Most Mondays at noon the streets of this Shenandoah Valley town are busy with lunch-hour strollers and the weekend's gossip.
Today, Mount Jackson looked as though it was practicing an air-raid drill. Half the red-brick shops on Main Street were closed and the open half were empty. The town barber napped in his leather chair. A lone secretary at City Hall told callers to call back tomorrow.
On the first day of deer-hunting season, the right-thinking men, women and children of Mount Jackson and the rest of the valley head for the hills. Schools close, commerce takes a holiday and heaven help you if the furnace breaks or a pipe bursts.
"When our pump broke on Friday I called the plumber and said get on over here Saturday," said Peggy Smoot, the owner of the South End Grocery Store and big-game checking station.
"I'd have to get a long-distance line to find him today."
Shenandoah County is only 75 miles west of Washington, but life here, on the far side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, still is light years from urban ways. In this county of farms, forests and small rural towns, deer hunting still is an unparalleled autumn ritual. "There are a lot of social traditions involved as much as the hunting itself," said Max Carpenter, a biologist with the Virginia Game Commission. "People around here look forward to this day all year."
Carpenter spent this opening day where he has spent every one for the last 22 years -- in front of the South End Grocery weighing deer, checking their teeth for age and trading talk with folks wearing bright orange caps and vests.
The South End is a museum-perfect small-town grocery. There are gas pumps in front of the yellow, cinder-block building and everything from Virginia hams and chewing tobacco to shotgun shells for sale inside. A snarling bear's head is mounted on a brick pillar facing the door. On a soda cooler half a dozen photo albums hold snapshots of hunters posing with bear, wild boar and deer checked in at this station during the last 30 years.
There are more deer killed in this county each year, 2,223 last year, than anywhere else in the state. Virginia is a state very rich with white-tailed deer.
"We estimate our herd at half a million animals," said Jack Randolph, an officer with the state's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which licenses about 400,000 hunters annually. "We expect a record kill this year of over 79,000."
The hunt west of the Blue Ridge Mountains will continue through Nov. 27. The season east of the mountains will end Jan. 5.
This year, with recession and unemployment squeezing area residents, the deer hunt is even more important. Hunters today who still held good jobs said they knew friends who did not.
"With the economy the way it is, there's always somebody that needs meat," said Walter Myrtle, 38, a Virginia state trooper who was among the first group of hunters to bring in a deer. While Carpenter poked and measured his kill, Myrtle stood in a semicircle of hunters and spectators who congratulated him for his skill and luck. Even the unlucky ones seemed happy to celebrate evidence of the area's wild bounty.
"The first thing I saw were the horns," said Herbert Green, 35, a dark-haired man from nearby Edinburg, beginning a story about how he bagged one of the day's biggest deer--a 159-pound, eight-point buck. Green was in the woods at 6 a.m. when the temperature was below freezing and the wind seemed strong enough to knock down trees. "I almost said to heck with it around 9 a.m. but then I saw this doe come down the hill. I thought I'd wait a bit and see if a buck would follow."
Ronnie L. Polk, a lumberjack from Quicksburg, Va., shot his deer in less than half an hour. He spent the rest of the morning talking about it while attempting to yank any available leg.
"The horns take about three hours to cook," said Polk. "But then they are right good eating."