Have you ever been coon hunting?
I grew to adulthood in the Ozark Mountains, in the NW corner of Arkansas. The country folk used to coon hunt in the woods up there and probably still do.
Coon hunting happens at night. During the day, they hole up somewhere, so there's no use hunting before the sun goes down.
The guys all met for the hunt in pickup trucks, the beds loaded with leashed dogs crowded against coolers full of ice and beer. Just good ol' boys out for some fun with guns. Greeting and heckling each other, they put beer on the tailgates as one of the most important preparations for the hunt.
"Hey Harry, nice to see you and your tomboy!" they greeted my dad. He waved. I said nothing, only hefted my rifle, knowing I could outshoot most of these men even when they were sober.
After they gulped a few alcoholic beverages, the guys unleashed their hounds. Gathering up our guns, we ambled after the mob of canines disappearing into the night-dark forest.
The men reminisced about good dogs that'd died, naming them with gruff reverence. Jake. Molly. Tri-Sally who'd gotten run over by a tractor, too tough to die, running almost as fast as her pups on her remaining three legs. Good dogs. Their memories lived on in their descendents running for us that night.
"Do you remember Old Blue?" asked a gray haired man, his worn shotgun an extension of his wiry arm. "He never let a coon get an even break." I was unsure if he was talking about hunting. The edge of meanness in his words made me uneasy. A couple of men beside him laughed like they did when whispering dirty jokes.
The hounds' chorus signaled they'd found a coon trail and gave chase with tones so pure they sounded like church bells pealing in God's woods. Their voices rang of life and death and the saving or escaping of it. We quickened our pace.
When the dogs treed the coon, their voices changed. Their barking became angry. We know you are up there, and our people will blast you into Heaven. Some of the hounds summoned their masters, Come-come. We have him.
Everyone hurried to where the dogs had the coon treed, guns clutched in their arms, flashlights and lanterns swinging, splashing light on the trees. Despite their lights, several men trip over roots and leaves anyway. Me, I was a twelve year old girl. I didn't have a flashlight to light my path and didn't need one. My .22 rifle cradled in my arms was all I needed. I ghosted over the ground like a deer.
We arrived at the oak where the dogs leapt and thrashed the trunk with their paws, tearing the bark. A Bluetick and a Redbone tried to climb like cats. The Bluetick made it up as high as I was tall, only to fall back to the ground amidst the milling pack.
Men and boys circled the tree with their flashlights; the beams lights riffled the branches, searched for the eerie green-reflected light of coon eyes above our heads, but no eyes were seen.
I waited on the outskirts of all the flailing lights and stomping boots. I didn't want any beer drinking idiots to step on me and knock me down in their hunting frenzy. I wondered, if they sighted the coon, would one person shoot it? Or would the poor coon end up with more holes than hair?
Even as a young girl I knew you needed a good, seasoned hound to guide the younger dogs. Coons are clever creatures who probably studied with foxes some time in their distant ancestry and taught those red guys their tricks.
Coons who have been hunted before know all kinds of tricks to use against dogs. One of their favorite tricks is to urinate or defecate on the tree they first climbed, and then jump from the wispy branches of one tree to another, until they come to a spot where the branches are too far away. They are forced to ground again, and this is where the dogs could pick up his scent. If there are seasoned old coon hounds on the hunt, wise to this trick, the ruse doesn't work for long. But because I was out with a bunch of red necks whose main intentions were drinking beer away from their wives and swapping stories, we didn't have one experienced tracker in the bunch. We had a pack of adolescent pups barking up the wrong tree and no wise old hounds to show them the correct way of doing things.
The men encouraged the hounds to cast about the tree and showed them how to work in circles. Bob grabbed his black and tan by her leather collar and dragged the gyp away from the decoy spot to areas several yards away, shoving her nose at the ground to show her where coon scent might be found. After several false starts, a dog found the trail where the prey had returned to the ground. Rallying the pack, she launched into the dark woods.
Now this is how writing is like coon hunting. A seasoned writer knows when she is barking up the wrong tree. Experienced writers start casting about in overlapping circles from where they got lost to where they might pick up the story trail again. But a less experienced writer--like me--gets confused. I leap at that tree--my chapter--and try to climb it, but I can't seem to keep going. I've completely fallen for that decoy shit. Around and around, I circle the spot where I got lost, positive this is the writing path I'm supposed to continue. If only I could glimpse my story staring down at me with glowing eyes for just one moment…but the reality is, the story has moved on and I need to find where it came to ground. Sometimes I have to drag my writing self away from the decoy by the collar until I start questing for the new scent on more than mere instinct. Or my critique partners see I'm on a false trail and help to redirect me. Eventually I find the scent trail and take off again.
Beer doesn't help in hunting for coons. However, I do find a Mike's Hard Lemonade helpful while I ponder the best way to solve my writing problem. I'm drinking a Mike's black cherry right now. Yum!
Oh, and I never DID shoot a coon. Those guys were the best beer drinkers and the worst hunters I've ever seen.