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Rattlesnake Summit

Perhaps I deserved to spend a stormy night on the side of Highway 101 in a crapped-out Ford Courier pickup, watching the lightning flash and freezing in a wet wool blanket I had found in the back, protected from the raw elements by insecure windows which provided evenly-spaced leaks during the periodic hailstorms, sleetfalls — which accumulated into semi-trozen mush on the windows — and freezing rain that rattled off the tinny roof. I definitely had time to consider all that had gone wrong along the way to being stranded in the here and now, in such contrast to my intentions, and whether it was my fault or not. At times I could see by moonlight a view of the surrounding peaks in icy silhouette. Then darkness would wash over, followed by the rattle of chilled rain. The racket would build as the rain got colder, then wink out as snow spun out of the darkness in clumps. About every half hour, a truck passed, raising a vortex hail of mist, ice, gravel and unknown particles which washed across the Courier and left yet another layer of poisonous grime on the windshield.

I had put myself in that faulty vehicle under those desperate circumstances through the role I played in the mushroom business, which should have been a logical way to earn a few dollars. Early that season, December, I had lost a front tooth which was supposed to have been safely taken care of some years earlier with a memorable root canal procedure. The resulting gap required a false tooth which I was able to get at the clinic in Arcata for a subsidized price.

I made the money by slipping out to one of my favorite spots and gathering a few dozen pounds of choice mushrooms, for which I probably got about $2 a pound. But it so happened that they were top quality and the buyer needed more. So I was encouraged to get involved in his little “business,” which was really the legacy of Mark's own failure to succeed. Besides mushrooms, which he claimed to work at during at least part of every month of the year, somewhere in the West, he told me about an even more secretive, daring, lucrative and probably illegal enterprise: finding the fabled glades in distant mountains where the bull elk dropped their horns. He described the great piles of weathered antler, claimed to know a few spots already. I know nothing about the market in elk antler but I'm sure there is one. At the time, I probably would have happily gone along for the ride and, if needed, would have hoisted my share of antler up whatever slope to the road.

Mark was a one-time logger from Idaho who had at some point suffered a crushing injury involving falling timber. To deal with the pain, he was on regular doses of morphine and what appeared to be a traveling pharmaceutical warehouse. Because, more than anything else, he was itinerant, by necessity for sure and probably also by nature as well as training. This is a quality which suits the mushroom pirate nicely.

He rented a place just off Myrtle Avenue and put his crudely-painted “mushroom buyer” sign out by the front gate. There hadn't been a local mushroom buyer I knew of for several years, which meant I could only sell my own production to a few chefs and friends, or keep them for myself, which is always nice for a few meals, but doesn't pay. I was glad to be back in the business, even if only one or two days a week, in spare hours. As it happened, we dove in full-time for the critical first week of January boom.

Mark knew some good patches. The first thing he did was drive me and a crew of derelicts, at dawn in the Courier, out past Korbel toward Maple Creek. At some point he pulled over and we set off walking out an old logging road. We walked a good half hour before we spread out and filtered through a patch of oaks and low bushes, where, because of the good light and dense, but partial cover, someone had in past years dug holes to plant weed. The usual plastic trash littered the area, but there was also a patch of black chanterelle. They stood tall as tulips across the whole slope, which must have been about perfectly situated.

The property was someone's ranch and Mark claimed to have permission to pick there, but, knowing him better later, and understanding how far we walked in relation to where the county road actually went, he most likely didn't. Not that anyone really cared. We got our fungus and were gone with no lasting damage,

A few days later Mark showed me a spot above the Mad River, high on a bluff in fact, where the best method to arrive and depart was from a slowly moving vehicle. This was a fun, commando-style exercise in the morning, when we had empty packs, but, later on, toward evening, it was more of a chore to wrestle our full packs into the Plymouth. In fact nobody ever saw us and we could have loaded the trunk casually, but you never know that at the time. The patch itself was legendary, a bench at the foot of a crescent slope stocked with mature doug fir and oak, with dense leaf litter and where it was densest a patch of huckleberry. Knowing where to look already, I found the blacks under the berry patch, tall and prolific.

So, flush with these successes, and ambitious to keep things going, I allowed Mark to persuade me to come along to Usal for early January. He had discovered massive production of blacks and winter mushrooms in the isolated draws and brush patches along the old muddy road, better and bigger.

My mission to Willits in the Courier came only after we had gotten the little piece of crap stuck in the middle of the Usal road on our first scouting expedition. After an hour or so digging trenches in slick clay, with the afternoon waning, I had walked back to the county road and roused the nearest codger, who was brave enough to drive me back down in his vintage Jeep Cherokee and yank us out. It is a place that does not encourage dependence upon the charity of strangers, nor faith in their good intentions. It's a wild area of Mendocino County, where whatever is meant to happen will happen long before the sheriff gets there.

