Playing hide-and-seek with Colorado's bounty of wild mushrooms.
The sudden cry pierces my trancelike fixation on the forest floor, and I look up to see flashes of an orange T-shirt among the tree trunks. I take a few steps toward the noise, but the forest is already tranquil again: The trill of a yellow-rumped warbler rises above the gentle gurgle of a nearby stream. I stare into the distance, looking for further glimpses of orange, when I am startled by three men rushing up behind me.
"Where's Matsutake?" they ask, a sense of urgency permeating their voices. I point without authority, and they sprint off. Clutching their baskets, they disappear among the trees in search of the rare and delicious fungus.
An hour earlier, I'd pulled into the Morrison exit Park-n-Ride to join the Colorado Mycological Society on my first mushroom foray. The parking lot was crowded with people securing mountain bikes and river kayaks to their vehicles, but I had no trouble identifying the CMS members—a group geared only with wicker baskets.
Tom Taggert, the expedition leader, gathered everyone together at 9 a.m. sharp. He looked to be about 80 years old, but his bright blue eyes sparkled as he detailed his plan for the first raid of the year. The eastern slope of the Rockies had at last received some rain, and now conditions appeared to be just right for mushrooms. While Taggert spoke, I surveyed the group: college students, families with kids, and adults of all ages. "OK?" Tom asked. Before anyone could answer, he turned toward his car, and the group dispersed.
With its trio of rubber mushrooms bobbing atop the antenna, Taggert's minivan was easy to follow. Just above Idaho Springs he turned onto a dirt road and led us to a dusty parking area at the West Chicago Creek trailhead. I expected another powwow—some instructions on how to find mushrooms, and how to avoid the poisonous ones. But I was soon to understand that CMS forays offer a welcome balance of guided mushrooming and time to discover the forest floor on one's own. Taggert hollered something about noon and a picnic table, and everyone disappeared into the woods. I was alone. After a moment, I too wandered into the forest.
Now that the clamor following the Matsutake call has subsided, I'm alone once again. I make my way over to the burbling creek, figuring if I follow it upstream I'll be able to wind my way back down to our meeting place. The creek follows a circuitous course through a forest of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine. I amble along, keeping my gaze about four feet in front of my toes. The conifers give way to an aspen grove, and there, on the sun-spotted grassy floor, among the white tree trunks, I see little dots of red: wild strawberries. I kneel down to pick one of the tiny berries and pop it in my mouth—it's intensely fragrant and sweet, the flavor of 10 strawberries concentrated into one.
I eat all the berries within my reach, and then stand again to look for more. This unexpected find has turned my aimless wandering into a more directed search. Every wildflower, every blade of grass, now comes into focus. And as I survey the forest floor with renewed intensity, my gaze settles on my first wild mushroom. Its cap, smooth-skinned and rusty in color, is the size of half an orange and sits atop a thick, white stalk with dark gray speckles. At first, I hesitate to pick it. I sit beside the single mushroom for a while, contemplating its ephemeral existence. Eventually, I pull it out of the duff. It comes out easily, and feels heavy for its size and cool to the touch. I nestle the mushroom into the linen tea towel that lines my basket.
Now that I have made my first find, I realize that these orange-capped fungi are generously scattered among the strawberries in the aspen grove—I simply hadn't seen them. I continue collecting until my zigzag route merges with that of two other hikers bearing baskets. I recognize the taller of the two as one of people who responded to the Matsutake cry. They introduce themselves as Rob and Spencer. I learn that Rob holds a Ph.D. in neurobiology. He's now doing research at the University of Colorado, and joined CMS as soon as he found out he'd be moving to Denver. Spencer has come from the small mountain community of Bailey, and speaks with a strong cowboy twang. He tells me he's an apprenticing electrician, but he's taking the month off to look for mushrooms.
I proudly show them my bounty.
"Aspen orange caps," says Rob as he picks one from my basket. He uses a pocketknife to slice off part of the stem. "This one's wormy," he says, dropping it to his feet. He helps me sort through my collection, tossing out the spongy mushrooms that house tiny worms, and keeping the good ones. I decide to stick with Rob and Spencer, and trail behind them as they talk. Their ramblings are punctuated by sudden exclamations of mushroom species they come across.
"Suillus!" yells Rob, and sprints over to a cluster of small mushrooms with sticky, yellow caps.
"Are they edible?" I ask.
He tells me they are, but he leaves them be. Rob and Spencer have become rather selective about which mushrooms they take home. Still, neither lacks for enthusiasm at the mere sight of a mushroom, edible or not.
"Russula!" Spencer calls, and I hurry over to see bright scarlet caps on pure white stalks. "Inedible," he adds, anticipating my question.
Rob jogs up a small embankment and kneels beside a handful of pale orange mushrooms with splotches of sage green.
"Lactarius deliciosus," he calls over to us.
These he takes.
We find poisonous Amanita, their radiant red caps sprinkled with white spots, and edible hedgehog mushrooms with long, cream-colored spines underneath their caps. There are rotund puffballs, and clusters of dainty velvet foot. I didn't anticipate such diversity. Rob and Spencer are less impressed. "It's a good day in a bad year," says Spencer. Rob nods in melancholy agreement.
Our undirected meandering has led us a good distance from our starting point. It's well past noon when we arrive back at the trailhead, and the group is gathered around a picnic table eating lunch. Mushrooms dot the tabletop. A guy in an orange tie-dye T-shirt leans against a pine tree—it must be "Matsutake" I think to myself. He's in his early 20s and has a shock of dark hair, and I now recognize him as the hitchhiker I'd passed on my way to the meeting place that morning. I ask if he really did find any Matsutake mushrooms—a precious Asian delicacy found in Colorado's forests. He shakes his head, disappointed, and explains he thought he saw the large, white, cinnamon-streaked caps of Tricholoma magnivelare in the pine needles. Alas, they were Tricholoma zelleri—an abundant relative that often deceives Matsutake hunters.
Meanwhile, Tom Taggert makes his way around the table. He inspects the mushrooms and periodically picks up a specimen, raises it above his head for everyone to see, and relates its natural history, ecology, and identifying characteristics. "This is Lactarius uvidus," he says. "It oozes a milky white latex when you cut the gills. It's inedible." Next, Tom picks up one of the delicate velvet foot mushrooms. "And this," he exclaims, and then pauses to get everyone's attention. "This is Flammulina velutipes. It has a white spore print, and it's edible. But it looks just like Galerina autumnalis, which is deadly, and has a brown spore print."
My head spins, in part from looking at my feet all morning, and in part from the flood of information. I've never heard of spore prints, and I look helplessly at my own basket, full of mushrooms whose names I cannot remember. "Don't worry," Rob reassures me. "We'll sort through it."
I begin to think this is the end of my first mushrooming adventure until a couple at the end of the table reports a rumor that Boletus edulis, the King Bolete, has been found at higher elevations. Everyone perks up at the mention of the prized porcini, and in no time the group is packed up and ready to go. I catch a ride with Rob and Spencer, and as we bump along the dirt road toward Berthoud Pass, I begin dreaming of the culinary possibilities. Who knows—maybe there will be enough plunder for a bowl of fresh pasta brimming with Colorado porcini mushrooms. And maybe, just maybe, we'll happen to stumble upon something even more rare and delicious: Matsutake!
For More Information You need to be a member of the Colorado Mycological Society to join a mushroom foray. Annual dues are $28 for new members and $25 for renewals. You can fill out an application and learn more about CMS's classes, meetings, and forays at www.cmsweb.org.