As I write this, my 100-mile-long to-do list is glaring at me from the corner of my desk. I can feel its hot, hateful gaze boring into the depths of my soul. Okay, that was a little melodramatic, but spring semester is officially in full swing, and the next month is gearing up to be a terror. As a result, I find myself reliving the glory days of my winter break, back when I could joyfully wake up hours before dawn to make the long trek out to hunt country in subzero temperatures (maybe not subzero, but in Georgia, anything below 40 degrees is a polar vortex). But now I spend my days staying awake until those same early morning hours buried under a pile of notebooks, pens, and textbooks as I fight to keep my eyelids open and weakly cry for help. My friend and I also may have just spent a good fifteen minutes in an intense game of “Floor is Lava”, but hey, stressful times call for desperate measures.
It was the middle of winter break. I stood on the corner of Tom Rice and Farm Road, eyes peeled, stomach tight, quietly bouncing my leg in place as I anxiously scanned the tree line that stretched across the horizon. It was eerily quiet that morning—no traffic on the roads, but there also wasn’t much of anything else. The neighbors’ dogs were silent. Every now and then I’d hear a rustle from a bird moving through the leaves, but I was so fixed on the distant woods that I hardly noticed. There was still a fairly heavy chill in the air from the night before, but the sun was fighting hard to warm the earth. The thick grass in the field across from me swayed as a stiff breeze rolled across, and I willed it to stop disrupting my silence. I glanced at my watch, and fought the urge to fidget any more than I already had been. Hounds were on a coyote deep in the woods to my east, and I could faintly hear their cries bouncing off of the barren hardwoods.
I took a deep breath to try to slow my anxiously beating heart, leaned on the hood of my car, and kept staring at the distant tree line, searching desperately for a view of the action. The hounds’ voices were beginning to move further north, but they were still deep enough in the woods that I could only truly tell how loud they were when somebody occasionally called in on the radio with the thunderous voices roaring in the background. I could imagine the hounds darting through the thick of the woods, swerving between trees and stones as the horses charged on behind them. The riders’ ears would be filled with the sound of hounds screaming, hooves churning the earth, and the frosty wind as they raced through what were normally peaceful woodlands. But on my end this morning, things were quiet, too quiet. Something was going to happen, I just didn’t know what or when or where. Most of the other road whips were fairly spread out at this point, as we all tried to predict where we were going to be needed, ready to spring into action in any direction at any moment. I waited a minute longer, glanced at my watch again, stared at the woods a bit more, and finally decided to move further north.
As I did so, I kept my windows rolled down and listened as closely as possible to the hound voices, careful to not get too far ahead. I found a good place to pull over off of the road, and backed in so I could easily move north or south whenever I needed to do so. As I stood outside my car once again, I could tell the hounds’ voices were getting much closer. They were still definitely in the distance, and they hadn’t broken out of the tree line yet, but they were significantly louder than they were a few minutes ago. My hands clenched into fists deep in my coat pockets, fighting the excitement that began to take a hold of me. Something was about to happen, but I still couldn’t quite tell when or where.
Suddenly, the voices swung to the south, and seemed to be coming from my right. My eyes flew to the right side of the tree line, searching as far as the horizon line would allow. I still saw nothing, but the voices were definitely further south now than they were a few seconds ago. I jumped back into my car and began to move back south down the road. A call on the radio from Shakerag Hounds’ huntsman, John Eaton, confirmed this—hounds had taken a turn south, and seemed to be headed back towards their starting point.
I instinctively pressed the accelerator to the floor, still desperately scanning the horizon line to my east looking for the coyote or hounds or something. I could faintly hear the hounds over the sound of the wind whirling through my windows, but still didn’t see any action. What followed all happened within a few seconds, though my mind was racing the entire time. I glanced at the road to make a turn over a hill, and when I looked back up, I saw something black flash across the field before my view was obstructed by a hedge line, and my heart leapt into my throat. I instinctively pressed the accelerator harder. Dang it! Was that him?
When I finally passed the hedge line, my eyes flew about my entire field of vision, frantically searching for confirmation of what I just saw. But as I did so, a black car tore past me heading in the opposite direction. Wait, did I see the car? Was it big enough to be a car? No, it was definitely in the field. I think. Maybe. Was that the coyote? Surely it wasn’t a hound, I can still hear the pack in the woods…good gravy, what did I just see?
I slammed on the brakes when I got back to the corner of Tom Rice and Farm Road, and just as I came to a stop, road whip Nancy Amato appeared as well, calling in on the radio that she viewed the coyote cross out of country just as we had arrived at the crossroads. Ha! So it was the coyote! He just barely managed to slip out through the closing gap between Nancy Amato and I as we had driven toward each other; my excitement quickly turned to frustration at myself for not getting there quicker, but the frustration quickly turned into focus as it came time to make sure hounds didn’t cross out of country. With some help from fellow road whip Jim O’Callagan, we were able to make sure hounds stayed in country, and the huntsman was able to pick them up and take them to the next draw.
Not quite the ending we were hoping for, but this day illustrated an interesting point about the sport. It’s very much a game of seconds. From the time that I had moved my car further north to the point where I returned to my starting place, I’d guess that maybe 60-90 seconds had passed. If I had waited a few seconds longer before moving north, maybe we would’ve been able to turn the game. If I had moved my car back south a few seconds earlier, maybe we would’ve turned the game then, or, at the very least, maybe I would’ve known for sure what I had seen. Then in the five-second dash down to the Tom Rice and Farm Road intersection, I must’ve had a hundred different thoughts and questions flash through my mind trying to sort out what all was going on and what I had seen. I don’t think any of them were actually complete thoughts; they were more like fleeting glimpses of emotions that I was later able to pin down with a thought.
I think this is what keeps people coming back to the sport. A day can go from dead quiet to a rip-roaring run in the blink of an eye, and vice-versa. If you’re one second too early, you might miss something, and if you’re one second too late, you may not make it either. But when all those seconds add up and the thousands of variables fall into place, it sure is one heck of a game. I guess that’s why even a rousing midnight game of “Floor is Lava” doesn’t quite compare to the thrill of hunting, but until I can escape the iron clutches of spring semester again, it’s just going to have to suffice.