Suddenly I felt the soft forest floor of thick moss over large rocks. My concentration was broken by the change in the forest floor as the sound of the crunching of last seasons fallen leaves turned into the silent compacting of moss. Eyes lifted from their careful scanning the forest floor around my feet to to the distant rise in the landscape through the trees and past the bright green covered rocks. As the morning sun dotted the landscape in front of me I could not imagine a place that I would have rather been at that moment. Sure it was hard to pull myself out of bed that morning after a long night of Romanian pop music in the streets of Petrosani, but when I saw the morning sun rise high enough to cast a yellow light on my bedroom wall I realized that if I were to stay in bed that morning then I would regret the decision. I rose out of bed, started the coffee on the stove, and watched the news as I waited for Morison's call.
You know that it is going to be a good day when it starts off with a slow cruise up a winding road periodically catching the bright morning sun after rounding the bend. Loaded with potholes, it took us about 45 min to reach Groapa Seaca after passing through Jiet Canyon. On a cleaned up version of the road I would estimate the trip to last 15 minutes. Nobody was in a hurry. It was early yet and expectations for a big find were low. It was a hike, but if we managed to find what we went looking for, great. And so went the start of my first morning, wandering through the forest in search of edible fungi. On the previous hike I became somewhat oriented with mushrooms. We spotted several, and my guides quickly identified which were edible and which were toxic, giving me somewhat of an idea of what to look for. My first couple of finds I took over to Morison for verification and with each one he confirmed an edible find. I was collecting strictly on the principle that if something else had previously munched on it, it must not be toxic. The mushrooms that I picked up were second-hand mushrooms.
Wandering through the forest that morning my two guides were within site most of the time and within shouting distance all of the time. They had a much better eye for what they were looking for. For the most part I just picked out the more prevalent and easier to spot yellow caps while my partners spotted the more desired maroon capped mushrooms as well. At one point Morison found a mushroom that did not at all resemble the traditional shape of a mushroom. Instead it looked like a mini dirty-maroon forest of fungus growing in an opening in the forest. He handed me some to put in my bag but later that evening he called me warning that it was rather bitter, so I tossed it. There were times in my wandering when I was completely focused at the ground around my feet. My nearsightedness was a limitation in the forest as my sharp vision was limited to a mere 2-2.5 meters in front of me. There were other times in my wandering where my concentration had been broken and I simply moved my feet in awe of the environment surrounding me. It could not have been a nicer morning to be in the forest. The sun popped in where it could and I was wearing just enough layers to protect me from the bite of the cool early fall temperatures.
Before letting me off at my apartment just as the sun reached its peak position in the sky, Morison insisted on taking a look through my bag to make sure that what I took from the forest would not kill me if I ate it. He verified that all of the mushrooms that I picked where good and gave me some instructions for initial preparation. I was happy to have his confirmation but I was still leery about what was in my bag. Picking mushrooms can be a very dangerous activity but I went on with preparation anyway. I prepared a nice stew after boiling the mushrooms and adding them to a pot full of vegetables. After dishing out a tiny portion for myself I sat and stared at the plate for a minute. It looked good, it smelled good, but was it safe to eat? There was only one way to find out. I ate the tiny, delicious portion of mushroom stew and laid down for a nap. If I woke up feeling alright then I could finally consider my first mushroom hunt a success and I would dig in on a much larger serving. It ended well. Pofta buna!
Just before Cabana Lunca Florii we spotted a Dacia kicking up dirt on its way up the road. How could we miss it? By that point we had made it up through the canyon to a stretch of road rarely used at that time in the season. Summer had ended and the cooler days of fall had descended upon the Jiu Valley. The cabana was already closed up for the season at the beginning of September and there were no longer signs of people grilling, a sight that would have packed the banks of the creak just 2 weeks earlier. Ernest flagged down the Dacia and I jumped in the back with our backpacks. The two of them chatted as we hurried up the dirt road in the old car. Less than 10 minutes later we reached our drop off point and as I climbed out of the backseat I heard Ernest say "am economisit o ora si jumate". Thanks to the Dacia we had saved an hour and a half of walking. We still had more to go. The short road took us to a spring where we filled up with fresh water and from there we took a hard left on a path leading straight up the hill.
