At first it seemed that circumstances conspired against me. Hurricane Sandy roared through the Northeast, raising floods and dumping snow, and causing terrible problems for so many people. I watched the disaster unfold on the news and felt guilty as I nursed my private concern: would the Keswick Hunt go out on Friday the second of November, and would I be able to get my horse from Tennessee to Virginia to hunt with them? My friend P.J. Drayton and I had planned our trip for months, even “practicing” hauling our horses with our cobbled-together combination of my truck and her trailer, and making detailed packing lists and contingency plans for various calamities. But we had not counted on the disaster that was Sandy. Our Deep South foxhunting buddies in Tennessee and Alabama warned us by phone, text, and email that we were committing certain suicide by attempting the trip. There was snow on the ground up there, for heaven’s sake!
Listening to their sage counsel, we put off our original Monday departure. I paced around the house for two days, obsessing over the Weather Channel and driving my poor husband crazy. We felt we needed two days to haul the horses the 500 miles so that we could safely turn them out in an unfamiliar pasture while there was still daylight. This meant a Wednesday morning start at the latest. By Tuesday night, reports from Orange and Gordonsville, Virginia, in the vicinity of the village of Keswick, said the roads were clear with only minimal weather delays. That was all we needed to hear, so Halloween morning saw us loaded up and headed north, hoping to make our overnight accommodations in Abingdon, Virginia, before darkness fell.
Thankfully, the journey proved relatively uneventful. The truck and trailer tracked beautifully together, and the horses appeared content and comfortable during each of our frequent stops to check them. The steep turns and switchbacks through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains north of Knoxville had us white-knuckled at times. We were sharing the narrow roads with dozens of big rigs, as companies from down South sent bucket trucks north to help the victims of Sandy. But we rolled into Abingdon around 5:00 PM, in plenty of time for our horses to romp in their paddock for a while and then settle down before dark. The light dusting of snow that remained on the ground was a picturesque sight to southern eyes, and made it seem colder than the actual temperature of 38 degrees. We ordered a pizza and opened a bottle of red wine, and congratulated ourselves on making it halfway.
Once we reached our destination, we would stay at Magnolia Farm, a beautiful 400-acre spread belonging to PJ’s brother, located in Gordonsville, in the heart of the Keswick Hunt country. We arrived late afternoon on Thursday, in time to turn our lucky horses out in a beautiful 20-acre pasture, complete with a pond and pristine white board fencing. My mare whinnied and tossed her head at me, as if to say “I’m never leaving Virginia!” We left them to play and went to find the Keswick fixture for the next day, KenWalt Farm. It proved to be only about 15 minutes from our lodgings. So far, so good. Now I could really start to worry. While I had been focused on hauling the horses, I could ignore my real concern: the hunting.
I’m a veteran foxhunter with almost twenty years experience hunting in the Southeast, but this was my first pilgrimage to the hunting Mecca that is Virginia. There are great packs of hounds all over the nation, but the Virginia hunt country has a mystique all its own. The combination of the visually striking, physically challenging terrain and the sense of history and tradition that are the soul of foxhunting gave it almost mythical stature in my imagination. I had determined years before the movie The Bucket List popularized the phrase that riding to hounds in Virginia was on my “bucket list.” Now, after major back surgery, several unsuitable horses, and myriad other delays, I was almost there. Thanks to my dear friend PJ, I was invited to hunt in Virginia. And with the Keswick Hunt Club, no less, a club organized in 1896 and whose pack of hounds is one of the oldest in the country. I was about to experience Virginia tradition at its finest. Now the only question was could my 14.2 hand mare and I handle it?
After locating the fixture for the morning, we went back to have supper with PJ’s parents who had graciously offered to feed us. They were in their late ‘80’s, and so I expected we would finish our meal and be in bed early, right? Wrong. I hadn’t counted on PJ’s brother, Mike Miller and his rock band. They were rehearsing next door in a specially built practice room that from the outside looked like an extremely attractive barn. He invited us to have a quick after-dinner drink and listen to them play a few sets. Of course we couldn’t say no, that would be rude, and I do like rock n’roll…..So three hours later PJ and I struggled into bed. I won’t blame anyone; I won’t mention how many times I reminded her that we had to get up at 5:00 AM. Then as I attempted to set the alarm on my iPhone, I realized I had no satellite signal. The little house where we were bunking was nestled in the deep woods at the foot of a hill, and charming as the setting was, it made for extremely poor cell reception. We had no backup plan, so my only option was to stay awake.
When the pale light finally crept around the edges of the curtains, I got up and made a pot of coffee. A light frost lay on the ground outside my window. My day of hunting in Virginia had finally arrived.
The fixture for the morning, KenWalt Farm, is owned by the Fisher family, consisting of four brothers and their mother. Kenneth and Walter are two of the brothers (thus, the name of the farm, KenWalt.) Another brother, Greg, is a volunteer whipper-in for Keswick. This family’s connection to the land the sport it offers runs very deep. Like many people in Virginia, they are committed to conserving that connection.
