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Cafes, Motels and Happenings on the Way to Ribbons and Titles -Rich Carpenter

A fall and winter of dog and people health issues not only trashed hunting season for my Lab, Din, and me, but the fallout extended beyond that, and it continues. Being both an old geezer as well as a procrastinator of the first water, every spring and early summer it’s a challenge to try to keep up with things on a couple acres at home as well as my 80-acre sanity-perseveration riverbottom place an hour and a half east.

Somehow, though, with questionable reordering of priorities and swearing on a stack of old newspapers that I’ll get to Jan’s honey-do list right after duck season, I manage to not miss very many hunt tests around here. Not this year. Not able to do anything until long past when I needed to get things going, things got pretty well jammed up. Then there was the addition of major fence recovery and rebuilding after the huge flood that hit our little slice of riverbottom heaven, as well as a lot of dozer dirt work.

I got a start in the fall and spent much time on the dozer since Din was laid up with a bad toe and couldn’t hunt. Somehow, hunting without a retriever just doesn’t hold the same excitement, so I ate dirt and worked. By November, real pressing repairs had been completed with the dozer, like fixing a trail that used to be a level pasture two-track trail, and now was needing to cross flood washed channels, some 20 yards wide with head-high vertical banks. Needless to say, the neighbors couldn’t get through my place to their place, so that needed addressed as soon as things got safe to work. At the point where I was just starting the rebuild of a torn out pond that was critical to water overflow, my 45-year-old dozer decided that trying repeatedly to throw a track was a great way to toss a monkey wrench in things, as well as generate a stream of commentary from me that would make an old-time sailor blush. Finally, the track succeeded in coming off the big idler wheel before I could react to stop it.

After my son took pity on me and got the track back on, I asked, “So I’m done bulldozing ‘til I get the undercarriage fixed?”

To which he had the gall to reply, “Unless you’ve figured out how you get the track on by yourself regularly. I won’t be down again.”

Well, geesh! Then he offered to do the undercarriage rebuild, but it would take a while. His work makes my schedule look like I’m in on permanent vacation. Anyway, chasing down parts to rebuild ended up being a major challenge, especially to do it without having to mortgage the farm. Thanks to a place in Indiana specializing in old Case dozers and backhoes, whose owner (along with my son) should definitely be nominated for sainthood for running down parts for us from as far away as Canada, we are within spitting distance of having my favorite piece of equipment (Jan says favorite toy) back running and can rebuild that pond right, since it blew out again after a front loader fix that just couldn’t properly pack things. And a yard long list of field and trail repairs. Probably good it’s not ready, as I still have a bunch of fence to replace before the stray riverbottom cattle decide to come eat all my food plots! I do need it to move one winrow of dead trees deposited on the fence line where the fence used to be.

Between being too busy and not physically able to train for early hunts, I didn’t get to hardly any HRC tests this spring. Meanwhile, Din has managed to cut a paw and get both foxtail and cheat grass awns lodged in his ear to where he had to be put under to remove them. Besides helping support a couple veterinary clinics, we’re not training again for a while until the foot heals. Fortunately, the Good Lord took a little revenge on the foxtail and cheat grass and sent me a hailstorm on the farm that I haven’t seen the likes of in the 25 years we’ve had the place. Wasn’t all good, but on balance I’ll take the other damage to have those nasty grasses mowed right down to the ground. Did feel sorry for the real-life farmers up the road that had corn fields cut off right to the ground and potatoes in full bloom without a leaf left. Sometimes it’s good to be a gentleman farmer, even if it’s all out-go and no income.

Driving in to see the hail devastation one morning, it was encouraging to see a couple different families of baby ducks with their mamas, and hear bobwhites calling in every direction. Clearly they’d found shelter from the storm.

Come lunch time, I head back to the Shack, get Din out and pull up a rocking chair to a little table and a patch shade and have some food and cold drinks and the obligatory nap, listening to the bobwhites calls over the drone of the mosquitos and deer flies.

