With the sun melting over one horizon and the moon rising from the other, 40 bug-bitten, mud-caked, foul-mouthed runners dashed along a dirt road. The group had just finished a cooler of beer, and now they were back on trail.
“On-on!” a couple of voices echoed. “On-ooon!!”
Still dripping with river water, Cali Kaiser-Rivers watched the front-runners disappear into the thicket about 100 yards ahead. They would reach the end at least an hour before her, but that didn’t matter. This wasn’t about winners and losers.
“It’s about the beer,” she said, laughing. “It’s all about the beer.”
And soon enough, on a dusty mesa overlooking a Farmers Branch industrial park, the guzzling began.
Olympic training it is not. But for local members of the Hash House Harriers, an international “drinking club with a running problem,” as members like to say, it was a typical Monday night.
Every week, the men and women – mostly in their 30s – traverse three to eight miles of varying terrain to reach a keg. There, at what they call a “Down-Down,” they sing, drink dirt-cheap beer and act like animals.
It’s a combination of cross-country trekking, juvenile troublemaking and Animal House -like partying. And it attracts people of all sorts, from couch potatoes to marathon runners and hard-core partiers to demure social drinkers.
Of 150 members in North Texas, “we’ve got doctors, lawyers, executives, a mailman, grocery store clerks, computer and aerospace people – the whole social gamut,” said Chip Vokey, a particularly energetic member. “By and large, we’re a pretty intellectually advanced group.”
“We just don’t act like it,” Chris Flynn, the group’s leader (or, in Hash-speak, Grandmaster), jumped in. “For many people, it’s an escape. We can be as childish and ridiculous as we want. It’s just about being yourself – or an extreme of yourself. You take on an alter ego.”
Hence the Hashers’ nicknames, most of which are too raunchy to make it onto these pages.
Hashing started in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the 1930s, the invention of bored British soldiers. The idea was to make exercising fun, mainly by adding booze.
Each week, a couple of members served as the “hares.” They mapped a trail, often through less-than-sterile territory. Along the way, they left a series of markings with flour to guide the group. Dots meant a person was on trail; X’s meant the trail diverged in any direction; and an equal sign showed the runners that they were going the wrong way.
“Are you?” is what they would yell to see if anyone was on trail, to which “on-on” was the desired answer. “False trail” meant someone had found an equal sign.
In those early days, the Brits always ended their runs at a restaurant that, because of the bad food, they called the “Hash House.” Onto that moniker they slapped “Harriers,” the British term for cross-country runners (after the harrier dog). The name – and rules – have stuck ever since.
How hashing spread from that group in Kuala Lumpur in the 1930s to an estimated 300,000 people worldwide in 1999 – and, for that matter, how much of the Hash House lore is actually true – is up for speculation.
Each city has its own variation on the original theme, said Tricia Broyles, known to her hashing buddies as Jessica Rabbit, after the voluptuous redhead in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
In New York, where Ms. Broyles first got into the Hash, nicknames aren’t used, and the entire ceremony is much more prim and proper. The Yankee Hashers might drink a beer or two after a run through the park and then go home, she said.
The Dallas and Fort Worth chapters are wilder. Six beers per person is not out of character for a typical Down-Down, although some take it easy so they can drive the others home.
And in these parts, many think that the messier the trail, the better.
“I’ve been on runs where it seems like I’m going through the set of some Chuck Norris Vietnam movie,” Mr. Vokey said. ”I’ve been on runs where you’re going through water and then suddenly you’re sprinting through malls,” Harold Ikerd said.
And one time, Eric Peacock, 25, said, “we ended up in Emmitt Smith’s back yard.”
Several hashes have drawn open-mouth stares from observers, such as last spring’s Elvis Run. (Several Hashers were in full King garb.) Only one run, though, has resulted in any real controversy, members say.
In February 1993, two hares plotted a course through a predominantly black Old East Dallas neighborhood. Residents later told police that a hate crime had occurred, saying that a group of white people, some with short-cropped hair, placed an unknown white powder on the sidewalks and then, according to a police report, ran by “chanting as though they were worshiping some kind of god.”
After talking to several Hashers and sending the flour off to a lab to be tested, police dropped the investigation.
Other runs have led to minor run-ins with (or runs from) police, but usually over nothing more than trespassing complaints.
On Monday, the hashers managed to stay out of trouble during their trek across a 300-acre plot of undeveloped private land bisected by the Trinity River. The directions on the Harriers’ Web page and voice mail instructed people to arrive at an industrial park off Luna Road in Farmers Branch around 7 p.m. – and to bring “flashlights, machetes, ice axes, climbing ropes, pain killers, body armor, fins and goggles.”
Most of the 40 or so hashers arrived in shorts or camouflage pants with T-shirts. Only a few carried water bottles.
After a half-hour of Frisbee and chatter, the Hashers gathered in a circle for pre-run ceremonies. They sang some nasty songs and chanted some nasty chants.
And then they were off.
“On-on is that way!” shouted Mr. Peacock, one of the evening’s co-hares, pointing toward a ridge about 100 yards away. Judging by the stains on his pants, several Hashers predicted as they dashed away that they were in for a sloppy night.
It didn’t start that way; the first 10 minutes were on a dirt road through open fields. But then there was a water crossing: a 10-foot-wide creek that, despite its puny appearance, was about 41/2-feet deep, lined with sticky mud. The water was tepid.
From there, the trail crossed a dense field of 6-foot-tall sprouts that looked like a pea-plant experiment gone wrong. Fifteen minutes later came the first major obstacle: an arrow on the bank of the Trinity pointing to the other side. Without trepidation, most jumped right in.
“Admit it,” Mr. Vokey yelled to a first-time hasher (a “new boot”), as he treaded along. “You’re hooked.”
Patricia Brown, a.k.a. Photo Spread, didn’t see it that way. “Once again, we’re on a trail from hell,” she told a couple of friends at the Beer Check, a halfway point where Hashers drink booze, water or soda before getting back on trail.
A couple hours later, though, whatever woes the hashers might have had about the night’s particularly challenging trail were forgotten. The “Down-Down” had begun.
Standing in a circle, the hashers gathered around Mr. Flynn, the Grandmaster, with beers in hand. Then the Grandmaster found reasons to call people to the middle – coming in first, wearing new shoes, laying a hellish trail, being a new member. Each offense required the downing of one beer.
And if the plastic cup left offenders’ lips, it went on their heads.
John Fleisher, a new boot, couldn’t finish his brew. His long hair, held back with a rubber band, was saturated. ”I’m a skydiver, and skydivers are a rowdy bunch,” Mr. Fleisher said. “But these guys are nuts. I’m going to have to practice drinking before coming back.”
In the end, Mr. Flynn said, it’s about more than just drinking beer. He was introduced to the group 10 years ago by a “250-pound co-worker named “Irish Potato,’ ” and from that moment on, he has been a changed man. ”I was like, “Where the hell has this been my whole life?’ This is where I’m supposed to be. Dallas is such a pretentious, materialistic place, and here you can get away from all of that.”
And with that thought, he raised his cup to his lips, chugging beer among his “40 closest friends” under the glare of the almost-full moon.