Tall Tales On The Trails: The Variegated Vermont Vampire Cow.
Tall Tales of Vermont’s Long Trail: The Variegated Vermont Vampire Cow.
The first time I heard this story was at Tinmouth Pond, Vermont. Gathered around a campfire late into the night, we heard a cow mooing in the far distance. Likely, it was from a farm some two miles or so away, with the sound passing over the quiet, wooded hills and rolling across the calm, clear waters of the cold mountain lake.
We were looking at the stars, resplendent in their dome arrayed, a dark sky belted brightly by the milky way. Unsullied by electric light, the glow of the fire gently gave a golden hue to the sheltering lower branches of nearby trees, but left clear and crisp the autumnal constellations.
The still of the night, broken by a sound rarely heard in the hours of darkness, raised only little attention, excepting with John. John was younger than me by a few years, and had never bivouacked under the open sky before. “What was that?” he asked, raising his head to look around.
“Just a vampire cow.” My dad replied, without missing a beat.
“A… What?” John replied, seeming a bit disconcerted.
“A Vampire cow.” My dad continued, matter-of-factly. “They’re like a vampire bat, only a lot bigger. Only the other cows know which ones they are, so you don’t normally pick them out of a herd. At night, they jump the fences and roam around, looking for other animals to drain of blood.”
“Um…” John replied, grasping backwards to his knowledge of the occult. “Don’t they get burned by the sun?”
“Nope,” Dad replied. “Vampires only burn because their skin is exposed. Cows, including Vampire Cows, have enough fur that they’re not effected by the sun. The species in this area is the Vermont Variegated Vampire Cow. They look like a Jersey with a brown and white pattern. They’re pretty uncommon, though, and human attacks are especially rare. It’s been estimated they eat mostly squirrels, because there’s few other checks on the squirrel population, and thus they’re an abundant source of hemoglobin.”
John ate the whole story, and spent the rest of the night watching and listening for the inevitable approach of the Vampire Cow. It wasn’t until some time later he realized we were joking at his expense.
For many years, I didn’t hear about the Vampire Cow again, until I was hiking a section of the Ouachita Trail with a buddy. Lodged in one of the shelters at night, we heard the sound of a cow sometime about a half hour after sundown. When the unavoidable “what was that?” came from my buddy Scott, I unhesitatingly replied.
I not only spun my dad’s tale of the Vermont Variegated Vampire Cow, but I talked about the more local, southern variety: the Greater Spotted Vampire Cow. This is a species which ranges from the middle of Georgia all the way to western Texas. Related to the Lesser Spotted Vampire Cow of the Mid-Atlantic states, it is a typical-appearing black and white spotted cow a little bit taller than average. It feeds mostly on opossums, squirrels, and other small game. More aggressive than Northern varieties, it has even been observed targeting deer and humans at times.
Scott, like John many years before, wasn’t really thinking as I continued to spin my yarn, as again we watched the stars across a clear and quiet fall night. He somehow believed me as I continued to relate the progressively more absurd details of this majestic animal’s habits.
I went on to explain the Greater Spotted Vampire Cow was originally a Spanish breed, though the bloodline was far from pure after two hundred years in the new world. It was still genetically similar to Spanish Cows, though, which could be used to repel it in case of attack. Jumping out at the Cow aggressively, waving a large cloth of any color (their color vision is woefully underdeveloped, due to the far more important role of night vision to the creature’s feeding habits) and yelling “Wobble” repeatedly will generally confuse the animal. Once it has been surprised and baffled, they usually run away. In rare cases they will charge at the waved cloth, and can be dodged easily. Since they are not known for being quick to recover from a missed charge, the opportunity to retreat safely or climb a tree is thus opened for several moments.
Scott had, unbeknownst to me, brought a flask of scotch with him on that particular trip, and had drained about half of it by the time I stopped rambling. He finished the rest after I curled up in the shelter to get some sleep before the next day’s predicted twelve mile trek to our extraction point.
Unfortunately, about an hour later, just after I had fallen asleep, I was rudely woken by someone bellowing “WOBBLEWOBBLEWOBBLEWOBBLE!!!” just outside the shelter. Rocketing out of my (luckily unzipped) sleeping bag in my running shorts, I grabbed my knife and dashed out of the shelter pulling the blade clear of the plastic sheath with a roar of “CONTACT!” My bare feet scattered the gravel and loamy clay as I barreled around the corner towards the sound and a source of light. I grabbed the flashlight off my bag in passing, thumbed the switch and brought the beam up on a scene which can only be described as surreal.
Scott was wildly flailing his towel around his head, shouting with all his drunken might, in the middle of the clearing next to the shelter. In front of him, very dismayed, were two other hikers, shining lights on him in the darkness. Their faces betrayed a major fear of having run into a psychopath in the backwoods of Arkansas, and it took some interminable seconds to stop the whole affray from going badly.
Eventually, I put on a shirt and slipped into my boots, and related the story to our new friends, as Scott decided to go have a lie-down after all the excitement of the evening. At the end of the whole story, everyone involved understood the whole thing was a tall tale, and not a threat which actually wanders the wildlands of the south. This included Scott, who isn’t allowed to bring alcohol on hikes with me anymore. If he’s sober, there’s slightly less of a chance he’ll cause heart attacks for innocent people who are just trying to enjoy the outdoors.
Outside these events, there’s little about this particular tall tale in the available sources. This leads me to believe it is a family tale, and thus not widely known, though the exact origin is still up for debate within the family.
No one in my family reads comics, so I’m quite sure my dad was unaware of the character Hellcow from the Marvel Universe when he related this story many years ago. Now that I’ve heard of this character, courtesy of a Marvel Fan friend back home, I must say I like my family’s version far better.
As with the BearCat of the Pacific Crest Trail, the Vampire Cow fits all the requisite points: Progressively less believable fiction delivered as if it occurred in real life. Further, this story shows a tendency of Tale Tales across many fields: It grows with the telling.
There are two distinct versions of this tale shown here: The “original’ as related by my Dad, and the expanded version I told many years later, adding to the bones already present. While both are Tall Tales, with all required elements in both, the second contains far more detail and exaggeration. This tendency of stories to grow is seen in everything from the Homeric Epics of the Iliad and Odyssey, to Superhero stories today: These events supposedly happened in the age when Men were twice as strong as they are today, and stood tall as the gates of Mycenae, possessed supernatural abilities, and so forth. Despite starting from (near) truth, they grew to become the stories we know today only after being told many times over, and changing slightly with each telling.
Of course, the Vampire Cow is not quite Homeric Epic, but it’s a good example nonetheless. It still fits in the traditions of the Tall Tale and the manifestation of this genre both on the trail and off.
N.B.: Names have been changed to defame the innocent.
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