Soon the cold will send us back indoors to crowd around the fire and curse the icy steps, but first comes the perfect month of October, packed with pumpkins and falling leaves and the smell of wood smoke. It is a time to plan outdoor entertainments that take advantage of these last lovely days.
Somewhere out in the country, the fox is lying low as the horses and hounds hunt him down. Later, when the trail has gone cold, the riders will gather to eat and drink and compare notes about this fence or that. It is a camaraderie that unfortunately requires the possession of certain skills -- and a horse upon which to exercise them. How sad that those who lack both should be deprived the run in the early autumn air and the shared fellowship of a hunter's lunch.
So sad, in fact, that it cannot be allowed. Bre'r fox is not the only thing to hunt on an autumn day. A little imagination and you can change the traditional hunt into a scavenger or treasure hunt, with hunters mounted not on horses but in a car or on foot, the huntsman's horn replaced by the host's signal to depart, the scent picked up not by the baying of the hounds but by the ingenuity of the guests and, at the end of the search, the reward of a hearty lunch.
You can either do an easy scavenger hunt, with guests paired off and given a list of 10 fairly accessible things and a limited amount of time to collect them, or you can do a difficult one, with the items to be retrieved listed on the invitation and guests having the week before the party to find them. The first has the advantage of sending guests off together into a fine fall day on the trail of such easily scented prey as a bird's feather, a comic book, a bottle cap. The second is much more devilish and only allowed if your friends have a certain amount of leisure. It could be the occasion for collecting items you've yearned for but never been able to find: a Wendell Willkie campaign button, a Hula-Hoop, or a signed photograph of Ronald Reagan, not from his political days but from one of his early films. Come up with 10 difficult items to list on the invitation and say that each guest must produce at least one of them. The guest who brings the most wins.
A treasure hunt is much more controlled and also requires more preparation on the part of the hosts. Choose five or six places where a clue can be safely left without fear that it will blow away, be eaten by a dog or run off with by a mischievous child. Once you've chosen your sites, you have to decide how to lead your guests to them. If you're planting the clues in an area everyone is familiar with, you can use drawings or even photographs to lead the hunters on -- a picture of a local bridge or a fountain or porch. More fun, and a greater test of ingenuity, are the clues written in rhyme.
Each couple is given the same first clue and sent off at intervals of 10 minutes. (You don't want them leading each other to the treasure.) At the site of the first clue, there will be an envelope containing the second clue. As each couple finds it, they make a copy and put the original back for the next couple to find. Taking the original clue is very serious cheating, punishable by hanging. At the site of the final clue, the one that tells where the treasure is hidden, stands the host, stopwatch in hand. The couple who made their way to the final clue in the shortest time is given the treasure map and leads everyone else to the treasure. Champagne is always nice, though perhaps a bottle of very good rum is more appropriate.
At the end of the hunt, there will be a late lunch, a chance to compare boxwood or buttons, or tell of where you went astray following a clue to the wrong place, of fences well taken and ditches jumped cleanly. And like all those who hunt in the bracing autumn air, guests will be rewarded with platters of food and hot drinks -- mulled wine or hot buttered rum, Irish coffee, or, if you'd like to recall the autumn afternoons of childhood, with hot chocolate, flavored with cinnamon and spiked with dark rum.