Boletes in the Snow

by
Copyright 1998, all rights reserved.

It was a strange dream, and more than a little disturbing: I'm hiking through a green meadow in the mountains, listening to a chortling creek, enjoying a bright confetti of wildflowers. Boletus edulis dots the outskirts of the meadow, tucked up tight against the trunks of lodgepole pines, waiting to be picked. And there I am with my basket and knife.

But something's wrong. My vision is failing, dimming, filling with white specks that turn into hard pellets of snow. They cover the meadow, the flowers, the boletes, and the world with a sheet of frigid white. My hands turn into stiff claws and I can't unfold my knife. The boletes disappear while I look straight at them, fading to white.

Packs of vigilantes complete the hellish scene. They drive giant white pickups and silver SUVs. They carry rifles and scout the woods intently from the cab, waiting for the slightest motion. Every now and then I hear a rifle shot, and I know that they've killed another bolete picker. As I stumble deeper into the woods, I come across the bloody remains of a slaughtered boletophile who has been gutted and dragged from the forest. Then I realize.this is no dream. It's real. It's September, I'm in the Sierras, and I'm hunting boletes with my friend Yutaka Wada. Fungal obsession has led me once again to the realm of the bizarre.

This particular excursion starts on a Saturday morning in Oakland when Yutaka and I pack up camping equipment and leave on a four-hour-plus drive to the Shaver Lake area, just northeast of Fresno. A friend of mine reported seeing a few boletes there the previous weekend, which is enough to send me into paroxysms of optimism. We leave under ominous grey skies-but what the hell! Mushrooming is all about inclement weather anyway, isn't it?

As we turn out of the central valley and start climbing into the Sierras, we ascend straight into a thick fog bank that quickly turns into rain showers. Rain showers turn to steady rain, which turns to a downpour. No matter; we're equipped for rain, and we're even more optimistic now. But we've got lots more climbing left to do.

At around 7000 feet, I note with alarm that the car thermometer reads 34 degrees. That's okay; there's lodgepole pine forest out there and some forest service roads leading out from here, so I crank the steering wheel hard left and we bounce our way in. It's curiously crowded with traffic on roads that I'm used to seeing deserted in the spring morel season. We catch a glimpse of camouflage through their windshields and then remember: it's deer-hunting season in the Sierras. And these guys aren't going to let a little rain stop them.

Well, neither are we. After a few false starts we finally make it up to 8000 feet where the temperature hovers at 33 degrees and the rain keeps pouring. As I put on my rain gear, I wish I hadn't traded my nice red rainsuit for discreet green. I crave high visibility and can feel antlers growing out of my head. But Yutaka spots a cluster of four nice young oversized boletes growing right along the road, so it's a quick plunge out of the van and into the wet and wooly wild.

Okay! Boletes, and plenty of them-at least at first. But they peter out, and we spend a lot of time tramping up and down a creek flowing through the meadow, covering our baskets with plastic bags so the boletes within don't get waterlogged. I gradually notice that the motion of the airborne water molecules is slowing and they're pining for crystalline structure. Sure enough, the rain gets a little-shall we say-hard, and starts to turn white. The meadow takes on a crust of snow. To make matters more challenging, a thick fog kicks up and the gloom of twilight sets in. Boletes keep our blood hot, though, so we keep searching and picking until the bitter end, when it's almost too dark to see our way back to the van.

We retreat to lower altitudes where it's not snowing and wisely give up on cooking out. We eat at Shaver Lake's finest dining room surrounded by locals, deer hunters, and walls of knotty pine. One advantage to picking mushrooms in deer hunting season: no one looks askance at two grubby-looking guys dressed in rainsuits. As we leave, the sky opens up to reveal a web of stars; all just a ploy to goad us back into an optimistic frame of mind. In the middle of the night I awaken to the sound of a heavy downpour and can think only one thought: 3000 feet higher this is snow, and it's blanketing all the boletes there.

The next morning the rain has stopped. It's foggy, but we have hopes the snow might be melting. We decide on a late morning start to give it some latitude. I take the opportunity to buy a red neckerchief to wear for visibility, and the Spanish lady behind the counter-hearing that we're mushroom pickers-rhapsodizes over the boletes she used to eat in Spain. We deftly avoid telling her where and what we're picking right now, then hightail it to the heights to continue our search for bigger and better boletes.

There's plenty of snow, you betcha. Patches of ground start to open up, though, and we find a few boletes in a forest racked by the garbage of a ski run. We decide to return to yesterday's twilight zone, and are fortunate on ascending higher to find that the snow has thinned out. The hunters have not, however, and now that the visibility is better they're shooting more. Whenever we're walking on the road, they stop their vehicles to ask us if we've seen any deer. After several of these encounters, it dawns on us: these hunters have no legs! They are, in fact, the mechanized centaurs-human gun-carrying torso on top, truck, jeep, or SUV below. Add to that a visual oxymoron: they all wear camouflage jackets, even though they never leave the confines of the cab for the forest.

As we tramp up and down the snow-sogged meadows and creek beds picking occasional boletes, we see plenty of deer signs-a lot of them half-eaten boletes literally scored with buck teeth. Yutaka points out that "a hunter could sit right at the top of this meadow with a good book and a thermos of coffee and go home with a deer at the end of the day." No such good sense here, though. The deeper we go into the woods, the more secure we feel that we won't be bothered by deer hunters. Whatever happened to the wily woodsman who knows his prey intimately, tracks it high and low, reads scat like the morning paper, and comes home every season with fresh venison and tales of the woods? Extinct, no doubt, at the hands of motorized centaurs.

By the end of Sunday, Yutaka and I are wet, cold, and thoroughly exhilarated. We hit the road buoyed by modest success: we each have a grocery bag filled with young, well-refrigerated boletes. And for at least a couple of days we were enmeshed in the minutia of the forest. Perhaps that's the truly strange phenomenon these days.