The faint smell of fresh straw wafting from the otherwise dank dog box in the back of the truck permeates the brisk air while heavy dew on the slick grass begins softening the work-hardened toes of my leather boots. I can feel its cool dampness seeping in through a deep crack or two earned by the leather from my abuse and neglect, but the sun is quickly working its way above the horizon and the slight wisps of steam rising from where the sun hits the ground unfiltered tells me it will be unseasonably hot again. My feet will not be cold today, but I find myself hoping one more time that my weathered boots will make it through another hunt.
With the tailgate open, the pack of beagles can see out and their unbridled excitement for the morning hunt is evident. Any movement from their humans is answered with impulsive bays cried out instinctively, and the rhythmic thumping of tails soon to be bloodied by mean briars drums steadily on the inside of the box.
Skunk opens the left door of the box and a stream of brown and black pours from it onto the ground and splatters in all directions. Flea hesitates to take the tumble. Instead, the meek-looking runt of the litter stands on the tailgate, head hanging, tail tucked, waiting for the firm hand of her Master to place her down. Her dished out flanks join small, boney hips to a disproportionate chest that is full of nothing but heart for the hunt despite her diminutive stature and reluctance to jump. Skunk uses the opportunity to put on her electronic collar before resting the now eager, gyrating dog on the ground.
It would be charitable to call this sorry looking pack great beagles. Their coarse hair and widely varying body sizes hint of a secret kennel affair at some point in their lineage. There are no graceful, thorax-like waists as found on purebred upland bird dogs or deep, powerful chests like on Labs—they’re just brown and black misshapen sacks with short legs, long ears and the occasional wart. But they have strong noses and sharp voices and are fine rabbit dogs.
I am on an annual all-day rabbit hunting pilgrimage with my neighbors, SCI Members W.R. Thompson and his son Billy Ray, and their friends Joey and Skunk who have traveled several hours with their dogs from the Chesapeake Bay to our quiet village of White Post. Two things run through the veins of these Thompson men—a passion for hunting, and old motor oil. Their passion for hunting is evident from their trophy room that is lined with the heads and hides from generations of hunting everything from our local rabbits to mountain goats, wolves, bears and all manner of antlered game taken on hunts booked at the SCI Convention.
Next to their home, hidden in our secluded town in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, is “the shop”—White Post Restorations–one of the world’s foremost antique car restoration businesses. With its 30-some families and only two streets that intersect at the historic “white post,” our village hardly seems the place where everyone from American celebrities to Middle Eastern royalty would turn to have new life breathed into an old car.
One of several 1949 Cadillac Model 75 Limousines they are restoring is ready to head “home” to the Middle East. Billy Ray and one of his mechanical craftsmen will accompany it and deliver it personally to a king where it’s not enough for the car to run right and look new—it has to be perfect in every way. With typical White Post car restorations running into six figures, these cars are not for the sake of investment. They are about the desire for extraordinary, unobtainable things and are nothing short of fine art on mechanical canvas every bit as pleasing to a collector as a Rembrandt painting or a bottle of Romanée Conti.
Upon entering the shop, one is first taken by the almost cramped, maze-like layout culminating from decades of cobbling on a room here and there as the family has grown the business over four generations. Autographed celebrity photos hang on the walls among original antique automobile ephemera, and an old barber’s chair complemented by a working barber pole are visible through the door to the men’s restroom. Mechanic bays corner W.R.’s tiny office, and past the upholstery room is the lunchroom where local residents also meet to discuss village business.
After one takes in the complexity of the labyrinth and begins to process finer details, you notice that the shop is immaculate—spotless—almost sterile in its cleanliness. This is not a garage where oil-soaked kitty litter crunches under your feet or you need to be concerned that unintentionally brushing up against something will find a glob of dirty grease attaching itself only to be discovered later after you’ve thoroughly ground it into your clothes and probably the upholstery of your car and living room sofa. Instead, this is where ostrich-plume feather dusters are lightly caressed over deep, mirror-like paint jobs and one must put on white cotton gloves and empty their pockets before getting inside a car.
That immaculateness carries over to the Thompson’s primary residence where the family’s matriarch, W.R.’s wife, Laura, tends tidy hosta gardens that compete for most elegant in White Post with her bubbling, kidney-shaped koi pond she dug herself. There is also an aged wisteria braiding up and into the pergola leading to the sunroom that welcomes the Thompson’s visitors with bountiful clumps of fragrant periwinkle blossoms.
Though Laura doesn’t personally hunt, she is completely into the Safari Club International lifestyle. Before joining SCI and going to her first Convention, W.R.’s elk ivory were little more to her than strange teeth from some animal he killed. More recently, however, they’ve been crafted into a striking bracelet by one of SCI’s exhibitors. “I never realized they could be made into something so beautiful,” she tells me as I sit waiting in their trophy room for W.R. to finish getting ready for the afternoon rabbit hunt. He finally enters through the heavy, custom-crafted copper doors Laura commissioned at last year’s Convention, and we’re off.
The dense stand of ponderosa pine is hardly the habitat I’d ever expect to find rabbits, yet year after year, W.R., Billy Ray, their friends and I always manage to take about 50 from there before calling it a season. This year is no different. The stand is “infested” with rabbits, as W.R. says, and it’s good that the dogs rested through lunch. They’re not nearly as fresh as they were in the morning and are trailing much slower now, which is a good thing as the many fresh crisscrossing rabbit trails overwhelm the energetic dogs’ capabilities and split the pack.
We probably won’t all limit out today, and that’s fine. For me, it’s about the quality of the hunt and my fellow hunters, not the number of rabbits I have to clean. It has been a good hunt. The dogs did well and we hit more than we missed despite the tight spacing of the trees and the occasional impenetrable tangle of briars.
And what amazing car does the owner of one of the foremost car restoration companies drive away in after a great day of rabbit hunting? The same one he drives every day—a 10-year-old Ford F-150—of course, it’s the King Ranch version. Which, in its own way, is also a type of “classic.”–Scott Mayer