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Goodwill Hunting

An Inside -- and upside down -- view of a Vermont fox chase


Published November 10, 2004 at 5:00 a.m.

I am lying here, face down in the dirt, sucking wind and trying to figure out what the hell went wrong.

Concerned faces hover around me. Can I roll over? Can I sit up? Can I talk? Am I all right? No. No. No. Emphatically no. I am not all right. What I need to know now is just how many things are wrong.

A minute ago, I was on my horse, headed for the log jump that lay across the wooded path. He jumped badly, we landed badly, and the next thing I knew, I was face-to-face with a tree. My horse, Whisky, with his infallible instinct for self-preservation, cut to the left, but I went straight into the tree trunk. Hence, my current predicament.

Somebody has caught my horse for me. Patty Pisanelli, a surgeon, is trying to assess whether I am still in my right mind. But then some people would argue that anybody who goes out fox hunting is crazy from the outset.

Two hours ago, all seemed right with the world. It's the formal opening day of the Green Mountain Hounds hunt season, a sunny September afternoon, and we have assembled in a field near Meg and Ed Guilfoy's farm in Huntington to await the annual blessing of the hounds. Ed Guilfoy, a doctor, delivers a short, ecumenical homily about the beauty of the surroundings and the camaraderie of the hunt.

Then the back of the van is thrown open and two dozen hounds bound out, waiting for the signal to be off in hot pursuit of a phantom fox. I say "phantom" because there is no actual fox. Green Mountain Hounds, Vermont's only in-state hunt, is a "drag" hunt, and the only role that a fox plays in the proceedings is to provide the scent: fox urine that's bottled and sold in hunting catalogs. Cabela's sells a 4-oz. pump spray bottle of red fox urine for $7.99. Deer hunters buy the stuff to mask the smell of humans.

Meg Guilfoy is the designated fox today; her job is to drag a rag dipped in fox urine across the fields and through the woods of her mountainous back yard. The human fox walks, bikes or rides over miles of terrain, laying a trail of scent for the hounds to follow. There's an art to laying a trail, they say, which involves doing it at just the right time of day and under the right conditions.

That doesn't change the fact that fox hunting is perhaps the most politically incorrect sport in existence today -- so incorrect, in fact, that the British government is pushing hard to ban all hunting with dogs. Deer hunting at least holds out the appealing prospect of generational bonding. To the public, however, fox hunting calls to mind rich people on big horses sending large packs of baying hounds to run scrawny little foxes into the ground -- in other words, as Oscar Wilde famously put it, "the indescribable in pursuit of the inedible."

But Wilde, of course, was talking about the British Isles, whence comes a sport as incomprehensible as cricket. In the very old days of Norman England, hunting involved royalty and their guests chasing deer and boar through the "Royal Forests." Over time, the privilege of hunting was extended down through the ranks until the French, in a fit of revolutionary zeal, declared hunting to be a right of citizenry on a par with drinking red wine and baiting the American government. (Don't ask how the French got involved. Probably to annoy the British.)

Also over time, as the number of stags waned, the number of foxes getting fat off domestic poultry increased. The ever-resourceful Brits found they could "kill two birds with one stone" by hunting the foxes that were eating the chickens. And that, in a nutshell, is how foxhunting came to be.

If ever a sport was steeped in tradition, this is it. In its most simple form, the "staff" of the hunt comprises the master of the foxhounds, the field masters and the whips. Green Mountain's MFH is Elaine Ittleman, hunt founder, keeper of the hounds and person in charge. The field masters take charge of the humans, while the whips, who carry long hunting whips to snap at errant canines, keep the hounds from wandering off course. The staff wear scarlet coats with collars in the color of the hunt -- in this case, green. The rest of us are decked out in black coats with breeches, high boots and black velvet hard hats.

Dr. Guilfoy got the camaraderie part just right. Although some of us know each other well and some of us not at all, connections form in the process of galloping along wooded trails, through mud holes and over logs as fast as our horses can go. (Unlike many hunts, Green Mountain Hounds offers a second, slower field for those who are either less brave or less experienced.) The sound of hooves and the motion of the gallop are exhilarating, diminished only slightly by branches whipping you in the face and trees assaulting your kneecaps.

We skirt the edge of chopped cornfields and recently mowed hayfields, taking care always to look for woodchuck holes that could break a horse's leg, or low-lying strands of rusted barbed wire. This being Vermont, old barbed wire is everywhere. I should note that drag hunting began as a matter of safety, not political correctness. Unlike landowners in wealthy hunt country, where board fences are common, Vermont farmers use barbed-wire fences. The trail has to be laid in advance to avoid nasty entanglements between horses and wire.

The trail is laid in sections with gaps between the end of one run and the beginning of the next. The gaps mean breaks in the action as the hounds lose one scent and circle until they pick up the next. During the breaks, people take out flasks and pass them around -- although this group couldn't give the Irish a run for their money in the drinking department. Foxhunting demands some sort of serious, British liquor -- brandy, sherry, or perhaps port. This is not a rum-and-cola sport.

When Ittleman and Katherine Dudley started the hunt six years ago, they called it the Few Hounds Hunt; in those early days, the hounds routinely wandered off and got lost, showing up hours or sometimes days later. Ittleman has since invested hours of training in these hounds, coupling older dogs with younger ones in the canine version of a student-teacher relationship. As a result, they've become significantly better at what they do. The hunt, too, has grown from a few riders to a field of more than 30, including riders from New Hampshire and New York.

They may be one down, after today. I lie still, aching and dirt-covered, gazing up through the trees and wondering how I got here. We were almost home, almost back at the lavish hunt breakfast, when I met this tree head-on. Now we are down in a ravine next to a stream, and I know it will be a long while before they can get an ATV down here to haul me out. Remounting the horse is out of the question -- my ribs hurt too much for that. Walking out to the road, though not a pleasant prospect, is probably my best bet. I rise shakily to my feet.

Leo Benjamin, a member of the hunt, kindly dismounts to walk with me. The rest of the field moves on. After all, they still have miles to go before they eat, and the thought of food looms large after two hours of hunting. Unlike the English and the Irish, we don't hunt all day. In fact, the hunt breakfast usually lasts as long as the hunt itself.

Today's breakfast is at the home of Dick and Pam Kellogg, who live on the Huntington-Hanksville Road. Leo and I have made it to the road and into the pickup truck that has been sent to fetch us. Leo sets off to take care of his horse. I know that some kind person is taking care of mine.

Holding my ribs -- the radiologist will tell me tomorrow that I have "a couple of broken ribs" -- I make my way into the Kelloggs' old brick farmhouse to scope out the table d'hote of meats, salads, pasta, cheeses and dessert. The very thought of a Bloody Mary helps ease the pain. It occurs to me as I survey the feast that Oscar Wilde was wrong about one thing: everything is edible at the end of this pursuit.