I grew up on daydreams of the 18th century Long Hunters, pioneer trappers, explorers, land speculators, homesteaders, and hide hunters who crossed the mountains from the Virginia colony to ramble over the Ohio and Cumberland River valleys. The sobriquet “Long Hunter” grew out of sojourns that lasted months, sometimes years while families left in the settlements waited anxiously for word of their menfolk's whereabouts. Many of those frontiersmen simply left and never came back; others returned broken by wild country, wild animals, wild tribes of native people. A very few earned enduring fame and some measure of fortune.
To the “respectable people” back home, the Long Hunters were wastrels, shirkers of family obligation, heathens who adopted the manners and mores of the native peoples with whom they traded, fought, and sometimes married. To others, they were the romantic embodiment of freedom and what later became known as "Manifest Destiny," proof that in this new land, a man was only limited by his grit and ingenuity in blazing trails, putting together packs of valuable fur, or claiming vast tracts of lands that might someday make him rich. Never mind that those parcels of lands were the ancestral homes of Shawnee, Lenape, Wyandotte, and Iroquois. And while the French coureur des bois seemed most interested in trade with native people, his Anglo-American counterpart was more likely to be, sooner or later, a front for the land companies greedy for land. What couldn't be purchased in fair exchange would simply be taken - via swindle, war, relocation, genocide.
That was the reality. James Fenimore Cooper turned it to romance with his Leatherstocking Tales, painting men who reveled in their independence, who loved the hunt. To deep woods and broad mountain vistas were infinitely more appealing than scraping out a poor living behind a plow on some hardscrabble farm in the East. Cooper's image stuck, hitting its zenith with the "Disneyfication" of Crockett and Boone through the coonskin-capped, 6'6" frame of a WWII naval veteran and college football star named Fess Parker. My Grandpa Converse, who first took me hunting as a child, played on our fascination with the TV version of Boone, telling us stories of Simon Kenton and the reviled Simon Girty, two Long Hunters who traipsed the Ohio country in the late 18th century.
Only a handful of the stories were true. All of them made me want to wander the margins of whatever wildness was left in this country.
So when the fever for hunting ruffed grouse struck me down in the early ‘80’s and we began to walk those wild places home and far away behind our pointing dogs, I suppose it was a harmless conceit to adopt “Longhunter” as the registration prefix for the puppies we’d occasionally raise (and many we didn’t). One of the books that influenced me most when we were first chasing our half-trained dogs around wild places in Ohio, West Virginia, and Michigan was New England Grouse Shooting, by the artist and field trailer William Harnden Foster. In it, he wrote, “There is an old New England saying to the effect that if you give a man a shotgun, a bird dog and a violin, he won't amount to a damn.”
I couldn’t play the fiddle, and I had spent a great deal of effort trying to amount to somewhat more than a damn. But the concept of never missing a chance to enjoy good music, fine gun dogs, and a proper English shotgun carried enormous appeal in a life otherwise preoccupied with teaching, writing, coaching, and raising a family.
But it was not until I retired from teaching in 2013 that I was able to pack a travel trailer with food, shotguns, books and music, load the dogs and “light out for the territory” with no firm direction or date home, the first facsimile Long Hunt of my life. One Labrador, an Elhew pointer, and an English setter set out in early October, hunted ruffed grouse and woodcock through Michigan, Wisconsin, visited friends in Minnesota, joined them to chase pheasants in South Dakota, hunted sharptails farther west, broke a trailer axle in a Black Hills blizzard and finally limped back east just after Thanksgiving, dead broke but alive with stories.
Circumstances have kept us from traveling that way for the last two seasons. But when my family was able to buy the 114-acres Bob Thompson farm in 2016, the tract of land where I spent many of the happiest days of my adult life became another chapter in my own Long Hunter saga.
There are good gaited horses in the pasture again, snorty little Peruvians that would have made really good shooting ponies when we were hunting horseback here in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. Once again there are bobwhite quail scuttling and calling from the big pens Bob Thompson built on the hill, and (too many) dogs take turns shuttling between the kennels and the house. We arrange life around dog training, trail riding, wingshooting and managing this farm for quail, dove, woodcock, and the whitetailed deer that my son Zane so loves to hunt.
At the end of the farm lane is a large wooden sign my former student and now dear friend Jeff Craiglow made for me. It stands opposite an older one that reads “Quail Valley Farm,” the Thompson family’s name for this land. The new one is stamped in bronze, antiqued lettering: “Longhunter’s Rest, Est 2016.” The dogs and I, we just call it “home.”