That Hippie Sport

disc-golfBy Karlsie

Last year’s leaves, quickly crumbling under summer’s progression scatter under the light weight boots and tennis shoes trampling along a trail that bends sharply than climbs a rocky slope. The target faintly glimmers near the top of the hill. A warning call of “incoming” and the small group that had been playing their game clumsily, an eight year old child and an elderly man encumbering their speed, move aside for three young experts to throw their discs. This was a critical location, one of the most difficult plays on the course. The players must throw their discs with enough force to send them flying uphill, but if the arc curves too much, it will sail away again to the far side of the slope. The first of the young men gives it his best shot. The disc twirls and hovers near the top of the hill, then tumbles into the brush. A collective groan arises from all the spectators. The second player throws his disc. It spins in a straight line, then loses momentum two thirds of the way up, landing with a dull plunk several hundred yards from the basket. A light applause. The third disc rises, sails, spins gracefully, catching an upward draft, than falls casually, gently to earth, nearly touching the basket. A beautiful shot. Congratulations are in order as the young men play through.

After the experts disappear, the little girl tosses her disc. It flies a few feet into the air than thuds with disinterested aplomb to earth. The elderly man doesn’t do much better. He laughs with the grand daughter, while the parents throw and count the points to their game. The old man and the child don’t keep score. They’re just having fun. That’s the way of disc golf.

My first introduction to disc golf was a grudging one. I had already gone through the entire array of things you do with your kids while they’re growing up, and to add to the list a game I knew absolutely nothing about just didn’t seem fair. I consulted a few other parents. “Oh, definitely take part in it,” they encouraged. “It really involves nothing more than throwing a smaller, more compact frisbee.” Frisbees were something I understood. They were the kind of thing you threw for your dog to catch, like throwing a stick.

“I’ve never been very good at frisbee throwing,” I confided. “In fact, I’ve never been good at throwing anything at all unless you count tantrums.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said one young mother who was just a few years older than my twenty year old kids, “I take my son to play disc golf all the time. Even the baby comes along and tries to throw.” Well, that clinched it. If a mother with a six year old boy and two year old toddler could accommodate herself to disc golf, perhaps I wouldn’t look too ridiculous.

My practice runs for disc golf played out on a course just a few miles from home. In the relaxed atmosphere of other locals who greeted us as they passed by or we passed them, it felt more like a stroll through the woods, tossing around a frisbee for amusement. Sometimes, we’d stop to chat awhile with our neighbors while the experts played through. It was a family affair. I forgot my awkwardness as I saw others casually laugh off their own lack of expertise. You didn’t have to be skillful at this sport to enjoy it.

My boldness increased. I began to go to the Anchorage public parks with my son and his girl friend, who knew the playing fields there well. It was an eye opening experience. First, I learned our Peter’s Creek park contained the most difficult obstacle course in the municipality. This didn’t make my throwing arm any better, but at least I no longer looked like the worst of the rank beginners. The second thing I noticed was the natural courtesy that existed in small communities where everyone knows each other, extended into these city playing areas of strangers who had somehow escaped the seething condition of neighborly hostilities, road rage and break neck scrambles to reach the top of the corporate social ladder.

We played Kincaid Park, the largest playing field in the State of Alaska. A lot of controversy had centered around the park, accused of being a preppie dream vacation and a squandering of dollars, but the truth remains that the park is public. It’s free of cost. It’s a beautiful location, set at the base of the Cook Inlet, with huge old growth trees, natural rolling fields of grass, sandy areas, advantageous observation points for studying the planets and constellations, and a fabulous, eighteen hole disc golf course.

The park is immaculately clean. Beside each frisbee basket is a trash basket where park users dutifully dispose of their water and soda bottles, paper wraps and tin cans. There are plastic gloves and bags for getting rid of embarrassing doggy manners. The people abide by the rules, using the bike trails for their bikes, keeping their dogs leashed, restricting their play to the areas designated to them. Kincaid didn’t seem like a waste of taxpayer’s money at all to me. It seemed just a little like paradise as I played a game that left me breathless and panting by the tenth basket, and fully aware I had just received the most exercise I’d labored my body to accomplish in several years.

