Wonder what the bent-over group combing the hills of the San Juan mountains around Telluride at dawn is doing? Hunting mushrooms, of course.
"Hunting for mushrooms at daybreak has a lot of spiritual meaning," says Manny Salzman, organizer of the 22nd annual Telluride Mushroom Festival. "At that time of day, you seem to be able to connect well with the spirits of the mushrooms."
At the fair, August 22-25, about 150 to 200 fungophiles, or mushroom enthusiasts, will gather to expand their knowledge of edible, poisonous and psychoactive wild mushrooms. "People come from all over the world," says Salzman. "We always get a lot of Europeans; they just love their mushrooms."
Telluride Mushroom Festival
$265 without meals, $315 with meals, lodging not included
Held during the peak of mushroom season, the weekend festival is all mushrooms, all the time. After sunrise forays for chanterelles, porcini and shiitakes, the days are booked solid with classes on mushroom identification and lectures on everything from "Mushrooms Inside the Healing Matrix" to "Knocking on Heaven's Door of Perception: Psychedelic Mushrooms and Extraterrestrial Life." Guest experts include holistic practitioner Andrew Weil, M.D., Lynn Margulis and Gary Lincoff, author of the Audubon Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. Nighttime activities include Mushroom Music and Poetry and Mushroom Movies, featuring films, songs and literature about mushrooms. Many festival participants stay at local campsites -- some are even free -- but discounts are also offered at several of the Telluride Resort lodges.
And amateur mushroom hunters need not worry too much: reportedly, no one has ever died from eating poisonous mushrooms in Colorado. "There are a lot of mushrooms out there that could make you pretty sick," Salzman says. "But for the most part they are pretty unappetizing, so you probably won't be too tempted to eat them."
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You might be tempted to eat the Amanita muscaria, the red-and-white-topped mushroom that gained notoriety in Alice In Wonderland, but Salzman doesn't recommend it. "They are legal and very plentiful in the forests of Colorado," he says. "But most people regard it as a second-rate psychedelic. They cause chills and nausea." The stronger types of psychedelic mushrooms grow naturally in the Pacific Northwest and the southeastern United States.
The festival culminates with Saturday afternoon's annual mushroom parade down Telluride's quaint main street, Colorado Avenue. Believed to be one of the few fungi parades in the U.S., the event allows participants dress up as their favorite type of mushroom. "The crowd expresses their passion for mushrooms. They paint their faces like mushrooms, dress up their dogs," says Salzman, who wears a large mushroom hat every year.
That evening, the group chows down on the hundreds of pounds of 'shrooms that they've gathered at the Mushroom Taste and Feast. "Mushrooms have a delicate taste; their preparation should be kept simple," Salzman explains. "We prepare and eat all the mushrooms that we've collected over the weekend -- it's a great party."
Time to go hunting.