Here at the very edge of heaven the mountains shoulder their way
up green and granite past the great bucking rush of the clouds
into a sky as blue and delicate as Wedgwood. Across the long,
broad valley the wildflowers pour wanton and hot from the
foothills, the lascivious reds and yellows and oranges running
thick as lava through the scrub and chaparral. Beneath the
buzzing high-desert sun, a hard wind carries the last edge of
winter's cold down out of the Sierras and scours the scenery
with the clean, astringent smell of sagebrush. It is a pretty
The view in any direction is so color-saturated, so Kodachrome
luscious, that it's embarrassing--nearly pornographic. Here, it
is possible to turn through every one of 360 degrees and believe
at last in beauty and truth and the perfectibility of humanity.
The only thing missing is the giant Acme anvil, deus ex Warner
Bros., screaming down out of that bright sky to flatten my
skull, render me senseless and deliver me from the urgent churn
of murderous nonsense into which I've been swept.
These are my thoughts. Not so much mine, really, as they are the
thoughts I think are being thought by any right-thinking--which
is to say wily--coyote within a mile of where I stand. Oh,
brother, are we both trapped in the wrong cartoon.
March 11, 2002
Actually we're both trapped at the wrong end of a California fox
hunt; br'er coyote, if he's out there, is on the much wronger end
of things, standing in for the fox, weaving deep in the scrub and
puckerbush, breathing hard, outrunning and outsmarting--O.K.,
outfoxing--the 40 hounds and 40 horses and 40 riders who have come
here to chase gaily after him. I'm at the other, slower end of
things, a laggardly observer bringing up the rear, a hill-topper,
trailing the field as best I can in an underengineered 4 x 4.
In the middle distance, nearly lost in the low billow of its own
dust, is the pack of baying, maniac hounds. They surge from one
scent to the next, sniffing and yapping, moving as one thing.
Behind them, yoicksing and hoicksing and tootootootling are the
riders, splendid in their scarlet coats and tar-black boots.
Their horses, brown and gray and pale, plunge across the sage. I
would venture to say that Mr. Coyote is wondering what in the
world he's done to deserve all this. A fox hunt? A veddy Olde
Englishe Foxe Hunte? In Southern California? Isn't it enough that
he was made the butt of the joke in those damned cartoons?
Wasn't it enough that he never caught the Road Runner? Never ate
even a single meal? That he was invariably stuffed full of
buckshot or nitro or tactical nukes instead? Or that he roasted
his skinny ass again and again in the smoldering wreckage of that
crummy mail-order rocket sled? That he was hoisted, flung and
flat-ironed into a furry accordion by his own frigging catapult?
And that cliff! How many times does a guy have to Buster Keaton
his way off the same goddam cliff? And now this? To be chased
every which way over God's green acres and the high chaparral by
40 slavering, dimwitted dogs and what looks like every dress
extra from Brideshead Revisited? A fox hunt? Here? Where's the
justice? asks Mr. Coyote, Where's the frigging respect?
This is the middle of a long story and a bad place to start.
Near the beginning is better--not so far back that we're taking
the assignment, that first loopy phone call to go cover the
upright rocket-scientist squires and the might-be billionaire
canyonistas and the liveried, bespoke-boot ladies of the
postmodern West who ride to hounds, not that far--just, say,
back to the point at which the flight, to my former home, is on
its approach to LAX, easing slowly down into California, down
over the blinding alkali of the Mojave, down into that
galvanized haze above San Bernardino, the mountains streaming
past, the plane following Interstate 10 west across a thousand
cul-de-sac superburbs, across a million American Dream ranchitas
with their sagging carports and their desolate discount swimming
pools. There isn't a human in sight from this altitude, but
gradually, even up here in the cabin, that hypnotic SoCal
lovelight, that glare, that dazzle, that shimmering, stupefying
lite suffuses everything.
Once I stagger off the plane and outside the terminal, the first
thing I see of Los Angeles is that parabolic spaceport
strat-o-lounge. You know the building. It's the view from 1960
into a future that never got here, a cultural leftover from a
time when civil engineers no doubt believed that our colonization
of Mars hinged on the successful development of a revolving
airtight steak house. Located at the intestinal center of the
airport's maze of exits, this Jetsonian relic is, I believe,
impossible to reach by any conventional means. One must be
teleported--or perhaps born--there.
This antique astro-landmark makes two important points about Los
Angeles. First, nothing in L.A. is what it seems. What may look
like a sleek, futuristic part of the air traffic control system
is, in fact, a doddering homage to the age of Donna Reed,
taffeta cocktail dresses and harvest-gold fondue pots. The same
is true of Los Angeles itself. What may look on the map like a
city isn't a city at all, but rather an immense film location, a
patchwork welter of stucco-on-particleboard neighborhoods and
titanium-gated enclaves, inhuman amusement parks, played-out oil
fields and bikini-wax-and-income-tax minimalls. Los Angeles is
more a wild idea, shared among its citizens, than it is a place.
