No road trip across America is complete without a running of the bulls. Or in my case, a running of the bull. We were on the homestretch of our 4-week jaunt across the U.S. when we landed in very rural Tennessee, a type of place where the outskirts and inskirts of town are pretty much the same thing. It would become a night I'll never forget, an unexpected moment of bonding with my teenage son Abram that we'll talk about for years.
We took a respite from our travels for dinner and fellowship at the hillside estate of our good friends Chris & Sharyl Bertoni, who make their home in VanLeer, Tennessee. The greater VanLeer area is the type of place where everyone still has a land line, folks in oncoming pickups wave to you and cattle and horses outnumber residents. It was right around sunset, about the time we were rounding up our kids to hit the road when the Bertonis got a call from a neighbor. It seems one of the two Bertoni bulls was about a half-mile away in their neighbor's yard. Chris shook his head. This particular bull had a history of following through on his thoughts that the grass is greener in other pastures. Chris was not amused, but needed some help in rounding up the wayward bull. He asked Abram, our 14-year-old, and me if we could help him out. No problem, we said. To me it sounded like a good adventure, a good capper to a memorable road trip that was drawing to a close. Abram didn't look so sure about things and quietly asked me if the bull would kill him. I assured him it wouldn't. I mean it's not like we would be chasing him down with a stick or something, right Chris?
Well, actually that's exactly what we did. There's nothing like chasing a ton of beef with love on his mind armed with a stick. I mean, what could possibly go wrong, right? We walked outside and Chris handed Abram a length of sturdy 1-inch PVC pipe and he handed me a handle of what appeared to be a garden tool, minus the garden tool part. We could use them to wave at the bull to get him to go where we wanted -- he showed us how to properly wave our arms and look threatening -- and if that didn't work we could whack the bull about the head. Okaaaayyyyyy Chris. If you say so ...
And with that we were off, walking down the long, sloping gravel driveway armed with our sticks and our wits -- and suddenly fervent prayers -- to find the runaway bull. As we headed out into the darkening, humid, insect-laden Tennessee night to fetch the wayward, amorous bull ogling the nearby heifers, I had a question for Chris.
Me: "So what's this bull's name?"
Chris: "Mr. Darcy."
Me: "Haha! Seriously?"
Chris: "Yes. But he should be called Mr. Wickham."
About a half-mile walk later we found Mr. Darcy under the watchful gaze of Chris' neighbor. Mr. Darcy appeared to be chewing his cud -- or maybe slobbering -- as he stood in her front yard right up against her fence staring at ... horses? Yes, they were horses. I asked Chris if Mr. Darcy was confused. Chris opined that Mr. Darcy was not only confused, but quite stupid as well. I believe Mr. Darcy heard that because I think I heard him snort. We visited briefly with Chris' kindly neighbor before "encouraging" Mr. Darcy to head back home. I could only assume that it is a universal truth that Mr. Darcy was a single man possessed of a good fortune who merely wanted a mate. The interruption of this desire, even though it was clearly a bit muddled as he pursued members of an entirely different species, proved vexing for Mr. Darcy.
He pawed at the dirt and lowered his head, shaking it from side to side. I've seen this type of activity -- in bullfights. This wasn't a good sign as it appeared Mr. Darcy would not go gently into the good Tennessee night. In fact, it appeared to be something of a standoff. Chris, however, was not up for games and started cuffing Mr. Darcy about the ears with his stick trying to turn him and guide him back roughly toward home. Over the next several minutes the three of us managed to herd Mr. Darcy in the general direction of his pasture, but not before he made a futile run for another pasture and generally misbehaved by jogging about in circuitous paths. I got the hang of standing my ground with my stick looking menacing and even managed to get in a few licks of Mr. Darcy when he got within striking range. Several times Abram and I resorted to the arm-waving and stick-pounding on the road that Chris said would prevent Mr. Darcy from crashing into us. It worked mostly. Until we hit a fork in the road and Mr. Darcy started making a beeline for Kentucky. Which is the exact opposite direction in which we were trying to get Mr. Darcy to head.
Chris, already in a foul mood, went sprinting after Mr. Darcy, yelling rather mean things about Mr. Darcy's character, disposition, intelligence and general demeanor as he huffed it up a hill. Chris returned soon afterward, afflicted not only with labored breathing but a foul disposition as well, saying Mr. Darcy was gone and out of sight and that when he finally did catch the amorous chap, the worthless bull would be rendered into hamburger. I offered to head up after Mr. Darcy and track him while Chris and Abram started heading back to the house to fetch a pickup -- and possibly a high-powered firearm. We parted ways and I began my pursuit of Mr. Darcy. As I crested the hill in a slow jog, my stick at the ready, imagine my surprise to see Mr. Darcy staring right at me just up the way. I tried to play it cool, acting like you know, I was just out for an evening jog in my New Balance running shoes with my stick. I managed to hug the other side of the road and slip past Mr. Darcy, then turned on him. I must have surprised him because immediately he took off down the hill. I yelled at Chris that Mr. Darcy was heading for him. Chris couldn't believe his luck.
Alas, Mr. Darcy wasn't through paying visits to neighbors. He ran all through the yard and around the house of another neighbor on our way home, with Chris hollering and chasing him the whole way. Then Mr. Darcy pulled a fast one and started backtracking toward where we found him. Chris was beside himself as Mr. Darcy tore back toward Kentucky. Enter Abram. He took off and ran down Mr. Darcy in a mad sprint before managing to "convince" Mr. Darcy with inventive uses of his PVC pipe to turn around. It was a heroic effort by Abram, who proved his mettle and courage in the face of desperate exasperation on our part. It was well dark before we finally got Mr. Darcy confined to the corral at the foot of the Bertoni driveway. I will not forget the forlorn look possessed by Mr. Darcy as the lock on the gate clinked shut. We gazed intently at each other. Then we parted at last with mutual civility, and possibly a mutual desire of never meeting again.