The $5000 Ducks
By Julie Reardon
I’m not a big traveler; I hate flying and haven’t in 5 years. And this is such a perfect state—it has mountains, the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay—what else does anyone need? I leave the big road trip stories to the intrepid editors since I rarely make them. But, every few years, I drive to the American Chesapeake Club National Field Trial Specialty, which rotates locations around the country. When it’s within a day’s drive, I try to go with whatever dogs I have that can run. This year’s ACC FTS was in the Central time zone, but in Western Kentucky near Paducah, about an 11 or 12 hour drive, Oct. 13-15. The dates were an added bonus, a pretty drive when leaves should be near peak. My truck, although older, passed inspection and checked out in good shape. I entered my two most experienced Chesapeake Bay retrievers, Usher and Pander, in three stakes each: the qualifying and both all age stakes, for a total of 6 entries ($500 but heck, it’s only every 3 or 4 years), reserved a motel room nearby online, and left on Oct. 12 to get there in plenty of time for the Oct. 13th 8 am start time.
Usher and Pander are both hunting and hunt test dogs; it’s a bit of a stretch to call them field trial dogs. Both are titled AKC Master Hunters, and Pander ran some field trial derbies, finishing and earning a JAM (Judge’s Award of Merit) as a young dog. Derby is the entry level of field trials for retrievers under the age of two but even there, the competition Is keen. Unlike hunt tests where retrievers are judged to a standard and earn passes toward a title, being good or even very good doesn’t cut it in field trials. It’s dog against dog; you have to be the best to win or even place, and the game heavily favors the far more numerous and easier-to-train Labrador retriever. Most Labs live with, are trained by and handled by professional retriever trainers their entire competitive lives. By comparison most Chesapeakes are trained and handled by their owners—there were no field trial pros at the FTS in Kentucky. The ACC FTS is the sole trial in the country that is only open to Chesapeakes. At no other trial would I have presumed to enter my hunt test dogs in the open or amateur or “all age” stakes, as they’re called; only in the Qualifying stakes since that’s restricted to dogs that have never placed in all age stakes. But traditionally, plenty of dogs like mine run the all age stakes at the ACC National; they run it to try it, and to support the club, not with the expectation of winning. Occasionally, a few do well. The main reason we all love to attend our breed’s National trial is to see the best dogs, the hot young derby prospects, the top sires, what lines are doing well, and we reconnect with old friends, and meet new ones. My grand old matriarch Puffin, that I lost in September, had five grandchildren there, a few of whom I’d never seen.
Truck packed (rather haphazardly—we were going to a dog event after all), we left the farm at 5 am and drove south down I-81 as the sun rose over the Blue Ridge. Around Roanoke a thick fog settled in along with intermittent rain but we made good time despite heavy tractor trailer traffic. And, at least there are no toll roads. You don’t realize how deeply they can eat into your travel budget until you shell out that money.
Despite all the big rigs, I vastly prefer traveling on I81 over I95 because the scenery is so much better: incredible mountain beauty and mostly rural countryside. Traveling with dogs, you quickly learn to gas up at exits with nothing but one or two gas stations and no fast food chains or lodging. These offer the best places to air your dogs and usually a good country store if you want something different. Boiled peanuts anyone? Even if those aren’t your thing, you can’t beat the ham biscuits.
Approaching the halfway point of the drive, I was making good time and nearing Knoxville when the first of what would be many misfortunes arrived—the truck stalled out and died, coasting to a stop on the side of I81. I muscled it as far off the highway as I could as tractor trailers roared by, blasting their air horns. It was 11:30 am, the fog had burned off and it was starting to get warm. GPS found a Tony’s Wrecker Service that towed and did repairs. My call was promptly answered and a rollback truck and driver was dispatched and arrived within a half hour. I held my breath watching from the tow truck’s cab as Tony hauled my truck onto the bed with the come-along. Usher, who does not like strange men, barked furiously at him from his crate in my truck. I prayed none of us would get hit by the speeding traffic.
Although they mostly work on heavy trucks, the experienced mechanics at Tony’s knew their Chevys and gave me confidence they’d get me back on the road. They guessed belt or alternator at first, then fuel filter. But a simple fix was not my luck–the truck needed a fuel pump. By itself a fuel pump’s not an expensive part, but it’s labor intensive to install, since the gas tank has to be removed. These cheerful guys located a fuel pump and went right to work as soon as they got it. Even though it was late afternoon by then, they agreed to stay past closing time and work late to get me back on the road. As the sun set over the Tennessee mountains, Usher, Pander and I cooled our heels in the gravel parking lot.
