I’m scrambling though the woods, grabbing on to the closest toothpick-thin tree for balance, feeling the squish squish in my shoes from a trek through the creek. I think I see a mark ahead. Or is that just trash? No, thank goodness, it’s a third scrap of toilet paper, which means I’m going the right way. “On on,” someone yells. As long as I can keep up with the feet in front of me, those attached to someone with a nickname like Dumpster or Pond Scum or Weiner Shrinker, I’m fine, I think. There are thorn scratches on my legs and — oh, god — is that a tick?
Hash History 101
No, I haven’t been forced to traipse through the woods like a fugitive. I’ve joined this hike of my own volition. And so have about 30 others on this particular Sunday. We’re following bits of toilet paper, handfuls of flour and scribbles of chalk to find the end of this crazy maze, where cold beer awaits as a well-deserved prize.
The others are the Little Rock Hash House Harriers, the local edition of an international group of self-proclaimed “drinkers with a running problem” who set elaborate trails through the woods and neighborhoods in a hare-and-hound style chase. They like to drink beer, give each other silly, often inappropriate nicknames, and they have met every Sunday the past 40 years. Not “every Sunday except for holidays.” Not “every Sunday unless there’s freezing rain.” This group, formed in 1974, has met in some capacity every single Sunday since its first Hash, which gives members the right to boast the title of the second oldest Hash in the nation. That is, unless you want to argue with the hashers at Fort Eustis, Virginia, who claim the same distinction.
Whether second or third oldest in the nation, at least one member, who goes by the Hash name Hazardous, thinks the bragging point is that the Little Rock Hash never missed a Sunday. “We’re continuous,” he says. “We’ve never stopped running.”
Hazardous is a founding member of Little Rock Hash, having helped form the club after returning to Arkansas from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the birthplace of Hash, where he worked as a mining engineer. A group of British soldiers formed the first Hash in 1938, taking the name after the popular Selangor Club, known to many as the “Hash House.” After stints in Richmond, Virginia, and then Haiti, Hazardous landed in Little Rock. He was at a race in North Little Rock when he met another former hasher, and they decided to form a Little Rock branch.
“It was kind of touch and go to get the Hash going in Little Rock at first,” he says. “We put cards and ads in the grocery stores to get people to run. Sometimes we’d only have two or three people, but we persisted every week. But one spring day, a beautiful spring day, it was nice and sunny, and we were having a run in Camp Robinson, and we had about 50 people show up.”
It’s not long, but it’s hard
Since members take turns playing the hare, hashers never know where they're headed from one Sunday to the next. They usually don’t even know the meeting point until the day of, when directions are posted in a message on the Hash phone line as well as the group’s private Facebook page.
“When I’m setting a trail, I have a couple of goals in mind,” says a hasher called Cornhole. He’s been hashing since 2011. “One is to make it fun, one is to take people to a place maybe they haven’t seen before — which is just about impossible, because this group’s been doing this since the ’70s. So, what that means is it’s getting more and more extreme.”
The trails, rarely relegated to pavement, have been set everywhere from neighborhoods in the Heights to the woods around Pinnacle Mountain, from Burns Park to Interstate 630’s underpasses.
Though the obstacles at certain hashes can be extreme, the attitude of the group is all fun and games. Trails are usually no longer than 3-6 miles. Hares are mischievous, often crafting a few false trails — which have a much less delicate name among hashers — to deter folks from “true trail.” One symbol, a “check,” alerts harriers that a true trail lies among several false ones. (In a “chalk talk” before harriers take off, the hare explains the symbols for the sake of “virgins,” those who are hashing for the first time.)
“The goal of the checks is to slow the group down,” Cornhole says. “You have the people in the front, and they get to the checks and they have to check every direction.” Three marks in flour, chalk or toilet paper after the check means you’ve found the true trail. “That gives a chance for the people on the back to catch up.”
One size fits all
The fact that Hash is a social gathering more than a competitive one means it attracts people of all ages, shapes, sizes, paces and occupations. The trails are more like obstacle courses than running courses. On my first Hash, we waded through a shin-deep creek. We hiked the hills and jogged the flatter surfaces, slowing to lift branches and help each other untangle clothes and hair from stray strands of thorns. I followed the advice given to me by Just Beth (so called because she doesn't have a Hash name yet): “As long as you stay in the middle, you’re good.” Staying on the heels of the person in front of me, whether walking or running, I could at least not get lost.
“I’ve heard that other groups say, ‘Yeah, the Little Rock Hash is a running Hash,” Cornhole says. “We definitely have some very accomplished runners. But we have all ages, all abilities. We have people who walk the whole thing. We always have a turkey trail.”
The “turkey trail” is an option about two-thirds of the way into the trail, right at that point where newbies like me have those what-was-I-thinking doubts. You’re hot, drenched in sweat, probably covered in scratches or bug bites, and you’re just ready for it to be over. But then there’s the “beer check,” a site the hare has set up to provide water and beer to get hashers through the last of the trail. And that’s when the split comes. To navigate back to the start, you can either take the shorter or easier path, the turkey trail, or a more challenging route, the eagle trail.
Whether a turkey or an eagle, it seems the company is what makes hashing most meaningful for Little Rock hashers. “We’ve got people from every kind of walks of life — carpenters, teachers, doctors,” Hazardous says. “It’s just people who like to run and get together.”
You can go anywhere in the world and find a Hash, using the experience to meet locals and see parts of the landscape regular tourists might miss. Cornhole has hashed in Omaha, Nebraska; Fort Walton Beach, Florida; and Victoria, British Columbia. “The Canadians were hilarious,” he says. “They were so reserved in some ways, so polite. It’s a little louder, a little raunchier here.”
Drink it down, down, down
Back at the start, turkeys and eagles merge, and everyone is pulling lawn chairs out of cars and cracking open cans of beer. They’re congratulating someone for finishing a tough course or teasing another for taking a horribly wrong turn. The Hash’s collective sense of humor lies somewhere between “that’s what she said” jokes and being as politically incorrect as possible. “It’s a fun thing, but it’s maybe not for everybody,” Cornhole says.
The group has faced criticism in the past for its partying and esoteric ways. “‘Why are you getting together and drinking? Why are you yelling in the neighborhoods?’ People say stuff like that,” Cornhole says. “‘Why are you throwing down this white powdered stuff that is obviously cocaine or anthrax?’ People jump to conclusions.”
That’s why hashers don’t necessarily seek out new members — not since those ads in the early days, at least. Most virgins are invited to Hash by a friend who thinks they might be open to the group’s antics, but hashers aren’t always looking to advertise their membership to folks at the office (or give their names to pesky writers).
“When people see something unfamiliar, they’re either curious or scared,” Hazardous says. Those who are scared have called the cops on hashers before.
Those who are curious show up for a Sunday Hash.