“Seriously, don’t wander off. I don’t want you two getting shot.” James reiterated. “Do you know what Devil’s Club looks like? Don’t get stuck in that. And don’t fall off the cliff up ahead.”
James had written us both off as incapable, though he saw that at least I was eager to learn what his world was like. Lanky yet still rugged, he had grown up in Canada and bounced between British Columbia in the fairer months and Alberta in the colder days to drive oil rigs. He had an ex wife with two kids, the three of whom he still deeply cared for and played and active role in their lives. He was keen to brag that he was always there for his kids and their mother, and it seemed sincerely true. His reasoning for the divorce was simply that it wasn’t meant to be, and given such little time to know the guy one can only take the story at face value. He had his ups and his downs and his morbid stories of drug abuse, despair, and and attempted suicide. His strides stretched far and his smile was genuine. I questioned his degree of sanity, but I’d assure that he lives isolated in Canada picking mushrooms and hauling oil: he’s just a different breed. James was a good guy. He was just a different type of person, that’s all there was to it.
He dodged a few logging trucks on the quiet road and abruptly stopped in a turnout by some jagged oak before leading us into the woods. “Bloody Indians!” He yelled as he examined a patch of disturbed moss. “They don’t respect territories and they always destroy the patch. It’ll take years for this pine mushroom to grow back.” He griped as he delicately placed the thick moss back where it should have been, tucking it in to heal.
“They always grow in the same spot?”
“More or less. The mycilium is always in the same spot under the soil. Where they decide to fruit is up to them.” He plunged his finger into the soil, palpating it, and rubbed the soil between his fingers under his nose. “You can smell it. I can smell it everywhere here. But it’s stronger when you disturb it.” I nodded skeptically. It’s hard to believe all the details of a deranged gypsy that’s taken you captive, you know… just a lil difficult, and I hadn’t quite devoloped Stockholm Syndrome yet either.
He ran to another tree and rolled his hand over the moss, patting it precisely as if there was some hidden gem under the thick emerald blanket. He cupped every nob and every imperfection in the moss to feel what lay beneath withouth actually exposing it, and if it seemed promising, he would probe his finger gently through the green and smell for the mycillium. “Smells like cinnamon.” He explained before trotting off as a hound stuck on a scent.
“What’s this mushroom?” I asked as I paused my chase to pick a tiny brown, glossy mushroom.
“Uuuh… LBM.” He hardly glanced as he answered.
“LBM? What’s that stand for?”
“Little Brown Mushroom.”
He lead us everywhere around the noll, frequently checking the ground for hidden pine mushrooms. The pine mushrooms grow under conifer trees, hence the name, and further south they grow under oak trees (so they call them oak mushrooms there). They tend to favor trees that lack the thick moss and instead have a cozy blanket of needles, but mushrooms have no agenda and grow where they please. As the mycillium fruits, a bulbous spot in the soil pushes up and out, eventually revealing a massive white mushroom as it grows. If we were lucky that day, we would find a mature pine. But more likely, we would find the immature intrusive buttons, and that’s what James was poking and palpating the soil in an attempt to find: future pine mushrooms. James was amazingly respectful to the earth. Despite that he thrived from taking, he was always sure to leave a portion of certain mushrooms behind or place wet moss where others were plucked, allowing them to regrow quickly. I admired his appreciation for balance and respect for pristine nature.
As the day progressed, he lead us into a shallow valley, where Lydia opted to read while James and I carefully pulled our bodies through the cruel spines of Devil’s Club in the final plunge of the wet earth below. The terrible thing with Devil’s Club is that if it catches you, the thorns have a tendency to burrow deeper into your flesh than originally perceived, break off at the tip, and fester quickly, leaving an ugly abscess or brutally infected wound. It’s a plant to avoid and respect. We tag-teamed the cruel marsh, one pulling a branch away from the other to be reciprocated, with rewards to reap: yellow shanties, a huge blue shantie, velvet caps, and a solid lesson in the subtleties between delicious yellow shanties and dead-in-10 jackolanterns (for the record, it’s only in the terminal point of their gills, and they often grow together to really heighten the risk of a mixup).
In our time scavenging, our mushroom bucket was mediocre at best, but considering the season, we had done well. We climbed up the loose earth, beckoned at Lydia to join, and found the steep exit home. James spilled his heart once again again, as was his habit, I had newly learned, with content time to kill.
Revealed in the daylight, far from the mistaken forest fire the night before, the gypsy camp was quite fantastic and ingenious. Canvas tents sprawled with simple luxury to complement, and if you remained on good terms with everyone, you had access to everyone’s creature comforts for your own use. Another man happily offered us the use of his shower, complete with a changing room and hot water, in return for our patience and eager listening of his bragging rights about building it. Near the entrance, there were three tents displaying signs that read “mushroom buyer.” These guys were the ones you wanted to stay on the best terms as they decided how much you’d earn for your efforts, in our case: $10 with orders from our captors to buy lunch for ourselves in town. And if one were to dive a little further, he’d quickly discover the corrupt and shady side of the business.
In the better days, the business was lucrative. A mushroom picker could walk away with $1000 easily in a day or two. A single, average sized shanty (the preferred mushroom of the Queen for thick, blue mushroom soup) sold for $30 or $40, and the weight of pines quickly added to a heavy payout. See, those “better” off would pay anything for delecacies or rare medicinal fungis grown in untarnished soil. These mushrooms can’t be cultivated and they’re unique without doubt, so their market was small and high. A few weeks of living in madness in the gypsy camps left the picker rich for a cold Canadian winter to straighten out his mind and count what money he didn’t spend on booze. But as with all things, nothing good lasts forever. I might be mistaken – or perhaps mentally shaken from the whirlwind of those two days – but if my memory is correct, at some point the Chinese mob got involved in the industry, greedy for the secret fortune. With their power they overthrew the market, monopolized it, and punished anyone who protested. Sometimes punishment meant the vendors refused to buy the picker’s harvest, other times it had a much greater and more permanent consequence.
Yeah, I’m aware how ridiculous all this sounds.
But all the gypsies shook their head and held back curses to the Chinese mobs that now divvied their profits in the mad lands of the Nass Valley. These were the same ass wagons that slay rhinos for their horns and sell bogus miracle fertility drugs, except in this instance they took the livelihoods of bizarre mountain traditions. A former thousand dollar day now slinked into the sunset as a hundred dollar copout. The three vendors of the Nass still standing after the Chinese monopoly crushed the days of glory were one white gentlemen, a woman by the name of Sarah, and a woman whom I never saw without a joint in hand, and by some chance these three kept good with the mob and were able to continue their duties as the middle men and welcomed faces of the pickers because no picker would dare willingly sell directly to their oppressor.
Ten dollars topped our bucket’s profit, and James insisted we take it, assuring us that the rains were coming and so was his money. After the chaos of somewhat slave driving kidnapping, we were free to go on our way. James’ demeanor to us had drastically changed from the morning, from tastefully teasing his stereotyped captives to honest respect. “You’re sharp, Courtney. Where were you earlier in my life?” He laughed with a wink. “Not doing heroin,” I thought.
Before parting ways, I chose to scour for my lucky chicken foot one last time. It turned up partially buried far from any reason, and I pranced back at my luck and the entire experience. A warm hug goodbye to James and his kin sealed our departure. Lydia hopped in the passenger seat and we sat silently for a moment, contemplating.
“You’re getting out to ask questions next time.”
“Driver’s rules.” I gestured to the keys and started the engine.