Second, and perhaps more important, time has no meaning here.
Like that Yesterday's Tomorrowland steak house back at the
airport, where the past and future collide, annihilating each
other and leaving only the present, Los Angeles and its people
exist out of time. One comes to L.A., as people have for a
hundred years, to start over. The past, whether personal or
paleontological, is a dark and evil place, smelling of rot, full
of bankruptcy courts and bad weather. The future? It's out there
somewhere, a few car lengths in front of you, ranting and
unstable and capable of anything.
There is no past in Southern California, no future, only the
flight from boredom into the perfumed groves of a relentlessly
sunny present. That's why all the striving millions keep coming
here, to have a nice day; to dwell in a golden and infinite now
so dazzling that it makes anything seem plausible. Things like
fame, wealth, spiritual reinvention, a Magic Johnson talk show or
cosmetic surgery for your cat seem perfectly reasonable here.
Boredom is the only real crime! Let the fox hunt begin! Dude!
We're on our way to L.A.'s holiest place. Welcome to Beverly
Hills, where anybody who is anybody is pretty much everybody.
The driveway of Mr. Raul Walters is easy to miss. The gates
aren't hung, and the street number is modestly sized. I drive
past it twice. Once I find the driveway, however, I discover that
his second gate, about three hundred feet up from the road, is
more easily seen, since it's only slightly more modest than the
one leading to Jurassic Park.
A few hundred feet farther up the winding drive, one can at last
begin to see his house. While we traverse this last steep
distance between your fantasies and his realities, I will tell
you about him. He is a 61-year-old land developer from Columbia,
Mo. He still maintains a home back there, and his business
headquarters. He has been married to the same woman for 35 years.
He bought this house a few years ago, after his wife, Vicki, came
to Beverly Hills to go shopping along the sugar-white sidewalks
of Rodeo Drive and decided they ought to stay. The kids were all
grown, and what in the world was there to do in Columbia, Mo.? So
they bought this house in Benedict Canyon, where you look down on
Beverly Hills. Literally. It used to belong to Cher.
The house sits cupped high in the canyon and is designed and
scaled in a style best described as Colonial French Foreign
Legion. It looks to be about the size and shape of Zinderneuf,
the fortress in Beau Geste. Mr. Walters himself reminds me a
little of Ted Turner, gray-haired and blue-eyed and sharp, but he
is fitter-seeming, strong, much thicker through the arms and
chest. He's my host for the hunt weekend and for tonight's
dinner, at which I'm going to meet the Masters of the West Hills
Hunt and begin my education on the matter of riding to hounds.
Raul is a self-made man. He is emphatically nice and a genuine
straight shooter, by which I mean that he is not only forthright
in his speech, but that he has also been a world-class practical
pistolero. Hanging above the mantel in his living room is a large
Warholian photograph of him firing a very complicated
semiautomatic pistol. At least I think it's the living room. The
house is divided not into rooms so much as it just sprawls into
various areas. Or perhaps area codes. The house is very big.
Raul and the other Masters of the Hunt are dressed in their
evening colors: white tie and waistcoat, black trousers, red
cutaway coat with satiny blue lapels. Vicki, not a devoted
horsewoman, is wearing an eye-catching animal-print something or
other in her role as hostess.
Eventually dinner happens. A portion of prime rib apparently
trimmed from Babe the Blue Ox is draped over my plate, and I am
told the history of the West Hills Hunt. I confess that some of
what I'm reporting here was reconstructed long afterward and may
be in softer focus than any of us would like. This is because I
think it's rude to take notes when I'm a guest in someone's home,
especially at their dinner table--plus, beef makes me sleepy.
A "hunt" is a hunt club. Like-minded riders join the club and
then gather with horses and hounds to chase something. That
something is usually a fox. Here in Southern California, though,
coyotes are the more abundant opponent.
In England some of the hunts are hundreds of years old. Hunts in
the eastern United States, primarily in Virginia and Maryland,
predate the Revolutionary War. George Washington rode to hounds.
The West Hills Hunt, of which my dozen or so dinner companions
are members or Masters, was organized in 1947. There had been
other hunts in Southern California, most notably the Valley
Hunt, which began in the arroyos around Pasadena in the 1850s.
The members chased--although one can't be sure how proud they
were of doing so--rabbits. They also held medieval-style jousts
and tournaments, one of which eventually became famous for its
New Year's Day floral theme. (Roses.) Thus was bunny hunting on
horseback eventually overshadowed by the equally egregious
annual pastime of watching Phyllis George mispronounce the
hometowns of high school marching bands on TV.
