Outside magazine, July 1996
One word said it all about how Lewis and Clark had moved him:
You can't see it from the banks, but way out in the upper Missouri, where Sand Coulee Creek brings its desultory offerings to the big green river, is a barely submerged sandbar you can wade to after the floodwaters run off toward old St. Charles. As a kid I loved this bar, pretending the wash across my feet was brine and I was Robinson Crusoe or Ralph in Lord of the Flies. Then one day Arty Lemon told me it looked like I was walking on water. "Just like the King!" he whispered in awe.
Now, 40 years later, a mother and her girl had come out on their dock to stare, straining to understand what they saw. How'd he get there, Momma? And Mom was thinking, Christ, with a five-iron? I waved and mounded up some sand with my foot. Then I kissed a luminous Titleist Balata good-bye, placed it on a tee in the mound, and stood back in the muddy flow to size up the first drive of a par 25,000 whose final shot would roll home 2,140 miles away, in the very place where Lewis and Clark began and ended their four-year journey that would shatter the West.
The inevitable central Montana wind was blowing upriver, so I had to hit a strong line drive into it if I was going to make a good start toward the trip's first civilized hole at the Great Falls Country Club, four miles downstream. I took a practice stroke with York, a beloved five-iron I named after Lewis's slave, and performed the small, neurotic adjustments in stance that make golfers look like parodies of themselves. I waited for an outboard to pass me by, smiling at the four sports inside, their gaping faces neutered by wraparound shades. Then I swung.
There are transcendental moments in golf when your body becomes a celestial machine, gravity relents, the club whispers to the ball, "Go--God wants you." And the ball soars away, singing on the wind, flying toward a perfect landing on a fine, pampered green.
This would not be one of those moments.
The day I decided to golf the Lewis and Clark Trail, my tennis partner pulled up lame, our nine-hole ran out of threesomes, and Timer, my mare, was nursing Rolex, her foal. So, trying to see what I could learn about sliders, I was pitching hardballs at a barrel backstopped by the barn.
Thonk! Bang! Whuck!
My wife, Kitty, finally shrieked from the house, "Don't you have someplace to go?"
Did Lewis and Clark have wives?
In the same way that people on the Mississippi understand Sawyer and Finn, as birds know wind, Thomas Jefferson's peculiar, carnivorous point men have always been under my thoughts. After all, I grew up believing that the explorers had camped right at Sand Coulee's lagoon and that without their triumph my great-grandfather could never have summoned enough moxie to try out this empty, dangerous place. When I wasn't rafting or sulking in my fort, I dug for the gold I was sure the captains must have cached. Like all primitives, I'd confused exploration with piracy. And like all us river kids, I had one main dream: to run down the Missouri in a white-sailed boat under a hot-orange moon.
One of the pleasures of adult life is finally doing the things you couldn't as a child. But simply following the river to Missouri wouldn't be enough. For me, travel without sport is like movies without music. So adding golf to a journey that Meriwether Lewis called "a darling project of my heart" seemed as natural as dousing ketchup on a french fry.
But I pictured really big golf--something not just on the links but off them as well, where I could rid my swing of its corruption without all those prying eyes, while avoiding the tedium of tee times, greens fees, and bellicose foursomes of bankruptcy lawyers yelling about playing through. Plus, I could finally read Bernard DeVoto's The Journals of Lewis and Clark the way it should be read: with the music of the river in my ears.
I'm talking Wilderness Golf.
This sport-in-the-rough is a variety of the game Kitty and I already played where we live on the Clark Fork River, near the Pacific side of the trail. Once in a while we pack our clubs and ride our horses to some state-owned parkland where we can hit golf balls for free all day long. It's a far cry from what goes on in that bright but tormented land I call Fairway--the sum of U.S. golf courses now approaching the size of Connecticut in aggregate square miles. There's a lot I don't like about Fairway: its unquenchable thirst (which has started big fights in parched venues like the Southwest), the ceaseless overuse of pesticides and fertilizer, the absence of all wildlife save the ubiquitous golf-course goose. All of this seems at odds with what is a simple, ancient game offering a sweetness like no other.
