Sam’s Gap to Hogback Ridge Shelter and Balsam Nature Trail to Old Mount Mitchell Trail
We moved to NC 8 years ago largely to escape the grumpy, high traffic, and crowded atmosphere around the Washington DC area that we had so far lived in. Since moving here, thousands of other people tired of their previous surroundings decided to follow suit. So this section of Western North Carolina is not quite so “country” as it was when we’d originally decided to move in.
And yes, I fully recognize that we’re part of the problem, durned trendsetters that we are.
Eight years ago, however, Michael and I were full of excitement about doing “outside things” – veggie gardening, hiking, foraging, bike riding (didn’t anticipate these hills when we thought of that one), swimming (HA! They don’t have swimming pools in the mountains!), fishing, and other stuff that we never can get enough of doing. When it came to foraging, I started out where I always do- at the library. I got as many books on forest foods as I could find- including the ones on identifying and eating wild mushrooms. (not those kind. Sorry, kids.)
One of the easiest to identify wild mushrooms out there is Chicken of the Wood. Coincidentally, on one of our very first hikes in NC, I stumbled on a cluster of CotW on an old stump in the Pisgah National Forest. After taking it home and cleaning it thoroughly, I cooked a small bit of it in butter and garlic to give it a taste. Delicious! Not at all like chicken- softer. More like lobster. I added more butter to the pan to cook the rest and promptly burned it. So no one else in the family had the chance to try it out.
No problem, I figured it was so easy to find, surely I’ll find more soon.
Ha. It’s been 8 years since I found that cluster and I haven’t seen any since… until last week’s hike on the AT. Before we’d learned to hike at our separate paces and were still stopping every 15 feet (Me: “faaaaaaahk… sorry”, Him: “don’t say sorry.”) and at one of those stops, I turned my head and saw bright orange.
The big thing to remember when looking at CotW is to make note of what the thing is eating. That is, what type of wood it’s growing out of. (it will always be wood- CotW doesn’t grow in dirt.) You don’t want to eat any that’s growing from pine, eucalyptus, or any other type of tree that secretes a sap that would irritate humans. (And here is where I say the obvious: guys, do your own research before touching any mushroom. I’m not a mycologist. Why are you looking to me for your fungus advice? Don’t do that. Go find an expert- I ain’t it.)
The second thing I wanted to do was to make sure it was clean and bugs hadn’t gotten to it. We were good to go on both counts. I used my pocket knife and cut some chunks of frilly bits from the mushroom- leaving the harder stems and smaller bits to keep growing on the wood. Then I put the mushroom in a spare zip lock bag away from all of our other food. (I never eat foraged mushrooms raw. Ever. No matter what type. Cook that sucker.)
That night I sliced up one of the frills and cooked it up in garlic and butter again- this time Michael and Caleb both got tastes. Here’s the odd thing: it tasted nothing like the first CotW mushroom I ate. Now, I know it’s been nearly a decade, but that first taste stuck in my mind. Maybe it was the wood it was growing out of, or maybe it was the amount of rain water it had gotten, but this mushroom had a much tougher texture. The flavor itself was a bit bland. Sort of like, well, chicken. It was filling, though, and worth eating. I ended up adding it to some portabellas that we had on hand and made Caleb and I a hearty soup. It tasted very much like chicken and mushroom (with the porties providing the “mushroom” flavor.)
The day after our AT day hike, Michael and I decided to take a walk on one of our old, well used paths on Mount Mitchell. Now, if you’re from the future and you’re reading this, you should know that there’s a bit of craziness happening at the moment. I’m hoping that when you come from, the craziness has subsided and people are behaving themselves. But as of this moment, part of the current craziness is that folks aren’t allowed to do most of the activities they’re used to doing. Some people aren’t allowed to work. No one is allowed to play. We can’t catch hotdogs from miniature canons at a baseball game. We can’t play baseball. We can’t share a bottle of wine at the park during a concert. We’re not allowed to whack each other with pool noodles. Shouting “Marco!” and “Polo!” is right out. We can’t do much of anything except talk to each other over the internet, set fire to our local Target, or wander around outside. (so long as we don’t bump into each other and don’t breath too much.)
To prevent people from breathing too much, most local governments have ordered their citizens to wear these little cloth muzzle thingies. They come in all sorts of fancy colors. The only problem is, sometimes people misplace their muzzles and leave them in random places. Most often in parking lots. But also in the outside where folks are attempting to wander around without bumping into each other. On our hike around the Mt Mitchell state park, Michael and I found at least a dozen discarded muzzles. Most were in mud puddles or tangled in debris on the side of the path. One person just hung theirs on a branch next to a stream.
Now I write all this knowing full well there is a lot of controversy involving the muzzles. I am not interested in the controversy. I wear one when I’m in public or any time I can’t “social distance.” (Although, I will say that if you’re from the future, I sincerely hope that verb has faded from our common lexicon.) So please refrain from pushing your pro/ anti muzzle opinions at me. I really don’t care.
One thing I DO care about is the damn muzzle litter. It’s gross.
Also the suddenly crowded nature of our favorite trail. Normally I wander around by myself to give myself a chance to recharge and get away from peopling. But since people everywhere are also being ordered to stop peopling, the people have started to wander around outside where I was wandering to get away from the people!
Anyway, enough whining. If you have read this far and are hoping to find a point to this post, well I hate to disappoint you. There is no point. I found two things on my hiking trips last weekend- one of them was delightful and the other was gross. And that’s pretty much it.
You can go away and find something else on the internet to look at now.
And pretty much on like that until we reached the shelter. I gotta say that I haven’t spoken such perfect fucking French since high school. See? Walking in the woods is already making me feel younger.
Anyway. Michael and I have walked together before, and usually we stick together. But on this section of the AT we quickly found that it was far more pleasant to let him walk ahead in his tall-person-in-great-shape stride and for me to plod along in my short-person-with-a-case-of-ADD-in-not-great-shape- stride. This allowed me to move along slowly but surely and observe as many plants, flowers, and mushrooms along the side of the trail as I wanted- without feeling like I was running to keep up with him and then needing to stop every 15 feet because I was out of breath. Michael, on the other hand, likes to eat up the trail and then take long rests around views and other natural stops.
So our new method looks like this- Michael and I both walk at our normal paces, and when he gets to the top of a hill or a view, he stops and takes a drink from his water. I eventually catch up to him, we exchange pleasantries (Me: “Faaaaaahk. Sorry.” Him: “Don’t say sorry.”), and we move on.