Actor Dan Dailey was a founding member of the West Hills Hunt. He
had just mustered out of the service and returned to work
grinding out musical comedies for MGM. He had a ranch in the San
Fernando Valley exurb of Chatsworth and got together with some of
his chums for a regular ride on weekends. He and the others
drafted a kennel of hounds (meaning they got some dogs, but you
must never, ever call them dogs) in 1949, and the hunt was
officially a going concern. In a place like Hollywood, where
throwing your leg over a horse is almost as popular and dangerous
as throwing your leg over a barstool or a starlet, many stars
have chased up and down the rolling hills and hollows of the
studio back lots, Ronald Reagan being now the most famous. He,
John Huston, Spencer Tracy, Randolph Scott, Walt Disney, Burgess
Meredith and George Raft all rode with this hunt.
In 1955 West Hills hired a teenager from Illinois named David
Wendler to work with the hounds and to serve as Huntsman. Nearly
five decades later he is seated across the table from me,
patiently tunneling his way into a mesa of well-roasted beef. The
Huntsman oversees the kennel and is the man in charge of the
hounds and the riders when they're out in the field. His
authority is unquestioned. He is usually a paid professional, and
he is almost always a man. He rides in front of the hunters, and
with a small horn he tootles instructions to the hounds to guide
them. He also shouts invective down at them when they
pretend--like dogs, perhaps--that a small, tootling horn has no
meaning to them.
Most of the people at dinner tonight are or have been a Master
of Foxhounds, a term that describes those members of a hunt in
charge of its organization, maintenance and its sense of horsey
esprit. Most important, Masters are responsible for
interpreting, implementing and enforcing the thousands of rules,
regulations, fetishes, nitpicks, suggestions and decorous
eccentricities governing matters of the hunt's fashion and
strategy and etiquette. They take turns around the vast
circumference of the dinner table explaining these centuries-old
traditions to me. They are a fine-looking and prosperous group
of doctors and lawyers and financiers and entrepreneurs, so I
want very much to dislike them. I want to resent their successes
and their silly, anachronistic sport. I came here prepared to
mock their bluenosed, faux-aristocratic sensibilities and their
chowder-headed elitism and their witless, House of Lords outfits.
But I can't. They are genuinely nice people who really enjoy what
they do. Despite long-standing and heated protests against their
sport's alleged cruelty and laughable top-hat snobbery, they are
sincere in its defense and they believe in its fundamental
fairness. Every one of them uses the same phrase when they talk
about the hunt, "I just love to ride."
Sadly, most of their tutorial is lost on me, lost in a golden
haze of candle smoke, zebra skin and medium-rare torpor. Some of
the lingo is no harder to crack than the TV Guide crossword;
e.g., "Ware wire!" sounds like you'll turn state's evidence, but
it simply means, "Beware of that wire you're about to ride into."
Some of it is imponderable nonsense, with its origins lost in the
dismal thickets of Middle English or Low German. Yelling
"Hoicks!" or "Yoicks!" to encourage the hounds, for example. You
might as well shout "Yo!" or "D'oh!" or "Go, dog, go!" Other
phrases are familiar, like drawing a blank or tallyho. And some
are--well, some are just unfortunate. A hound barking loudly along
the quarry's scent line is said to be giving tongue.
Much later Raul and I stand in his driveway as the darkness pours
down into Benedict Canyon. "Listen to this," he says. He gathers
himself and breathes in, tilts his head back slightly and lets
out a series of plaintive yips followed by a long, wavering howl.
Then he waits. "There are usually a few around the house," he
says and cries out again. In the solid quiet his coyote call
barks out across the lawn and echoes softly from the far walls of
the narrow canyon. Down through the cottonwood and the eucalyptus
trees it goes, past Ann-Margret's house and Sting's house and
Paul Allen's house, ringing out over the fan palms and the birds
of paradise and the tennis courts and the pool houses. Out to the
city. To the sea. The stars. In the dark and the silence we wait.
There is no reply.
If you are reading this on your break in the men's room of an
alternator assembly plant in Youngstown, Ohio, you probably
pronounce the sequence of letters c-o-y-o-t-e as ky-OAT-tee. If
you are reading it in the cab of a pickup parked on the gravel
flats of the Snake River while you wait for your friend to shuck
her waders and throw her rod in the truck bed, you have clearly
made better life choices and are apt to pronounce the word
KY-oat. You're both right.
Coyote. Canis latrans. Dog family. Height: 25 inches. Length:
four feet. Tail: 13 inches. Coat: long, coarse, grizzled gray,
buffy and black. Muzzle: long, narrow, brownish. Ears: rufous.
Tail: bushy, black-tipped. Runs up to 40 mph. Eats small mammals,
birds, frogs, snakes, berries. Voice: bark, flat howl; series of
yip notes followed by wavering howl. Breeding: four to eight pups
in spring. Sign: 24-inch den mouths on slopes. Tracks: doglike,
but in nearly straight lines; foreprint larger, 2 3/8 inches.
Scat: doglike, but usually full of hair or fruit stains. Habitat:
open plains, scrub deserts, farms, cities, forests (rare).
Activity: day and night, year-round.
