Behold, the world's greatest mushroom hunter: Three feet, two inches tall. Agile. Enthusiastic. Energetic. Built to clamber over fallen logs and slide under brambles. Undaunted by steep terrain or dense brush. Ecstatic over mud, rain, puddles and any opportunity to get dirty. Turns out, at 3 years old, Weston is the perfect chanterelle-picking partner.
It's Monday morning, deep into the autumn rainy season. Skyla's at school, Stacy's in the shop building light fixtures and Weston and I are discussing our plans for the day over breakfast.
"We could play dinosaurs," he says hopefully.
"We play dinosaurs every day," I say.
"But you could be Tyrannosaurus rex this time," he says, upping the ante.
"Nah, let's go do something new today," I tell him.
"We could play dinosaur wrestling or do my dinosaur puzzle."
"Why don't we take a little hike and see if we can find some chanterelles?"
"Okay! Um... what are chantrulls?"
Some years, after the first big autumn rains, we're treated to a stretch of crisp, clear nights and warm, blue-sky days. Bigleaf maples bathe the woods behind our house in golden yellow light and the scent of late-ripening blackberries hangs in the air. Indian summer, when it happens here, feels like an extravagance, a gift we savor even more than the bright, overhead sun of high summer. But this is not one of those years.
Instead, an endless procession of storms lines up across the Pacific all the way to Hawaii. As they push toward us, a new front arrives with heavy rain and wind every two or three days and lasts pretty much until the next one. This will be a year when anything -- firewood, life jackets, deck chair cushions -- left outside in October won't dry out until May. Mold spores throughout the region, rejoice.
The weather service is calling for a brief break between storms this morning. Which means it's only going to drizzle for a few hours before the next downpour. As we put on our boots and rain gear, I tell Weston we'll get off the trail and bust brush, searching for bright flashes of ruffled gold on the dark forest floor.
"Will we find any?" he asks.
I tell him I'm not sure, that they're hard to see, that we're going to a new place and you just never know. More expectation management.
"It'll be like a treasure hunt," I say, "and we'll just have fun searching around in the woods. OK?"
Just up the road from our house there's a small piece of public forest that looks ideal for chanterelles. I've driven past it hundreds of times, but until recently, I've never thought to check there. Maybe it just seems too close to home to be any good. When we drive into the small parking area, massive second-growth firs block the already muted October light, towering above a thick lower story of black huckleberry, salal, Oregon grape and sword ferns. Very little alder, maple or bracken fern. Perfect.
The one thing I know for sure about chanterelles, though, is this: They only grow where it looks right, but not every place that looks right has chanterelles. Clearly, there are mysterious factors -- soil chemistry, microclimates, drainage patterns -- that determine chanterelle growth, yet remain invisible to me. Which is why I'm never sure I'm going to find any until I actually find them.
I unbuckle Weston from his car seat and he hits the ground running. While I stuff a bag in my pocket, grab a water bottle and make sure I'm loaded with snacks, he's already scurrying through the underbrush around the gravel parking space.
"Dad," he calls from beneath a thick stand of salal, "I found one. I found a chantrull, come here."
It's going to be a long day.
"Come on, buddy, let's go up the trail a ways and get farther in before we start looking," I say.
"No," he says, "Come here first."
I breathe in deeply and hear myself let out a long sigh. "Weston, we're still in the parking lot... come on."
"Dad, may I please... you come here?"
He thinks I'm refusing to join him because he forgot his manners. Now that he's used the magic word, I have no choice. I can see his boots, but the brush is so thick I can't get to him. Another big sigh and I'm on my stomach, crawling to meet him. And there, in front of where he's crouched, not ten feet from the car, is a perfect, big, beautiful, golden chanterelle. Behind it, I see another smaller crown poking up through the fir needles and beyond that, several more.
I show him how to rock the mushroom back and forth while lifting to pull it from the ground. When he succeeds, he hands me his prize in triumph. We quickly put half a dozen into our bag, him crouching and me lying on my belly in the wet dirt. So much for managing expectations. I peel one apart, showing him the fibrous, chicken-breast texture and he sniffs the distinctive, vanilla-apricot scent. We high five and grin stupidly at each other, then, after a thorough search of the surrounding area, crawl back out and hit the trail leading deeper into the forest.
"Dad," he says, "Let's hold hands and run real fast."
Excerpted from Closer to the Ground by Dylan Tomine. Patagonia Books™ ©2012. Used by permission of Patagonia Books ™, www.Patagonia.com/Books