| Outside magazine, May 1996|
On a night when much interaction with dogs and raccoons was anticipated, Shane Groves and his buddy Vandardis Black took the time to explain to me why it was necessary that other creatures be involved, namely two animals that were referred to as mules but in fact resembled mutant peccaries. "There they are," Shane said, pointing. "You ever ridden anything like them before?"
Nope. I'd never ridden anything like them before. It was possible that I'd never even seen anything like them before--hard to tell, because visibility wasn't good. It was the darkest sort of night in the northwest corner of Ohio, with starlight rattling through the corn stubble.
"You won't regret it," Shane told me. He meant having a mule to ride. "Out there in the woods, chasing those dogs through the briars and trees, you'll be real happy about having a mule."
I was unconvinced. Chasing dogs through briars and trees seemed diversion enough.
We were at the T. L. Brown farm on County Road 0, just southeast of the village of Pioneer and not too far from Kunkle, which is west of Aldvordton but well north of Hicksville. From the vantage point of an air corridor 30,000 feet above, this region would appear as an expanding darkness interspersed by the frail colonies of light that mark the night strongholds of human existence in rural places. It's what certain hotshot types in New York and L.A. refer to as "flyover country"--a term that trivializes the Midwest while insinuating a superiority that no Midwesterner who has ever been to New York or L.A. takes seriously. That term, and all that it implies, was one of the reasons I was now standing at the corral gate of the T. L. Brown farm, peering through the gloom at what appeared to be several elephant-size horses, among which stood the two mutant peccaries.
"Are those Clydesdales?" I asked.
Shane, a junior at North Central High in Pioneer, was busy gathering ropes and harnesses. "I already told you. They're mules." Clearly, the kid was focused on his quarry and assumed that I was too.
"Not the little ones," I said. "The really big ones."
"Huh? Those aren't Clydesdales. Those are Belgians. They're draft horses. We take them around to fairs and enter them in pulling contests. We got one can pull a 4,500-pound sled. It's what we do when we're not busy coon huntin'. Or running our snowmobiles. But those Belgians, they wouldn't be any good at all at chasing dogs. Dog makes one wrong step--squish. Heck, if we make a wrong step--squish!"
I found his reply heartening. For one thing, it meant that I wouldn't have to try to climb aboard one of those monster animals. It also seemed to validate the theory that had brought me to Pioneer, Ohio, in the first place. It was my belief that no matter where one happened to land in flyover country, a visitor would find that high-energy people were busy doing interesting things in outdoor places that might not be as photogenic as Aspen or as exotic as Maui but were just as significant in terms of interaction with nature, not to mention kick-butt fun.
"Hold the gate while we catch Sass and Tom."
Shane and Vandardis untethered the mules and led them out. When distanced from the draft horses, the mules seemed to grow in stature until they at last assumed the appearance of things found on a farm rather than in the Amazon. Not that they were classic representatives of the breed. Sass looked as if the DNA helix of more than one foul-tempered pony were clogging his gene pool. Tom was much bigger and had glazed, surly eyes, as if he were nursing some age-old grudge.
"You want to help load these mules?" Vandardis asked.
No, I didn't want to help load these mules. It was my guess that both animals bit like dogs. But I helped anyway, pushing, pulling, and leveraging Tom and Sass into the horse trailer while Shane reviewed our plans for the evening. After we loaded the mules and the dogs, he said, we'd drive back into Pioneer to pick up lights and gear, and then we'd trailer the animals across into Michigan, where he and Vandardis knew of a woods loaded with raccoons.
"The kind of place that coon huntin's all about," Shane said. According to Shane, we would loose the dogs in a likely spot and then stand around beneath the stars and listen to the barks. From the inflection of their yapping, Shane and Vandardis would know when the dogs were on the trail, when the dogs were closing in on a coon, and when the dogs had a coon treed. That's when we would leap upon the mules and ride pell-mell through the briars and the trees.
"Then you shoot the raccoon?" I asked.
Shane seemed mildly surprised by the question, but the kid was a diplomat. "Well, we could shoot them. Yeah, I suppose we could. But we won't, because that would make just one less coon for the next time we go out, right? No, the reason we're doing what we're doing is to work the dogs. Train them how to track coons. The dogs love it, the mules don't seem to mind, and I'm beginning to think the coons get a kick out of it too. Don't they, Vandardis?"
Vandardis Black was nodding. "The way they look down when the dogs have them treed, it's like, 'Hey, we'll get even. Leave your trash out and you'll be sorry.' Or, 'We know where your sweet corn lives.'"
