08 February 2006

Down Yet Another Country Road

Yes, that's right, folks, still another country-type story, one for which I feel I should be doubly apologetic because of its unavoidable John Denver content.

This one has its origins in the autumn of 1971, when you would have found me sleeping somewhat less than comfortably on a basement floor in Akron, Ohio. How I got there is immaterial, but you can probably guess that I had run out of more attractive options.

Still, it wasn't all bad. My hosts, Patty and Paul, seemed willing to support my broke and lazy ass indefinitely, leaving me free to devote my days and nights to the fulltime pursuit of the usual degenerate cocktail of sex, drugs, alcohol, and the occasional rock and roll show. Patty and Paul were big eaters - I mean they ate big and were big - and generously shared everything with me. The only problem was that they were strictly meat and potatoes people. No green vegetables. No vegetables at all. Ever. After a while, and probably as a result of staying up brooding one too many nights high on amphetamine or whatever else was available, I decided I was in danger of coming down with scurvy from this diet, and spent a week or so in a severely panicked state until I came up with the idea of digging dandelion greens from the yard and boiling them for their Vitamin C content.

One health kick led to another, and the next thing I knew, I was all caught up in the ginseng craze that was starting to sweep through post-hippie America. It was like legal speed, they claimed, and enhanced your sexual prowess and longevity and clarity of mind and speech. All of these were things I felt in dire need of, and while I pinched or purloined as much Korean ginseng as I could, often gobbling whole bottles of the vile red extract at once, I was shocked to discover that the most highly regarded ginseng of all was the native American variety, which grew wild on mountainsides in the neighbouring state of West Virginia.

It was "the plant that hides from man," the literature claimed, and I read how skilled hunters could come out with a couple burlap sacks full of the stuff and resell them for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Supposedly you had to be "in tune" with the ginseng energy to find it nestled amid all sorts of concealing vegetation on the cool, damp, north-facing slopes.

Well, that was me, I was sure. I was definitely "in tune" with ginseng. This was probably my chance to get rich. In fact, I could probably make all of us rich. As it happened, Paul, like seemingly half the population of Ohio, orginally hailed from West Virginia, and had a grandmother still living down there in some obscure mountain hollow. "It's on a north-facing slope, too," he acknowledged.

"Let's pack up the car," I said. "We'll come back with so much ginseng you'll both be able to quit your jobs." (And, I thought, I'd be spared the necessity of getting one.)

So there we were the very next weekend, cruising up and down the desperately picturesque backroads of West Virginia just as all the leaves were turning heartbreaking shades of amber, crimson and taupe (okay, yellow, red and brown for the more prosaic among you) and John Denver's first Number One hit, "Take Me Home (Country Roads)" was all over the airwaves. "West Virginia, Blue Ridge mountains," you could hear him singing, not just from the car radio, but from every gas station and cafe and truck stop. Hell, I was beginning to suspect the Chamber of Commerce of putting speakers behind the trees and rocks so that no one anywhere in the state of West Virginia would have to go a minute without hearing that damned song (which, I'll have to admit, I actually kind of liked at the time).

Every so often, I'd shout, "Stop! That looks like the right kind of hillside." Paul would dutifully pull the car over and I'd clamber halfway down some precipitous slope searching for the distinctive leaf shape outlined in my "Hunting Ginseng" book. The closest I came to it was a lot of poison ivy. Eventually it dawned on me that I was about as likely to find an abandoned gold mine as I was wild ginseng, so I started keeping my eyes open for any strange-looking holes in the ground. Not open enough, however, as I managed to fall into a couple of them.

Despite their touching (and woefully misplaced) faith in me, Patty and Paul were growing a little disillusioned with me by now, and eventually Paul said, "Let's go on to Granny's house now, before it gets dark. We'll get some rest, and maybe Granny can give you some pointers about the best places to look tomorrow."

Granny lived in an old-fashioned mountain cabin with very few modern conveniences. No indoor plumbing, no telephone, only a wood stove for heat. But she did have a radio, ensuring we wouldn't have to go without hearing John Denver for the duration of our stay.

She seemed glad to have company, but nearly laughed her old head off when Paul asked her about ginseng. "Yeah, I reckon you wanna talk to old man Ritchie down the other side of town. He makes a fortune selling that stuff to the Orientals. They're crazy for it. Don't know why. It's just a bunch of damned old roots ain't good for nothing as far as anyone around here can see."

"But where can we find some?"

"Damned if I know. Ask old man Ritchie."

So we did, after another fruitless morning of running up and down hillsides, and the old guy's eyes lit up. "You're in luck," he said. "I got me a whole bag of the stuff right here, I can let you have for a hundred bucks. One of them Orientals'll pay you 300 at least back in the city."

"I was hoping maybe you could show us where to find some of our own," I said feebly.

"You know, I'd like to, but I just couldn'tt. A man's gotta grow up in these parts and know every inch of these mountains till he's able to think like he was a damn ginseng plant before he can do a good job hunting the stuff. Maybe if you was to spend a year or two here I could turn you into a ginseng hunter. How about seventy-five bucks?"

We finally settled on sixty bucks, which of course I had to borrow from Paul, assuring him that we'd easily double or triple our money when we got back to town. I carried that bag around Akron offering everyone, Asian, hippie, hillbilly, whatever, a great bargain on ginseng, and got nothing but blank stares and/or laughter in return. The whole time I'd be gnawing on the roots to keep up my strength, even though they didn't taste nearly as good as the Korean ginseng roots I was used to. In fact, they looked and tasted remarkably like dried parsnips, a vegetable I had never been especially keen on.

I never sold a single piece of ginseng, and within a couple of weeks I'd eaten up most of the stock anyway. That left me owing Paul sixty bucks more on top of whatever I already owed him, and right about then, winter blew in with a sudden blast of snow and ice. I dug up the last of the year's dandelion greens and figured it must be time to move on.

1 comment:

Wesley said...

This story is awesome. "Hunting Ginseng", for real?