If you've ever looked out your window to see a parade of rowdy, chanting runners wearing brightly colored knee socks and yielding whistles, chances are you've experienced a hash.
Hashing, the practice of running and drinking alcohol, has inspired the formation of more than 1,700 "kennels" or chapters across the world. The tradition originated in Malaysia in 1938 as a way for British soldiers to work off their Saturday morning hangovers.
Memphis' Hash House Harriers have been around since 1981. Each year during Elvis Week, the group hosts the "Dead Elvis" hash, a national event that drew 75 hashers last year. They also host smaller events throughout the year.
This past Saturday, I join the local group for my first hash, a jaunt through Harbor Town on Mud Island.
My first order of business as a new hasher is being christened with a replacement for my "nerd name," the one I use in the real world. Unfortunately, you have to run five hashes before receiving your hash name, so I am simply "Just Halley."
After paying my dues ($5 for all the beer you can drink) and receiving a practice whistle, I pour myself a drink and sit back to watch the hashers prepare for the run.
Pre-hash activities include relegating duties, like photography and deciding who will man the accusation paddle, whose bearer is responsible for keeping track of hashers who break one of the many rules on the trail.
The fate of hashers accused of dishonorable deeds? More drinking.
The "hares," those responsible for laying that day's trail, set out ahead of us, marking both good and bad trails with flour and chalk. This, I learn, is where the whistles come in handy. As hashers work their way through the trails at different speeds, they sometimes get lost on deceptive "false trails," but they can hear those on course ahead of them by the sound of the whistle. As it is explained to me, good trails lead to beer. Bad trails just lead to more running.
More memorable than the few hours we spend half-jogging through the backwoods of Harbor Town are the stops between stretches of trail. Each serves as a sort of checkpoint where hashers wait for the others to catch up, chomp on Doritos and Cheetos and, of course, pack away more beer.
At the second stop, where music pounds from the designated beer-supplier's car, I am prompted to ask the question that has been nagging me all along: What do the police think of all this?
The tradition's long history helps them to convince the police of their legality, the hashers say. They comply with open container laws and stay off private property, but their general appearance combined with having to find creative places to urinate does make them pretty conspicuous.
At the end of the run, the group gathers in a circle to re-hash, if you will, the events of the day. This is where accusations are made, and where I find out that being "Just Halley" doesn't bode well if you're trying to stay sober.
In the circle, hashers are accused of wrongdoing for all sorts of reasons — being newbies (like me), shortcutting, not wearing proper gear, or using cell phones on the trail. The accused must finish their drinks while the rest of the hashers sing colorful songs. Everyone participates avidly, humbly accepting their fates and gleefully chiding those who'd broken rules. This, it becomes evident, is the part of the hash that everyone has been waiting for.
Whether they're in Harbor Town, Shelby Farms, or a suburban neighborhood, wearing red dresses, outlandish costumes, or simple running shoes, as the Harriers say, Saturday is hashing day.