Nevertheless we had driven down in a Ford van and the Courier, and were parked off the road, nearly out of sight. I kept thinking some kind of inspection would occur, given that the west side of the road is a state park. Yet in several days we were never disturbed. The one visitor we saw was someone who came in from the south one evening as we were sitting in the van smoking weed. We heard him coming for quite a while, roaring up the slopes and rattling down, in otherwise silent evening woods, before he arrived at our turn-out. He was from Fort Bragg, and had come all the way up from highway 1 over the course of several days. He sold Mark some blacks and hedgehogs, because Mark thought he knew how to sell them for more than they cost him. Which was how I ended up on the way to Willits.

I had whatever we had picked, my own contribution out of proportion because I could work harder than Mark, who was not only in constant pain but in a perpetual opiate murk, barely able to string two thoughts together at times, but lucid enough in general. Perhaps a bit on the optimistic side, after all.

The rain was beginning to come down smartly as I headed out. We needed food, fruit juice, coffee, that sort of thing. And I was supposed to find Mark's friend/rival at the Lark and get the prearranged price for the mushrooms, of course, which would have meant plenty of cash for supplies and a tidy little payday.

The lightning was coming in off the ocean as I blasted north in the Courier on the slick clay surface of the Usal road. At certain spots, tree roots had caused eruptions in the road surface which, I thought, threatened my safety, but I know now I was only anxious because of the howling wind and driving rain, which made the perimeter snags along the bluff, just above the road, quiver, and a certain amount of foliage was loose, broken and flying with the wind.

I didn't really trust the carburetor and the tires were as bald, but there was really no option other than the classic American approach: full throttle unto death.

Ultimately, I made it out to Four Corners about dark just as the storm was reaching peak fury, but the ride through Briceland and Redway was otherwise uneventful. I got to Willits in time to find the buyers still open, at least the one I was looking for, but he was in the process of revising his prices, having filled the day's order. When I told him about Mark and our brave expedition, with emphasis on the fact that we had nothing out there but some old Top Ramens and rolling sodas from under the van's front seat area, he quickly got the drift and I saw an expression pass over his face which covered much complicated history very quickly.

Dealings between Mark and the other mushroom buyers were never exactly straightforward, and honesty was a word which didn't really seem to have a place where people were making and losing fortunes on a commodity which, though sublime, is apt to turn into toxic waste unless kept in a cool dark place at all times.

So it was an act of genuine charity, as he explained, for him to buy the mushrooms at all. He could have left me to fend for myself with nothing but wet fungus in the truck. When he eventually bought our stock, it was at a heavy loss compared to what I could have done had I simply picked mushrooms and sold them on my own an hour earlier.

Nevertheless I gassed up the Courier, stopped in at Safeway, then headed north. The storm had become intermittent, but as I got into the hills toward Laytonville the showers of rain and snow returned in force. The little truck wheezed along. It was cold, the radio didn't even look like it would work, there was little to do but watch the lightning and look forward to a wild ride over bad roads in an unpredictable storm.

It was then, certainly, that my life of crimes, omissions and betrayals became dreadfully clear to me, although as usual I could see no solution other than the aforementioned use of throttle, which I knew could at the very least keep the scenery updated. However just when the storm become a surreal, light-up-the-countryside, blue flash, pure adrenalin explosion, and the truck was wound up tight, balls-out, making for the summit, the lights began to dim and were suddenly out, and the motor itself, dead, Dead cold in the road, drifting around a last bend and over the white line out of sight, onto a paved shoulder on a blind corner.

Throughout the rest of the night, there wasn't much to do. The blanket, a smelly wool affair which had soaked up twice its weight in moisture, offered a little insulating power on top of my clothes. About once an hour I gave the key a crank, just for fun, and sometimes the dash lights glowed and once or twice the primitive little motor farted but would not catch. Nobody uses Highway 101 at that time of night, in those conditions, except a fleet of trucks hauling gasoline and WalMart merchandise.

Somehow I knew I would end up standing in the rain, in that magical moment when a soft chill freezes the falling mist and the woods are transformed from simple wet shadows to a snow-trimmed forest. That moment came the following afternoon, after the tow-truck ride to Laytonville and one quick hitch to the foot of Spy Rock. There, I spent most of the day, monitoring progress of the storm, which began to break up into periods of sunshine followed by swiftly-closing, low-flying clouds carrying all manner of wetness.

I got my ride, finally, from someone living in the Redway area who seemed interested in my description of the mushroom world as I knew it. Mark, who himself had given up on the camp at some point and driven the van through the storm, met me at the market there. The entire trip so far had been a fiasco, but, since we were already there, we headed back toward Usal with a few cans of V8 and some light grub to hold us over until we made some real money.

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