Legend of the wampus cat: a mountain tradition

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Editor's note: A wampus' is actually an outer jacket of tough fabric; a wampus cat' is a colloqualism, usually descriptive of an animal of great strength or agility.

Recently on Television, The Heartland Series devoted a segment to the wampus cat. This creature is known far and wide in these parts. The wampus is reported to be a lot like the cougar, which is also common to this area.

But from all accounts, it seems to also be

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much akin to the Tasmanian Devil. It has been the object of many hunts and the subject of many tales, some of them pretty darn tall.

Today I heard a mountain wife tell of the big wampus scare in the "holler" where she and her family live. It seems that the men had devised a plan to ring a bell whenever there was a sighting of the critter. Immediately the women and children were to get inside their houses and stay there until all was safe again. The men were to grab their firearms and chase down that threatening creature.

Sure enough, one evening recently, the bell tolled. From all across the hollow, men, with guns in hand, jumped into their trucks and converged at a pre-appointed fork in the road. The hunt was on or so it seemed.

The good wife telling this tale was more curious than most and wanted a first-hand look at the wampus. She, breaking the rules of house restriction, followed the men at some short distance. They had not gone very far when their path reversed itself. They wound up at a barn in an isolated meadow.

As the wife crept up to get a peek inside, she heard a loud commotion that sounded mostly like laughter. What she saw inside made the wampus cat far more dangerous than any of those men had imagined. The men were inside that barn enjoying the fruits of the most accomplished moonshiner in those hills. Not only were the men partaking, they were laughing about how cleverly they had deceived those simple women. When she spread the truth to all the wives in that hollow each of the men had a wampus all his very own.

This story puts me in mind of the Alabama custom that many hold so dear, dirt road riding. It is not done in search of a wampus cat, but there certainly is a purpose just the same.

A truck with an engine that runs most of the time and a radio that works all the time, a full cooler and no particular destination are all one needs. And this particular recreation is not more the venue of men than of women.

I have spent some time on dirt roads myself, and I heartily recommend them. There is a freedom from cares and a sense of timelessness that make riding a pure joy. One's spirit really can be refreshed by a few hours in dirt road time-out.

However, there are some perils.

That sense of timelessness can cause some real problems especially if there is someone at home who does not see the innocence in forgetting about previous commitments. And, in all honesty, if the cooler is full enough and the company good enough, forgetting is not all that hard.

It's difficult to turn off Diamond Rio or Heart or whatever your favorite may be, and then lock down the cooler before it is empty and head back to the hard top road before the sunlight has dissolved into darkness (and occasionally back into daybreak again). And if the rider just cannot go back to everyday life quite on time, then the wampus cat might well show up in Alabama.