It was my second time hiking in the Sureanu Mountains. We had hiked the exact same trail, almost exactly a year earlier, in search of the exact same thing, blackberries. It was a steep trail leading us into a dark forest and then out to the edge where we walked up a ridge. From the ridge I looked straight ahead and to the left to see a tree on the side of the hill. That tree was our destination. A year earlier we sat our bags down next to that tree and started wandering the area finding some delicious blackberries, not enough to gather but definitely enough to munch on until full. The tree is the only tree situated on that particular steep slope but it is surrounded by bushes that yield an incredible amount of fruit if you happen to be wandering by at the right time.
Once again we had not arrived at the right time. The previous year we were late, this year we were early. After enjoying some zacusca over bread we began to forage. I quickly learned the trick to finding a good berry. First of all it must be the right color. In the berry's development it starts out green, then changes to red, and finally to black. When spotting a good sized black one you hold it and start to pull. If it is ripe, you barely have to pull before it breaks off into your hand. If you have to give it a good tug in order to break it off, once you pop it in your mouth you quickly realize that you pulled too hard. In learning the right amount of pull to get a good tasting berry I had to spit out several. Trial and error.
This time we wandered further up the hill to the ridge were we found many berry bushes. I ate until I had had enough and then we continued on the trail. As we passed over the ridge we could see a sheepfold on an adjacent hill with some people near it collecting berries. Ernest told me that Priest's Valley, the area that we were in, has a high frequency of lightning strikes and therefore the sheepfold was vacant. A few years earlier several sheep had died there from a lightning strike. We decided to sit down there for a while and eat. We ate, we napped, and we chatted, preparing ourselves for the descent ahead of us.
Our walk back to Petrila was long. The descent was nice and easy bringing us through a dark forest and by a couple of old secluded sheepfolds. After reaching the road we walked all 10 kilometers back to Petrila which took a toll on my feet. We took a small detour on a road leading from the canyon to Leonia passing by small country houses with fruit-filled trees in their front yards. Even though we did not return home that day with a bag full of berries we filled our bellies. After such a long walk neither of us were ready to stand by the stove and cook up jam anyway. It was a good day of escape from the city.
First lesson is, if you have the chance, take it. This is a lesson that has proved to be helpful in integrating throughout my service. So many mornings I have woken up to an alarm with my body begging me to stay in. Soon after that early morning coffee I end up realizing that getting up and getting outside was by far the best option.
Second lesson is, if you want to do something, ask. I've been wanting to go mushroom hunting. During my last hiking trip I realized that there are a couple people I know that go mushroom hunting from time to time, so I asked if I could come along next time. They were happy to bring me along and show me how its done.
Third lesson is, have a guide. People in the area know the spots and in my experiences, they're happy to show them to you. Maybe it is because you're foreign, and your stay is temporary so they are a little more at ease with sharing their secret spots. Maybe they are just hospitable and they enjoy the company. Without someone who knows, you could be walking around in the forest "degeaba" and not find a thing. Also, when it comes to mushroom hunting, without a guide it can be much more dangerous and you could end up munching on something that you'll regret.
The forth lesson is to be inquisitive. Getting out in the forest and in the mountains with someone who knows what they are doing is a great chance to learn some things. Asking questions can help you to not only learn about your partner, but also learn a lot about the environment. Plus, you get to practice your Romanian.
The fifth and final lesson is don't rush. Take the time to enjoy and fully appreciate the day, the sunshine, the fresh air, and the unusual environment. I used to see how many high peaks I could pass by in a day and now I can't even remember the view from the top of Basin. Stay, rest, relax, and take it all in.
"Isn't it curious how in so many of our pastimes and hobbies we play at supplying one or another of our fundamental creaturely needs--for food, shelter, even clothing? So some people knit, others build things or chop wood, and a great many of us "work" at feeding ourselves--by gardening or hunting, fishing or foraging.....we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant, even if only for a few hours on the weekend, even when growing the stuff yourself winds up costing twice as much as it would to buy it at the store." Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma.