A Single Mushroom Grows in Wine Country

Every time I’m in Walla Walla in the spring I press my foraging friends into taking me out into the woods. This April was no different.

It’s cold when I arrive at John and Mary’s house early on a Tuesday morning, but I’m glad to see Bella and Blossom, the couple’s two black labs, and that takes the chill off.

morel in pine forestJohn and Molly’s friend Susie joins us, too, and John hands out knives all around—I thought better of trying to fly mine across country with me—then, we all bundle into the Jeep. It’s a blissful and bumpy ride into the Blue Mountains high, high above Walla Walla, and John keeps reminding us to “keep an eye out for elk.” We scan the woods and fields on the other side of a deep ravine, but if they’re there, they’re bedded down. We wind our way up logging roads until we’re around 2,300-foot elevation and on private property, then John produces a key—he has permission to hunt this area—and drops a wooden and barbed wire gate to let us pass. We stop on a gently sloping hillside and forage for a bit less than an hour with no luck.

We move on to a second sight, talking happily and falling into silences. It’s Susie’s first foray and so we’re all giving her advice now and then. Molly makes a noise and we all get excited, but “no” she says “if I had found a morel you’d know it.” Eyes pinned to the ground below us, we work the woods. Susie and I wander off to look at a pond (where I don’t find any morels but her dog has a swim) and then we head downhill. I mention to Susie how I often find morels while standing downslope and looking up and from somewhere nearby Molly concurs.

All three of us are up another hill when we hear John hollering somewhere in the distance and rush to see the season’s first morel. Here’s the thing about foraging with other people: It’s really, really nice when the first person to find a morel waits for others to see it before cutting it. It gives everyone a chance to get their eyes on. Morels like to camouflage themselves, especially the grays, but seeing one where it’s growing seems to help you spot others, or recognize others when you see them out of the corner of your eye.

This morel is growing on the side of a south facing slope, in an area I had generally covered earlier. Try as we might we don’t find any of its little friends.

We hadn’t really expected to find much on this trip, but hope springs eternal. It’s early in the season still and neither soil nor air temperature has hit the right mark yet, but I was desperate to get out, anyway. Still, we didn’t get skunked and now we know the season in Walla Walla isn’t far away.

With the sun making progress on the sky overhead we head back down into the Valley. Along the way we stop at the side of the road, where some sort of greenery is growing in water at the edge of a field. Molly gathers it in wet handfuls—it’s for her pond, she tells us—and too soon we’re back at the house, saying our farewells.

One morel. It’s the first morel of the season and all I really needed. But now, I’m seriously craving more.


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