Alexander seemed shocked to see me when I bumbled into his camp, high in the western Allegheny ridges. And he should have been shocked – I was the first human he’d seen since December. I slowly raised my hand in a universally understood greeting salute and Alexander tentatively returned the gesture, still unsure whether to welcome or to growl and throw rocks.
To back up a bit, I’d just been out for a mushroom hunt, in pursuit of reishi, a valuable medicinal bracket fungus, when I’d become lost. Of course, the compass was not in the pack and I hadn’t thought it necessary to bring a map. And so I’d wandered across ridges and streams in what was probably a great half-circle before stumbling into a crude sort of camp in the hemlocks.
Unsure of myself, I offered some bits of food – stale bread and half a candy bar – from the pack and Alexander seemed to relish these, eating only some of the bread and saving the rest in a tin. I then found that my companion could in fact speak some broken English though his dangling participial phrases were frequent and he refused to give up the Oxford comma while scrawling symbols in the muck with a stick. I watched the dim glow remaining above the horizon as I tried to communicate.
“It is dark soon Alexander and I have no place to go. May I spend the night in your wood?”
A hint of suspicion showed in his eyes now but he nodded slowly, then, leaping up, drew a circle in the duff. “Here!” he pointed, and that was all; my tent site was established.
Silence reigned as I puttered around throwing up a tent, lighting my stove and preparing some semblance of a meal. His eyes never left me, as though I were the most curious creature he’d encountered in recent months. I ate crackers and jerky while Alexander picked at some woodland concoctions he described as edamame and a wakame, katsuobushi, sun dried tomato mix, made from ingredients found nearby.
Later the west face of the ridge lay dark and it was far darker below the conifers. The vivid golden flame that had danced earlier now sizzled along as a green phantasm hovering above the embers. The hemlocks seemed to encroach and across the fire from me, the bearded face hardly moved as Alexander found his tongue, deciding he would like to talk if this were his only night to do so.
Alexander knew nothing but the forest. In the Pennsylvania wilds, his family had raised him to the age of twelve at which time he’d been encouraged to wander off and find his own holler’. He spun out tales of great bears, sacred salamanders and weeks of unending rain. He knew the ways of the wood and how to survive and thrive here in ways unknown to modernity. He never mentioned any desire to live among humans or to enjoy companionship. No, Alexander was self-sufficient and resilient and knew no other way.
I knew of the ridge people of the Alleghenies but had never expected to find one. I’d read of their origin as a child: A congregation of wayward Hungarian Anabaptist missionaries lost the old Forbes Road, veering wildly off course and finding themselves in the territory of an equally lost band of Narragansetts. Following early proselytizing and conflicts, the congregation had settled among the natives, eventually procreating and producing a hybrid savage-missionary that would go on to populate these mountains, albeit sparsely. Undoubtedly, this was the provenance of my host.
In return, I offered tales of the outside world, much to the vagrant’s fascination. There had been a great chief at the time of Alexander’s birth named Clinton who had a wife named Hillary and an assistant named Monica. At the far ocean, there was the place of Seattle where grunge rock had taken shape (a genuinely challenging concept to contextualize there in the woodland). We had been to far off desert lands to drop bombs from the sky, three or four times (this too was hard to explain, though perhaps more so to a man who’d never heard the word “Schwarzkopf.”) The financial world had crashed in 2007. People now commonly feared changing air temperatures of the planet, having angered the sky gods by making carbon dioxide (Alexander wasn’t buying it either). Donald Trump had won. Then the world had to shut down because a worse-than-average flu was going round. Outrage was in vogue nowadays, a difficult habit to cultivate if you live alone in the forest. Here, I felt he was pretty well caught up.
I thought about all this as my eye lids grew heavy, the hypnosis of the flame subverting my senses, and the sullen bespectacled eyes never leaving me. Suddenly, I roused myself as purpose flashed into my consciousness and uttered a single word:
Though dark, I could see that a smile now crept across my companion’s face. Yes, he knew the word and knew the mushroom.
“I need to find reishi,” I continued hoarsely, “It is the greatest mushroom of them all. The great white medicine men will reward me well if I bring this back from the mountain.”
A thoughtful gaze swept across his face as he drew deeply on a pipe that seemed to materialize from his tunic. “I know this tree-fruit. My people journey far across the lands to find this, to eat the life-giving reishi bug.”
I was stunned that he knew not only the reishi but the reishi beetle which deposits eggs within the fungus. Alexander continued:
“I will take you there. Tomorrow we travel to the valley of the reishi. Much fruit. Much beetles. Rest now.”
I was content. The impulse to return to civilization by the most direct route left me and I wanted to stay here with the hemlock, with the reishi, with Alexander… The smoke was intoxicating and soporific… I would sleep now.
