Blood-tracking lights. Taxidermy. Exotic game stews. Welcome to the annual Western Virginia Sport Show.
If Jed Clampett were shootin' at some food today, he wouldn't have missed his target, so there would have been no bubblin' crude, and he never would have up and moved to Beverly. (Hills, that is.) Today Jed would have been dressed head to toe in the latest varmint-tricking camo, sitting high in the pines in a lightweight portable tree stand, and slathered in chemicals that hide his human scent. If it was getting dark and the wounded critter scurried off, Jed could just break out his LED green flashlight specially designed to illuminate blood and track him down.
I know this to be true because last weekend I checked out all of the latest in hunting equipment and gear at the 25th Anniversary Western Virginia Sport Show in Staunton near my childhood home. After spending a couple of hours taking it all in with my 14-year-old son, Joseph, and my brother Chris and his nine-year-old son, Will, I have a simple message for you squirrels and possums: "Run!"
The show was packed, and nearly 9,000 attendees didn't mind forking over $9 a head for tickets over the course of the show. That's because it was fantastic. It was like visiting an amped-up Bass Pro Shops store, only with live bears and not so much catfish bait. The beasts performed in a Spartacus-style mini stadium, but without all of the nudity and violence of the television show. Well, okay, the bears were naked, but they weren't violent.
Their trainers wore buffalo-plaid, and Fred and Ginger -- two enormous European brown bears -- put on a great act for the standing-room-only crowd. I really enjoyed the show, but I can't deny that I was bothered by the fact that they didn't hire American bears. And I loved watching the smiling faces of the little children as they took it all in and dreamed of growing up to kill a bear themselves one day.
There were some lions and tigers at the show too, but they were dead. Also on display was half a giraffe -- the top half -- which I stared at for quite some time. "Where's the rest of me?" I imagined him crying. And, by the way, where is the rest of him? Is there another hunting show somewhere with the other half awkwardly splayed like when giraffes drink water on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom?
Everywhere you turned, there was another display of beautiful taxidermy, including a small stuffed albino buck with brown spots that had a mythical jackalope quality about it. Albino deer are extremely rare, so if you're ever lucky enough to find one in the wild I think it's best to kill it and put it on display so everyone else can enjoy it, too. What kind of American would you be if you allowed it to roam for years unobserved by other human eyes? If I were ever lucky enough to get a shot at an albino stag I would put his stuffed carcass in my living room and call him "Moby Deer," where every day he would serve as a constant reminder of my inability to resist a cheap joke.
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The taxidermy -- and there was a lot -- was incredibly lifelike, particularly at Craigsville, Virginia's Ron Sprouse Taxidermy Studio booth, where several turkey gobblers looked more lifelike on display than they look in the wild.
But it was the hunting gadgets that brought me to the show. Hunting technology has long been an obsession of mine, and it seems that every year the equipment gets more sophisticated. Take the description of the accessories for the new bow called "Velocity" made by the Parker company from Mint Spring, Virginia, for example: "3 Pin Fiber Optic Sights, Whisker Biscuit and Hostage Arrow Rests, an Angled Peep Sight, Nock Point, and a premium 4 arrow Quick Detach Quiver pre-installed." I have no idea what any of that means, but I'll bet good money the deer won't like a "Whisker Biscuit" one bit.
I haven't field-tested most of the latest gadgets, because I don't hunt as frequently as I'd like these days. Mostly I'm stuck living vicariously through devoted hunters like my brother, my dad, and Elmer Fudd. I don't get out in the woods much because I live in Washington, D.C., and write for a living, but they do because they're men.
When I rolled into the show parking lot in my tiny stick-shift Hyundai Accent I was immediately engulfed by row after row of gi-normous F-150s and Dodge Ram trucks. The good news was it was easy to find my car when we left. Up in suburban D.C., if a guy drives around in a big truck like that it's because he's compensating for something. The most manly thing he'll do in it is go to Home Depot to take back the tile saw he rented in that aborted attempt to do something himself. Back home in "Real Virginia," if a guy drives an F-150 it means he needs it to carry home all of the animals he's about to make dead.(Also, he can use it to drive up to D.C. and in a couple of hours knock out that tile job you botched.)
