Wandering through chaga country with five-month old Eliana in the snuggly, we came across a group of older women hunting. But it was not mushrooms they were after – they were searching for a member of their hiking party. They said she was the oldest in their group, a very slow hiker, sporting a backpack covered in Green Mountain Club patches. ”She’s been all over the world,” her friends told us, “and she always carries plenty of warm clothes.”
The sun falling low, our little search party put on our forager’s eyes and set off in pursuit of a slow moving elder stateswoman. The forest was silent and still as we came upon our first sighting – not a woman or a mushroom, but a splash of color jumping out from the birch trees. ‘Bobcat,” read the sign, which might have been rather ominous were it not for the playful, smiling feline painted above the caption.
As it turned out, the trail was lined with signs featuring colorful creatures, including some denizens from the kingdom of fungi. We found a “destroying angel,” followed by a striking red “fly agaric” and a “sickening Russula.” We did not find any edibles. Whoever painted these signs must have been more interested in mushrooms of the poisonous persuasion.
We sauntered on through the deciduous woods, now leafless, stopping to admire a late-season flush of delicate enokitake before running into two of the women we had met earlier. They had broken off into smaller search parties, but their friend was nowhere to be found as the sun sank below the cliffs. “This is getting weird,” one of the women said. “This is really getting weird.” They called search and rescue, and a team was dispatched.
We exited the woods at dusk, our hearts heavy as we thought of this poor old woman having to face a night alone in the Vermont backcountry. But then, just after the mountain road met a paved thoroughfare, we noticed a tired traveler inching her way along, hugging the guardrail for dear life as car after indifferent car flew by. She was hunched under the weight of her heaping 1970s pack, with all those warm clothes she always carried, and a timeless array of Green Mountain Club patches to boot. We had found our woman.
It took her a few moments to get a grip on the situation, perplexed at the strange serendipity of this young couple, who knew her by name, finding her clinging to the guard rail and offering her a ride. I was riding in the back with baby Eliana, so the shotgun seat was wide open. It was meant to be.
Our new friend only had one regret – “I fear my friends won’t let me hike with them again,” she said, her voice trembling in the November night.