Cross-Continental Road Trip! With mushrooms, of course.

This post isn’t so much about food. It is the retelling of the adventure that brought me to my newest, food-intensive home on a farm in Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia. It’s been a while since I have written. I’ve been busy. I’ll refrain from apologizing, but I assure you there are many food-related posts to come as I explore a new region, new skills, and a novel existence on the farm. Stay tuned!


The journey started in Toronto, with farewells to friends and family. After a lightning fast and whirlwind springtime of organic chemistry, house-sitting, long distance cycling, and manual labour at residential construction sites, I packed the car and went on my merry way. The initial goal was to get myself to Telluride, Colorado for THE mushroom festival of the year. All of the heavy hitters promised to be there, and I was more than excited to learn new skills, gain knowledge and hear about late-breaking mushroom research. This is an account of the planned and unplanned events along the way.

The first stop was New Buffalo, Michigan. I couldn’t get much further than that as I was held at the border in Detroit for what seemed like forever. Apparently trying to get into the United States in a car full of your worldly possessions and a story about heading to a mycological conference in the middle of nowhere, and then moving to British Columbia is not the most comforting for US Immigrations officers. After a stop for lemonade in the extreme heat of Kalamazoo, my first night included a well deserved jog in the countryside around the motel, the Ship and Shore festival in a little town full of wealthy yacht owners, eating pulled pork off of styrofoam, and sipping mediocre Michigan wine. Couldn’t have been more perfect. Up and at ‘em the next morning, I ventured into the Midwest. Through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. A quick lunchtime stop in Iowa City was lively. There are many young families, university students, a whimsical sand sculpture competition on the main drag, and food co-ops to enjoy. Picked up some locally brewed kombucha, a loaf of bread, some Iowa cheeses and kept on trucking.

Soy and Corn in the Midwest

The Midwestern United States, or the parts of it that I observed from the I-80, were dismal. For as far as the eye could see there were two crops: the heavily subsidized, genetically modified, Round-up Ready soy and corn. Sometimes there would be a massive, foul smelling feedlot dotting the landscape, but rarely. Hundreds, if not thousands of meat cows rammed into confined pens, sometimes with their sad faces braced between bars, subjected to those two crops, as feed, in mass quantities. I managed to get in about 800kms over ten hours on the odometer each day, for three days straight. The radio was permanently tuned to either Evangelical Christian dogma stations and Bible studies, new country songs about heartache and tractors, or the Top 40 dance hits I had become so fond of on the Friends for Life Bike Rally in which I participated this past July. I also got a hearty dose of National Public Radio, where I would be informed about the disturbing news and politics of America, especially the current Republican leadership race. It is possible, if not probable, that the next President of the United States of America will actually believe that homosexuality, abortion, and teaching evolution are sins, and that Jesus will save the world in the second coming. You can infer, likely, where I stand on the political and religious spectrums. I wanted to immerse myself in the culture that abounds, through landscapes that spell out “t-h-e-e-n-d-o-f-t-h-e-w-o-r-l-d”. I figured if Icould find Jesus in all of those fields of plenty, perhaps I could be saved too. Alas, when I would make a pit stop at one of the many rest areas on the Insterstate, there would be notices warning resters not to drink the water, as it was so contaminated by nitrates.

Hmmm... I'm thirsty!

Not really hard to see why, what with all the spraying and fertilizing, and insecticiding, and the like that those crops require. I don’t think I can be saved if I die of dehydration first. Later on in the journey I would learn that it could very well be mushrooms that might mitigate this problem, but I digress.

The culinary part of the journey didn’t really begin until I arrived in Denver. With the crossing of two time zones already, I was gaining time and waking up at ungodly hours in the morning. So, I arrived in Denver, Colorado by about 7am one morning from just near Lake McConaughy in Nebraska. McConaughy was the perfect respite from the blazing heat of August for a dip in the reservoir and a lazy nap in the shade at the water’s edge the day before. I parked the car in Denver’s downtown, got on my bike and tooled around the city for hours. First stop was an excellent Americano and blueberry scone, American size for both, which is unnecessarily large. My day continued with a stop at REI, the camping gear Mecca of the Pacific Northwest, and succeeded by my first fresh, green, delicious salad in days, before heading to the Denver Botanic Gardens. The orchid collection, water lily pond, and Japanese gardens were breathtaking, and so was the 40+ degree heat of the desert.