It took Lewis and Clark only nine weeks to make their way home from Sand Coulee Creek to St. Charles. But they didn't have to lug any clubs. I decided to set aside a summer and part of a fall for this journey. I intended to float the cleanest length of the river; later, when the waters became hopelessly fouled with agricultural by-products spewed by farmers and ranchers, I would car-camp in the floodplains.
So with a hearty "Fore!" I sallied out, toting a ratty blue Naugahyde golf bag, ten $3 clubs from the Salvation Army, and 400 range balls. I hoped I could make them last.
I beached the raft there was a crash in the willows and three does streaked away in two directions like cheap fireworks. Their stiff white tails wagging with the cadence of metronomes, they regrouped on the bluffs and peered down in that vacant, ungulate way that reminds me of shopping. William Clark would have shot them for brunch, but not me. In this terrain, where distances can only be guessed, the golfer must scale the size of known objects against the unmeasurable shapes of the inanimate world, making deer worth more alive than dead. I added whitetails to my long list of beasts that the captains killed in their quest for an all-meat diet unsullied by anything green except the watercress Lewis ordered York to swim across the surging river to collect.
I considered my drivers, James Woods, Ed Wood, and Arthur Ashe, but chose York instead and put an orange ball on a tee. My grotesquely sliced shot disappeared onto the gale-whacked prairie above.
"From the extremity of this roling country," wrote Lewis in June of 1805 about the grasslands I saw before me, "I overlooked a most beatifull and level plain of great extent ...there were infinitely more buffaloe than I had ever before witnessed."
Thanks to the captains the herds are long gone, but the character of these benchlands is unchanged. They aren't exactly hostile to man, but because there have never been many of us out here they seem powerfully indifferent. Occasional lopsided mountains and sawed-off buttes thrust without pattern from despairingly lonely fields of wheat and skinny, brown shortgrass stretching away forever. It's a fever-dream landscape that mimics the steppes of Asia in cartography; in mood, it's like the gloomy backdrops against which Ignatz Mouse hurled bricks at the lovesick feline in George Herriman's eerie Krazy Kat comic strips.
I found my ball and scouted for a target. Overlooking the river a quarter-mile off--or was it a mile?--sat a structure that could have been a missile control center or a one-room schoolhouse. It took five shots with Ed Wood to get me close enough to use an eight-iron. Not only was my shot accurate--unusual for me--but my backspin stopped the ball right in the yard of what turned out to be an abandoned homestead. The windows of this sagging edifice were boarded, but the door creaked open when I pushed it with my foot.
I stepped inside. When my eyes adjusted I could see that the room was empty. I shuffled into what was probably the kitchen, judging by the stovepipe hole in the ceiling. There was some shelving that held...stemware? When I stepped closer I could see these weren't brandy snifters but the old glass insulators used by rural electrification companies. There were four or five dozen of them--big green ones, white ones, spiky red numbers. The emotional poverty of this glass menagerie on the prairie made me vaguely sad. Still, if I'd lived out here 50 years ago I might think this collection was positively breathtaking.
Mile 2,091: Fort Benton, Montana
"Are you going to hit or what?" Laura asked.
"I can't concentrate."
Aaron, who played for his school's golf team, stepped up to show me how it was done. The hole was a long par four, but I saw how even I could make it. By cheating. And that's what Aaron did.
He swatted a low drive with a two-iron just left of the fairway. When it hit the tarmac, it skidded and picked up speed. It finally stopped rolling a mere 30 yards from the hole. With a mulligan and a couple of putts Aaron could easily par the hole.
"Dang," he muttered.
I was incredulous. "What's wrong with that?"
"It didn't roll back on the grass."
