It’s very embarrassing to get lost in the woods with your friends, especially if you are all reasonably invested in woodcraft. Of course, it can also be a catastrophe— a friend of mine once spent an entire night holed up in a burned out stump, arms wrapped around his 3 year old daughter to keep the cold winter rain off her. By the time the fire department found him the next morning, Joe was hypothermic, rubber boots full of icy rainwater. Naturally, this incident changed Joe’s perspective, and he forever afterward became a strong proponent of GPS, walkie talkies, safety whistles and compasses. So yes, the threat of getting lost is far more dire than simple embarrassment. However, this entry is dedicated to the social experience of getting turned around and mixed up in the woods, rather than a treatise on wilderness survival. To wit: there are two types of lost: one, when you’re abysmally, horribly, and dangerously lost, and two, when you’re lost enough to know that you will get back home sooner or later, but not necessarily fast enough to hide the fact that you got lost in the first place.
I have gotten lost in the woods before, most epically and inconsequentially. I managed this feat largely because I am not the best tool using monkey out there; if I were an electronic adept it would never have happened. I was at Sea Ranch, in southern Mendocino County. My crew from Portland and I had just finished the weekend at SOMA Camp in Occidental, and we rented a beach house for a couple extra days of mushroom hunting in that lovely January green that only the North Coast of Cali can pull off. The first day, I went out by myself and found some lovely hedgehogs (H. rapandum, the steak sized kind, rather than H. umbilicatum, the scallop scale species), then in the afternoon we sauntered up the coastal hillside in search of black trumpets. We were richly rewarded for our efforts.
Quick note, black trumpets are The Sex to Oregonian mushroom hunters. We have lobster mushrooms aplenty, which is the common Russula brevipes—short stemmed russula— infected by Hypomyces lactiflorum. Lobsters are almost unheard of south of the 40th parallel, and so they give Northwesterners bragging rights…however, the strange and often-spoiled lobster mushroom pales in comparison in terms of flavor, culinary versatility, and preservability (yeah, I don’t think that’s a word either, but you know what I mean…) with the black trumpet, a California native that doesn’t stray far north of Arcata. Black trumpet chanterelles, Craterellus cornucopoides, are rubbery like morels, which means it’s abundantly easy to wash and dry them without losing a lot of mass. They also have an unmistakable flavor, like fruit+meat, coupled with a texture that’s simultaneously tender and substantial. So what I am saying: finding black trumpets was a big coup de teat for Team Portland (yes, teat, sort of like a coup de tits, but slightly less buxomatic).
After such a propitious and prosaic start, I was pretty revved up the following day when we set off hunting. I was so excited, in fact, that I totally neglected to charge my cell phone. I didn’t have coverage anyway because I’m not with Verizon, and simply didn’t think of how handy it might be to have a well-charged timepiece. So, when we all jumped out of the car and decided on a meet up time, I was without a clock. My friend Don, ever helpful, offered me his GPS to keep track of the time with. Of course, we did not think to set a waypoint at the cars, or do any sort of tutorial about how to use the different arcane buttons and toggle switches on the unit. No, he just showed me how to check the clock, and I nodded and figured all was gravy.
We decided to return more or less to the place where we found the first black trumpets, and at once stumbled into the largest fruiting of winter chanterelles I’ve ever seen. Like a 1000 man marathon, the yellow feet marched down that steep hillside facing the ocean in troops of 10 and 20, all pristine and somewhat pearlescent in the dewy sunlight. And then there were the trumpets. Midnight purple, charcoal grey and jet black, they pushed up in numbers from the duff like hell’s pep band. It was simply a fantastic day in the woods; my basket was full to overflowing after an hour, picking only the most lovely and robust mushrooms. I could have stayed there all afternoon, and likely would have, except for the fact that once we got into the chanterelle patch, everyone scattered far and wide. After an hour and change, I could no longer hear the gasps of delight or shouts of elation that marked our first few minutes in the yellow foot patch. It also occurred to me that I had made a very common mushroom hunting error; I was so excited by what was right at my feet, I had not looked up to check the gestalt of my surroundings from time to time, and so I had no landmarks to help me figure out where I had strayed.
