Keswick, Virginia is a community of beautiful farms tucked deep in the horse country of Virginia, outside of Charlottesville and my wife’s family home, where I went for the weekend to attend a Keswick Hunt Club “hill-topping.” This area of Virginia is home to the University of Virginia, ham biscuits, Stewart’s wonderful onion sandwiches, great wine, warm wonderfully gracious people, Monticello and everything Thomas Jefferson. Of course everything in Albemarle county claims to have some connection to Thomas Jefferson … including a restroom at a Citgo gas station on I-64 just outside Goochland … just kidding about the restroom, but Jefferson is everywhere.
The weather was warm with a strong breeze out of the east and threatening strong thunderstorms boiling out of the west from the Shenandoah Valley but they held off long enough to see the full moon rise, in a partially open sky, silhouetting the grazing cattle of East Belmont Farm, the site of this months hill-topping. Now, hill-toppings mean various things to different hunt clubs around the country but in Keswick they practiced the American Southern back country form sometimes called “moonlighting,” “fox chasing” or “fox racing” where Foxhounds were taken out in the evening and the members/hunters sat by a roaring campfire and followed the movement and intensity of the chase by listening to the pack of hounds as they “gave voice” to what was actually happening on the ground, and they ranged and pursued the fox over the surrounding farms. The voices of the hounds told everything to the experienced ears of these hunters, but this “hunt” was not intended to actually catch the fox or put meat on the table, and in most cases the fox wasn’t caught, but more to reconnect to a deeper, almost spiritual meaning of the relationship of man, animal and the land. These outtings were also a way for the young hounds to gain field experience and to get socialized to the working pack by young individuals being “yolked” to an older, mature and more experienced dog while chasing the fox over the neighboring farms and countryside till dawn.
Historically, hill-toppings were commonplace all over rural America in the 19th and 20th century up until just after World War II or so when it crossed path’s with increased urbanization, perimeter fences, but more importantly, according to Thad Sitton, an East Texas historian, who, in his book Gray Ghosts and Red Rangers: American Hilltop Fox Chasing, points to state DNR (Department of Natural Resources) projects of re-introduction of deer into the rural landscapes for the recreation of urban hunters as a major cause of the demise of fox chasing. Foxhounds have a hard time resisting the temptation to chase deer, if they happen to scare one up during a hunt, and this led to problems for property owners whose income was derived from deer-hunting leases which in turn led to the “dog wars”, where confrontations arose between fox chasers and land owners threatening to shoot any dog found on their land.
The Keswick Hunt had active hill-toppings with dogs, till the 1990s but urbanization has caught up to even this area of the world, so these days, the hill-toppings which are held on the full-moon during the summer months leave the serious work of socializing the dogs and hunting to other times and have changed more into to a social gathering. A kind of movable, tailgating picnic, with folks bringing food and drink …lots of drinks, to entertain themselves and each other and to tell stories of by-gone-days, departed friends and the catching up on the latest news and gossip. The stories do fly while sitting around sampling the spectacular food and drink and if you’re too involved with food (which is easy to do) you’ll miss a lot, stories like making snow angels, naked, one particular New Years Eve; of hunt members stumbling in the dark through the country-side following the hunting pack on previous hill-toppings; of the occasional snake bites; of loosing several members in the woods for long periods and of arriving at a friend’s farm, naked and on the luggage rack of a car after a late night in Orange, Va. The tellers and the subjects having slightly differing remembrances of the actual proceedings, which considering their condition at the time, was easy to understand.