Lines over time

Our lives unfold in the seasons within seasons, familial moments we return to as the calendar ticks away. Each fall I return to mushroom season, a three-week window my father introduced me to, first with his weekend disappearing acts throughout my childhood then later as his picking partner on the hunt for pidpanki.

Our hunts begin the same every time—a meandering drive north of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, an accidental glance from the car window and suddenly we’re standing in a stranger’s yard with pocket knives drawn and plastic bags in tow. Meanwhile the car stereo keeps up the broadcast of whatever game’s coming through the AM channel.

The voice muffles as we get farther away until the crackle of sudden cheers calls our thoughts back. Someone scores. We continue our hunt then head to the car, sit and wait for an update to see if we’re up or down. After all, mushroom season falls smack in the middle of football season, or gambling season as I’ve come to call it.

As a teenager I discovered that my father’s weekend disappearances, front loaded with trips to out-of-the-way mushroom stops, normally ended at one or two neighborhood bars where he and the rest of the regulars took turns critiquing this year’s harvest, or lack there of, while bemoaning their gambling luck, explaining why the sucker bet had seemed so good that morning or complaining that they’d already lost their allowance and would be brown bagging lunch all week. Or worse—they’d need to double up on the evening game or put everything they could on Monday night just to get close to breaking even.

My father and I are small-timers. We never win or lose all that much. The fear of ruining our weeks because someone scored a meaningless touchdown is more than either of us can stand.

If we’re up it’s never by more than a few dollars, while losses have a way of compounding—lose by a point and suddenly you’re down $30 while your other picks aren’t turning out so well either. Soon our afternoon prospects don’t seem so hot, the evening game is something we’d rather sleep through and Monday night will come and go without our betting interests.

There’s respite in traipsing along with heads down among the birch leaves rather than worrying about the Eagles’ game, wondering if the Packers will cover or if the Browns will show up this week.

Even as years have passed and I’ve moved west, trading pidpanki for chanterelle, I still make time to study game lines with my father. Wins and losses don’t matter as much as this connection.

Sunday morning shows up and the phone shrinks our 2,800 miles of distance to the width of the kitchen table. We pour over our respective sports pages until we reach common ground around which team looks good, what to take and how much money we’re willing to lose. Then we move to other topics – as quickly as channels change between pre-game shows, we’re talking mushrooms.

Yesterday, my father explains, on his way to watch Penn State, he stopped in the woods and didn’t find a thing, the weather too warm, too dry, something keeping the pidpanki from showing.

He’s worried he won’t have any for Christmas Eve dinner even though there are always mushrooms for the holiday meal. When we hang up I listen to the first quarter of whatever game’s coming in until a friend of mine with a solid mushroom spot stops by to get me.

We drive 40-miles west to Timber, a logging town stashed away in the Cascades, to hunt chanterelle. Each year our harvest dwindles more and more, mostly from clear-cutting but also because the spot is becoming known amongst other pickers. It doesn’t matter. The process of being here is what it’s all about. There are enough mushrooms in Oregon to go around, enough reasons to lose my way in the woods, reconnect with the season within the season before heading home.

Lost in the foliage, searching for orange gills in orange leaves, I can’t help my mind from drifting back to the games.

Will the Cowboys cover? Will New England’s offense begin to click? On the way home we stop by the first brewpub we find, order rounds and pizza and watch the games on TV. I need to keep track of how my father and I are doing.

Originally published in INUR Magazine, winter 2008/09