Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Good Walks Improved

Playing golf with someone on his home course, and hiking with an off-the-leash dog on its native turf, are very much alike. In both instances you feel as if you are more "in the vicinity of" rather than "with" your partner -- but still that you are both very much in it together.

We first learned about the canine part of the equation two years ago when we house-sat for J & J and Audrey the dog at their home in the high desert hills surrounding Santa Fe, NM. We recently reprised that performance with another three-week stint at the same address. Every morning we took our canine charge for her daily constitutional along the high desert trails of her neighbor less neighborhood. And every day the protocol was the same.

To start Mars, Audrey, and I would walk out from the house as a unit. Audrey would bounce in anticipation as she watched to see which of the four compass points we were heading toward. As soon as we took enough steps to indicate the path, Audrey would dart off into the underbrush in that general direction with a look of intensity on her face that indicated the earth-shattering importance of her mission.

(photo by Mars - click photo to enlarge)

Audrey's rapid and seemingly random departure was quite disconcerting to me on our very first trek. Not thinking that she was the trained trail professional and I was the territorial tyro I quickly became worried that I had succeeded in losing the poor dog on my very first attempt to do anything with her. Not knowing what else to do I continued walking.

Fortunately a few minutes later she popped out of the bushes about one hundred feet ahead of me. She assessed the direction in which I was heading, decided it was okay, and headed back to do her undercover work. This little vignette repeated itself every few minutes during the course of every hike with Audrey. We actually spent very little time by her side. Yet, she always got there before we did, continually checked up on us to ensure everything was okay, and, when the walk was over, expressed what a great time she had being out with us.

Our recent golf experience was opposite yet identical.

We played for the first time recently with J, who along with his non-golfing wife MJ have been friends for many years. J is a longtime linksman, retired like us, who normally plays at the Simsbury Farms Golf Course -- a municipal course built on the former site of the Orkel Apple Orchard and Farm. As a child Mars went there on fruit and vegetable buying trips with her family. The layout is still populated with maple trees (at that time in varying degrees of autumn reds and yellows); apple trees with the odors of decomposing fruit at their bases; fading red storage barns; and at one artistically placed boulder right alongside a fairway. The weather was clear and sunny with temperatures in the low seventies. The day would have been good even if the golf were not.

Unlike our Santa Fe dog walking experience I was the one wandering off into the underbrush -- in this case tall, healthy, shot-blocking forestry rather than dried waist high juniper bushes. While J -- after pointing out the vagaries of the hole we were about to play, and after we all had hit our drives -- would walk purposefully down the close-cropped fairway with Mars pretty much following along in his path.

As a result I did not have much contact with the rest of my group unless they joined me on the sidelines to search for one of my errant drives. J showed an uncanny ability to track my mis-hit white orbs and locate them in the midst of dried, fallen leaves, broken twigs, low growing bushes, and New England stone walls. Thanks to his efforts and in spite of mine I lost only one ball during our afternoon on the links.

So the protocol here became: (1) we all gathered to hit our drives; (2) went our separate ways; (3) occasionally commingled to search for a missing ball or for me to get a club from the back of the cart that Mars was driving; (4) shouted "nice shot" from a distance; (5) regrouped on the green to finish the hole; and (6) followed J to the next one.

Like hiking, and unlike every other sport that I am familiar with, golf is a solitary activity -- perhaps the only game that you play entirely by yourself, regardless of the size of your group.

Madeleine L'Engle has written, "Every so often I need out -- away from all these people I love most in the world -- in order to regain a sense of proportion. My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings."

And for some of us it is negotiating our way through unfamiliar territory under the watchful but unobtrusive eye of a good, untethered guide.


Mars closed her 2008 golf season by getting a par on the 18th and last hole of the day -- an uphill par 3. First she hit a good drive that mysteriously disappeared into an invisible soft mud hole right in the middle of the fairway. J extricated the ball. Mars then chipped up over the hilltop onto the green, and "drained" her twenty-foot putt. If not in her own "Circle of Quiet" she was definitely in "the zone".

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