By 7:30 pm, more bad news. Before it died, a pinhole leak in the fuel pump had, thanks to the ethanol that’s in all gas now, spewed corn gunk and gummed up all the connecting hoses and parts that they needed to connect the new pump to. All needed replacing, and the parts had to be ordered; this would take 48 hours. And by now, everything in Bull’s Gap, including car rental places, was closed. Laugh or cry? This actually would all be funny if it was happening to somebody else—that I didn’t like. Bull’s Gap had a motel, a brand new Quality Inn within sight of Tony’s Wrecker Service. J.D., one of the mechanics who’d stayed late and a dog person himself, kindly loaded me, my two dogs and all my luggage (did I mention I packed like white trash?) in his own truck and drove me to the motel next door and was very tolerant of Usher trying to eat him. Unbelievably, the motel charged over $100. $70 for the room and $15 per dog and I am glad my mother isn’t alive to read about me using garbage bags as suitcases, even though they’re handy to stuff in a truck.
Perhaps the motel saw me coming and added a nuisance charge? To add insult to injury, I had to wait til 8 am the next morning for anything to open, and then find a way to get to Enterprise, 22 miles away, to rent a car. Their ads lie. No, they do not pick you up! And Bull’s Gap had no taxi. I don’t think I’ll repeat what the courier service said when I called to see if they would take me and the two dogs to the nearby town to rent a car; they probably thought I was deranged. Through the power of social media, a friend had a friend, who had a Chesapeake and worked in Bull’s Gap. Without hesitation, he collected me, the trash bags, cooler and dogs, and drove us the 22 miles to rent a car.
My financial woes did not end there. The only car Enterprise had would accommodate my dog crates, was the most expensive model they had—a big black SUV. It was pretty comfortable though especially at faster speeds than I’d have dared to drive my truck. Back on the road, I still had a 6 hour drive and even with an hour gained by the change to central time, didn’t arrive until 4 pm. I missed two of the three stakes we’d entered and the only one we had a realistic chance of doing well in, forfeiting four of six entry fees. But I saw some old friends, met some new ones, watched quite a few nice dogs run and made the dinner hosted by the ACC onsite that night. After the meal, I stumbled around for 40 minutes in the pitch dark trying to find a pitch black SUV in the unlit parking area. A white truck, when it’s not broken down, has its advantages.
Speaking of black… my black cloud of bad luck just wouldn’t go away. I’d forgotten the paper with the confirmation code for my room reserved in Paducah; it was in my truck back in Bull’s Gap. When I tried to check in, I got no sympathy from a surly desk clerk. Indeed, I was informed that the only thing they had available were two smoking rooms and both were upstairs. The clerk spoke very little English and grudgingly said they would “try” to get my money refunded but it was not up to them.
Expensive lesson no. 2: DO NOT book through Travelocity or those other online services. If you reserve directly through the motel and do not show up, they don’t charge you. Travelocity, Hotels.com and the like funnel you onto their sites, but don’t tell you they’ll charge you whether you stay there or not. And they do not save you money; in fact they’re usually more expensive. I didn’t care; by this time money was the least of my worries. I was not going to stay in a smoking room up some rickety steps in that dump. Travelocity, you have just lost my business for life and you have not heard the last of me. For $44 a night, I found a Motel 6 next door that had plenty of non-smoking ground floor vacancies. With pleasant, English-speaking staff.
Bright and early the next day, we were finally ready to step to the line. The only stake we got to run, the amateur all age, was the most difficult one of the whole trial, but nevertheless, it was a treat to be there and run with the big dogs even if we were hopelessly outclassed. Pander went first, and did an outstanding job on a very technical triple marked retrieve. Usher wasn’t quite as sharp; he had bigger hunts, but he put in a performance certainly above what he’s been trained for. Unfortunately, he was dropped, but the judges called Pander back to the next series, a gnarly land blind well beyond her training and certainly above my ability as a handler. Still, she really stepped up and tried her heart out; she almost did it. But near the end, her coat color virtually disappeared in the cut corn and I couldn’t see her, although she did finish. But we weren’t called back. We ended up leaving early the next day, as friends from Roanoke offered to follow me to help drop off the rental car and take me to pick up my truck. The 11 hour drive home took 15 hours due to major night construction between Roanoke and Staunton. Three states, three days, 27 hours of driving and over $5,000 to run 2 dogs in a total of 3 series. I certainly wouldn’t call those ducks priceless; they were pretty darn expensive.