Sitting there one afternoon in the heat, getting ready to eat and trying to gargle the last of the tractor dirt out of my throat with a cold beer as I contemplated a short nap after lunch, I got to thinking about being hungry, and food and, strangely, eating connected with HRC hunts.

Yeah, after boring you with my tales of woe, there really is something in here about eating. I suppose it’s not surprising somebody with a bit of a spare tire and who’s considerably shorter than my weight would indicate on the BMI chart should think about hunt test food when he ought to be foregoing lunch and the nap and getting back on the tractor.

Naturally you don’t think about all that food, all those restaurants, etc., without also thinking of people involved, places you’ve stayed, and some of the interesting things that happened along the way.

I’m sure specifics are somewhat different for everyone and various regions in the country might have their own interesting wrinkles, but I’d guess everyone who’s spent much time running HRC hunt tests has a number of food and trip memories, mostly pleasant.

As I sat there wishing for a cool breeze, but willing to settle for any breeze that would keep the bugs at bay, HRC hunt test food memories kept popping up in my memory, even after I was snoring loud enough to silence the Bobwhites and chase off the deer flies.

One of the clubs that no longer is active held their tests in a sparsely populated area of the state that was originally settled by the Spanish and there was much tradition there, as well as the originators of some of the earliest irrigation water rights systems in the nation. The little town we stayed in had one little restaurant that opened early for the farmers. We always looked forward to eating breakfast each year. We saw the fellow that ran it once a year, but it was like old home week each time. Great food and great company. The usual bacon and eggs breakfasts were great and he made breakfast burritos that I can still taste. Unfortunately, the little café closed. We missed it, but found one in the next little town that also opened early for the farmers and had the “OPEN” and “CLOSED” sign on the door in Spanish. There, too, the food and company were great. One year, the lodge decided to do breakfast, taking orders as in a restaurant. Whoa! Things were slow! And here I was running the wild and crazy Amos Moses for his HRCH title. Finished went by once, relocated and went by again and I was still waiting on my breakfast, but I wasn’t going without my breakfast. I made it, too, just as the test dog ran.

The very first licensed HRC test in this region had the social Saturday night as a banquet in a very nice motel that had a restaurant. I’ll be honest and tell you I don’t remember a thing about the food. What I do remember clearly was how excited I was to be there and be part of something that was as exciting as HRC promised to be. And I remember I happened to end up at the same table with author James Spencer, who was one of the Finished judges. I also remember being excited at getting a ribbon in Seasoned, at my first licensed HRC event, and I was hooked. While I don’t remember what the food was at the banquet, I can remember getting served a really tasty lunch bratwurst at the hunt site by the nicest couple you could ever ask to meet.

For those of us addicted to breakfast, finding a place that opened early enough to eat and get to hunt check in was sometimes tough. Over time, we discovered that if we did some checking ahead with some calls, or showed up the day before and talked to the small town cafes, frequently they were willing to open early enough even the judges could have a good breakfast and still get to their test on time. We stayed in one little town in an ancient motel that told us there was one café in town, so we went to eat dinner and check about breakfast time. It wasn’t early enough, but they said talk to “The Greek”. He owned the place and agreed he’d open early for the extra business. Great breakfast. Maybe the finest fried potatoes to ever slide down this hunter’s throat.

Each trip, I’d call or stop by and make the arrangements and a bunch of us would pig out in style. Well, until one trip. Must have been about 15 of us on the cafe porch, and all was dark inside and nobody came. The group ended up breakfasting on some cold rolls and candy bars from the filling station across the street. That, and my hind end, since a quick vote determined it was all my fault. That afternoon, before the social, I ran back into town to see what was up, and apparently I had said something that made him think Sunday only, so for breakfast the next day, we were in good shape again. Well, except for me, because now I was catching grief from all my friends and the Greek, for costing him business on Saturday!