Poor baby. My shot caught the tarmac all right but veered left and ended up in a pile of fuel barrels. I pleaded to do it over but they said no.
The third hole arced around a cemetery. Laura hit a straight, short drive, but her approach shot hooked, banging off a couple of headstones like a pinball. Fort Benton was a frontier hangout for every species of river rat imaginable; the graveyard was crowded with old Montana names--some of them, like the great-grandfather of Laura's husband, even semireputable.
Her ball had come to rest on the old man's grave. We gathered around and stared at it. She turned, shaded her eyes, looked at the flag, and made certain calculations. She selected a five-iron.
The divot she plowed off the old man's chest was the size of a Class I tumor. She glanced at me with a shrug and patted it back. Then she went after her shot.
Mile 1,806: Wolf Point, Montana
The dog belonged to my nieces, the teenage daughters of Kitty's baby sister. Although they had never hit a golf ball before, and he'd never seen one hit, his obsessions with control no longer surprised them.
"He herds leaves," said Dillon. "And he jumps and bites dust moles."
The last time I was here on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation was the winter of 1974. I was covering a venomous tribal election for an underground newspaper and had pulled off the main drag to marvel at the extraterrestrial sound of the political ads delivered in Lakota on KVCK. Suddenly, the side door of my van slid open and an Indian built like the Michelin Man stacked himself into the backseat.
"Hey," he growled, rubbing his hands together. "How 'bout you take me on to Mother's?" Thus began a long go-round with my new best friend to visit every member of what had to be the most populous extended family in the northern tier. We'd walk in, gather around some mysterious stew that was always ready, and when I opened my commie reporter's notebook, these strangers would unload a stream of lewd accusations and clever character assassinations. When someone asked one night what I thought, I allowed that braining Lewis and Clark at Big Muddy Creek, about 40 miles to the east, would have saved everyone a lot of trouble. There was a dead pause in the conversation as everyone turned to stare. After a moment they began chattering again, as if I'd said grace.
The girls chose irons. I handed Ed Wood to their dad, Tom, a banker specializing in the agribiz. I gave Arthur Ashe to their mom, Laura, who runs the Git-N-Go on Highway 2. Then I stood in the deep, rockless loam of a fallowed wheat field and showed them how to swing. "Keep your head down and your eye on the ball," I said. "Let your club follow the ball."
"That's it?" Laura asked.
I shrugged. "Try it."
Most golfers conveniently forget their maiden swipe. For good reason. Laura wound up like she was wielding a weed whacker and swung savagely. Not only did she miss the ball, but Arthur Ashe flew from her hands and cartwheeled into the field. She swung again, skulling the ball and shattering her tee. But at least she made contact, and the ball skipped like a stone on water from clod to clod with Mose in hot pursuit. When her next shot dropped 50 yards away into her waiting dog's mouth, she whooped with delight.
"I couldn't do this in front of strangers," she said, teeing up another ball. "Like on a golf course? I could never go there."
The girls were natural-born jocks who'd been calloused by all the reservation basketball they played. After ten minutes of practice, they were already hitting the ball with purpose and grace.
"That cracking sound!" Dillon exclaimed. "I love that cracking sound!"
I was bragging to Kitty on the phone that night about my big day when she told me the news. A fiend with a pipe bomb had tried to blow up a statue of William Clark in Great Falls. This grotesque pine image, rendered in Chainsaw Modern, stands next to one of Lewis in a riverside park. Even though the bomb was a dud that only accomplished some scorching, I was excited about the motives. Was the culprit an art critic? A native weary of all the carpetbaggers crowding into the state since Ted Turner moved here? Maybe someone with an old grudge seeking revenge for the two Blackfeet killed by the expedition in 1806?
The next morning the family went off to their weekday lives, leaving Mose to watch me pack. I was considering whether to ask if I could take him along. After all, Clark had a dog, a worthless, marauding Newfoundland named Seaman, who seemed to spend all his time drowning antelope and running off. Mose not only had useful talents, he was even named for the river. But with all the miles still to go before I reached St. Charles, who knew when I could bring him back.
