This is the first installment of Mood to Move, a new column by guest writer Cathy Hastie. Cathy, a civil engineering scheduler and writer with a yen for car-free movement, will write about the culture of low-car life in Portland, starting with one of the city’s best-kept secrets: the Hash.
Do you know your way around Portland? I mean REALLY know our fair city? There is one group in town whose members can say verifiably that yes, they do.
Meet the Hash House Harriers, Oregon’s “drinking club with a running problem.”
“The Hash,” as it is called, is one of many around the world dedicated to (in order of priority) drinking beer, running, and singing bawdy songs not fit for the ears of anyone under 21. The hash is Oregon’s answer to the intense pressures of living in the heart of beer snobbery, athletic ultra-achievement and political correctness.
Hashes regularly expose hidden nooks and crannies of Portland by leading members on wild running, walking or biking events. Members take turns leading these events along little-known thoroughfares connecting posh neighborhoods to homeless encampments or city parks to industrial dump sites. A “commendable” (this is a euphemism) trail often passes through “shiggy” – mud, brambles, brush and swamps; and a truly memorable trail will no doubt require a little trespassing, be it through a tunnel, over a train trestle, or across the governor’s back yard. Fording streams, climbing fences and scaling steep embankments add to the fun. Only the brave and adventurous dare to follow.
The hash began in 1938 in Kuala Lumpur. British expats regularly met at a greasy spoon, or “hash house,” to run and drink beer. The runs became a “hare and hounds” type of game, where the leader, with a 10 minute head-start, set out running, dropping random bits of shredded paper for the “hounds” to follow. Today’s hash uses biodegradable flour, dropped in handfuls every 20 yards or so, but the modern “hares” still feel the pressure of the panting pack on their heels, because the punishment for getting caught by the hounds is a de-pantsing. (If you ever see a pants-less man running through your neighborhood carrying a bag of flour, now you’ll know why – female hashers are typically smart enough to wear two pairs of pants!)
There are thousands of hash groups around the world; one can be found in almost every major city. Hashers are even crazy enough to have established clubs in Antarctica. Portland has, at last count, five separate hashes with varying degrees of family-friendliness, athleticism and beer-consuming capabilities. Old, young, fit, fat – there is a hash for everyone here. The governance of the Hash is lovingly referred to as the MisManagement: the Religious Advisor and the Grand Master or Mattress. They do very little other than rile up the crowd, direct drinking ceremonies and generally incite obnoxiousness among the members.
Hashers meet at a pre-disclosed location, sometimes a bar, often a trailhead or parking lot, and warm up for their impending physical activity by, you guessed it, drinking beer. When the moment is right, the event officially begins with a rowdy song and a swig of beer to send off the hares. After a mandatory 10-minute wait, the hounds enthusiastically endeavor to find flour, capture the hares (and their pants) and explore the rich, entertaining and uncharted territory of the urban pedestrian environment.
The hares set the trail using special marks to guide the hounds – sometime astray. False trails keep the pack guessing. An ‘X’ written in flour on the ground is a “check,” indicating that the trail diverges somewhere nearby. Three small piles of flour together mean ‘go back to the last check’ – these are typically found at the end of a long, promising dead-end used to lure masochistic hounds who are greedy for shiggy. The hares’ tricks serve the dual purpose of slowing down the front-runners so that the lazy, out of shape or walking participants can catch up, and giving the hares a little extra time to increase the distance between themselves and the pack.
The hounds will blow whistles or call out “On-On!” when they find flour marking the way. A clever hare will make them work to find the “true trail.” It is not uncommon to see a rag-tag, sweaty bunch, loping in circles in a parking lot or by the side of the highway, calling out and whistling to each other as they scan the ground for that elusive white, dusty pile that beckons them to the promise of more beer.
No well-planned hash lacks a “beer check” somewhere near the middle of the run. This is another opportunity for the hares to inebriate the fast guys, slow them down and increase their own chances of arriving at the end clothed. A big, flour ‘B” written on the trail can incite a ruckus as the lead hounds fight for the honor of finding and cracking the first beer. Of course, leaving cold beer lying by the side of road is less than intelligent. The hares often disguise the refreshments by bagging them and covering them with a bit of groundcover. Roadside litter makes the parcels less appealing to curious teens passing by. A favorite way to serve the needs of the thirsty pack is to tie a couple of six packs to a rope and toss them into a cold creek.
The final destination of a hash is a tightly guarded secret, for obvious reasons. But well-heeled hashers, familiar with the myriad topographical secrets of Portland, can sometimes guess its whereabouts. Depending on how closely their confidence reflects their actual skill, short-cutting the trail can position these egomaniacs to catch the hares – or find them lost in a dead-end gulley full of hypodermic needles and used condoms. In the end, though, every hound is found and gathered up for the final ritual, “religion,” which ideally takes place around a campfire. Down-downs – rapid, on-demand drinking assignments – are meted out to punish, reward or recognize hashers at the whim of the Religious Advisor. Down-downs are bestowed for such egregious errors as wearing a t-shirt advertising a race (athletic prowess is officially frowned upon at the hash), or for skipping a beer check (a clear sign of disrespect and avoiding responsibility). The accused swig beer from a unique drinking vessel, that, when seen on the shelves at a medical supply store, is commonly mistaken for a bed pan.
You might think that only irresponsible degenerates would risk drinking cheap beer from a bedpan while sweatily trespassing on public property. You might be right. On the other hand, hashers use pseudonyms – hash names, which in keeping with the spirit of the hash are typically derogatory, offensive and/or overtly sexual in nature. Conceivably, this practice serves to protect their true professional identities after a rowdy night in the woods (a certain public-school principal comes to mind). But mostly, it’s because the names are funny. To earn your hash name, you typically have to do or say something stupid or perform an extraordinarily daring feat (one and the same thing, no?). A good hash name makes you cringe. It makes you want to wash your mouth out with soap. Needless to say, most are not suitable to print in this publication.
For special occasions, hashers liven things up by wearing togas or red dresses. Imagine a long line of random-looking men and women galloping diagonally through the downtown Nordstrom’s, unified by the bright color of their flowing Goodwill attire. Hashers can also be seen cross-dressing or pulling a regal, silver grocery cart with drunken charioteer in the annual Urban Iditarod.
While juvenile obnoxiousness, beer and exercise are all great fun, the best thing the hash offers its participants is a special intimacy with this place called Portland. There is unspeakable joy in discovering a hitherto unknown passageway beneath something as impassable as the I-5 freeway, or an expedient connection between McLoughlin Boulevard and the Marylhurst University campus. Hidden gems, like the Crystal Springs headwaters and the Reed Canyon nature park fill the heart as the fresh, crisp Portland air fills the lungs. Slogging across empty nude beaches and full swamps on Sauvie’s Island on a wintery afternoon can change the aura from that of a children’s Halloween amusement park to a mature, serene habitat. The hash leads us up and down the voluptuous hills of Portland, entangles us in her twisting undergrowth and allows us to sneak a peak at her foundations.
Sometimes she wears a girdle or some ratty briefs. But more often than not, it’s a lavender negligee.