I opened one eye and made out a blurry figure seated on a rock across from me, bathed in the bluish light that saturated all below the canopy. I’d slept the deepest, fullest sleep of a lifetime atop the duff, moss and hemlock needles. Alexander had silently begun his first meal of the day; it smelt like a fish of some kind. I extracted myself from the sleeping bag and began to rummage in the pack.
After eating, Alexander scrawled again in the dirt, tracing out a crude map and pointing to the route we must follow. We would turn south at two great pines, walk the ridge to the place of the great deer path, follow this down to the noise of the waterfall and, pushing through the rhododendrons, find our way into the valley. All thoughts of a swift exit to civilization were forgotten. It was possible that the reishi would be mine.
I could hardly keep the pace as Alexander bounded from log to log, running bits of familiar trail in places, making not a sound and leaving hardly a print as his deer-hide boots touched only hard places. What an admirable and intimate knowledge of the forest… of his forest! Soon we dropped in elevation and then, splashing across the brook, we plunged through the most impenetrable of rhododendrons.
I was fortunate to spot the first three: A set of semi-circular protuberances affixed to a long-dead log over the stream. This was it, no doubt – reishi! I moved swiftly as Alexander looked on, cutting a fine sliver of moss and bark along the base of my prize. I thanked Alexander and really hoped he understood as I found a place for these within the cavernous backpack. Curiously, Alexander swabbed at the dusty spores that blanketed the mushroom and drew vivid ochre lines across his cheeks, causing him to suddenly blend with the ferns and scattered light of the forest floor, to somehow become more at one with the woodland and the reishi itself. His explanation was predictably concise:
“It is the way of my people.”
A mile or more passed underfoot now (though it’s impossible to judge distance in a place like this) and we found mossy hemlock logs devoid of anything. Rain. There just hadn’t been rain and now Alexander had brought me to one of the best places only to find these rich logs barren. We pressed on.
I then spied another fallen log in the distance with reddish masses adhering to it. Again, it was reishi, a bit more than last time. Unfortunately though, the beetles had beaten us to these. Cutting the first, I turned it only to find a much-chewed-on underside with live inch long beetles traversing the carnage. I was repulsed but out of the corner of my eye, I saw Alexander’s eyes light up and a smile appeared for the first time today.
Before I knew what he was after, he’d reached and snatched up a beetle that looked ready to jettison from his inverted home fungus. And as swiftly as he’d been snatched, he was “down the hatch,” with an audible crunch as Alexander relished his true prize. I watched and tried to keep my own breakfast down as my opportunist companion made short work of the remaining insects.
His mouth still full, he explained his love of this delicacy: “The good of the reishi is in the beetle. Eat beetles, eat reishi,” and he moved on to the next burgundy bracket, feeling underneath.
Alexander spotted the next one, a dead but standing hemlock infested with bright, healthy reishi, the stuff of which myco-dreams are made. He just stood there for a bit, fingering his knife and looking on admiringly, as though he hated to destroy such perfection. Still, it had to be done and we soon reduced the glorious totem to a sanguinary pile around the roots.
Now we were in a great reishi region. It was never easy to crawl over the boulders or find ways through the rhododendrons but the rewards were great. Alexander moved as though he took pleasure in testing my ability to traverse thorns and thickets, looking over his shouder to assay my blunders. We looked for the ways the bears had moved through the night before and those were our paths.
Finally we reached the end of the line. Below, we could see the faint horizontal impression of a woods road and I heard Alexander’s steps come to a halt behind me. Somewhere distant, I heard the crass roar of a motorcycle engine. He wasn’t going to follow. Without a word, he eased the reishi bindle he’d tied from his shoulder and pushed it toward me. He was going to let me take it all from here and his face told me that he was trying to say good-bye.
“You have followed the path well, whiteface,” he began, searching for the right words. “Now your path must go forward while my path goes back. I send you with much reishi. Your reward from the great white supplement fathers will be good.”
I longed to bring him back, to introduce him to people, to show the joys of traffic and of computer screens and fast food and insurance and the corporate ladder and Twitter. But, somehow, Alexander thought he’d found something better – and I’m not just talking about reishi. I wanted to teach him how much more desirable the “real world” is but, somehow, I thought he knew better in his own primitive, simple, uncomprehending way.
“Godspeed, Alexander; till we meet ag… Well, for all your days. May your reishi spring forth every June like a fungus and may each crawl with beetles like locust.”
I turned downhill and I heard no footsteps behind me but I knew that Alexander was on his way back to an alcove I’d never set eyes on again. And I knew that he had chosen wisely.
Epilogue: The preceding story, while essentially true, may have been embellished greatly. I may not have really “found” Alexander, Alexander may not have really been living alone in the forest and there may not truly be a lost tribe living on the Pennsylvania ridges. Most people would rate him as having a decent working knowledge of English as well. So, me and my friend Alex had a pretty good day hunting reishi (or, “varnish cap”) mushroom deep in the woods – that much is beyond dispute.