I left a pair of white wooden tees on the kitchen table as a thank-you note and leaned down to give Mose a farewell rub.
He opened his mouth. And dropped a range ball into my hand.
Mile 1,720: Fort Union, North Dakota
My parting shot in montana cleared the border head-high and landed at the 18-foot palisades of the old fur-trading post. If the morning had been bright, this haunted plain would have been infested with other tourists, and York's prowess might have caused a visit from the authorities. But a chilled mist had been falling since dawn, and I had the place all to myself.
I sliced two balls into a mess of cattails and then hit a big drive to a spot where the ball would never be found. Blowing on my fingers with breath I could see, I went looking for somewhere to get warm. The only choice was the administrative headquarters, the Bourgeois House, so named because that's what they called the head honcho here 170 years ago when Fort Union had been the place to party on the Missouri.
Inside, the Park Service attendant nodded, but he wasn't as sunny as he might have been. Maybe he'd seen me lean my clubs against the porch outside and was wondering whether my dementia was violent. I busied myself poring over the displays of frontier life--wampum and muzzle-loaders and fur-scraping tools and the like. When I stopped shivering I realized that something was wrong here. I'd been looking forward to some moody ruins of a European nature, something heraldic to impart a sense of the timeless and the epic to my trip. After all, Fort Union was erected in 1828, less than a generation after Lewis and Clark made outposts this deep in Indian country even imaginable.
Gazing out the window at a newish-looking tepee and flagstone tower, I realized what the problem was. Ten years ago the feds had excavated the grass-covered mounds that were all that remained of the original fort and rebuilt it from the foundations up. I was deeply disappointed.
When the sun broke through at noon, I headed for Fort Buford, three miles downriver. I got there in 38 strokes, losing six balls, plus another four I couldn't resist driving across the water toward a sandbar at the confluence of the Yellowstone River. I plotted my next shot. Above me on a low bluff was a length of gleaming picket fence. I determined that a scratch player could chip a shot to its base in one stroke with an eight-iron and could backspin the ball to make it stay where it landed. My stroke rose on an artful parabola to the place where it was told to go, and then vanished.
Is it just me, or is there some ancient connection between golf and the hereafter? I ask because at this very locus in the actual middle of nowhere, the 600-mile core of Flyover Country, my ball had bounced into another cemetery. This time it was a military graveyard filled with Indian fighters and the jailers of Crow King, Rain-in-the-Face, Chief Joseph, and the archgenius Sitting Bull. A hundred white wooden markers were laid out in rows surrounded by the picket fence I'd seen from below. My ball had come to rest between the headstones of two civilians, Horace Picard and Herbert Snell.
Since my sympathies didn't lie with the occupants, firing a shot from these graves wouldn't weigh on my conscience. But my ball was at a place where its forward motion was blocked by Snell and the fence. I recalled a shot I'd seen on cable one night. A golfer at St. Andrews, whose shot landed too close to a stone wall to permit a swing for the green, had simply pounded his ball at an angle off the wall, where it ricocheted neatly toward the pin.
The ball thumped Picard right in his inscription, where it was revealed that he died when he was exactly my age. The shot knocked my prized Tokyo Fighters baseball cap off my head as it whistled its way out of the graveyard.
Mile 1,659: The Birnt Hills,
In the morning there was skim ice on the edges of Lake Sakakawea, which is what the Corps of Engineers named the water flooding the plains behind Garrison Dam,180 miles southeast. For lack of higher goals I determined to hit the ball to the northernmost point of the Missouri's course, ten miles from here in the "birnt hills," as Lewis called them because of smoldering seams of lignite in the rock.
