The Fox Hunt Diaries

Pieter van Eenoge

Jane and Michael Stern tell the crazy story of a one-of-a-kind marriage, divorce, aspiration and Anglophilia.

We were married for so long that we became janeandmichaelstern, a couple joined at the hip, a couple who finished each other’s sentences, a couple who never had children because we wanted nothing to interfere with our writing and traveling together. As the authors of the Roadfood guides, we quite literally spent much of our working time only as far apart as the armrest of a car.

Then it ended. Sort of. We divorced six years ago, and it was as amicable as this sort of thing can be, which is to say, not really.

It was not a mutual decision to split, and the lopsidedness was hard to surmount. We are on our best behavior around each other, and we have figured out how not to drag “what was” into “what is.” At least we try not to. The funny thing is that we still travel and write together, having recently finished our 44th book. The double byline continues to flourish. Like parents who break up, we love what we have created together and continue to nurture it.

One would think that divorce and, in Michael’s case, remarriage would mean the end of being surprised by a former spouse’s behavior. For example, one (Jane) would think that one’s ex (Michael) would not decide to become a fox hunter at the age of 65. That’s fox hunting as in “tallyho,” galloping over hill and dale, following the huntsman in his scarlet jacket and a pack of yodeling hounds.

If either of us was to become a fox hunter, it should have been Jane. Jane was named after Jane Eyre. Jane’s mother was an avid Anglophile. As a baby, she was wheeled around Manhattan’s Central Park in an English pram with monogrammed blankets.

In the fourth grade at P.S. 6, Jane convinced her mother that she needed a full riding habit, and she got one. She walked Madison Avenue daily wearing a velvet helmet, string gloves and billowing jodhpurs, carrying a child-size whip. There was not a horse in sight, but that did not bother her at all. She was perfecting the art of virtual riding.

Michael grew up in Winnetka, Illinois. His parents were not Anglophiles. They ran the town camera shop and played bridge and joined the relatives every Sunday for a breakfast of bagels and lox. Michael managed to get through childhood without once wearing breeches. He spent his formative years dreaming of one day playing Major League baseball and perfecting his ability to power-shift an accelerating car.

Maybe one of the things we liked about each other was that we were so different and yet we felt like ideal accomplices. We both appreciated strange people and strange things. In 1968, when tattoos were still the province of drunken sailors and badasses, we found a biker garage in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where an amateur skin artist gave us matching scorpion tattoos. We lived like hippies in a commune of sorts in the woods of Connecticut, but Michael became a handgun enthusiast, making his own ammo and sporting a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum with an ivory scorpion embedded in the grip. Jane had her own tangents. She took up bagpipes, signed up for boxing lessons, won a topless contest and dyed her hair orange. We both read Low Rider magazine, collected prison art and, under pseudonyms, joined the Transvestite Club of Connecticut.

In our middle years, Michael gave up booze and became a devoted member of AA. Jane took flamenco lessons, stomping around our suburban community in a long, ruffled skirt and shawl. She became an EMT, riding the town ambulance and coming home with stories of blood and gore. Michael’s AA sponsees would call all night long with their own visceral emergencies.

Although EMT, flamenco and Scottish music all require very specific outfits, the most startling vestments event in our post-marriage relationship happened just a couple of years ago when Michael announced he had become a member of Fairfield County Hounds, one of the few remaining live fox hunts in the Northeast, and the oldest in Connecticut. He sent Jane a picture of 
himself wearing tall Spanish-cut boots, moleskin breeches, a melton cloth jacket and stock tie, and a velvet hunt cap. Mounted on a stately horse named Phillip, he looked utterly happy and at home among a field of scarlet-coated masters, whippers-in and club members that included his new wife, Linda, herself a polished equestrienne.

It was less the new wife and more the outfit that sent Jane into a fit of jealousy. Michael, who never thought twice about what to wear, was now living Jane’s (and Jane’s mother’s) Anglophilic dream. Jane stewed in a puddle of green-eyed rage, with images of hunt-flare buckskin breeches and Dinwiddie pigskin gloves dancing in her head.

To Jane, the clothing protocol of the hunt is byzantine in the best possible way. For informal hunts, there is “rat catcher” attire, which, while allegedly casual, is every bit as ritualized as the outfit for formal hunt days. One wears three-button coats that are tweed or dark wool, tailored and vented. Leather and string gloves are de rigueur; sandwich case and flask are optional. For Fairfield County Hounds’ formal hunts, which take place on Saturdays from October through Christmas, black jackets are required for all riders except for gentlemen deemed to have earned their colors. Their service to the club entitles them to wear the classic scarlet coat with brass buttons monogrammed FCH.

