I take a swig of cheap beer from a 40-ounce bottle and pass it to a guy in white gym shorts and knee-high tube socks with the letters B-E-E-R stitched down the sides. It’s an unusually warm February day in Charlottesville, Va. The past couple of weeks have been an ill-timed combination of 14 glorious inches of fresh powder and an unavoidable backlog of work, so when my screen-glazed eyes finally saw the light of day this morning, my first thought was, ‘Man, I could go for a beer.’ That notion was immediately shot down, followed by some self-chastising and a more responsible thought: I need to go for a run.
The problem is, I love beer and I hate running. Running is a last-resort activity in my eyes. It’s what I do when the rivers are dry and the rocks are wet, when it’s too cold to paddle but there’s not enough snow to ski. It’s what I do when I can’t find anybody else to do anything else with me. Lucky for me, I happened upon an international community of people who find running just as tolerable but prefer to partake in the activity with its proper accompaniment: booze. These people are the Hash House Harriers.
“Want anymore?” my neighbor asks me, swirling around the last sip of beer in the bottle.
“I’m good, thanks Joe,” I tell him. Immediately I begin blushing from the onslaught of incredulous looks I get for using my neighbor’s real name instead of his hash name. I clear my throat. “I mean…Motor Cock.”
For those unfamiliar with the Hash Hound Harriers, they’re an international drinking club with a running problem. Modeled after the English childhood game of “hares and hounds,” present-day hashing was developed in Malaysia in the 1930s with the purpose of implementing the following four pillars: 1) promote physical fitness among members, 2) get rid of weekend hangovers, 3) acquire a good thirst and satisfy it with beer, and 4) persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel. A ‘hash’ involves one or two members acting as hares and either setting a live trail or pre-laying a trail with flour for the rest of the group, the hounds, to follow. The trail type varies with location, but you can bet that a well-laid hash isn’t going down the most popular trails or the main sidewalk in town. It’s the adult version of tag, along with a delightful combination of beer, dog collars, dirty aliases, and inappropriate jingles.
“Now hold on just a minute,” says a hasher named Rambo. He’s wearing black jogging pants pulled high up his waist and a grungy white bandana with the letters H-A-R-E stamped in red. Unlike most hashers, Rambo doesn’t drink alcohol, so I’m surprised by his intervention.
“It’s hashing tradition to let the kitten drink at the first beer stop.” He motions toward the small plush kitten toy I hold in my hands, the one Stuff’d N Cuff’d, the religious advisor of the Charlottesville hashers, gave me before the hash.
“Now, Virgin,” Stuff’d N Cuff’d had said, calling me by the only appropriate name for first-time hashers without a hash name, “Your job today is to hold on to this and to think of a name for it, even though others in the group may be scheming to swipe it from you. If you show up at my circle without it, I will not be happy.”
Of course, those words did not resonate very deeply within me and in a matter of seconds, I had forfeited my grip on the little fuzzy toy so that Rambo could give it some beer. I was, after all, the virgin of the hash and Rambo was the voice of experience, a hashing legend, having hashed on nearly every continent for more than 20 years of his life. Surely he knew the rules more thoroughly than I ever would.
“Thank you,” he says as he douses the kitten’s head in a splash of beer. He then shakes it off before tucking away the poor stuffed creature beyond the waistband of his athletic pants, never to be seen again. “That was easy.”
“Really? First try?” Motor Cock takes one look at me and shakes his head. “You’re going to pay for that.”
He turns away to begin looking for the next flour mark and I follow suit, dodging fallen branches and weaving through mangled thorn bushes (referred to in hashing as “shiggy”) until we find the next blaze. He’s been hashing for nearly 20 years too, his first run down in Guam in 2000. As we half jog, half walk up the side of a steep bank, Motor Cock and his friend Quick Tongue exchange stories from their hashing days abroad. Motor Cock tells me about that first hash in Guam, how it involved swimming in open water and hacking through razor-sharp sword grass. Quick Tongue himself grew up hashing in Malaysia, the birthplace of the Hash House Harriers. He later moved to India and remembers hashing down the bustling streets of Delhi and crushing his first beer at 16 years old.
As they continued sharing their tales of epic hangovers and hashers clad in red dresses, the adrenaline of the hash (or perhaps it was the booze) began coursing through my veins. Suddenly, I was diving headfirst through the jungle, crashing through tangled masses of spiny foliage, fervently searching for that next flour hash, hot on the trail of the elusive hare. I could feel the sticky humidity of the central Pacific air on the back of my neck, the salty taste of sweat beading above my lip. In reality, I was chugging High Life and stumbling over invisible roots. Our hare Musk Stank Sally was not jetting through the trees and frantically setting trail like I’d imagined, but casually bringing up the rear of the pack, sauntering along with a PBR in hand.
Within a few hours we arrive back at the starting point, a cooler of more beverages awaiting our return. The religious advisor Stuff’d N Cuff’d rallies everyone in a circle and begins the process of handing out violations. From being the FRB (front running bastard) to pulling up DFL (dead fucking last) to everything in between, including wearing denim during a hash, just about every person in the circle receives a violation and is required to pay up in the form of a “down-down,” chugging the remaining liquid in your vessel. Stuff’d N Cuff’d saves my violations for last, and with a grand, sweeping gesture he invites me to step into the middle of his circle.
“Now Virgin, you were asked to do one thing today and that was to hold on to the object which I bestowed upon you and think of a name for that object.” He looks down at my hands and, noting they are empty, thrusts his head back and begins pacing around the circle. “I see that you could not complete that task in its entirety, and for that you will pay dearly.”
Suddenly a number of unidentifiable hands rush me, cracking open cans and pouring beer into my half-empty cup until it’s overflowing.
“Down-down-down-down, down-down…” they begin in their sing-song banter. I am by no means partial to chugging beer, but by day’s end I had morphed into a beer-crushing aficionado of sorts, relishing how quickly I could drain a 12-ounce can like a college freshman rushing a fraternity. When I finished, I dumped the cup’s last few drops above my head to prove my salt and waited for the next violation. Instead, Stuff’d N Cuff’d shuffled over to me, slid his sunglasses down the brim of his nose, and stared at me with one eyebrow cocked.
“So, did you name the thing?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.
Perhaps the beers were finally starting to catch up to me, or perhaps I was inspired by the general vibe of moral abandonment and college-age carelessness. Whatever the case, I responded without hesitation, almost proudly, “Petey.”
“Well then from now on until you receive a more proper hash name, you shall be PETEY! Down-down-down-down, down-down…”