The park was as counterfeit as the lake. Arranged prairie lawns were ringed by dense, ambitious windbreaks of Russian olives and conifers. The place looked like a golf course, and played like one. After breakfast I warmed up by hitting chip shots, pleased that the fairways were never deep enough to conceal my ball. A retired couple from Ohio pulled in, eyed me in a military manner from a Winnebago, and turned around. I waved good-bye. Then I put my tent and sleeping bag into a daypack and set out in pursuit of my first drive through a ranch posted with No Trespassing signs.
Here, in the waning weeks of summer, one stage of North Dakota's harvest was at an end: The last of the hay was cut and stood waiting in the fields in golden seven-foot rounds. Lucky for me, because most of the ground was shorn of crops.
After 137 strokes and 14 lost balls, I made camp and gathered driftwood for a fire. Although I had passed a few frail ledges of coal, I'd seen nothing of any birnt hills. But the lake now concealed from my eyes what the expedition saw here on its way home in 1806, including the spot where Lewis was fragged. Oh, I know the histories say that Private Peter Cruzatte, the man who fired a ball that tore through the back of the captain's thighs, was blind in one eye and that the sandbar across which they stalked elk was a tangle of willows. But Cruzatte's nondenial denial, as recorded by Lewis in his journal after dressing his own wounds, sounds strangely hollow.
As dark closed in I poked at my little blaze with a stick, the only light I saw in any direction, and wondered what it was between Meriwether and the Frenchman that seemed to have gone unspoken. Before the shooting, Lewis had written nothing but praise for Cruzatte. There was the boatman's prowess as a hunter, his talent with a violin, his skill as an interpreter among the Mandans. And there was Cruzatte's courage when he saved one of the expedition's invaluable cargo pirogues, which had been knocked over in a violent gust.
Consider now the mystery of Lewis's death. There is some evidence that while spending the night in a squalid roadside cabin on his way from St. Louis to Washington, he was murdered. But there is even more evidence, as Jefferson believed, that he committed suicide. Then the governor of Louisiana Territory, Lewis was struggling with political problems, plus financial setbacks caused by spending his own money on the expedition. But he was also said to be deeply depressed about his failure to find a wife. Of course, the trajectory of my own personal history has been altered not one whit by what manner of man set the gentrification of Montana in motion, but it may come as a rude alert to those who go in for the tough-guy-in-buckskins image of the explorers, that the companionship Lewis was looking for might not have involved a woman at all.
Next morning I marched toward Highway 1804, north of the Missouri. As I got to the blacktop I happened to glance downriver, and there, as startling as the Emerald City across a sea of poppies, was an expanse of unearthly, treeless green, a mirage against the seared browns of the prairie. It was not only a golf course, unmarked on any of my maps, it was a championship golf course called Red Mike. Hayseed that I am, I wasn't prepared for sport at this exalted level. The driving range, which offered four impeccable greens as targets, was the plushest turf I'd ever stepped on. The ball jumped off my clubs with an eagerness that went to my head.
Eighteen holes later, however, I was cursing myself for the running dog I would always be. I'd spent the day missing putts and plowing out of almost every one of Red Mike's 80-odd sand traps. Although beautiful in an austere and windswept way, this course was a bear. My final score was 106.
The next day, moving east, I stumbled on a nine-hole course laid out in the village of Parshall on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Parshall was no Red Mike--the greens were carpeted with worn AstroTurf, and signs requested that you not spit sunflower seeds around. But it was what it was: a humble family course kept up by farmers and small-town people.
When I added my score it came to 47--not stellar, but an improvement. Although my recent solitude was beginning to make the sport feel sort of postnuclear, I headed off to play the spillway at Garrison Dam with a song in my heart.
Mile 545: Somewhere between Sloan and Onawa, Iowa
I'd been hitting eight-irons along a levee, trying to keep my ball on the embankment because the soggy fields were full of soybeans and corn. When the levee nosed into a hill, I drove some balls at the river with a two-iron, thinking I could skip one to the Omaha Indian Reservation across the border in Nebraska, near where the captains decorated the grave of Chief Blackbird, a notorious river pirate who led the Omahas to a brief run of regional power before smallpox decimated the tribe in 1802.
