The short version of the story is that after a phone-call from work asking if I could come back earlier than planned, I did. After seven weeks in Phoenix in a holding pattern and no concrete assistance from the USFS till literally the day I left, it was an easy decision to make -- and made easier with the support of Bill. As he said, if he'd had 25 dogs to break and no other help, it might have been a different conversation -- but as it was, and in this economic climate, a job is a job.
I certainly learned a bunch of things, albeit mostly things I hadn't planned on. Namely, that I don't think I'll be becoming a professional trainer any time soon -- any residual glamor or romance that might have remained from last summer has dessicated and blown away. This is a tough life for the best of people, especially for a pro who is campaigning dogs and on the road for large chunks of time. I've said it elsewhere, but if I go to a trial and see a pro there with their family helping out, I'm immediately impressed. After seven weeks, I did learn that I could probably enjoy owning and operating a boarding kennel -- which is useful for Meg and me to keep in mind for our next move. I also learned that, in an ideal world, a pro owns or works directly for an owner who owns their training grounds -- being at the mercy of a federal agency as well as natural phenomena like fire will test the patience of a saint.
As a testament to the kind of class act Bill is, though, he did offer to keep Capo in AZ to finish her getting broke -- which was a huge relief to me because of the four-member Road Crew she was the one dog getting worked and making progress. And so we will wait till mid-September to see how much progress she's made. Now that they're home, all three of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are enjoying very regular exercise and the opportunity to get back in shape for the fall.
Despite 36hrs of food-related turbulence between NM and TX, the drive home was actually quite pleasant. This first picture, though, is from the initial trip up to Bill's temporary camp the morning I left, hauling my and his remaining dogs up to him in our trailer, aka. The Luxury Cruiser. Driving up into green scrub country with a beautful Arizona sunset in front of me almost made me rethink the decision. Instead, I took an extra two days to come home, stopping off first of all in Magdalena to see Steve + Libby. The drive between Springerville and Magdalena was interesting because while I could see little direct evidence of the fire which consumed over a half-million acres, semi after semi barreled down the road laden with hay. With a significant amount of the ground cover burnt off and the arrival of monsoon season, the next concern for the USFS were run-offs and mudslides (like those that wrecked homes in Flagstaff after the Schultz fire last summer) -- and bales were arriving by the truckload to try and anchor the top soil and channel water.
We stopped over in Alvord, TX, again at Lary + Ann Cox's place. A late start had meant that we initially overnighted just outside Childress but I managed to find a rails-to-trails site just outside Estelline to let the League stretch their legs. (As I read this Wikipedia entry, I realise that I was lucky not to fall prey to one of the worst speed trap towns in the nation!) This picture of Jake is just a testament to his confidence and increasing strength as he powers through brush. He's certainly already got a ton of road miles and experience in different terrain in his short life so far: he was hauled from Alabama to Pennsyslvania as an 8 or 9week old even before this trip, and has already run in the low deserts around Phoenix, the higher deserts and pines of Flagstaff, the grasslands of northern Texas, and the mixed woods and grasses of Virginia plantations. Spending time with Lary is a great excuse to sit and talk about dogs -- and he also made arrangements for the two of us to lunch with WC Kirk, handler of the last setter to win the National Championship, Johnny Crockett, back in 1970. I wish I hadn't been trying to overcome the last of my turbulence to be a little more talkative -- but it was still fun to listen to all of WC's various stories and suggestions. "Get a good-looking horse and learn to ride him well. If you have to do a little horse show to take the judge's mind off something else your dog might be doing, then so be it." (Or words to that effect.)
Before leaving Alvord, I got up early to run the League on a section of the LBJ National Grassland and between the rising sun, lower temperatures, and the beautiful countryside, all four of us had a great time. Certainly to me, the name mistakenly implied something more like palouse -- when in fact, grassland in Texas can take a variety of forms. My guess would be that the portions of the LBJ that I saw on my visit most closely resembled 'Post-Oak Woods, Forest, and Grassland Mosaic.' The important features for me were that there were woods that presented edges, if not the kinds of prominent field and pasture lines commonly found in the northeast. There was certainly room for a dog to run, but real cover for a dog to hunt (and potentially get lost in) -- it made me want to come back during trial season to see how good dogs and handlers negotiated it. As you can see from this picture, there are also stock tanks -- and all three of the dogs paid a visit. One of the traits I like about Jake is that he will water himself if he's feeling hot, including dunking himself in ponds; Jozsi will do it to some extent; Momo not really -- his genius is pacing himself so that he can hopefully establish a pace he can easily maintain for several hours.
We hauled our way over Arkansas and into Tennessee -- where the giant wall of humidity hit us. Blah. This might have been where both the Astro and my cell-phone got a little hinky and are now both headed for some hammer-therapy. In any case, the sad part was that we reached Memphis on a Sunday night which meant that as we headed to Grand Junction the next morning, I knew the Bird Dog Foundation Museum would be closed. Needless to say, though, I stopped by and enjoyed the Walk of Champions and the flushing quail tableau featuring and dedicated to John Rex Gates, Mr. Thor, and Crossmatch. I also did what any decent bird dog nerd would do and visited the Ames Plantation not far up the road. It was a little odd driving up to the main house and recognizing the stables, kennels, and clubhouse just from watching several of Brad Harter's great National Championship DVDs -- although they, like the rest of the grounds, look a little different at the height of the growing season than they do in February. The plantation is primarily administered by the University of Tennessee and I guess the administrative assistants are used to idiots like me asking if its okay to walk around the back of the Main House to see the steps. As the picture shows, yes, it is. Leaving aside the much longer history of what was originally the Jones Plantation, evidenced by the family cemetery fairly close to the house, it's still a little unnerving to think that every National Champion since 1915 has been posed on these steps.
We continued on our merry way, eventually winding up in southern Virginia, passing Cloverdale Farm on the way to visit another vizsla friend, Don Brown, who manages a private plantation in Clarksville. The sad part about that drive-by was the knowledge that Mr. Leggett had sold the grounds recently, apparently to a developer. I had set things up so that we had a short drive to Clarksville so that, in turn, we had time to relax at Cedar Grove and let the League get some well-earned exercise in. The grounds at Cedar Grove are set up to allow the owner to enjoy quail hunting in Southern style, either dismounting from a well-mannered walking horse or from a mule-drawn buggy -- and Don breeds his vizslas accordingly. These are not stretch-for-the-horizon field trial dogs, but dogs able to sustain a well-paced hunt for an entire morning or afternoon without being changed out. And he gets paid to spend the same amount of time and diligence maintaining the grounds by thinning trees, and carrying out controlled burns of understory, and planting warm season grasses, sorghums, and other varieties of beans and seed plants as food sources. It's certainly not easy work, but it's a heck of a nice spot to raise and train bird dogs. Here's a picture of our giddy fool enjoying some cooler weather and friendlier cover to let loose in.
In the meantime, it's back to work and enjoying time with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Birds are ordered for the Evil Empire and hopefully we can start training these guys again soon.