Water lilies at the Denver Botanic Gardens

I was drenched and parched from riding around for hours, drinking copious amounts of lemonade and water as I scoped out the perfect restaurant for dinner. Back to the car, I loaded my cooler with the necessary groceries that I would need for the next week in the mountains, and headed to the Denver International Airport to pick up my friend who would be accompanying me to the festival and beyond. We dined at Fruition, an excellent meal, fit with local ingredients, fine wines, and friendly service. It was lovely to be in the company of an old friend, a animated city, and eating really good food. Back in the car after dinner, my friend and I headed to Bailey, Colorado and I had my first encounter with the Rocky Mountains.

Bailey, Colorado

We woke up to such remarkable beauty in the morning, which we hadn’t fully appreciated on our drive the night before, and soaked up the changing and dramatic landscapes of the mountains and valleys on both side of the Great Divide. The altitude was sickening, but we managed to pull through and acclimate in time.

Colorado Rocky Mountains

After much needed espresso and wine store stopping along the way, we made it to our destination. Our arrival in Telluride, Colorado was smooth sailing. We were greeted by our new friend, and most generous host, John Sir Jesse, at a pub in town. He lead us up the mountain in a gondola to Allreds Restaurant. John used to run the entire festival, now he leads forays throughout the weekend, and hosts special guests of the festival, but no longer takes on a big leadership role. Regardless, he is in the know when it comes to the backwoods in the area, all of the good mushroom spots, and is currently in the process of writing a field guide for the area’s most common flora and fauna. The views from our dinner table at Allred’s boggled the mind, they were so stunning. Our meal was complete with local, wild Elk carpaccio, fresh seafood and mushroom pasta, and finished with a sip of Green Chartreuse. We descended the mountain in the gondola again and drove out to the mesa where we would be housed for the next six nights.

The mushroom festivities started before the official start of the Telluride Mushroom Festival. John took us to scope out where the foray leaders should take their delegates later on in the week. Four of us jumped in the car and John lead us up terrifying, dirt road, switchbacks to Dunton Meadows. There we found a most rare species of blue chanterelle, the Polyozellus multiplex, your normal apricot-scented yellow chanterelle, several boletes, and many shrimp russulas. All good for the picking, and eating later for dinner. We even found some of the ubiquitous, Amanita muscaria, the mushrooms of fairytales, gnomes and fairylands, ate them in the forest, and enjoyed the inensity of the flavour that lasted on the tongue for longer than ten minutes.

Eating Amanita muscaria at Dunton Meadows, Colorado

We chomped on wild leeks, very different at 9,200 feet in the mountains from the ones I am used to in lowly Ontario. Upon our return home, preparations for a pre-festival party got underway. About 30 lively guests showed up and all of them inherently interesting mushroom people. My sore, bruised and swollen mushroom related knee injury was rubbed down by one of the mycophiles with a salve filled with Chaga and Reishi mushroom extracts, both brimming with mighty medicinal properties. The swelling went down, and I was fed Giant Puffballs fried up and coated in cornmeal, John’s famous Shingled Hedgehog (Hydnum imbricatum) soup, chanterelles dry-sauteed and slathered on toasts with delicious cheeses, and a salad garnished with buttery shrimp russulas. We drank Colorado white Pinot Noirs, then hit the sack ready for the next day of mushroom fun and the official opening of the festival.