When we arrived at around 8:15 for the 9:00 cast, there were already five long trailers parked in the grass. Within thirty minutes there were at least ten more, and most had disgorged their gorgeously turned out cargo – both equine and human. Everywhere I looked there were gleaming manes and tails, and natty tweeds whose hand-picked edges betrayed their bespoke origins. I had done my best to be proper and felt I was at least marginally up to scratch. I was thankful I’d removed the highly improper and gigantic gentleman’s flask that usually adorned my saddle, for I saw no such items in this traditional crowd. As for the landscape, there were rolling, grassy hills bordered with green pine thickets, with the snow-capped Blue Ridge Mountains as a background. It looked just like the photographs I’d mooned over for the last few years. I can’t deny I was impressed with the picture. After all, I’d come to Virginia with dreams of glorious tradition in my heart. But would the hunting be as spectacular as the image? Down south we mainly hunt coyotes, and I’ve been told red foxes can’t run as fast or as long. I was about to be disabused of this misconception!
We were welcomed graciously by Joint Master Charlotte Tieken, and introduced to our Field Master, Andrew Lynn. We had chosen to ride in the Second Flight, and were assured Andy would show us good sport. There was some good natured teasing about Andy being a “wild man”, which he took in good humor. He was so laid back and unassuming, I was later surprised to find out that he is the other Joint Master of the hunt.
Keswick’s professional huntsman, Tony Gammell, moved off with his whippers-in and the most obedient a pack of American foxhounds I have seen in many a day. He doesn’t use radios or ratshot, and rarely cracks his whip, yet his hounds clustered respectfully at his feet until he sent them into cover. PJ and I were asked to ride up front directly behind our Field Master, and so we moved ahead of the rest of the flight. I was especially grateful for this kindness; my little mare has to work even harder to keep up with the bigger horses when she is in the back of the group.
We trotted down a gentle slope and into the woods. This was trappy country: hilly, with slick rocky spots. And today, the going in the shade was sloppy and deep, courtesy of rains sent by Hurricane Sandy earlier in the week. We’d not been out more than twenty minutes when I heard the voice of one hound, then another, then the chorus of all fifteen and a half couple. PJ and I gave each other wide-eyed looks of anticipation. This was the moment for which we’d come so far. We barely had time to settle in our saddles when we took off through the woods, slipping and sliding through the tight turns between the trees. At times we could see the First Flight ahead or to one side; always we could hear the beautiful music of the hounds. We were moving fast, especially for such challenging terrain, and my little mare was acquitting herself well when suddenly the hounds shut off and Andy held up his whip for us to hold hard. I admit I was glad for a bit of a breather. The huntsman dashed past in a flash of scarlet, and I overheard him tell our Field Master that there were two foxes, each going in a separate directions.
We made our way out of the woods and onto a field trail at a brisk trot. I noticed cattle in the field and heard someone mention that we had crossed out of KenWalt Farm into a second fixture. I was to find out after the hunt that this fixture is called Jacqueline Hall, and belongs to Joint Master Charlotte Teiken. We stopped at the top of a hill looking down onto one of the most memorable scenes of the day: a red-roofed farmhouse and barn with a silo on the right, and the First Flight down to the left. Then the Huntsman brought his hounds out of the covert below us, and I felt a little thrill. This was the Virginia I had dreamed so often of seeing!
I had secreted a tiny flask in my pocket and so I took a moment to toast the beauty of the scene and my own survival thus far, when a whipper-in rode past us at a gallop. He turned his head and said something to our Field Master that I couldn’t quite catch, but it must have been good news, because Andy turned to me and said, “Are you ready?”
I pocketed my flask and nodded, hoping I was telling the truth. Hadn’t we just had a grand gallop? Ready for what? Did he mean there was more? An hour and a half later I would look back on that moment and realize the day had barely begun. The hounds had settled on their fox, and, after two magnificent views of the chased game, and a rider and horse down (no injuries thank goodness), we finally made it back to the trailers, exhausted and happy. It was a day I will never forget.
I have been lucky and determined enough in my life to make many of my personal dreams come true. Quite a few have lived up to my expectations, but as many of you know, anticipation is often the better part of any quest, too often exceeding realization. No so with my trip to the Old Dominion. Riding with the Keswick Hunt lived up to my most extravagant imaginings as to the pageantry, graciousness, and above all, the great sport that is fox hunting in Virginia.
I want to thank Dr. Greg Schmidt, who kindly invited my friend PJ Drayton to hunt with the Keswick Hunt, little knowing I would tag along and that he would granting a long-held wish for a woman he had never met. Thanks also to Masters of Foxhounds Charlotte Teiken and Andrew Lynn: you should be deservedly proud of your staff, hounds, and field, not to mention the relationships you have cultivated with landowners who make our sport possible. And last, but not least, thanks to my new friend, Dr. Tom Estes, for his invaluable assistance with this article.