What the good folks at the National Audubon Society Field Guide
to California forgot to tell you is that most coyotes weigh
between 20 and 35 pounds, range now from the Atlantic to the
Pacific on this continent and have lousy press agents. Coyotes
have a terrible reputation with most modern Americans. They are
reviled as thieves and murderers. Farmers hate them because they
chew on their chickens. Ranchers hate them because they chew on
their calves. Shepherds hate them because they chew on their
sheep. Suburban divorcees hate them because they chew on their
Shih Tzus. The rest of us can't get past the cartoon.
Ironically, the coyote started the last millennium pretty much
on top, PR-wise. Nearly every Native American creation story
told west of the Mississippi has Coyote in a central role. The
coyote was a lecher and a shape-shifting con artist whose
selfishness and appetites were boundless but who often brought
the greatest gifts--fire, the moon, life itself--to humanity as
an unintended consequence of his elaborate greed. He was a liar,
a charming scoundrel and an oversexed fool, capable of
greatness, but most often left hungry, lonely and wounded by his
scheming. He was, in other words, us.
And that's the coyote's biggest problem. Like us, coyotes are
nimble, creative and adaptable. They flourish in a multitude of
environments--from the bungalows of Bel Air to the red brick
housing projects of the Bronx and everywhere in between. As we
push farther into their territory, they're pulled farther into
ours. Short of snatching your toy poodle off the patio and
running back into the hills, their only defense against us is
that their fecundity is density dependent. The smaller the number
of coyotes in any given area, the larger the number of pups born
in every litter in that area. So if you gas and bash and shoot
enough of 'em out on your north 40, next time Mother Coyote gets
around to it, she's going to drop a litter of eight or 10 instead
of three or four. Hence, fewer coyotes equals more coyotes. No
wonder there are so many of 'em left. And no wonder they look
like they're grinning.
We have stomped and shot and trapped and gassed and burned and
poisoned and hung from the fence an awful lot of coyotes over
the last two hundred years. Unlike the wolf, they aren't
surrounded by any noble aura of wilderness majesty. Nor are they
as affably docile and trainable as their other cousin, the dog.
As a matter of urban lore and Western land management, then,
they are thought of mainly as a pest species. Varmints.
Scavengers. What they need is some upmarket repositioning, some
outside-the-box media repackaging, a Benetton spot, a better
lobby in Washington, a major motion picture. They need to have
their spin doctored.
In Jolly Old England, where riding to hounds involves more
traditional quarry, the fox is viewed in an even dimmer light.
Reynard, as the storybooks would have him, is often derided as
ratlike vermin by those who chase after him. This creates a
weird contradiction. If the fox is such a lowlife, where's the
nobility in chasing it? Inherently, of course, there is none.
Riding to hounds simply tarts up a biological impulse that is as
common to our species as lying or breeding. Ever since we swung
down from the trees, people have loved the chase. Which is more
exciting, Mr. Bipedal Primate, hunting or gathering? Thus, for
food or for fun, we are hardwired to chase something, chase
anything, and over the course of human history, we've chased
pretty much everything. But as much as humans crave the chase,
we aren't well suited to it. We're slow, and we can't follow a
scent; our hearing stinks, and we can't see worth a damn in the
dark. We're too big to chase some animals and too small to chase
others. We're easily tired and clumsy and fragile. We're also
too cowardly and lazy and smart to let any of that worry us.
Since well before the time of the ancient Egyptians, cultures
the world over have bred and trained dogs to help them hunt. We
breed and teach scenthounds and sighthounds and harriers and
terriers to do the dirty work for us. All we have to do, on foot
or on horseback, in Westphalia or West Virginia, is bear the
weight of our big, big brains as we try to keep up. The dogs are
inexhaustible, they're crazy brave, they're miracle smellers,
and in large enough numbers, they can overwhelm anything they
can catch. They chase the rat, the rabbit and the raccoon. They
chase the fox and the coyote and the deer. They chase the elk
and the bear. We just chase the dogs.
Or in this case, hounds.
The kennels of the West Hills Hunt are in the hills above
Chatsworth, not far from Dan Dailey's old spread. There are
stables here too, and the whole ranch has a sunny, cheerful
sense of purpose about it. The barns are faded a reassuring red,
and the horse stalls are tidy with new straw, and the communal
hound houses are clean and orderly. There is a blacksmith
shoeing a chestnut pony a few doors down.
The hounds are an enthusiastic bunch--the 40 or 50 I meet--and
there is much giving of tongue when I enter their pens. There is
also a generous giving of slobber. Other fluids, too, are offered
freely in all the excitement. Foxhounds are robust animals. The
males, or dog hounds, stand two feet or a little more at the
shoulder and weigh up to 70 pounds; the females, or bitch hounds,
slightly less. They are colored, black and white and rust brown,
tan and beige, in the manner of a beagle. They are loud. They are
bright-eyed, short-haired and incredibly energetic. They are
sturdy and strong, deep at the chest, and muscular. They are bred
not for affection or devotion, although they give and receive
both gladly, but for endurance and skill and obedience. They are
rotated into the pack at about 18 months if they are fast
learners, and if they're tough and they don't get hurt, they can
run with the hunt for more than seven years. The hunt membership
pays, through dues and fees of various sorts, for their care. And
for the 87,000 pounds of kibble they eat every year.