It was Jewel Lake’s first real summer day. The snow had melted, the leaves were budding brightly, the ice free lake sparkled in the sun. It was my second year of disc golf and I felt my confidence growing as we played the new course. The plays were squeezed into a space a bit tighter than my local community one, with not quite the same number of obstacles. There were several, open space areas not included in the Peter’s Creek trail tangling through birch and cottonwoods rearing above a river bank. We reached the platform for our third tee off, located on one of these flat grassy fields a safe distance from the picnic tables and recreational activities around the lake. We paused with indecision. A large, burly father had taken his two young daughters into the middle of the playing field to practice baseball with plastic balls and bats. We waited politely for a few minutes than asked if he’d move aside so we could play through. “Oh, it’s okay,” he said. “Just play around us.”

No, it wasn’t okay. Not one of us was willing to chance hitting a small child in the head with a flying disc. Other disc golf players piled up behind us. Neither were they happy about the idea of throwing discs at small children. They also asked the father to step aside so they could play through. The father irately got on his cell phone and barked at someone a few minutes. He glared at the line of disc golf players all waiting politely to play their game, then reluctantly gathered up his daughters and moved to the recreational facility on the other side of the picnic tables.

The rest of the day went cheerily enough. The same rules of polite behavior continued to exist among the disc golf enthusiasts, carefully waiting until there was no danger of harm before throwing their discs, and moving aside for the expert players to play through. We allowed many, as there were several members of our overall family group whose skills weren’t much better than mine. It gave us the opportunity to be observers as well as players. We became very absorbed in one team that also consisted of a dad with two children; but this time, a boy and a girl about six and eight.

At first, we only caught glimpses of them as they stepped into clearings below us. We could see the discs flying, but it was difficult to tell who was throwing them. One sailed higher and truer than the other two. The other two varied in their skill levels; sometimes plodding, sometimes taking a decent amount of air before landing. We figured the dad was the champion, teaching his children how to throw. As they drew closer, and we offered them the chance to play through, we got to see who the real disc player was. The six year old girl, with the most astonishing arm I’d ever seen, swinging the disc from behind her then throwing it with all the force sixty pounds could possibly muster, sent it sailing to within just a few feet of the basket. We applauded her remarkable capacity. The little girl blushed and ran like a rabbit toward her disc, but the dad ambled slowly behind her, nodding at us as he passed, grinning from ear to ear. He must have been the proudest dad in the world that day.

My partiality toward disc golf became so enhanced, I began enthusiastically discussing it with my Internet friends. I imagined as popular a game as it had become in my home state, it had become all the rage in the Continental U.S. After all, Alaska was always the last place to be cued in on anything new or fun. I was a little surprised the sport was looked at with a bit of derogatory opinion, even though it was one youth of all ages had taken up, from small tykes to the pushing thirty set. It had been declared by those whose opinion was the public parks would be better off stripped of all their trees and turned into baseball fields, that it is a hippie game, one that involved idle drinkers and stoners who had nothing better to do than toss around frisbees and trample the brush.

It occurred to me, if this was the case, than hippies have been given a bad rep. They seemed to fall into the background when the generation of achievers took their place with their nice homes, cars and bank accounts; a somewhat forgotten species and possible cause of homelessness and derelicts. Yet they played a game filled with common courtesies that required no more effort than a stroll through a public park swinging a frisbee. There was no more special equipment needed; no helmets, no knee pads, no gloves or uniforms. Any age could play and any age could be a disc golf expert. The achievers have over-achieved. The fat bank accounts are empty. There are fewer expensive vacations being taken this year, fewer splurges on weekend outings. I can’t visualize any better way of not spending money but still enjoying your recreational time than playing a game of disc golf with the family.