Deep in the forest, miles from anything resembling a town, even logging roads and rutted four-wheeler paths dissolve. That's when J.P. Anderson gears down his battered Suzuki Samurai, crashing up the side of a mountain with bone-rattling force.
"Hang on," he says, scanning the trees for gaps and snapping the smaller ones in his way. Eventually, the engine goes silent and the vehicle comes to rest against a trunk six inches thick.
Anderson hops out and hikes downhill. Then he spots it: a long-fallen, rotting tree covered in a blanket of brilliant green moss some two inches thick and several feet long.
Quickly and gently, he rips up a long section of the living carpet and stuffs it into one of eight woven-plastic sacks he'll fill in an hour.
"They told me money don't grow on trees. They was lying to me," he says, grinning through his black beard. "I know better now. It grows on rocks, too."
Moss is the all-purpose sponge of the forest, storing water, releasing nutrients and housing tiny critters. But across Appalachia and in the Pacific Northwest, it's more than that. It's a way to make ends meet when jobs are few.
Picking is hard work on a hot day. Sweaty. Dirty. And it pays only about $5 a sack. But for 33-year-old Anderson, who lives simply as a single father to twin boys, the solitude and independence beat the construction jobs that often pay the bills.
"I don't like dealing with people, actually. I don't deal well with being told what to do," he says, hefting another 20- to 30-pound sack over his shoulder. "I guess it's a superiority complex."
What Anderson picks could end up in a floral arrangement or a craft project, maybe even on a movie set. Along the way, it will support more than a dozen jobs, from people who sort it, dry it and package it to those who ship and sell it.
But biologists, business executives and pickers themselves say the good stuff is getting harder to find -- and the money harder to make. Moss is not commercially grown, so buyers depend on the wilderness. Some state and national forests, though, have banned harvesting, worried about what they are losing when moss leaves the ecosystem.
Some pickers will strip the logs bare, but Anderson and his father, James, who have witnessed the devastation of strip mining and clear-cut logging, always leave clumps behind to help the spore-driven plant regenerate. To thrive, it needs moisture, cool temperatures and shade.
"You never pick it all," James says. "Not if you want it to grow back again."
How long that takes is a question that has some scientists and U.S. Forest Service officials wrestling with the regulation of this secretive industry.
North Carolina's Pisgah and Nantahala national forests expect to ban moss collection Jan. 1 after studies there indicated a growback cycle "on the order of 15 to 20 years," says botanical specialist Gary Kauffman of the Forest Service.
That's twice as long as some veteran pickers and moss buyers think it takes.
Though Kauffman agrees the science is still lacking, Pisgah and Nantahala will likely err on the side of caution. That means the forests will be off-limits to the 100 to 200 pickers a year who typically get permits.
Nationwide, it's hard to tell how many people make a living from moss. Most search out private land, where they go unnoticed and untracked by hunt clubs and logging companies.
Nor are all pickers alike. Some are chronically unemployed. Some are recreational, filling sacks while hunting or hiking. Some teenagers do it at county fair time, for pocket money.
Few pickers are eager to talk about their work. Sometimes that's because it involves trespassing and illegal picking, but mainly it's to protect their sites from competitors.
Sue Studlar, a West Virginia University biologist who has studied the business, argues that overall, moss is "mined, rather than sustainably harvested." Large-scale removal can inadvertently damage other species, including ferns and salamanders.
The Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia banned moss-harvesting in 2001 until it could study the impact. Two years later, Studlar concluded that picking should be discouraged near limestone cliffs and wet areas, that no log or rock should be stripped bare, and that known "biodiversity hot spots" should be off-limits.
But "potentially, if you did it right," moss could be harvested without harming the ecosystem, Studlar says. It falls off in clumps naturally as it regenerates, and pickers could harvest those remnants.
The Monongahela, which covers nearly a million acres, may someday restore moss-picking permits. Ecologist Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy says that possibility is not a priority, but she agrees with harvesters who say they and others should be allowed to take non-timber products from the forest, including ginseng root and medicinal herbs like goldenseal, before the loggers destroy them.
"We allow other uses, so the question is how to fit this in," she says.
Whether it's done sustainably or on the sly, there's little doubt the harvesting will continue.
Pat Muir, a botanist at Oregon State University, figures it was an $8.4 million to $33.7 million business in 2003, with anywhere from 4.2 million to 17 million pounds harvested in the two dominant regions, Appalachia and the Pacific Northwest.
Data are hard to come by, and most moss dealers won't share sales figures, but Muir reached her conclusions by interviewing those who would talk and analyzing six years of export data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Typically, moss pickers take their sacks to a processor, someone who dries and packages it, then sells it at a higher price to a wholesale distributor. But Muir says that's changing. In the Northwest, immigrants from Cambodia, Laos and Mexico have begun to form cooperatives, bypassing the buyer to contract with distributors.
In the southern coalfields of West Virginia, Robert Walker is also skipping the middleman. The ex-miner from Oceana has launched Pine Hill Moss, a small online business that sells directly to the user on eBay.
"There's not that much that individuals can get into anymore, but this is a one-man operation," he says. "I pick it, dry it, clean it and ship it myself."
The "buy it now" option for a five-pound box on eBay is $8.50, and Walker says a woman in Missouri recently bought 75 pounds for wedding reception decorations. In May, he sold 500 pounds.
"If I had the means," he says, "I could easily ship out over a ton a month from here."
About 90 miles east, in the town of Rainelle, moss hangs bark-side-up on wires strung across a five-acre lot, drying in the sun.
"This is hillbilly laundry," jokes Tim Thomas, owner of Appalachian Root and Herb Co.
Moss accounts for 65 percent of all sales at this family business, whose first client, some 33 years ago, was Cleveland Plant and Flower of Elyria, Ohio. Thomas, now 56 and retired from the Navy, got involved when his uncle was injured and his father needed a hand.
Today, he says, he sells "a couple hundred thousand pounds" of moss a year, for sales of $750,000 to $1 million.
On a busy day, his 15 workers process 300 or 400 sacks, picking out sticks, rejecting pieces that are too small or won't hold together, then hanging it to dry.
"As you can see, you get really dirty," says Carolyn Clark, who at 67 has worked here nearly half her life and has seen others quit after two days. "But you know you worked if you get dirty."
"And," says co-worker Candy Holcomb, "you don't have to pay for tanning."
But Holcomb, who has been here for eight years, says there is a downside.
"It's hard to explain where you work and what your job is," she says. "You go to the bank and ask for a loan and they say, 'You're a what?' 'You work where?' "
"They put me down as an herb taster," she says as Clark giggles. "I work in it, but I ain't tasting it."
To the folks who work here, it's a source of pride as much as a way to pay the bills.
As she sorts through another bag, Clark ticks off the names of movies that used moss and vines she may have handled: "Jurassic Park," "Planet of the Apes," "The Haunting," "The Blair Witch Project."
She's seen her moss used on floats in the Tournament of Roses parade, in flower deliveries that come to her neighbors and sheathed in plastic on a rack at Wal-Mart, $1.44 for two ounces.
More importantly, the prospect of all those unsorted sacks helped push her through painful months of rehabilitation after a stroke. She called from her hospital bed to make sure she still had her job, promising Thomas she would return.
"It not only helps me," Clark says, "it helps all the people around here."
Carolyn Clark, above, a longtime employee of the Appalachian Root and Herb Co. in Rainelle, W.Va., carries an armload of moss to be dried.