Shrooming in the Mountains

Posted by art@cushingcitizen.com art@cushingcitizen.com
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During the years when we were raising our family in Northern New Mexico, this time of year marked the beginning of a season that gave Wife and I a ton of reasons to throw the kids in the back of the truck and head for the mountains for a day, a weekend, or an occasional week-long camping trip.
Mid August is generally when monsoon season is winding down in Northern New Mexico and daytime temperatures were scorching in the low country, but in the high country, afternoon temps started cooling off. At night, it was starting to get downright chilly and that meant mushrooms… edible mushrooms… porcinis, chanterelles and when you were lucky enough to stumble onto them, oysters.
The mountain we lived under was, still is, a dormant volcano that topped out at 11,301 feet above sea level and its upper slopes were covered by an old-growth blue spruce forest where, if you know where to look, you’ll find fungus treasure.  
To get up to that ancient forest, we’d spend a good hour creeping along the only “road” to the rim of the volcano’s caldera – Forest Road 453. Forest “Road” 453 is actually a boulder strewn, ever-climbing steep, single-vehicle path, switching back and forth across the steep mountain side, ducking in and out of the aspens and spruce trees as it climbs to the crater rim. If you meet another vehicle on that road, someone’s backing up.
The sound of the keys rhythmically slapping the steering column of my old F-150 4X4, as it groaned, surged and boulder crawled up that torturous trail in four-wheel low is forever etched into my memory – shink, shink, shink – in unison with the engine’s whining protest.
It’s worth the drive. Once you reach the rim of the caldera, things level out and you can actcually find a place to park the truck in among the thick grasses and columbine.
Stepping out of the truck is a feast for the senses… take in a lungful of air—sweet, pure, freshly made, naturally pine scented, albeit thin, mountain air. Take in the ambient sound of that air whispering its way through the pine needles and rattling the aspen leaves, and take in the sight of the deep dark arboreal forest beyond the massive trunks of the ancient spruce trees.
In the distance, the purpling ridges and the even more distant, the beige desert floor fading to the blue horizon.  If you’ve spent time in the high mountains, you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, you’ve got to go to the mountains.  It’s blissful serenity… then…
“I’m hungry!” “I’m thirsty!” “I gotta pee!” “Dad… the dog’s eating the KFC!”
First order of business, get the chicken away from the dog, feed the kids, water the kids, explain to the kids that nature is urination nation and they have endless urination station options, but Mom and I would prefer that they choose an option a good distance from where we’ll be eating lunch.
With the domestic necessities handled, it’s time to hunt mushrooms. Porcinis like to grow in the pine duff at the base of mature spruce trees, where decades – sometimes centuries – of shed pine needles result in a thick, loose, fluffy soil that only a porcini mushroom can love… and love it they do.  Porcinis aren’t hard to spot, once you find where they like to grow.  Their caps average four to six inches across and are generally a burnt orange color.  Beneath the caps… in the part called the gills, porcinis have a spongy texture made up of thousands of tiny tubes.  The stems are short, thick and generally white (disclaimer: by no means is this to be considered a guide . Make sure you know what you are doing before you ingest any fungus).
We generally build a little fire, slice up our first finds and poach them in a cast iron skillet in little red wine and butter… yum.
On a well-timed trip, we could gather more than 50 pounds of porcinis, filling pillow cases and flour sacks with hundreds of the tasty fungi.  Most of this, we’d give to the owner / chef of the local steak house, a big Swedish friend of the family, who would incorporate them in his menu the following week.
In return, he’d make sure we were taken care of the next time we came in to eat.
Times seemed simpler 20 years ago. Yes, were were all still running the same rat race and chasing the American dream, but we did what we could to enjoy life and make sure our kids knew how to do that as well.
Remind me in a month or so to share with you my adventures picking wild berries in the high country and gathering pine nuts in the pinon-studded foothills, beware the bears and the stow-away deer turds.

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