"It's like that," Shane said to me. "Understand?"
I was beginning to.
"See, we enter the dogs in coon dog trials. Take them all over the place. When we're not pulling the Belgians at fairs. Or running our snowmobiles. Or fishing. Like I told you. You're about to have the wildest time of your life. Running dogs through the woods at night on mule-back is pretty much a guaranteed good time."
I was beginning to understand that, too.
Truth is, I'd been having a very good time ever since my rental car and I had left the dinge of Detroit International Airport and escaped south into flyover country. The village of Pioneer, just two miles beyond the Michigan state line and only 15 miles from Indiana, seemed an ideal destination. I liked the implications of its name. Also, because it was wedged between two other flyover states, it had a geographical resonance that suggested wider representation. It might be any small town between Nebraska and Pennsylvania. If Pioneer's thousand-plus residents were out there having fun, hip-deep in nature and God knows what else, then there was no reason for the Midwest to warrant indifference, let alone play ugly stepchild to every recreational glamour attraction from sea to shining sea. I was in an investigatory frame of mind.
I crossed the state line onto Ohio 15, and Pioneer emerged from a gray horizon: winterized houses, water tower, old brick buildings, a solitary traffic light. To my right was Hometown Hardware; to my left was Sooz's Restaurant, which was just across from the one-room library. I tracked down Pioneer's mayor, Alan Fiser, who also runs the local bank. "This is a solid, progressive little town," he told me. "You won't find a better place to raise children. Everything revolves around our kids. If you want to find active people, stop at the high school."
North Central High was set among elms and maples on Baubice Street. The mayor was mayor for a reason. He knew his town. In a school of 800 students, nearly every teacher I met had an enthusiastic outdoor agenda, and the kids were usually included.
Did I want to do a cross-country run? Did I want to drive out to Lake La Su An and go fly-fishing? And what about mountain biking? The county had no mountains, but there were plenty of big tractor trails to ride.
But it was school librarian Sherry Shipley, a take-charge woman, who helped fix my itinerary. Shipley is one of those people who sweeps bystanders along by force of enthusiasm, and those who tarry are grabbed by the arm and yanked. Shipley grabbed my arm and yanked more than once. What I might want to do, she told me, was go coon hunting with some of the students. And since the students hunted raccoons at night, what I could do is spend the day on a canoe exploratory with her husband, Tom."With all the creeks and rivers in this county," she said, "a lot of people are saying we need a canoe trail. Maybe you guys can find a good stretch and get it started."
We guys had our orders. I met Tom the next afternoon and followed his gray pickup to a spot on the St. Joseph River where we left his canoe before dropping his truck a few miles away. I guessed we could paddle the distance in 40 or 50 minutes. It took us three hours.
The St. Joseph is a narrow farm river, not unlike hundreds of others that flow across the Midwest. Its headwaters are in Michigan, and it runs southwest into Indiana, where it joins the St. Marys and Maumee Rivers. Not that Tom and I paddled to Indiana. I count myself lucky that we made it to his truck.
We put in near a county road bridge and almost immediately had to get out and portage around a barrier of fallen trees. It was the first of many portages. We humped the canoe over trees, under trees, and up the steep bank dozens of times.
I liked the fact that the river created the back boundary of farms. On a portage, I could look across plains of soybeans or corn and watch people doing chores, futzing with tractors, going about their lives as we moved past--silently, anonymously.
What I liked best, though, was that the river was a magnet for all kinds of wildlife. We seldom rounded a bend that we didn't flush wood ducks or quail. The bank was always a mire of deer tracks, and high above, Canada geese compassed their way southward, traveling faster than us, faster than I wanted to travel. With just a little work, the St. Joe would afford a beautiful canoe trail.
By the time we got to the truck, it was dusk down on the river, although the outer world retained an hour of daylight. As we hauled the canoe out, Tom said, "Man, I bet you're pooped. And you still have to go coon hunting!"
On the bright side, I'd conserved precious energy by declining invitations to bike tractor trails and to run cross-country through the woods. Besides, how demanding could coon hunting be?
"I'd rather have my son hanging around an oak tree than an oak bar." Shane's father, Mike Groves, told me that while we collected gear from his store, Tri-State Coon Hunters Supply, on Ohio 15 just south of Pioneer. The store was a marvel of esoteric goods and equipage. There were Nite Stalker lights and Quick Trac ten-channel dog-locator systems, stacked bags of Happy Hound dog food, and a rack of more than 220 outdoor videos, including Raging Boars, Panfish Power, and Corn Crazed White Tails.
