The Burlington Hash House Harriers have a funny way of jogging -- their weekly jaunt, modeled after the British hunt, is basically an aerobic obstacle course, with drinking. A fleet-footed "hare" runs ahead to mark the route -- in white, biodegradable flour -- while the bounding "hounds" follow. The search for "True Trail" leads the pack not just over hill and dale, but through urban alleys, parking garages and backyards. Exercised all over the world, "hashing" is a tradition that dates back 68 years to a bunch of bored British ex-pats stationed in Malaysia.
But here in Vermont, the local group's latest run-ins have been with the Burlington police. In recent weeks, the department has received two calls from citizens concerned that the white chalky powder might be anthrax. Both alarms precipitated Homeland Security-style responses. "People see a suspicious substance and they're not sure what it is, so they call us," says Lieutenant Kathleen Stubbing of the BPD. She says she doesn't know if the calls came from two different sources, or the same person twice.
Either way, the police are obligated to act. It doesn't matter that they're aware of the hashers' wacky Wednesday-night adventures, or that many of the runners are members of the Vermont National Guard. Reluctantly, Stubbing explains the rationale: "There's no way for me to differentiate between what someone might do in conjunction with what the runners do. We have to take everything seriously and go through the protocol." That means notifying the fire department, which subsequently calls in the "Haz-mat" guys. "It's a very resource-intensive, laborious exercise," Stubbing says.
She wants the Burlington Hashers to stop using flour -- even though it's the cheap, biodegradable, wind-proof, rain-resistant, legal, international trail-marker of choice. Speaking for the force, Stubbing explains, "We're just looking for folks to be reasonable and work with us."
Several other cities have had similar four-alarm reactions to the white powder. Harriers inadvertently shut down parts of Wichita, Chicago, Phoenix and Eugene, Oregon. There was even an incident on the island of Cyprus. All this took place before 9/11.
But "only one group has been banned from using flour, and it had nothing to do with terrorism, but bears," says Rachel Carter, who is co-president of the Burlington Hash House Harriers. She says none of the alternatives to flour -- chalk, spray paint, toilet paper -- works as well. Toilet paper is messy. Chalk is hard to apply and only works on city streets, not in the woods. "The spray stuff is $4 a can, and it could wash away in the rain," Carter reports, noting the club tried it out last week during a hash in Burlington's New North End. She estimates it would take four cans to mark an entire 69-minute run.
Breadcrumbs? "We could do a Hansel-and-Gretel-theme hash," she says with a laugh. "That'd be fun for one night."
Having a good time is, after all, the ultimate goal. This marathon tailgate party doubles as an international social club. "I can go anywhere in the world and stay with a hasher," Carter observes. Can this global network keep apace with security issues in the era of al Qaeda? Or will the practice go the way of unattended baggage and in-flight pocketknives?
Carter and company don't believe two complaints should force the club to change its ways. The cops don't want to expend any additional resources chasing down terror trails. Question is: Which group will get to Burlington City Hall first? The cops have threatened to get an ordinance through the city attorney's office. The hashers are planning pre-emptive political action through the City Council. And ... they're off.