The motel in this little town was full of things you just don’t forget. The little motel we stayed in had been log cabin uptown in the 40’s when there were no interstates and this was a main highway. It still had all the original furniture and wiring. We all roll in Friday afternoon to find that this motel probably had not had six occupants at any one time and certainly not before this spring hunt date. We all got our keys, but only a room or two was ready, and as we all sat around visiting, it looked like an ant hill had been kicked, with beds, mattresses and linen, etc. being moved out of storage and into rooms. Wasn’t hot enough we thought we’d need it, but sign said air conditioning in all the rooms. There was a big unit in each closet, but they had never been installed. It was such a quaint place, and the owner such a delightful ex-flower child of the 60’s, you just had to breathe deep and enjoy. I stayed there for a number of years, and it was always an adventure.

One year we’d celebrated somebody’s birthday Friday night. Somebody wondered if we’d been too noisy. I had no distinct memory of much of the evening, other than the jerked shark that was the main dish of this outdoor birthday soiree, so we asked the owner. She said, “Oh, no. I love having you retriever people here. When you come the whole place is yours. It was just fine.”

The last time an HRC test was held nearby I stayed again. I was judging and decided early in the week to just add Thursday night and avoid Friday Denver rush hour to get to set up. I called the owner and she assured me that would be fine. I roll in Thursday and go to the ice cream parlor/office to check in. The owner was not there, but a next generation gentle flower child was there in charge. She assured me they had no reservation for me. I was sort of incredulous. She said not to worry, they had reservations scattered around three homes, so it was probably somewhere and she’d check. She gets off the phone and, nope, we have no reservation for you. I was losing patience and said you have to have, I just added a night to it with the owner and I have to have a place to stay!

She gently takes me by the arm, leads me into the courtyard/parking lot and says, “Oh, no problem. You can have any room you want. Which one would you like?” Oh. What a stay. Turns out I was the only doggie dude that year and the owner had been a psychologist at a private prison that had closed and appeared to be having a reunion of old cons who’d been her counselees. Yup, that was a little different experience, but they all seemed loveable and gave every appearance of being gentle and rehabilitated, even though, long before it was fashionable, most had tattoos that would put today’s NBA players to shame. Fortunately, none of them said, “Born to eat HRC retriever handlers.” Just think of all the things I’d have missed if I didn’t go looking for small town motels and cafes! It really was a special place. It was odd and she was a bit that way, but in total, both were delightful.

In the same general part of the state came another really small town, another restaurant and another retriever-folks experience. Most were staying in the big town thirty miles west, but I didn’t want to do that or drive through interstate metro-Denver traffic to get there, so I called and found a little motel at the burg next to the test site. As I checked in, I asked the owner if there was anywhere to eat at 5 a.m. He said I was in luck, just down the highway and across was a cafe open at 4:30 for coffee and food right after. And he’d save me a seat. I show up the next morning and sure enough a seat has been saved for me at one of the tables of locals. Pretty soon he leans over and asks if I know so and so from the host HRC club. I tell him I do. He says, “We’re gonna have some fun. The owner is his father-in-law. You just follow my lead and make it as bad as you can. Just before he pops a cork we’ll hee-haw and let him in on the joke.”

Never having enough sense to miss a chance to step in it, I was in. Thought I might get popped, but my host spilled the beans in time and the place was rocking with laughter, including the owner. That motel owner would have made a good HRC test chaser.

Years ago there was a club in Utah for a while, and a number of us traveled there for the hunt and ran into a restaurant that served my son the finest ribeye steak as the steak in his steak and eggs breakfast. Odd how little things stick in one’s mind and other great big things are not to be found.

One year a club member who had been an Alaskan big game guide and cook said he’d do our social dinner. Ever since I’ve enjoyed me some tri-tips any chance I get, but none ever tasted as good as those cooked up outside in his big Dutch ovens.