This was after Shane, Vandardis, and I had loaded the mules but before we loaded the dogs and drove north into Michigan, where the night seemed to contract as it grew darker. We parked in what appeared to be a tractor lane on the east side of a place that Vandardis called the Miller's Section. "Lots of coons here," Shane said, shutting off the truck. "Let's get the mules unloaded. Then we'll cut the dogs loose."
It was no easier to unload the mules than it was to load them. If we pushed, they pulled. If we prodded, they balked. "Darn mules!" Shane yelled at one point. "You don't change your attitudes, I'll leave you back in the barn next time!"
The mules must have understood, because neither their attitudes nor their behavior changed.
In contrast, the dogs knew exactly what they were supposed to do, and they did it with hyperactive enthusiasm. There were two: Toby, a registered redbone, and Suzie, a black and tan. Both hit the ground running, noses to the earth, and disappeared into the woods.
"Now's when the fun starts," Shane told me.
"Yeah," said Vandardis. "Listening to the dogs. It's nice."
The three of us moved away from the truck and sat on the ground. The mules cropped grass nearby. It was a moonless night, no lights anywhere around, and you could peer up into space. While I looked at stars and listened to the hooting of owls, Shane kept me informed about the dogs. He could tell what was happening by the sound of their voices. "They're just casting now," he said. "Hear them? When they get on a track, they'll let out a locate. The Toby dog will let go with a bawl, then roll it over into a hard chop."
A bawl, he told me, was like a wail; a chop was a series of barks. "Suzie's a good recreational dog," he said, "but it's Toby that will find the line. You wait and see. That Toby dog, he's a registered night champion, through the United Kennel Club. He's a world-class dog worth maybe $4,000, and he always takes the lead. Hear 'im now? Hear the bawl? He's on track. They'll have a coon treed soon."
The two dogs did have distinctive voices. But I was more interested in the voices of Shane and Vandardis. I listened to them talk about kids at school and their teachers, then about the coming winter and what the ice fishing would be like. Mostly, though, they spoke of coon hunting and their favorite woods and events that made them laugh and some that didn't, like the night a good three-year-old walker dog, Ringo, crawled out of a swamp soaking wet, touched an electric fence, and was killed.
"That was a shame," Vandardis said. "That Ringo dog was pretty good, too."
"Yeah, a good dog," Shane said, although the silence that remained seemed to add, But not as good as Toby.
"Hey, he's got one treed!"
It was Toby, of course. The dog's hard bark had become a distant howl that echoed through the woods. "Grab yourself a mule and let's get over there before he tears the tree apart!"
Shane took off sprinting into the woods. Vandardis swung onto the largest mule, Tom, which left me alone with Sass, whose withers came roughly to my navel. I threw a leg over the animal and immediately fell off the other side. I tried again--and fell again. I heard Shane yell over his shoulder, "Behave, Sass!"
Sass wouldn't behave. He had a nasty trick of faking one direction, quickly turning another, and then eyeing me with supreme contempt as I landed--thud--on the ground. When I finally did get mounted, the animal began to plod south, back toward Ohio. I wanted to go west, into the woods.
"Give him a whack!"
I'm not sure if it was Shane or Vandardis who was yelling advice, but I didn't hesitate to take it. I whacked, and Sass ran with a vengeance--ran me deep into the woods, dodging trees that I couldn't see, under branches that I saw too late, bouncing me along as something inside my diaphragm made a ludicrous ohoof-ohoof-ohoof noise that refused to silence itself until a tree limb nearly decapitated me, then launched me butt-first to the ground.
"See the coon?"
Yes. I had dismounted at precisely the right time. In the high limbs of a tree, frozen in the beam of Vandardis's light, were the golden eyes of a big raccoon. The animal didn't appear frightened. Indeed, the gleam in its eyes suggested that it was another Sass, the evil mule's soulmate.
"Good dog! Good Toby!" Shane was congratulating his night champion. He had no way of knowing it, but this, his favorite dog, would soon be killed by a car on a fast country highway under circumstances that would cause even Shane's father to weep like a child.
But that was a month away.
"Told you this was a wild sport!" Shane was talking to me as I peered up into the bare trees and the midwestern night beyond.
I was looking for a jetliner that would inevitably fly over, thinking: "You people don't know what you're missing."