I struck out west, heading towards the failing sun and the ocean. Easy enough, I thought, I must have headed east off the trail where we discovered the chanterelle hill. I came upon the trail, and did not recognize it at all, and could only conclude that I had headed too far north, or too far south. It was at this point that I thought to try using the GPS. After mistaking my position for the cardinal rose, zooming out to the entirety of North America, changing the time zone setting somehow, and otherwise failing to use the unit properly, I threw up my hands in despair, and decided to do the one thing I knew I could do; I walked down the hill to Highway 1, a mere 500 yards or so from my befuddled and unclear position.
And imagine my good fortune! When I arrived at the road, I discovered a call box, and dialed up CHP to see if they could give me directions.
“Um, hi, I’m Anna and I’m calling because I got separated from my friends in the woods and I’m lost. I’m at Call Box 1173 on Highway 101.”
“Ma’am, 1173 is on Highway 1, not 101.”
“Oh right, yes, I meant Highway 1 of course.” I could feel the blush rushing up my face and into my hairline. “So, I don’t think I’m far from where I need to be, but I was supposed to meet up with my friends about 15 minutes ago, and I know they’ll get worried.”
“Do your friends get cell phone coverage out there? I can call them and let them know you’re OK.”
“Oh yeah, Don has Verizon, so his phone works out here.”
“Great, what’s his number? I’ll put in a call to him for you once we’re done with this.”
“Ummm…” I fished in my pocket and pulled out my dead, uncharged phone. “I can’t get Don’s number, my phone’s dead and I haven’t memorized it.” More blushing, and a somewhat amused silence on the other end of the line.
After an eternity, Mr. CHP spoke up again. “So, what exactly do you want me to do for you, ma’am?”
I started stammering about directions, centerspersed with a pile of apologies. At that moment, a cheerfully tubby middle aged man pulled off the highway and poked his head out the window of his SUV.
“Hey you! Do you need some help or something?”
I quickly terminated the call with CHP, and my new friend got out of his car and sauntered over to the call box.
“Ummm hi, I’m Anna and I got lost in the woods while I was hiking with my friends.” Ever conscious of how folks react to mushroom hunters (especially lost mushroom hunters on extremely private property), I tried to stand in front of my absurdly overflowing basket.
“Nice chanterelles! Too bad you got lost, do you know where you started out? I work here, so I’m sure I can figure out where you need to go.”
“Jeez, not far from here. We parked the cars at Madrone Meadow, I know that, but I am not sure if that’s north or south of here.”
He pulled a map of Sea Ranch out of the glovebox, and unfolded it with a chuckle and a shake of his head.
“OK, we’re here, you see? Madrone Meadow is that cul de sac right there. You want to walk about 0.4 miles south and it’ll be on your left. I’d give you a lift, but the car’s full and we’re late for a party. Good luck, and nice mushrooms!”
I gave him a few black trumpets, thanked him, and hustled off south. Now all my thoughts were consumed with the shame, the embarrassment, the questions my friends would ask me…I knew I was late enough to have caught their attention, and I sorely hoped they hadn’t decided to launch a search mission. At long last, I arrived at the cars, sweaty and concerned but otherwise intact. At first, I didn’t see anyone at the cars and freaked; not only had they gone out looking for me, but they’d also not left anyone behind just in case I found my own way home. As I walked the final hill to the vehicles, I noticed that I was wrong; Pam was in the Corolla and appeared to be slouched low in the passenger’s seat.
“I’m here,” I exclaimed as I strolled up.
“Oh, hey…” Pam opened her eyes and stretched. “Sorry, was just taking a little snooze.”
“Where’s everybody else? I got totally fucking lost!”
“Oh, you did? Whoa. Didn’t you have Don’s GPS?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know how to use it.”
“Haha, yeah, they’re kinda tough to figure out. The first time I used one, I put a waypoint at a chanterelle patch but didn’t label it, so I thought it was the car! I spent about half an hour wandering around in this patch of mushrooms, wondering where the hell I could have parked. Sometimes they’re more of a hassle than they’re worth…anyway, the others got so lucky out there they decided to go out for another hour.”
“Do you have any water?”
So that’s how I got lost in the woods, even though I had a GPS, the ocean to navigate by, a major highway to travel on, a CHP call box and a local helper who didn’t decide to confiscate my mushrooms.
Obviously, it was a good lesson in humility, and also makes me far more self-aware when I am in wilder areas that aren’t so clearly marked.