Sunday, August 5, 2012

Storm Story

You and me and rain on the roof...

When my wife Leslie casts a worried eye on the sky, it's time for fear. She's not a weather-watcher, and for her to take note of the way the atmosphere feels means something special is going on.
The afternoon I glanced her way and noted her rolling eyes we were one-and-a-half miles up a steep, rocky Vermont trail, looking for wild mushrooms with six friends. The weather forecast was for stable air with no chance of rain. I was hell-bent on reaching my secret lobster mushroom site. Our friends were enjoying themselves. But Leslie knew what I did not: in truth we were in deep yoghurt.
Moments later she said: "Listen." When I did, the sound was unmistakeable: rain in the canopy. 
"It's not supposed to do that," Claudine, one of our companions observed.
But it was doing that.
For just a moment a burst of concern crossed my consciousness. One of our party, Paul, had endured knee replacement surgery in November. He was already on his way back down the mountain alone, having pushed his personal envelope as far as he dared. Claude and Sara, the two strongest hikers in our party, were also on their way down. They, along with Paul and Paul's wife Christine, who had elected not to leave the parking lot because she was recovering from knee surgery also, needed to get back to New York City for evening obligations. That left Leslie and me, plus Claudine and Henri. We knew where Claudine and Henri were - with us - but that knowledge hardly mitigated the fact that Henri had gone through a lumbar laminectomy in March and Claudine too had had back and hip surgery in the past two years. The facts were chilling: we were a separated party, a party weakened by injuries, a party driven by obligations, with bad weather coming in. The potential was there for disaster.
But I refused to let myself feel menaced. Lobster mushrooms are one of my favorites and I knew they would be fruiting. We'd found a few in a predictable site on the climb up. Why let rain and injuries hold me back from collecting all there were to collect?
Lobster mushroom. Yum.
Leslie shifted to a bland face, so I dismissed the sky. What she did next, though, should have worried me even more: held out both hands for Henri to grasp. As he leaned into them to negotiate a short descent past slick rocks and roots, I thought, "Oh, he's having trouble," but my brain refused to process it. "You OK?" I asked.
"Oh, no problem," he answered, without a grimace or gritted teeth. He was not in pain. 
I shrugged. He and I exchanged smiles. Yep, he was OK.
The rain picked up.
We headed downhill.
Ten minutes later the precipitation was steady and moderately hard. Leslie stopped to put on a Gore-tex parka and the rest of us joked that she'd been the only one smart enough to ignore the forecast. Nobody was worried yet. The temperature was in the high 70's - no hypothermia threat - and there'd been no thunder.
The sky flickered. Thunder growled. "Great," I muttered.
Within seconds the rain became a downpour and for the first time I grasped our predicament. My focus, which had been the earth in search of fungi, shifted and I saw the trail from the perspective of Henri’s body: rain-slick roots, big mossy rocks and a slurry of mud. It was as hazardous as a sack full of cobras.
Leslie remained undaunted. Staying an arms-length downhill, she alternatively held Henri’s hands or placed herself where he could lean on her shoulders. We kept a slow and steady pace, stopping just once for Claudine to relieve Henri of his backpack.
Down we went one step at a time. The lightning and thunder were now constant and the heavy rain penetrated everything, drenching us to the bone. 
Eventually we approached the place I needed to turn if I was to bushwhack into my lobster site. Interestingly the sky was brightening, and there were even occasional bursts of sunshine. With what seemed to be a sigh of relief, the rain let up. “Leslie,” I said, waving for her to stop. “Whaddaya think? Are you OK if I slide into the woods for a bit?”
I knew she wouldn’t fib, even if doing so meant protecting Henri’s feelings. “Yes, go ahead,” she answered. “Just, can you come out at a place you can meet us where we have to cross the stream?”
“Sure,” I said, imagining the ugly pitch of rocks and water we had to get Henri across. The stream wasn’t deep but the crossing consisted of balanced rocks and large, tenuous steps.  A peach when you’re fresh is the pits when you’re tired, I thought, and headed off-trail.
