Morel mushrooms tend to appear in areas scoured by forest fires.

Image: Stefan Milne

► Destination: Crystal Mountain • 2 hours southwest of Seattle

On any mushroom journey, you need a guide. My mycological Virgil is Daniel Winkler, a Munich-born Deadhead turned ethno-mycologist in Tibet. He’s as pleasantly eccentric as you’d expect. At one point he karate chops my neck, without warning, to kill a mosquito. Later he discusses mushroom hunting’s relation to the Buddhist philosophy of perception as a mental construct.

We’ve traveled through rural King County, into the Central Cascades, then three miles up a Crystal Mountain logging road, and hiked to where last year the Norse Peak Fire raged. The air smells of ash, and morel mushrooms—which flourish in last year’s burn zones—jut from burnt earth. Some people road trip into the Cascades to hike, but digging wild mushrooms puts an even finer point on some very Northwest ideals: local, natural, authentic.

Winkler shows me how to spot them: dark, honeycombed, camouflaged in pine needles. He thinks American fears of wild mushrooms—the effects of eating the wrong one span from diarrhea to paralysis to death—are a squeamish bit of British heritage. If you know a morel, he thinks, and you know a false morel (a deadly lookalike), then you should be pretty safe. For those who want more guidance, the Puget Sound Mycological Society offers field trips with “Master Identifiers,” who’ll verify your finds; Winkler is the society’s vice president.

It’s July, the end of morel season (autumn will give way to chanterelles), and mosquitoes swarm with the density of a biblical plague, and even in a good patch like this, much of the search leaves me wandering woods, sweaty, staring at fungi-less pine needles.

There is fun to be had in the hunt itself: Spotting one, often tucked under a blackened log, gives you a brief, vaguely narcotic spike of pleasure. It’s a sort of bushwhacking Where’s Waldo, the success of which ends in a saute pan. But an eight-hour day cost $30 in gas and yielded this amateur hunter about $45 in mushrooms.

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