These dogs are bred to the hunt. They are trained to follow the
Huntsman's instructions, to scent and follow a coyote at full
clip for hours over impossible terrain, over crumbling rockfalls
and under barbed-wire fences and through the dense nets of bull
thistle and prickly pear and cholla, down the wandering arroyos
and up the switchback canyons, beyond the point of exhaustion,
past the limits of their own pain, until the Huntsman calls them
off--or until they catch the coyote, are told to set upon it and
then tear it apart.
Did I forget to mention that?
By the time I drop Raul off at his home late that day, I am still
bathed in the noise of the dogs--my ears are ringing and my head
feels like a Mason jar full of BBs. As the gates swing shut
behind me, the lights of Zinderneuf blaze in my rearview mirror.
Then they are gone.
During the hunt season, from late fall to late spring, there is
every chance that if you go to the Starbuck's nearest the freeway
in Brentwood at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, you will see people in tan
breeches and high, black boots. They are hunt members. They will
not dither over what they want to order, or how much nutmeg to
dust it with, or in which pig-latin size they need to order it.
They are on their way to the hunt, and they need their coffee. Do
not get your scones in their way.
A few exits up the interstate, our caravan of cars, trucks and
horse trailers pulls off near a bird sanctuary to make sure
everyone is in line for the long drive north. While we wait for
stragglers, Raul and I talk about his role as one of the hunt's
whippers-in. These are the riders who flank the neat formation
of hounds and Huntsman at the head of the first field. If a
hound strays, it is the job of a whipper-in to remind him where
he belongs. This is done by scaring the kibble out of him with a
crack of the whip. Raul demonstrates. Taking a wide stance on
the asphalt, he draws the whip up and splits the early fog with
great, lashing thunderclaps (BANG!) with sweeping gunshot arcs
(CRACK!). In his breeches and boots (BAM!) he looks like a lion
tamer (BANG!), like brooding Mr. Rochester (CRACK!) from Jane
(BAM!) Eyre, like a guy with a whip in an empty bird sanctuary
parking lot at 6:30 (CRACK!) in the morning.
Safely back in the car, we climb through the mists on our way
north. Past the Bennigan's and the McSwiggan's and the malls and
the superstores. Past developments on torn, naked hillsides with
names like Live Oaks, Twin Oaks, Three Oaks, Four Oaks, Oak
Woods Homes, HomeWood Oaks, Oakshire, Woodshire and Oak Forest
Woods. Past po-mo condo complexes so huge and isolated and wrong
for the landscape that the flapping IF YOU LIVED HERE, YOU'D BE
HOME BY NOW banner reads like a threat.
Up through the Angeles National Forest, up and out of the fog at
4,000 feet into perfect sunlight and the southern range of the
Tehachapis. Two hours out of Los Angeles, and we are parked at
the very edge of heaven. It is one of the most beautiful
landscapes I have ever seen. California poppies burn the valley
orange all the way to the horizon as blue lupine pours from the
foothills. Mustard and meadow foam and yarrow whirl thick and
crazy across the meadows in Van Gogh yellow.
We are on private land--hundreds of thousands of acres of it. I
have agreed not to identify it more specifically. The folks who
allow the West Hills Hunt to use their property around Los
Angeles do so happily, but anonymously. They'd rather not catch
the attention of protesters. What hard-bitten land baron wants
placard-toting, slogan-chanting, flannel-wearing, self-loathing,
World Bank-hating bluenoses out by his wellhead first thing on a
Saturday morning when a man hasn't even had his G.D. coffee yet?
Jesus H.! Lulu! Lulu Ann! Fetch my scattergun!
Ever discreet, the hunt, too, maintains a low profile, although
it's not strictly necessary this morning. Unlike those in the
U.K., hunts in the United States encounter little organized
opposition. The only other humans in sight when we pull up are a
couple of middle-aged watercolorists and, on a distant hillside,
a single shepherd tending his flock. When the artists catch
sight of the lonely mutton-poke and his sweatered herd wandering
among the wildflowers beneath the majestic peaks, they know
they've hit the crafts-fair jackpot. Paint boxes and easels
aclatter, they take off running.
By now there are 20 or so horse trailers angled into an open
field. Some have been hauled here behind commercial-duty diesel
rigs as complex and expensive as the lunar module; others have
been dragged through the hills by cowboy-quality two-tone
pickups with bent frames and metastatic rust. Riding to hounds
in the Nueva West isn't just for the super-rich. A rig, a horse,
dues and upkeep don't have to run much more annually than a
couple of destination golf outings. Hence the handful of
battered Suburbans and F-250s. There are enough Range Rovers and
BMW X5s and Mercedes M-Class SUVs here, however, to remind you
that this ain't the rodeo. The horses, prefight jittery in their
plaid blankets, are being led out of their trailers and saddled.
