The homeless couple spent the day on the steep slopes of the Wenatchee National Forest hunting for prized morel mushrooms.
They fought mosquitoes and sidestepped rattlesnakes. They were covered with black ash from one of last year’s forest fires.
Their reward: $4.60.
“Aluminum cans pay better,” the small man whispered in his Arkansas accent.
He had moved his wife and son to the Northwest two weeks earlier because he’d heard there were jobs here.
“They pay minimum wage and want maximum price for everything,” he said.
A few minutes later, two brothers pulled into a mushroom-buying station along U.S. Highway 2. The man and woman watched as the brothers - ringers for a middle-aged Beavis and Butt-head - unloaded bucket after bucket of the precious fungus. Their take: $284.
“We won’t blow the entire roll on beer,” one whooped as they pulled away.
The quiet man watched his 3-year-old son play in a puddle. That money could have fed his family for six weeks.
There’s nothing fair about mushroom hunting.
There’s no guarantee that those who work the hardest will make the most money. Rules change frequently.
There’s only one truism for this wild cash crop: No one has mushrooms figured out, said Bud Evans, a wholesale buyer camped just outside Leavenworth this season.
Buyers such as Evans, who pay about $4 a pound for morels, park trailers along roads in forests where the mushrooms sprout. They sell the morels to retailers who then raise the price to $9 a pound and ship them to gourmet restaurants all over the world.
Morels sprout in abundance over the blackened forest floor the spring after a wildfire. Veteran pickers look in the draws on the north slopes, where fires burned fast but not too hot. They chase the snow line, picking in lower elevations early in the season and gradually moving higher.
The best picking, but also the hardest, comes after a rain. The mushrooms sprout moist and big. Harvesters slog through the muck to get the most succulent morels.
They have come to the Wenatchee area to scout the land scorched by the Tyee Creek, Rat Creek and Hatchery Creek fires of last July and August.
Many pickers and wholesalers never have tasted the fruits of their labor. For some, the price is too high.
“I had some once, and it’s the closest thing to a truffle I can think of,” said picker Chuck Leidigh. “Of course, I’ve never had a truffle.”
For others, constant exposure has left them hyperallergic to the fungus.
Evans wears a thick rubber glove while sorting through the mushrooms for rocks and twigs. Still, by the end of the day, his eyes water and swell shut.
“If I ate one, it would probably kill me,” he said.
A former picker himself, Evans said mushroom harvesters have an undeserved reputation as seedy criminals and underhanded thieves.
Reports of shootings and robberies among pickers and buyers are no higher than in the rest of society, he claimed.
“The government’s got it out for the mushroom picker,” Evans said. “I don’t know why - maybe because some of them smoke marijuana.
“They think they are out here making money hand over fist,” he said. “Most of them are poor and homeless. They got a clunker that makes you wonder how it ever got here.”
There used to be more money in mushrooms, Evans said. That was before the U.S. Forest Service started charging for commercial picking licenses, usually $100 per season. Local and state governments also began licensing the buyers as regular businesses.
These days, a picker can make $150 to $200 working from dawn until dusk - on a good day.
“Buffalo” Bob Seeley said he averaged $50 a day picking the Hatchery Creek Fire site the last two weeks.
He converted the passenger seat of his Toyota Tercel into a bed and drives around the country looking for work. He has made a living off of morels for the last seven springs in the Northwest.
The son of a doctor, Seeley said he was diagnosed with depression more than a decade ago. His lifestyle is his way of fighting that illness. “I can’t do 9-to-5,” he said.
Last week, Seeley hiked in on a closed road. After a mile or so, he veered left, straight up a hillside. The slopes of the Wenatchee National Forest are steeper than the pitch of the roof on a Victorian home.
Seeley climbed the hill, grabbing onto the blackened trees. At times, mosquitoes swarmed onto his sweatshirt.
He stopped to cut morels at the stem and philosophize about the art of mushroom picking. Seeley’s rules include:
Never hike into the woods with all your buckets. It will jinx you for sure.
Always pick the first morel, no matter what the condition.
When you find one morel, look around - there are bound to be others.
Coming down the mountain, with buckets full of mushrooms, is harder than the ascent.
Seeley slid about 50 feet. “I came close to killing myself, but I didn’t spill the mushrooms,” he said. “A few years back, I cracked a couple ribs doing the same thing.”
The same thing happened to Azure Leidigh (pronounced Lydee). She fell first thing one morning last week, coming to a stop on a log. The 16-year-old spent the rest of the day in the car nursing a badly bruised knee.
Her father, Chuck, an unemployed logger, and her brother Aven, failed to make up for her loss. At the end of the day, the family pocketed $70.
Chuck Leidigh, 54, said many pickers are families like his, trying to make ends meet.
Aven Leidigh, 20, is saving money for college in the fall. Azure wants new contact lenses.
“It ain’t no easy money, that’s for sure,” Chuck Leidigh said, surveying his tired, soot-covered children. “But it’s income.”