Also see: A Real Czech Czallenge (Disc Golf World News, Fall 2003 Issue)
Forgotten Fairways: Small Town Disc Golf Adventures
by Luke Anderson
as published in the Winter 2006 issue of Disc Golf World News Magazine
What’s the closest course you’ve never played? Maybe there’s a course in a small town about an hour’s drive away; but according to the online listing, it’s only nine holes, and very short. Or perhaps it has no signs, or just sounds uninteresting. Like it’s not worth the drive. You think for a minute, and just decide to play your local 18 again.
This is not my style. I want to play that hidden course, the one planted by one or two disc golf devotees on the edge of a little town that still hasn’t noticed it’s there. Or the course buried in a forest that was probably a little more forgiving a few years ago, before it was reclaimed by nature. These courses are all around us. One of my favorite things about this sport is the hunt for them, and the inevitable small-town tourism that follows.
In the last few summers, I’ve set out on road trips with friends to play as many courses as we can, big or small, popular or vacant. Living in Minneapolis, I’m fortunate to be in the heart of a very dense region of disc golf. There are 30 courses within 40 miles of my house, 60 within 75 miles, and many more within range for a weekend on the road.
I bought a road atlas, and tediously marked a red dot on each Minnesota town that had a course. I did the same for adjacent states, until the upper Midwest had the measles. I highly recommend this project when you’re looking for a pick-me-up—it’ll remind you visually of just how much our sport has spread.
Planning our road trips became a game of connect-the-dots. No dot (rather, no town) was too small to include on our agenda if it was on the way. Outside of the Twin Cities and a few mid-sized places, this region is an expanse of small, quiet towns, sprinkled across the farmlands and along the rivers. Like anywhere else, the towns are, at the same time, distinct and identical.
Every one has its baseball fields, a couple of churches, and a fading billboard reminding you that its high school football squad won state back in 1975. That would be about all you see if you’re whizzing by it on the highway. But there are unique things about each town, things you see only from the inside, as a proverbial small-town tourist.
My photo album is full of these scenes. There was the world’s largest pile of empty oil cans, just off the road on our way to Jamestown, North Dakota (see photo). You can never have too many of those lying around, I suppose.
The course in Jamestown was in a broad, green park at the junction of the James and Pipestem Rivers. On a silent Sunday morning in June, we stood in Klaus Park and read a large wooden sign that explained how the Yanktonaise Sioux used to live and trade right here in the 1800s, and called this place “Itazidakak.” (Name for a new driver?) We played 18 holes in the early sun, and drove away, without a trace that we’d ever set foot there. We saw no one, and no one saw us.
It’s not always history we tourists want to see. It’s also about visual oddities, of course. A couple hundred miles from the oil can pyramid was its cousin, a pile of about fifty bicycles, all standing upright and welded together, across the street from a course in Wadena, Minn. And who can pass up the chance to gaze upon the 2,063-foot TV tower in the middle of the prairie just north of Fargo, ND, that they say is the world’s tallest structure? We certainly couldn’t. (see photo)
Sometimes the course itself is the curious attraction. Our stop in Thief River Falls, Minn., just a couple inches from Canada on the map, involved the smallest course and the biggest calzone I’d ever seen. Our waitress at Danny’s, after bringing me what amounted to a large pizza folded in half, explained to us that despite the name, there aren’t really any falls on the Thief River to speak of. Lucky for us, I suppose, the town’s disc golf course in Lion’s Park did, in fact, exist, albeit slightly.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a great little course. My favorite was the wide-open, 93-foot hole 9. I set my personal best for birdies in a round, but what I’ll remember most about the Falls is that massive dinner, and our waitress’s geography lesson.
Sure, small towns are full of friendly, hospitable folks. There was the guy whose back yard bordered Wayne Park in Waverly, Nebraska who lent us a rake when we got a disc, then a shoe, then another shoe caught very high in an oak tree, and the branches couldn’t support my weight above about twenty feet. But we often forget another trait: that the locals sometimes do things a little differently.
A few short feet from the eighth pin in Bryan, Ohio was an ominous sign that read, “Stay Out—Open Pits.” I didn’t venture over there to see what the issue was, but maybe I’m glad I didn’t. That course was tricky to find anyway, as the directory listed it in the wrong Bryan park, and the right park’s name appeared only on a tiny plaque bolted to a small boulder near the road. One can never be too prepared in planning ahead to locate a course—you might recall my debacle in the Czech Republic a couple years ago.
One thing I love about places like that is the complete unawareness of local residents to the fact that a disc golf course lives in their town. Hunting for a course in northern Indiana, I stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. When I told the attendant the name of the park, she looked at me with disgust. “Why would you want to go there?” The guy behind me in line had heard of the sport, and the two of us explained it to the baffled clerk. Not surprisingly, the park was, well, a little dumpy. But I can’t complain. It’s where I scored my first career ace.
Sometimes I’m not even sure the person who built the course remembers it exists. One course in Wisconsin was in the middle of such a dense forest that we gave up on finding two of the holes altogether. Ironically, this seemingly forgotten course in a blink-and-you-miss-it town had dual tees and pin placements, and sponsored tee signs.
All quirks aside, one of the most enduring images associated with small Midwest towns is a slice of scenery around the old church. This was certainly the case in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin, where the course at Oschwald Park was built into the slope of a hill topped by a beautiful church and cemetery that looked right out of a painting.
For me, playing that course was the epitome of what I call the “ghost effect.” A family was gathered at the pavilion for a birthday party; kids played catch with a football, and a town lay under the gentle watch of the white steeple on the hill. Disc golf was woven into this park seamlessly, not interrupting a thing about the setting, and we floated through the round like apparitions, going virtually unnoticed by the Americana that surrounded us. To me, this was the very best of small-town disc golf.
Our sport gives us a reason to stand on plots of earth and see things that we never would otherwise. Tour players get to take in sights at major courses all over the country, and everything on the road in between. But there is something special about small-time disc golf in small towns. A handful of road trips have given me an album full of photos, and the kind of travel memories that probably compare most closely with those of a farmer’s kid from an earlier time, in the back seat of the family station wagon.
Sappy as it may sound, disc golf gave us a way to rediscover the specks they’ve sprinkled on the map between the big cities. I know I’ll be playing connect-the-dots as long as I can throw a disc. For that, I’m grateful.
One last tip for the road: if you’re playing on a summer Sunday in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, be sure to tip-toe around the outdoor church service on your way to the eleventh tee. This is a very smart time to play the ghost!