The riders, according to their personal preference, employ a
wide variety of breeds. Some of the horses are agile former polo
ponies; most are thoroughbreds, slender and rippling and fast
enough to win at Santa Anita; some are huge hunter-jumpers bred
to the task. Every rider dotes on, and swears by, the various
attributes of his own horse. One's a gamer, one never tires,
one's got more vinegar in him than your brother-in-law's wine
cellar, and one is as low-key and unflappable as Alan Greenspan.
Whether you're on a bay or an Arabian or an Appaloosa, big or
small, a $15,000 show-ring warmblood or a $200 government mule,
what foxhunting demands of the horse is speed, endurance,
strength and the willingness to climb, slide down or jump
whatever its rider points it at.
Even the horses come to the hunt well-dressed. Their
Masters-approved, regulation saddle pads peek brilliant white
from beneath the burnished club-chair leather of their English
saddles. Above their carefully manicured hooves some wear
pristine spats or gaiters or bright bandage wraps. Their tack
gleams and creaks, and the sharp smell of polish is everywhere.
The riders, of course, are clad in their formal hunting attire.
The minutiae regarding who may wear which color and what style
of breeches and coats and gloves, boot tops and bowlers and top
hats and buttons and collars and stickpins after how many years
of what kind of service to the hunt as determined by the Masters
would baffle the Sun King and the court at Versailles.
To an untrained eye like mine, however, the basics are these:
black velveteen hard hat to protect fragile skull housing big,
big brain. Black, navy or scarlet coats. Scarlet coats called,
traditionally, "pinks." Riding breeches in tan, canary, white.
Proper riding boots, laceless, with/without brown/patent tops.
Long-sleeved white shirt under canary or white waistcoat. White
stock tie, which, unwound, can sling broken arm or, if velveteen
hard hat proves insufficient to hubristic misadventure
undertaken by big, big brain, can bandage cracked skull. Gloves
white/tan/light brown. Whippers-in carry whips w/handles carved
from bone or ivory. Others carry crops or swagger sticks. Most
As the riders gather their equipment and their horses, the
overall impression is that of a location shoot for the next
Ralph Lauren campaign. The foot soldiers who long ago opposed
Genghis Khan or the Cossacks or the Light Brigade knew all too
well that there are few things on earth more awe-inspiring, more
profoundly frightening than the sight of a man on the back of a
horse. This effect might have been mitigated for them had they
watched the shorter members of the West Hills Hunt attain the
saddle by first climbing onto the fender of their horse
trailers. Once everyone has successfully mounted up, though, and
the hounds have been let out of the kennel truck, yapping and
rolling as though tumbling from a tiny clown car under the big
top, and a toast has been drunk to the day's success, the hunt
at last begins to look as we have been taught to expect by PBS
and the films of Merchant and Ivory.
The hounds, with their heads down, sniffsniffsnuffling the
ground, mill around the Huntsman's horse as the group
consolidates and begins to walk slowly toward the hills. They
are a varied bunch, these riders, including a brain surgeon and
a rocket scientist (insert own punch lines here _________), a
couple of publicists and a blacksmith, and lawyers and bankers
and dentists seeking their soul's release. Some are tall and
lean, hatchet chins proudly splitting the fierce Sierra wind,
some round and rubbery, jowls flapping as they bounce above
their saddles. I see Raul out among them, ramrod-straight in the
saddle, wearing a malevolent-looking pair of mirrored Oakleys,
whip coiled at his side. The men outnumber the women by about
three to one, and there are a handful of kids poking along at
the rear of the field.
The strategy for a hunt is pretty simple. The Huntsman is out
front with the hounds. He maneuvers them in such a way as to
cross the fresh scent trail of a coyote. This he does by guiding
the hounds to the likeliest places a coyote might have recently
passed. He guides them by tootling his tiny horn and by
bellowing at them like a scalded Pavarotti. The hounds get the
scent and lead the rest of the field in pursuit. In dry, windy
conditions like those today, though, a scent trail might last
only half an hour, so it takes some expertise to put the hounds
on a good, hot line. Once found, the coyote's trail may
eventually go cold and be lost, or it may lead to the coyote. If
the coyote is actually seen, the Huntsman gives out what's
called a "view halloo," point out the quarry, and then all
halloo breaks loose. With horns toot-tootling and hooves
pounding and hounds yelping, the field sets off on a "gone
away," the civilian equivalent of a cavalry charge, in which
riders can go as fast as they dare on any line they like. They
mustn't pass the Huntsman or the hounds, but they are free to
run, jump and scare themselves and the horses bitless if they so
choose. Riding in such a manner outside the gone away is called
"larking" or "thrusting," and is discouraged.
