McCall, Idaho, is not the easiest place to reach from New York City. For some reason known only to my travel agent, I had to fly first to Denver and then from Denver to Boise. In Boise, I caught the McCall Air Taxi, a tiny four-seater plane flown by a man named Jack Magee, who had been a fighter pilot in Korea and Vietnam. Magee navigated the 100 miles up the Payette River valley to McCall, population 3,800. The last major event in McCall had taken place in 1996, when a man driving a horse-drawn wagon at the opening festivities for the Frontier Days rodeo was hit by lightning and fell down dead. I just hoped I wouldn't provide this year's drama.
I had come to Idaho to hunt for and eat wild mushrooms. When I was a girl growing up in rural Massachusetts, I'd go out in the fields and woods after a rainstorm and find mushrooms in every color and shape imaginable: puffballs as round and white as volleyballs, thick pancakelike fungi ringing the white birch trees, growths the color and shape of carrots poking up through the dead leaves. Still, I had been taught from an early age not to pick any of the mushrooms I found and never, ever to eat them. Years later, when my father took to collecting wild morels and chanterelles, I still lived by those childhood warnings. I would help him gather milkweed blossoms and Japanese knotweed shoots and other not-very-palatable woodland growths, but with mushrooms I was taking no chances.
I had a feeling things would be different if I followed Darcy Williamson. I had met her briefly on a white-water rafting trip with Idaho's Salmon River Outfitters (the company had hired her to lead a nature hike), and I thought of her as a kind of Martha Stewart of the forest. She'd been foraging in the woods near McCall since she was five years old and is currently putting a lifetime of mushrooming knowledge into Cooking with Wild and Exotic Mushrooms, which will be her 19th cookbook.