Almost as soon as I began thrashing through the underbrush, Nature took another fickle turn. A close bolt of lightning painted the sky electric blue, thunder clapped, and the clouds opened wide. The storm had seemed heavy earlier, but now it was serious. Rain lashed with fury, turning  the air translucent. Lightning became almost constant, and for the first time I was afraid of being struck. I debated going back to the trail, but there was little I could help Leslie with on the pitch she was now traversing - a moderate, root-free one - and there was nothing she could do to make me safer. Alone and off-trail in a thunderstorm was my personal notion of a nightmare. There was no choice but to keep on. Besides, lobsters lay ahead.
Raspberries? Read on...
Before I got to them the rain doubled in volume yet again, turning my glasses into sheets of water. I could hardly see the forest floor, let along the subtle shifts of leaf cover and color that give away lobster mushrooms’ hiding places.
Lobsters - Hypomyces lactiflourum - are in fact “converted” mushrooms: a conjoining of one, not-very-good-to-eat genus with an overgrowth of a second. The overgrowing fungus, generically known as a hypomyce, converts the host - usually a Lactarius or Russula - into a delicious if crunchy treat. The hypomyce infects the host while the host is still underground. Harvesting lobsters means digging out as much stem as you can . Finding a good harvest means dulling your collecting knife - but you can hardly care, what you’re digging is delicious. For reasons I do not understand, lobsters come up in the same exact place year after year. Plus, when they are in their prime they are a flourescent orange-red; as easy to spot on the dull forest floor as a naked man in the subway.
But nothing is easy to see if your glasses are obscured with water. I stopped to check if there was anything in my pack I could use to squegee them and found one waterlogged tissue. Damn! I pressed on, crossing the low swell of land I knew harbored the quarry.
There they were. Or, rather, there it was - a single mushroom. I dug it up. There would be more. There always were.
But now the lightning was ferocious and the rain unbelievable. I could see almost nothing and was becoming genuinely afraid. Why had I abandoned Leslie, Claudine and Henri? What if something happened - a fall, a crashing tree? Did I really know to get to the right place on the trail? It was time to give up on lobsters and get into rescue mode.
A brief off-trail descent brought me to the stream crossing, fortuitously just as Leslie, Claudine and Henri arrived. The water was rising rapidly and had turned opaque, thanks to an upstream mud bank. It would be a blind crossing - impossible for Henri on his own and damned tough for anyone. Thankful for sturdy boots I inched my way across. Every foothold was tenuous, but at least there were footholds, and no place was deeper than mid-shin. We crossed safely. There was one more narrow, slick patch ahead and then we’d be home free.
20 minutes later we marched (or should I say, staggered?) into the parking lot. Except for Leslie’s parka-covered head, neck and torso, we were each drenched to the knickers. As if to mock us the storm was over and the sun was out. And - glory be! - there were Paul, Christine and Gary the park ranger, waiting with umbrellas and fresh footgear and prepped to headed up to find us. (A #1 rule of rescue: the rescuing party must not put itself in preventable danger.) Claude and Sara, we learned, had gone off to buy us hot coffee. Gratefully we accepted the dry towels Paul was offering, and arrayed ourselves under the park pavilion roof. A dry seat? Priceless. 
Hypothermia is never on my mind in July, so it didn’t occur to me as we sat and dripped that we were risking it. After an hour of inactivity, though, we were each thoroughly chilled, despite coffee, conversation, mockery (“You found how many lobsters?”) and bright warm sunshine. My thoughts were not as clear as I would have wished as Leslie and I got into the car and headed toward Brattleboro and a hotel. But the implications of this fuzziness did not strike me until I got out of the hotel’s hot shower and I re-inspected the box of berries I’d purchased at a roadside stand. What had I been thinking? What in God’s name was I to do with SO MANY red raspberries? be continued....
FYI - if you read this far you've got the good news!

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