Riders are not to pass the Huntsman under any circumstance. The
whippers-in ride slightly behind him, on the flanks of the pack,
to keep the hounds grouped. Behind them is the first field of
riders, generally the most experienced riders. They take their
cues from the field master, who regulates the pace and the route
they'll use to follow the hounds. Behind this group rides the
second field, made up of riders with less time in the saddle.
Some days there is a third field. Bringing up the rear are the
hill-toppers--beginners and slowpokes and sportswriters.
David Wendler is not a tall man, but he is keg-chested and has a
very large voice and sits on his horse with Cromwellian
authority. By the time the hunt crests the first hill a few
hundred yards ahead of me, he is yelling and tootling like mad.
"Yoicks!" he shouts. "Yoicks!" and "Watch out, lads!" he cries,
and off they go at a canter, hounds and horses and riders, a
Victorian fox hunt under the dazzling California sun moving
across the instantly recognizable backdrop of 10,000 cowboy
movies. It is a moment out of time: Masterpiece Theatre meets
Masterpiece Barbecue Sauce.
For the next several hours I see the hunt only infrequently.
Horses are much faster here than a borrowed 4 x 4. When I do
catch sight of the hunt from a distant ridge, though, it seems
to follow this pattern: hounds and horses at a walk. Hounds
snuffsnuffsnuffling the ground. Hounds and horses run off a few
hundred yards. Stop. Hounds and horses walk. Snuffle.
Sniffsniffsniff. Runrunrun. Stop. Walk. Snuffle.
Sniffsniffsniff. Runrunrun. Stop. Etc. Yoicks! Hoicks! Tallyho!
By the time I catch up to the field at around 11 a.m., when they
stop for water at a stock tank, everyone--the hounds, the
horses, and the riders--looks sweaty and dusty and sort of down
in the mouth. They've followed lots of coyote scent lines but
encountered no actual coyotes. The horses are beginning to
lather, and the hounds drink and then stand, panting, with their
tongues lolling. Perhaps a quarter of the riders nip from little
silver flasks, another tradition in the field. Tequila is the
preferred fortifier in these parts, and its consumption varies,
I'm told, considerably, from "big time" to "way big time." At
least one rider has a riding crop with a flask in the handle.
Off they go again, snuffling and cantering and yelping through
the hills, bolstered by the cry of "Steady on, lads!" as if they
were going over the top at Verdun, yoicksing and hoicksing and
tootootootling among the creosote bushes and the cactus and the
chuparosa, flasks gleaming, whips cracking and tack jingling,
the horses, the big bays and the chestnuts and the grays,
rising, and then lost in a ballooning cloud of yellow dust.
If this were England, it would be easier to catch and hold a
scent line; in the damp the musk of a passing fox can linger for
hours. If this were Mother England, however, you'd have to
contend with the hunt saboteurs as well. There has been vigorous
opposition to the practice for years in hunting's favored home.
Oscar Wilde, of course, took the defining shot. Foxhunting, he
epigrammed, is "the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible."
Groups like the Fabian Society subverted hunts in Queen
Victoria's time. During World War II, even RAF airmen stationed
in the countryside pranked and impeded hunts. Perhaps fighter
pilots don't have the stomach for some of hunting's less
appealing customs. Like cutting off the fox's head and tail--the
mask and the brush--before tossing the carcass to the hounds,
then awarding them (for meritorious service, one presumes) to
members of the hunt. Or dipping the brush in the fox's blood and
using it to paint the face of a new hunter on the occasion of
his first kill. This is called "blooding." I must say I never
saw anything happen along these lines, and no one I spoke to for
this story mentioned anything like this taking place in current
American fox or coyote hunting. But then, who would?
By one in the afternoon almost everyone has returned to the
horse trailers for the Punchbowl. This is brunch--and the
traditional conclusion to the day's hunt. Now the real drinking
begins. And while there is, in fact, a large sterling silver
punch bowl present, engraved with the names of the West Hills
Hunt Masters of Foxhounds going back to 1949, this week's spread
is far more elaborate than a tubful of spiked CranApple. It is a
gold-plated picnic that begins with a table full of mimosas and
Bloody Marys and flutes of champagne. There is enough vodka here
to poison the crew of a Russian submarine. Among the white
linens there are also crepes and muffins and tostadas and
biscuits and gravy and chorizo and spanish rice and refried
beans and an omelette station and strawberries and three kinds
of melon. And a chef.
The riders take care of their horses first, watering and wiping
them down, handing out carrots; then they mill around with
drinks and plates of food as the tablecloths snap in the wind.
Since I last saw them, they've had some fairly good action up in
one of the faraway canyons. They saw a coyote and chased it, and
there were a couple of harrowing gone aways. They did not catch
the coyote. No one seems to care.
