To All the Morels We Found Before: On Finding Morels – and Finding Yourself – in Appalachia

The incredibly rare morel is prized by gourmet cooks, particularly in French cuisine. Morel hunting is a hugely popular springtime activity. It attracts hundreds of morel enthusiasts at various locations for festivals and hunting competitions. Such gatherings serve as meeting points for morel pilgrims, collectors, friends and tourists alike, who come together to share stories, experiences, exchange morel recipes and engage in morel hunting. Photo: Ken Mattison/Flickr
The incredibly rare morel is prized by gourmet cooks, particularly in French cuisine. Morel hunting is a hugely popular springtime activity. It attracts hundreds of morel enthusiasts at various locations for festivals and hunting competitions. Such gatherings serve as meeting points for morel pilgrims, collectors, friends and tourists alike, who come together to share stories, experiences, exchange morel recipes and engage in morel hunting. Photo: Ken Mattison/Flickr

As a little kid growing up in Southeastern Ohio, I always looked forward to late March and early April. I loved these months for a lot of reasons; they signaled early spring, the promise of the end of the school year just around the corner, and the beautiful blooms peaking through the trees that stood so bare during the harsh winters. 

One of the other reasons I loved these months was the promise of going morel hunting with my dad. 

Morels are mushrooms native to Ohio, West Virginia and so many other parts of the Appalachian mountains. They are long, brown and have a lot of holes on the top. As my 7-year-old self would say: They look like brains. (My 7-year-old self was not wrong. Google morels and you will see that they do, in fact, look like brains).

Every year, a day of morel hunting for us was a day of pure excitement. My dad, sister and I began with Dad telling us to grab a bag and our old hiking shoes. We’d all hop into our trusty 1999 Honda Accord and drive down unpaved backroads. We’d park in what was pretty much the middle of nowhere. We’d scope out the area and look for what felt like forever to my impatient 7-year-old self. I’d moan and groan in disappointment, and then just as we were about to give up for good, someone would hit the jackpot. 

“It’s a big one!” Dad would yell as my sister and I ran to look at what we thought of as the most precious hidden treasure. Sometimes it would actually be big, or we would find one measly morel, and at times, we would even come back empty handed. That didn’t matter much though, because the unexpected joy of finding one the next time we set out for our adventure would erase the disappointment completely. 

As we opened up the door, tired from a long day of hiking, searching for morels and driving to god-knows-where, we would fry up our two mushrooms. I have never been much of a mushroom person, but something about foraging for hours in the woods with little to no food really works up an appetite.

Photo: Provided by Grace Arnold
Photo: Provided by Grace Arnold

As a 20-year-old, I still look forward to morel-hunting expeditions. This year was no exception. I had moved back the day before from Ohio University, where I had completed a semester on campus after almost a year of living remotely. I was tired after long days of packing and moving out, and a day in nature was exactly what I needed. 

The past semester was one of constant motion for me. I had been home for so long in lockdown that the second I was able to go back to college, I began my search for something I felt I was lacking during my time in the 10 months I was home social distancing.  

At first, I didn’t know what I was searching for. Now, I think I was doing what most 20-year-olds do: I was looking for myself. I looked for myself in the new friendships I sought out. I looked for myself in the campus library, and I looked for myself in my grades, opportunities and accomplishments. 

Dad and I got out of the car, which was covered in dust from that all too familiar old dirt road. My first instinct was to go as fast as I could, find what I was looking for and subsequently leave and move on to the next big thing.

We hiked the trails for hours, trying to find the perfect spot for morels. Dad taught us to search in the same places every year, and most of the time it would work. This year was an exception. We walked, searched the area, we talked, and we searched more. It felt like we should just give up. Finally, the brown “brains” stuck out in the tall, lush grass. We stopped for a second, not saying anything, just admiring the single morel we had found. It was beautiful. 

Grace Arnold, right, pictured with her dad. Photo: Provided by Grace Arnold
Grace Arnold, right, pictured with her dad. Photo: Provided by Grace Arnold

Maybe it was just a morel, but to me, it was a symbol of a lot more. I had spent the day bonding with my dad, doing something as simple as walking and talking. We had laughed together despite the hard work. And once we finally let go of what we were searching for, the most beautiful and unexpected thing happened: We found exactly it, and we enjoyed the journey and experience we had shared together.

As a kid, I always thought morel hunting was about finding weird-looking mushrooms and frying them up to eat at the end of the day. As a young adult, I realize these expeditions are about a lot more. Right now, as I have transitioned from busy dorm life to the quieter life at home I knew before college, I am learning to grow my roots where I am. I am learning to be patient, and one day, I will find exactly what I am looking for, probably right when I expect it the least. 

Morel hunting taught me to let go and trust the process. Maybe sometimes I will come back empty handed, yes, but that just makes the times of abundance that much more enjoyable. 

As I transition from a child to a young adult, the more I realize morel hunting isn’t just an activity, it is a part of who I am. It’s part of my identity as a young woman from Appalacian who is, yes, still searching for who she is in the vast forest of the world.

Grace Arnold is a 20 year old who loves to write, listen to music, and create art. She is an upcoming junior at Ohio University studying Communications in the Scripps College of Communication. She is very excited to be publishing her first essay.

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