Speaking of Dutch Ovens, another hunt test we’d go to was on a big ranch and they’d always feed the judges and set-up grunts Friday evening under the trees. The president, who was manager of their big game guiding operation, had a wonderful wife who absolutely did magic with roast beef, gravy and potatoes out of those cast iron wonders. The first bite brought back memories of that kind of eating on the farm as a kid.

Another town had a great 24-hour restaurant/bar where we could eat way early and get out for set-up, etc. The first year there, while waiting for me, my friend who found the place was in a corner booth in the section by the door. All the regulars were down in the smoking section, serving themselves coffee in their favorite mug as the came in the door. He’s sitting there slurping his coffee and this seedy-looking character comes in the door, looks around and goes behind the counter and opens the cash register and takes out the drawer. My friend thinks, “This place may be getting robbed.” Then the guy sits down at a table and counts out the till. Later my friend got to know him and told him about that and they had quite a laugh. Turns out he was the owner!

A club that had used the same grounds for years changed to a different location and we were back in search for a place to eat early breakfast. With the help of the internet, I got a phone number and called and talked to the nicest lady. I asked what time she opened for breakfast and she said she opened for breakfast at 5 and would love to have a bunch of retriever folks. You can bet we were there at five, as several were judging. Great homemade food and she was as nice in person as on the phone. One minor problem. When we said we’d see her same time on Sunday, she said she didn’t open ‘til 8 and that was for a big buffet. (Maybe I should not make breakfast arrangements!) We said that would be too late and was there any other place that opened early. She said not, but she got there at 4:30 to start the baking and cooking for the buffet, and while she couldn’t promise us everything, we could show up any time after 4:30, just knock on the door and she’d feed us. I’m guessing that next morning those tables of us hungry HRC rowdies probably left her the biggest tip she’d ever received. What a nice person. And great food. We sure hated to see her retire.

Another club had just an ideal set-up. The test was on one of the member’s beautiful, huge riverbottom ranch not far outside of the little town. The place we stayed was truly one-stop shopping and eating. The place was not only a motel, but a C-Store, a restaurant and bar complete with room big enough for the ribbon social, a gas station and a liquor store. Again, just great people who reserved the entire place for people coming to the hunt test. Their test was always a favorite destination. And the best part was I had nothing to do with arranging the breakfast in case anything went wrong.

Of course, the president of this club was a good friend of mine (as well as one of those hammering me for failure to communicate with the Greek in a prior year). I disremember just what I’d done, or failed to do that brought his voice out of the gallery while I’m running. I might have forgotten to take the collar off my dog at the holding blind. Maybe I forgot to shoot the diversion. Must have been more than one thing, as while I’m on the line doing my best imitation of a Finished handler, here comes his booming voice with, “How many mistakes can one handler make in a day?”

To which I had to say, “There’s no way to know; the day’s still young!”

I know all you new people have heard that pap that “It’s all about the dogs.” The heck it is. It’s all about gooning your friends. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Pass the feedbag. I’ve already got my reservations made for our club’s August hunt at a motel with a built-in restaurant that opens at 5 for breakfast. More nice folks. Last year was our first year there, but the desk clerk on the phone remembered our group and quickly looked up where he had me last year and asked if that would be good for this year.

If you’ve just joined HRC and haven’t gone to any hunt tests, whether it is locally for your or other nearby clubs or on a good road trip to another state, you owe it to yourself to join the fun. Heck, besides the food, you’ll have a good time at the test too, and might even win something at the raffle and get a ribbon, as well.

Also, hunting season will be right around the corner when you get this issue, so if you are new to this retriever training and running enterprise, get with some of your experienced club members and find out how best to have your four-legged hunting buddy as ready as can be for the season. Oh, and start checking out early-opening restaurants now for hunting season. Make sure they have dog biscuits or special duck blind doggie bags.

This article originally appeared in the Aug/Sept 2014 issue of HUNTING RETRIEVER.

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