Back up the canyon, though, holed in his den or wedged in a
crack among the rocks or hunkered low beneath a cottonwood snag
in a dry wash, breathing shallow and hard and with his heart
still pounding, br'er coyote, I'm sure, cares very much that
things went as they did. Absent the sweet deliverance of that
heavenly cartoon anvil, this is about the best he can hope for
on these hunt Saturdays.
I ask many questions. I receive one answer. "The chase is the
deal," Raul tells me, capturing in a phrase the group's
operative philosophy. "Know what I mean?" His pinks are lightly
dusted and his face is flushed with exertion, and he is smiling
and satisfied with the day's ride. To an 18-year-old it is the
riding, "the excitement, the rush, the adrenaline." It is also a
sport, she says, that's "female friendly." To a 65-year-old
builder and developer who asked me not to use his name, it is
the riding, which to him is best characterized as a "double
blast." To a Los Angeles publicist, it is "a reason to really
ride, not just run a little bit." To another woman it is "like
going to the top of the mountain in skiing--it's just you and
your horse and nature." To a man nearby, in his 40s and powdered
with a day's worth of effort, it is "the closest thing to your
mistress," an observation I've puzzled over for months. It is
the riding that brings people here. Flexing yourself out over
the horse at speed, tightening yourself to the saddle, hands
high, hinged at the knees, the animal's lats rippling beneath
you. Nobody mentions the hounds, the history, the fashion, the
rules, the paradox of one kind of dog chasing another kind of
dog, or the nearly secretive sense of high occasion that attends
it all. Few mention the coyote.
In the rare instances when the coyote is spoken of, he is
anthropomorphized. He is described as an artful little dodger
who knowingly confounds the hunt, who takes pride in his evasive
maneuvers, doubling back on the same line to confuse the hounds
or running through a field full of sheep to camouflage his
scent, who pauses just long enough on a ridge line to look back
at the hunt and laugh, shaking his head at their human
foolishness, before he's on his merry way again. He is not to be
pitied. He is a crafty bastard. He enjoys the challenge.
I saw just one. As I was cresting a hill on the way back to the
trailers, he spooked from cover and ran across the packed dirt
road in front of me. He was skinny and fast, and he carried his
tail low. He was buff-colored and blended so well with the
terrain that as soon as he crossed, I lost him. I stopped. Ten
seconds later he appeared on the brow of the ridge above me. He
stopped and looked over his shoulder. Then he was gone. I
couldn't tell by his expression if he was having fun.
I later sought some expert insight into the assertion that Mr.
Coyote enjoys the thrill of being chased. "That's idiotic," says
naturalist Hope Ryden. For her book God's Dog she spent two years
in a blind on a Wyoming hillside recording and photographing
coyotes' clannish family behavior. "That's the most ridiculous
thing I've ever heard."
On Sunday morning David Wendler drives two hours round-trip to
retrieve a hound separated from the pack and lost from the hunt
the day before. The hound knew the Huntsman would come back and
walked down out of the hills in the middle of the night to wait
That night I watch 60 Minutes at Raul's house. I am there to eat
homemade pizza before my plane leaves. It is a moment of
transcendent coincidence. Ed Bradley has done a piece on the
foxhunting controversy in England. In its report the CBS crew
interviews some ardent masked saboteurs and some plummy Lord
Rottenbottom types. There is hunt footage from the dank English
countryside, with plenty of right proper yelping and yoicksing
and tootling. There is some discouraging footage of foxes being
shredded. There are shots of pale protesters wielding placards.
There is the reassuring rise and fall of Ed Bradley's resonant
American baritone throughout. At the end of the segment there is
silence. "These things are pretty one-sided," Raul says. I know
what he means. Things aren't always what they seem. But it is,
without question, the best pizza I've ever tasted.
On Sunday, I fly out of the infinite present and the national
capital of our distractions. Far behind me the last light in
that long, broad valley is soft and Tiffany blue at the end of
the day. There are no clouds in that deepening sky. The wind has
eased, and the wildflowers wave and nod, and the trees shake
themselves, breathing out, and the mountains are quiet and
half-shadowed, and the last horse is gone in the last trailer,
and the hounds and the hunters, too, are gone at last. The
coyotes here on heaven's edge are nowhere to be seen. But, oh,
it is a pretty place.
Ever since we swung down from the trees, people have loved the
chase. We are hardwired for it--to chase something, anything.
Off they go at a canter, hounds and horses and riders, a
Victorian foxhunt under the dazzling California sun. It is a
moment out of time: Masterpiece Theatre meets Masterpiece
Nobody mentions the hounds, the history, the fashion, the rules,
the paradox of one kind of dog chasing another kind of dog. Few
mention the coyote.
In Indian lore the coyote was a charming scoundrel and an
oversexed fool, capable of greatness but most often left hungry,
lonely and wounded by his own devious scheming. He was, in other
Tequila is the preferred fortifier in these parts, and its
consumption varies considerably, I'm told, from "big time" to
"way big time."