Ladies who earn colors do not wear scarlet but do have a special gold-piped blue collar on their coat, which bears black buttons with FCH in white letters. A few ladies do become masters, which gives them the right to wear scarlet and, along with gentlemen masters, to tell other members of the hunt field where to ride, which fences to jump and generally how to behave. In the field, the only person who tells the masters what to do is the huntsman, who wears a scarlet coat with five buttons (as opposed to the masters’ four and other riders’ three). While it used to be customary for ladies and gentlemen to hunt in top hats or derbies, today’s hunters wear helmets. Some hunts even permit the use of airbag crash vests.

You might think Jane would have started fox hunting, too, perhaps with another club. But that was not an option. You see, we already had been through a horsey phase together, and it made us realize just how incompatible we were. While writing a book called Way Out West in the early 1990s, we fell in love with anything and everything to do with the culture of the cowboy, from trick roping to sagebrush poetry. We acquired a pair of Appaloosa horses, which we stabled at one of the few Western-oriented barns in Connecticut. The barn was a pretty rough outfit run by an ex-rodeo rider, a place where Johnny Walker and Jack Daniel’s were constant companions. We wore leather chaps and Stetson hats and were the only people at the barn who did not keep a wad of Copenhagen tobacco in our cheeks.

The incompatible part was the riding. Michael rode fast and wild, sometimes without a bit and bridle, sailing down hills and across streams, in icy blizzards and in the dog days of summer. Jane, on the other hand, had the finest tack in the barn, her saddle boasting finely carved leather and silver conchos, her boots custom-made by the Michelangelo of cowboy bootmakers in southern Arizona. Her horse was gorgeous, and all was well. Except Jane was terrified of riding. She preferred to stand in the barn aisle for hours grooming her horse’s tail and dreaming of a new cowboy belt buckle or fringed gauntlet gloves. If her horse broke into a gait faster than a trot, she would scream and clutch the saddle horn for dear life. For Jane, it was always too hot or too cold to ride. The awful truth was that janeandmichaelstern hated riding together.

Making the issue of fox hunting even more troublesome is Michael’s tendency to fall off his horse, to land nose-first on a rock, to scrape his cornea on a branch across the trail and to injure himself in ways he couldn’t even imagine in his Western-riding days. On the hunts, Michael rides “first flight,” which calls for galloping at breakneck speed through woods and across fields, leaping over rail fences and hay bales, following hounds close enough to be surrounded by their music (what the pack’s baying is called), to smell them and sometimes even smell the musky fox scent they are tracking. Being part of a herd of athletic horses doing what they love to do (run and jump like crazy), in cahoots with a pack of hounds doing what they love to do (hunt), following a fox doing what it does best (outfox its pursuers) is exhilaration that has turned Michael into an adrenaline junkie. For Jane, such activity is a date with death or dismemberment. She is particularly perturbed that, unlike during the 38 years of our marriage, she is not around to supervise Michael’s riding—to make sure he has his cell phone (hunt etiquette proscribes them), wears goggles, carries ID so his body can be identified. It is no longer Jane’s wifely right to worry. Sharing a byline does not give nagging privileges.

We are both animal lovers, and when Michael first told Jane about his newfound passion for hunting, her reaction was, “HOW COULD YOU?” Her concern was mollified when he told her that it has been years since Fairfield County Hounds actually killed anything, that when a fox “goes to ground” (hides in a hole or tree hollow), the chase is over. The hounds are called off and the fox escapes to be chased another day. Still, she remains skeptical about Michael’s assertion that the fox actually enjoys being foxy and making a fool out of the hounds and humans trying to catch it.

Michael’s frequent visits to northwestern Virginia and Aiken, South Carolina (both horsey hunt country) are something we don’t talk much about. On a recent Roadfood trip we both made through Virginia, Michael (who once abhorred shopping) stopped at every tack shop and outfitter along the way. People there knew him and knew his fellow club members. Jane happily assumed the role of his personal shopper, consulting with him on the quality of field and dress boots. She had spent so long with fashionless Michael, the guy who did not mind wearing a T-shirt stained with our parrot’s mess, that she had to remind herself that the new Michael, with his tack and his tweeds and his hunt-field etiquette, is not hers to share. But in silence, she prays he stays on board when Phillip sails over that next stone wall.


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