“You make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise,” my clock radio blasted me awake at 5:30 am. This winter break I’ve been hunting as much as possible, and this morning was starting just like any other. I sprang from bed and began layering my warmest clothes. I quickly tied my hair into a braid, grabbed my Mountain Horse beanie, inhaled a bowl of cereal and hit the road at 6:15.
Unfortunately it’s that time of year for everyone to be falling ill and it appears several people at Shakerag Hounds have come down with a pretty nasty crud. Mr. Wayne has fallen victim to the same illness, so I planned to make the 2-hour haul to the meet and just ride along with one of the road whips. My normally trusty minivan was in the shop for the third time in the past month, so my mom very graciously let me use her Honda for the day. I’ve only been to this particular fixture twice before, so I worked my way down the highway, instructions beside me and the radio up. For some reason I felt the need to stop and fill up the tank before I arrived at the meet, probably because I don’t know the Honda as well as the van and didn’t want to see how close we could get to empty before it quit.
At 8:20, I rounded the corner and drove under the wooden archway with the fixture’s name on it: Long Creek. I threw the car in park, pulled my beanie lower over my ears and hopped out. There were only three trailers so far—Long Creek is a bit farther than the other fixtures and apparently more members have fallen ill than I originally thought. As it got close to time for riders to mount up, Decoy Dave, a regular road whip, walked up to me, covered his mouth with a scarf, and handed me a map of the territory and a radio.
“You can either ride in my car and catch my cold, or you can ride in Master Washburn’s car and catch his cold. So I suggest you take these and ride in your mom’s Honda!” his voice came muffled through the scarf.
He showed me a couple important landmarks, roads and trails on the map and told me he would put me in position to start before moving off to his post.
Wait, I’m road whipping? By myself? Okay…I mean, there are only two road whips here and two mounted whips, so I guess I’ll just do whatever they tell me to!
Shakerag’s huntsman, John Eaton, then came over and gave me a few instructions before Decoy and I headed out to our posts, including his “Golden Rule”—count the hounds. I eagerly listened to every instruction given to me, and then Decoy and I went on our way.
A mile or two down the dirt road, Decoy pulled over and rolled down his window as I pulled the Honda up next to his PT Cruiser. “Well, this is where I leave you. I’ll be farther up the road towards Trophy Buck. Good luck!”
So I backed into the old house lot, set the radio and map on the hood of the car, and waited. I looked over the map to tried to memorize the locations of various landmarks and didn’t plan on touching the radio unless necessary. I’m already abnormally technologically impaired; the last thing I needed to do is slip up during a hunt. A few minutes later, huntsman, hounds and the field came hacking down the road on their way to the first draw.
“Golden rule?” John asked over the clatter of hooves on the packed dirt.
Golden rule…what is he talking about? I’m just supposed to follow directions, not make excessive noise on the radio, and count the hounds…wait that’s it! “Count the hounds!”
“Ding ding ding!” John shouted as they trotted away. I waved to the excited field and started to get even more excited myself.
Dear God, please don’t let me royally screw anything up. This has the potential to be the coolest experience in the world, or the worst. I’m going to take all their instructions to heart, keep my head on straight, and count the hounds. I want to gather as much from this day as I possibly can. Especially since I’ve been here only twice before…like I said, don’t screw anything up. Stay calm and focus.
“Alright everyone, I’m starting the draw, I’m starting the draw,” John’s voice came over the radio. I leaned up against the car and began to listen to the sounds of the huntsman encouraging the hounds as they began to slowly toy with a line. The morning’s damp chill began to set in and I quietly walked in a small circle to try to shake it off, all the while listening to the conversation between huntsman and hounds going on in the woods directly in front of me. After about forty minutes of hounds toying with a line and hearing whips occasionally converse with the huntsman on the radio, hounds began to eagerly open one after another.
“Hog! Hog!” John’s voice came over the radio and a jolt of energy shot through me as I jumped in excitement. Yes, I actually jumped a little when I heard this. Call me a dork if you want, but I can’t help it.
I stayed where I was as I listened to hounds run after the hog in the thick woods below me. I listened to the voices on the radio calling out where hounds were headed or where certain whips should be moving. After a few minutes, I was told to relocate further north. Decoy, Sally Rasmussen and I spread out on Tom Walton Road where hounds were screaming after the hog in the woods directly west of us. My heart was racing as I reminded myself to stay calm and focus. My head was definitely on straight and I was ready for action, but my blood was up. Just as it seemed their voices couldn’t get any closer without breaking through the trees and into the road, they turned. Mrs. Sally took her horse up the hill and disappeared down a trail. Decoy and I stayed in the general area as hounds continued working in the gully below.
As their voices grew faint, Decoy drove up to me and said he would be heading south towards Dunk Hill and advised I stay where I was since I could still hear the hounds. I paced up and down the dirt road for several more minutes and listened to the action, slowly growing further away from me. Unfortunately at this point, so did the voices on the radio. I tried moving a little further south to get a radio signal—nothing. A little further north? Still nothing. I was slowly rolling south down Tom Walton with the windows down so I could still hear hounds when I suddenly heard a weak voice on the radio, and I slammed on the brakes. In between several moments of static, I heard, “Autumn…to the…cement…bridge.
Cement bridge…that’s north! They must be north of here! I tried to call in a quick reply for clarification, but got no answer. Whatever radio signal I had, had apparently disappeared. So after a moment of consideration, I turned the Honda around and I was off to the cement bridge.
I crossed the bridge over a large, rushing river tumbling through rapids and over rocks under the towering trees of the thick woods. After pulling the car as far off to the side as I could, I walked further west to listen for hounds and heard nothing. I received inaudible and extremely broken up voices on the radio, so I figured I was closer than I had been previously. Just as I began to worry that I had done something horribly wrong, Master Washburn pulled up in his jeep.
“Are you hearing anything on your radio Autumn?”
“No sir, I’ve had nothing for the past fifteen minutes or so,” I replied.
“Okay,” he nodded and drove off.
Hmm. I guess if I needed to be somewhere else he would’ve told me…so I guess I’ll stay around here? Good Lord Autumn, don’t screw this up…
Finally, a call came from the huntsman with directions to get down to Dunk Hill. I immediately jumped in the car and flew down to Dunk Hill, racing down the winding dirt road as the wind whipped through the windows. (Unless my mom is reading this, in which case, I drove at a steady 20 mph, carefully avoiding all bumps, puddles and potholes, coming to full stops at corners and using my turn signals at every opportunity.)
When I got to Dunk Hill, I saw Decoy, Kelly and a group of hunters standing in the road. I could hear hounds screaming in the woods to my right as John congratulated them. The hog had been accounted for, and everyone, hounds especially, was pleased.
We all got back to the meet site and John had Decoy and I help him with putting hounds back in the trailer and taking collars off. I handed the map back to Decoy and the radio went back to John. And at the end of the day, I climbed into the car, jeans dirty and boots coated in red mud, still as excited about the day as I was when I first heard the hounds open up on the hog.
I easily could have sent in one of the pieces I’ve written about one of the other fantastic runs we’ve had since I’ve gotten out for winter break, but this day has been stuck in my head. I don’t know if I did anything right during that day, but if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I didn’t do anything horribly wrong. If I had, I know I would’ve heard it! So before I put the car in drive, I took a deep breath, laughed and shook my head because I still couldn’t quite believe that day, grabbed the directions, turned for home, and began to think over the events of the day, desperately trying to organize the things I heard, saw, and learned.