I'd felt eyes on my back and whirled around. But the only faces I saw were those of six-foot sunflowers standing in a quadrille, their heads drooped by the weight of their seeds. Maybe I'd been alone too long, but I imagined them as the gallery at a very bad golf tournament, watching a golfer so inept that when he swung they hung their heads in embarrassment.
Below me, the hog had discovered my golf bag and had pulled out all the range balls. Talking to himself in puzzled mutters like Scooby Doo, he found some peach leather and ate that. Then he got into a pocket where I'd stuffed my hedge balls and black walnuts. Hedge balls are green, handball-size fruits with wrinkled skin that come from the Osage orange tree, a midwestern windbreak. I'd been using them instead of golf balls to stretch my supply. They make a satisfying whack, but they don't fly nearly as true as the walnuts, which are hard as stone and exactly the size of golf balls.
The hog didn't care for these golf ball extenders and yanked on my bag in disgust. I shuddered. But halfway up a tree, I felt as safe as a porkophobe in Iowa can feel. I couldn't imagine why a pig would ever look up, and besides, pigs can't climb. Can they?
Yet look up is what he did. The gesture deeply alarmed me because it looked like the hog was trying to zero in on me with his nose. But at last he farted and waddled off through the brambles.
Mile 280: Kansas City, Missouri
I had started the day by speeding through a rough section of town to Arthur Bryant's, home of the best barbecue in the world. I ordered more ribs than two people could eat at one sitting. At the register, the cashier asked me why all the food. I said golf at Blue River.
"Gimme that Co-Cola," she said, topping my drink to the brim. "You gonna need all you got, baby."
The reason I wanted to play Blue River is because it's listed in a book called America's Worst Golf Courses. The author, John Garrity, calls holes 11 through 14, which share the ridge with the 15th tee, "holes designed in Hades." Poor Garrity actually had to climb a paved switchback to get to the bluff, and there were trees--imagine it!--around the greens. And "nowhere in the four-hole stretch can a level lie be found," whimpers our critic. "Blue River?" he writes. "'Cry Me a River' is more like it."
But for me, this was the most exhilarating city golf I'd ever played. It wasn't just because of the ferocious hazards, or my bogey-per-hole average, the best score I've ever carded. And it wasn't even the price--a buck a hole. Blue River was simply more like country than country club, closer to the woolly pastures where this working-class game began than it was to the synthetic, toxin-soaked rugs summoned from the gashed American earth so that fussy, unctuous nancies like Garrity can have tidy places to stroke their little balls.
As I made my way east, city became forest and summer became fall. What at home would be pine smoke in the air was hickory smoke here in Missouri. But the message was the same: Get somewhere safe and do something productive before it starts to snow.
Mile 0: St. Charles, Missouri
But I couldn't leave until this final shot was made. I put a tee in the ground and took a few practice strokes with my faithful servant, York. Two women stopped to watch, maybe thinking this was some Chamber of Commerce stunt. When the traffic cleared, I swung.
I hadn't counted the strokes that got me here. Many thousands, of course. Although practice might not make perfect or even find me a place on any amateur tour, it certainly makes better. On this day God called my shot home.
When Jefferson sent his predators up the wide Missouri, betting that commerce would flourish in their wake, could he have imagined that two centuries later the product returning on the current would be something like me? Did he think that golf, a game he must have known about, would be a fixture in that strange new world? And when he ordered Lewis to observe "the soil and face of the country," did he anticipate that a place like Fairway would come to be?
I walked to the bank to see where my ball had dived into the deep, hurtling water. There was one more thing I had to do. I searched the brush along the bank until I found the perfect piece of driftwood.
Then I laid York upon it, pushed him toward the flow, and turned around for home.
Bill Vaughn is working on a collection of essays about the West, Notes from the Squalor Zone.