It didn't get any better when we unfolded our long frames from my Accent, because I soon realized we were just about the only attendees not wearing camouflage. But I thought fast and pulled Joseph aside and said, "Walk like John Wayne." We ambled across the parking lot in an exaggerated bow-legged cowboy walk, which almost made up for our car and attire.
It must have worked, because as soon as we entered a nice stranger handed us a salty chunk of deer jerky on a toothpick and we ate it, and it was delicious. Around the corner from the jerky stand we tried on coyote hats, complete with head and tail. Joseph loved the way it looked, and we agreed it would make quite the splash back at his middle school in Tyson's Corner, but at over $100 I thought the price was too steep. We decided that maybe my dad and mom could make us one later. There are too many coyotes running around out at the cabin anyway.
All of this dead stuff reminded me anew that my childhood home really is another planet from the one I live on now. And I miss it. I think I've lost about one percent of my manhood for every year I've been away from rural Virginia, and if my calculations are correct that means I'm down about 30 percent. So I really need to move back home soon before it's too late.
Plus, if the U.S. is ever taken over by marauding foreign hordes someday or ruled by a totalitarian state like in The Hunger Games, western Virginia is going to be the safest place to live because it will be the very last piece of territory they're going to try to take. I could even envision a break-away country called Appalachiastan that is pretty-much off limits to invaders.
In addition to the actual implements of the kill at the show, there was no shortage of hunting-related -- well, everything, from tchotchkes to t-shirts to killing vacations in Wyoming. While I was fantasizing about the hunting cabins at Blue Ridge Log Homes, my brother Chris introduced me to his friend from Nuckols Gun Works in Staunton, because he knew I was in the market for a new rifle. Later I chatted up the folks at the "Hunters for the Hungry" table too, a group that provides venison for the less fortunate in the Shenandoah Valley.
There were seminars on how to trap eastern coyotes and how to "sweet talk" a spring gobbler, which is harder than it sounds.And pity on you if you get glared at by the man with the "Quiet Please" sign in front of the turkey-calling contest for being too loud. (I'm talking to you, nephew Will.) The men train for years to master the delicate art and gain the esteem that comes from being a top caller. It is serious business. Show promoter Mark Hanger's son Lance is a two-time grand national champ.
I also met some really nice people from a group called "Blazing Arrows of the Valley," the Virginia Chapter of the Christian Bowhunters of America. I had no idea there was such an organization before the show, nor did I know this verse was in the King James Bible: Genesis 27:3, Isaac said to Esau, "Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and bow, and go out in the field, and take me some venison and make me some savory meat that I love." In your face, P.E.T.A.!
There was also no shortage of Confederate flags at the show, though I'm guessing there was a shortage of Obama voters. But that's just a hunch. A lot of the hunting t-shirts for sale found a way to somehow jam in the stars and bars of the Confederacy, usually as a backdrop for a giant buck rack. There were also real deer skulls painted with the familiar red, white, and blue pattern of the cult of the lost cause.The "Heritage Not Hate" -- another t-shirt -- crowd is alive and well nearly 150 years after Appomattox. Someday it will be time to move on, but that day is not here yet.
At a booth that sold truck window stickers I found "Fish: Nature's Lil' Food Stamps." To be fair, there was at least one arguably feminist t-shirt, too. It depicted a pretty girl blasting a huge buck with the words, "Never Send a Man To Do a Woman's Job."
When it was all said and done, I asked Joseph what he thought of the day. "It was friggin' awesome," he said. And he's right. Sure, I understand that the improvements in hunting technology make it easier to kill, but the advances also make it less likely you'll only injure the animal, or not get a clean shot off. There is also an argument that every year the growing proliferation of gadgetry distances us a little bit more emotionally from the hunt, not unlike an unmanned drone makes it easier to drop a bomb in some remote desert.
But it's still nowhere close to the disconnect that comes from rolling through the drive-thru to get a chicken nugget that a week before was a vat of gelatinous pink goo, and two weeks before that was put out of its misery after a lifetime of living in a dark box. Wild deer and game are about as locally grown and free range as it gets. If you're going to eat meat, there's no shame in facing it down yourself. It is honorable, in fact.
And I can't wait to take Joseph to the 26th Western Virginia Sport Show to see what they come up with next. But mostly I'll be there to see if the other half of that giraffe shows up.