For six days, hundreds of crazed mushroom-a-holics took over the small mountain village at 8,750 feet above sea level. We danced from venue to venue listening to speakers tell of their research in psychedelics, ethnobotany, fungi from the Amazon that affect the behaviour of insects, wildcrafting, culinary and nutritional aspects of mushrooms, and big changes in taxonomy, to name a few. The week was a whirlwind, complete with much hiking up mountains with our heads down. We were meditating on colour, shape, pattern and texture, working on very little sleep, consorting with the pros, and meeting fabulous people representing mycological associations from all over the USA and Canada. There were costume prizes at the big parade, mushroom rap performances, drum circles, hula-hooping hippies, and fancy French dinners. If you like mushrooms, you’d like this festival, so run, don’t walk to the 32nd annual event in 2012.

After organizing an impromptu, post-festival send off party to cook up all of the mushrooms we had gathered over the past several days, my new friend Charris and I managed to find an empty house in town with a gorgeous kitchen, and invited our other new friends to join us to wrap up the week’s events. The guest list included, but was not limited to, Paul Stamets, Larry Evans, Danny Newman, Sinclair Philip, David Arora, Gary Lincoff, Mike Beug, Daryl Hannah, Joel Kyle, John Sir Jesse, and thirty or so other great folks that wanted to join us as we savoured all of the flavours of August’s wild harvest. It was surreal and fabulous to be surrounded by the most knowledgeable, the realexperts in the field of mycology, the guys that write the books. The group represented all of the many aspects of the study and use of mushrooms that one can think of. There were academics, soil and water remediators, chefs, nutritionists, taxonomists, and enthusiasts all having a great time over mushroom frittatas, mushroom salads, mushroom antipasti, and mushrooms eaten right out of the frying pan. The party was followed by another early evening foray again at Dunton Meadows, this time leaving with pounds and pounds of tiny, perfect chanterelles in our colourful baskets.


Shingled Hedgehog with TEETH!

The next day, most everyone had left town and so did we. With my friend sitting pretty in the passenger seat, we drove through valleys, mountains, high desert, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon. The landscapes were forever changing as we headed toward the Pacific Northwest en route to Eugene, Oregon. Idaho boasted endless, aired deserts, and emerald-green fields of potatoes and other cash crops. As soon as we hit Oregon, the crops diversified. We passed lentils, onions, collard greens and hops towering above hedgerows. One might have mistaken the area as Mexico, as everyone seemed to be speaking Spanish, and we ate some succulent ceviche with housemade tortillas at a roadside market. As we approached the Cascade Mountains in all of their glory, the Three Sisters leading us on our way, we stopped for Oregon Pinot Noir and local trout on a bed of delicious greens for lunch in Bend. Continuing through the Cascades, we sulked as we drove past the unmistakable destruction of the evergreen forests by Asian Pine Beetles, and giggled when we dipped our feet into crystal clear rivers rushing alongside the highway.

Pine Beetle in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon

I dropped my dear friend off in Eugene, and carried on for the last leg of my solo tour into the downtown core. The skies opened and I started speaking to a local couple taking refuge under an awning. As luck would have it, they turned out to be great company, and we decided to stop for a beer and some live music at Sam Bond’s in the up-and-coming Whiteaker neighbourhood, just bustling with skinny-jeaned hipsters. The micro-brewed stout was the perfect end to a long day of driving in the suffocating heat.

Carrying on to Florence on the Oregon coast, I had completed my 2011 ocean-to-ocean driving adventure across North America.

Pacific Ocean

My first views of the crashing waves and tidepools of the Pacific were complemented by steamed clams and chowder and a peaceful sleep in a campsite surrounded by old growth Sitka spruce forests. Portland followed, and if I would have been able to obtain a greencard, I may have never left the food-phenomenal city.

Portland Graffiti

I ate and walked my way through Portland, which I think deserves it’s own blog post, and ended up staying for four days, despite my thinking I wouldn’t even make it there at all on this trip. Was I lucky, or what! After Portland, I got back in the car, which had been happily parked for those four days, and made my way up through Washington to the Olympic Peninsula. I slept by the crashing waves of the Strait of the Juan de Fuca just outside of Port Townsend, and the next day hopped on the Port Angeles ferry to Victoria, eventually landing in Cobble Hill to spend the next couple months on the farm.


One response to “Cross-Continental Road Trip! With mushrooms, of course.

  1. Great post, Zara!

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