America by Night

adventures & encounters after dark
Frigid, golden walk with the pup. Missing night work, but enjoying the sunshine, too. 

#americabynight #night #sunset #dogs #dog #walking #home #tuscaloosa #al #alabama #goldenhour

Frigid, golden walk with the pup. Missing night work, but enjoying the sunshine, too.

#americabynight #night #sunset #dogs #dog #walking #home #tuscaloosa #al #alabama #goldenhour

Last week I went coon hunting twice. Once with the alligators in the swampy lowlands outside Benndale, Mississippi, and the next night in the hills of Alabama’s Talladega County. I didn’t know much about the sport before I went. Here’s how it works:

The hunters go into the woods at night and release their dogs, hounds have been bred for hundreds of years and trained since birth to know exactly what to do, which is sniff out a raccoon and chase it until it is forced to take refuge in a tree. 

Each hunter works with just one dog and as the dogs work, the hunters stand still and listen. They can tell exactly what’s happening just from the sounds the dogs make, a chorus of chops, bays, and bawls that sound just like their names. Each hunter can say with certainty if his dog has struck a line of scent, whether the dog is sure, if the trail ended in nothing or the dog changed his mind, and when he’s got a raccoon bayed up a tree. 

Once the hounds tree something, the hunters bushwhack through briars. They wade through swamps and streams, using the direction of the hounds’ voices to guide them, until they find the dogs standing on their hind legs at the base of a tree, howling, trying to climb it. They try to find the raccoon, shining lights at the branches and imitating raccoon noises, attempting to startle or interest what might be up there, to catch a glimpse of its glinting eyes. 

In competition hunting, hunters don’t kill any raccoons. Dogs earn points for being the first to strike a scent line, the first to tree. They lose points for being the first to strike a scent line that goes cold, for treeing a “slick” (a tree with no coon in it and no leaves in which one could be hiding) or, worse, a possum. Once the raccoon is sighted or the tree declared empty, competition hunters take the dogs to a new patch of woods and cast again. 

The dog with the most points at the end of the hunt wins. Accumulated wins can eventually earn your dog a title, which can mean a little bit of money if you decide to get into breeding. But, the hunters told me, it’s not very much money. More often, it’s about a sense of pride, knowing you’ve done well with breeding and training and contributed to a line of really effective hunting dogs.

One of the things that interests me most about nighttime is the way we fight and submit to it. We light the dark, make it useful, grabbing up extra hours for work and play. But we also lie in the grass and stare up at the stars. We let it take us over, let it frighten and awe us. 

Coon hunting, I think, holds a similar tension. The breeding of coonhounds began out of necessity, humans working to shape the evolution of dogs to better help us hunt down food. Today most coon hunters either don’t kill or don’t eat their quarry. It’s pure sport, they say. It’s about working the dogs, watching them work, working alongside them. It’s about taking something wild and seeing what it can do, and what you can do with it. 

The America by Night winter route so far looks like a lasso. Well rested after a few days with family in Ohio, and now back on the road for a little bit longer—headed East, then South, then West again to home.

The America by Night winter route so far looks like a lasso. 

Well rested after a few days with family in Ohio, and now back on the road for a little bit longer—headed East, then South, then West again to home.

A few nights ago I spent from 8:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. shadowing a man named Toby Cadenhead during his shift as a security ranger at the Jacksonville Zoo. Toby has worked security at the zoo for more than 20 years, since he was 19 years old. He told me he loves the peace and quiet, the freedom that working at night provides. He’s so committed to working nights that a couple years ago he spray painted the windows of his bedroom black so he could sleep better. In his free time Toby fishes, makes hunting knives, and takes care of his mother, who has dementia.

The story I imagined when I arranged to visit the zoo was that of a kind of shepherd, a man watching over his rag tag flock as they slept. What I found was a little different. Toby spends his nights patrolling the grounds, mending fences, installing cameras and locks. He’s returned escaped flamingos and elephants to their pens. He’s stymied teenagers trying to break in to touch or take the animals. But Toby doesn’t romanticize what he does. He likes the animals at the zoo, but doesn’t really have any love for them in particular, doesn’t have the special connection with them that I thought he might. He doesn’t know all their names or personalities, though he spends more time around them than maybe anyone else. 

Zoos operate, as do many things, on a certain plane of fantasy. There’s the part patrons see—the exhibits and shaved ice stands and meticulously groomed grounds—and then the world behind the scenes. The world of generators and manure and piles of things that need to be repaired and protocols for a multitude of emergency situations. This is the world Toby inhabits, the one that makes the fantasy possible.

I spent my first night and day at The Hostel in the Forest (near Brunswick, GA) preparing to participate in a sweat lodge. When I arrived, my hosts urged me to put away my notebook and camera until after the sweat, to participate fully in the experience instead of documenting. It was all a challenge—the preparation, the sweat itself, and suspending the desire to make notes and pictures during an experience so new to me—but I’m so glad I did it. I’m excited to spend time tomorrow writing up some reflections about my time at the hostel, and I leave Georgia grateful for so many things: for the beautiful, kind people I met there and all over this country, for being challenged physically and mentally by darkness and heat, for the full moon and its light.

I spent last night exploring the tunnels beneath Columbia, South Carolina, with Subterra, Stumpy, and Justin of the Third Shifters urban explorers group. These guys spent their adolescence mapping the world below their city. They’d drop a battery (or anything heavy enough to stay put in the current) through a grate and then go into the tunnels to find it. They’d spend hours at the public library, studying old blueprints and city plans.Once they entered a tunnel and were almost immediately washed out by a rush of water that almost drowned them. Once they discovered a hidden slave cemetery behind a tent city on the outskirts of town. They spent their teenage years knee-deep in history and drainage water and they remind me that there is so much still to discover.

I spent last night exploring the tunnels beneath Columbia, South Carolina, with Subterra, Stumpy, and Justin of the Third Shifters urban explorers group. These guys spent their adolescence mapping the world below their city. They’d drop a battery (or anything heavy enough to stay put in the current) through a grate and then go into the tunnels to find it. They’d spend hours at the public library, studying old blueprints and city plans.Once they entered a tunnel and were almost immediately washed out by a rush of water that almost drowned them. Once they discovered a hidden slave cemetery behind a tent city on the outskirts of town. They spent their teenage years knee-deep in history and drainage water and they remind me that there is so much still to discover.

Kevin & the dogs getting ready for bed around 4 a.m. at a rest stop near Eerie, PA, back in July. 

Can’t wait to be back on the road in less than one month!

Kevin & the dogs getting ready for bed around 4 a.m. at a rest stop near Eerie, PA, back in July.

Can’t wait to be back on the road in less than one month!

getting ready for winter & new ways to keep in touch

Hi night owls!

I’m enjoying fall in Tuscaloosa, teaching classes and hard at work on my thesis. I’m also doing a little planning and getting ready for the winter stretch of America by Night. Can’t wait to be back on the road and stayin’ up all night! 

To see what I’m up to until then, and to keep up with the project come winter, follow me on Twitter & Instagram @AnnieAgnone 

More soon.

xox,

Annie