morels can be quite pricey at your local farmers market, especially since the picking season (early March to early May) is so short. Supply goes fast.
Nevertheless, morels’ flavor makes them worth the pursuit. When properly prepared (cooked down a little to neutralize the trace amounts of toxins they carry) they are safe to eat, which makes them a great choice for novice or beginner mushroom-hunters. Morels don’t have many look-alikes to deceive you, either, apart from the “false morels” (members of the Gyromitra family), which also have ribbed caps that, to the inexperienced eye, could be mistaken for the mild-tasting, perfectly edible morel. A common distinction to make between true morels and false morels is that real morel mushrooms have caps consisting of honeycomb-like structures, whereas many members of the Gyromitra family have brain-like, ribbed caps with many wrinkles and folds. With a little research and a discerning eye, one can safely identify and easily distinguish morels from false morels. Even as a very inexperienced mushroom hunter, I was confidently willing to give morel hunting a shot.
Thus it was that an afternoon drive along the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, a small portion of the 68-mile route through Central Oregon that along the way yields exceptional views of the majority of the mountains making up the Cascade range and providing outlets to many small natural lakes along the Cascades, turned into a morel hunt. We found only five, the largest one approximately one inch in length, and the smallest only a few centimeters. Hardly enough for a feast, but enough early activity to promise more morels to follow soon. I dropped a pin on the location in Apple Maps, dusted off my hands, and promised to come back more properly equipped.
We’d overlooked a few basics in our first, impromptu outing: a knife for separating the mushrooms from their stalks, bags to store the loot, hiking shoes, and bottles of water with which to rinse our hands and toes. The next week my friend and I made sure to pack these items first, nestled next to our picnic lunch. Then we headed along the Scenic Byway again, eyes peeled for other hunting spots while also trained on the growing thunderclouds above. Raindrops raced us down the road.
It started with a few pitter-patters on the windshield. As we neared where we approximated we’d been before (lacking cell phone service, and thus also the GPS pin I’d saved), heavy rain obscured the road ahead. We missed our turn, just like the first time, backed up, turned around, and pulled onto the service road off the byway. The burned pines, stripped of their needles and greenery, offered no overhead protection. Even as I reached into the backseat, pulled on my rain jacket, and tightened my shoelaces, hail begin to hit, plinking down the windshield and tapping merrily on the roof of the car.
The windows slowly fogged as we waited, eyeing the storm, eyeing the slow-moving clouds, eyeing the ground as the black soil slowly vanished beneath a layer of bright, white pebbles. If there had been morels out there before, there was little chance we’d be able to spot them now, even if we had been brave enough to venture out into the hail. Mother Nature had her own opinions of our morel-picking.
“Are we trespassing here?” I had asked aloud when first we stopped at the burn site. I (naively, perhaps) assumed that, with the forest service-marked trails and scenic highway around us, this land was open to public use. There were no signs telling us otherwise. The only signage, in fact, were the trees all around us, each one marked as property, to be sold, auctioned off. Smudged white signs tacked into dead trunks advertised all the available trees, to be chopped up and used for who-knows-what—campfire fodder, perhaps? Building supplies?
One tree was singled out as property of the forest, not to be touched. Once upon a time an animal had roosted, nested, or otherwise inhabited the tall, scraggly pine. Another faded sign was tacked into its bark—complete with caricatures of a raccoon, bear, and woodpecker saying, in bubble letters, “This is our home!” It didn’t look like anyone was home that day. The tree could have been long-abandoned, passed over for a more prosperous piece of real estate, one yet untouched by humans. But here the tree would stand, as all around it its neighbors would fall under axe and blade and saw. This tree alone would stand in the forest until pinecones that dropped and burst yielded new, thin, wobbly, green sprouts. Decades more would pass before what was now burned and bare and desolate would again thrive with green and fir and branch.
Staring up at the blue sky between broken, blackened limbs, I couldn’t help but wonder: What made these morels ours? Who granted us permission not only to use the land, but also to take from it? It was simple, wasn’t it? We’d just gotten there first.