The bamboosuspension bridges at Club de Golf Covadonga sag and wiggle, making a crossingfeel like a field sobriety test for a drunk, so you extend your arms like atightrope walker and try not to look down at the muddy tributary of the RíoValles six feet below. ¬∂ Covadonga and its thrilling bridges doze in a clearingin the rain forest between Tampico and Mexico City. The course's nine fairwaysare like tunnels cut through the jungle. Its greens putt like shag carpetssaturated with honey. The indispensable tool of the four-man grounds crew isthe machete. An air of mystery pervades the place. There's not a word aboutCovadonga on the Internet, or in phone directories or history books. Evenpeople in the nearest town, Ciudad Valles, swear the club no longer exists. Yetdespite its crumbling concrete entryway and the gray-green moss and peelingpaint on its eerie, abandoned hotel, Covadonga lives. Barely. Although it isthe only golf course in a 75-mile radius, tourists seldom stumble upon it andonly 40 people still pay the $55 monthly dues.
What Covadongahas in abundance is mariposas. Butterflies. Butterflies are what brought Dallasclub pro Gilbert Freeman to this place every summer when he was a kid, andbutterflies are what took him back this winter for the first time in 32years.
Avery Freeman,Gilbert's father, was the Tiger Woods of lepidopterology, the study ofbutterflies. In the Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society, Andrew D. Warren, agraduate student in entomology at Oregon State, said, "Few individuals inrecent decades can match [Freeman's] contributions. Our current knowledge ofMexican hesperiid diversity is based on his groundbreaking research.... Theexcitement generated in the community of North American lepidopterists byAvery's early publications on Giant skippers cannot be overstated." Aidedby grant money from the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian and theCarnegie Institute, Freeman, a biology teacher at Hillcrest High in Dallas,collected widely and well on his annual summer pilgrimage to south Texas andMexico. He identified 107 new species and subspecies during his career--so manythat he could afford a little whimsy when asserting the discoverer's right toassign a Latin name. He named three butterflies for his wife, Louise(Megathymus yuccae louiseae, Astraptes louiseae and Amblyscirtes erna); oneeach for his daughters Linda (Amblyscirtes linda) and Julia (Lerodea julia);and two for his son, Gilbert (Astraptes gilberti and Agathymus gilberti). Evena Covadonga caddie, Benito Reycendes, was bestowed a piece of obscureimmortality (Poanes benito).
During thefamily's fourth summer at Covadonga, 13-year-old Gilbert discovered the gamebeing played on the little course outside their hotel. Almost immediately heput down his net, and golf became to him what butterflies were to his father.Gilbert played every day and entered his stats and a succinct analysis in adiary ("Hit number 4 in two but bogeyed the 5th again!"), mimicking thecareful, end-of-the-day notations in his father's butterfly logbook. Gilbert'sparents took up the game less than a year later, and their days at Covadongasoon acquired a pleasing rhythm: golf at dawn, butterfly-stalking for fatherand precisely 100 practice shots for son, lunch and a siesta during the hottestpart of the day, more butterflies and practice balls, then a final nine formother, father and son before dinner. Those were the best days of their lives,they all say.
Louise can closeher eyes, she says, and see her husband disappear into the jungle to the rightof the 9th fairway, simultaneously looking gentle and fierce, with along-handled net in one hand and a machete in the other. Avery had a mustache,large, luminous brown eyes (which Gilbert inherited) and leather boots laced upto the knee to protect against snakes.
Last monthGilbert returned to Covadonga with his father's ashes in a black Hogan shagbag.
Dogs aimlesslywander the streets of the muddy little towns between Tampico and Valles. Thereare speed bumps instead of traffic lights, and a mother wheels her small childon a dolly, like a mover. The people on the street stare at the pale faces inour car. We stare back.
"It's likehunting any other animal," Gilbert is saying. "Skippers are real fast.You sneak up from behind, get them in your net, then quickly flip it so theycan't fly out. Then you have to kill them right away, to keep them from beatingup their wings."
"Slightlysmaller butterflies, with different veins in their wings and differentantennae."
And you kill themhow?
"You pinchtheir necks. There's an art to it."
While Freemanpilots the rented Suburban, fellow traveler Dan Strimple, a Dallas-baseddriving range owner and teaching pro, tries out his first Spanish phrases.Strimple tends to wing it when he's out of his element, so he's thrilled tolearn that a number of Spanish words can be formed by simply adding an o or ana to the English word: crédito, cemento, sexo.
"How do yousay I want," Strimple asks. "How do you say with you?"
He digests for amoment, then declares, "Yo quiero sexo con usted."
In Valles,Freeman turns south on Ruta 85, dodging speeding trucks overloaded with sugarcane. He drives unerringly to this place he used to know but doesn't anymore.Covadonga's face has changed beyond imagining, like a long-lost friend who haslet himself go. propiedad federal, a sign says. What the hell does that mean?As the Suburban creeps along a dark, primeval path, Freeman mutters"Jeez," then "Wow." Tree branches with white flowers scratchthe sides of the car. Saplings tickle it underneath. The hotel is a phantomamid the aggressive jungle. At the end of the path is Andrés Morales, thecaddie who never left. Now he's the pro.
"Heel-bare?" he addresses Freeman. "I can't believe you'rehere."
They hug. ¬øBenitoestà aquí? Freeman asks. No. Gilbert's caddie, a rough man who was neverwithout his white straw cowboy hat and a burning cigarette, is dead. Too muchcerveza, too much fumar, Andrés explains. And Mundo? Avery's caddie also ismuerto. But Raymundo, Gilbert's mother's caddie, is the credit manager at theFord dealership in Valles, and in a moment he pulls up on his motorcycle toexchange hugs and laughter. Back in the day, Raymundo would find tees to matchthe color of Louise's outfits and hand her a color-coordinated peg with herdriver. His English was excellent; he wrote the Freemans a letter everyyear.
Green parrotsscreech in the giant India laurel above our heads, and the conversation stops.Andrés observes the sadness in Gilbert's eyes. Is it the death of the caddiesor the fingers of rust and rot grasping the once white clubhouse and the hotel?"Covadonga," Andrés says softly, "almost gone."
A butterfly'slife consists of four stages. The last stage, the flying part, usually lastsonly a week or two. A generation of butterflies is called a flight. In thetropics, in the summer, there is flight after flight, and death and life mingleconstantly.
Every butterflymeal is sipped through the straw of its proboscis, and most species will takenectar from flowers or the juice from rotting fruit. There is plenty of both atCovadonga. Mangoes, bananas, lemons and limes grow along the course's fairways.The jungle has taken over the orange grove near the 9th hole, but still, nobutterfly ever goes hungry.
And no golfer isever bored. You're stymied from the tee by trees on both of the par-3s. Averdurous forest surrounds the green of the mystifying 5th, a 234-yard par-4.The bunker sand is not really sand but, and this is only a theory, the stuffthat ants throw out when they dig their homes. And to say the greens are slowdoesn't really capture their speed. They are glacial. They are an old manwalking underwater in lead boots. In short, Covadonga is a course that makesyou grit your teeth, especially when the experts--Andrés, Raymundo and apart-time caddie named Luis--are kicking your butt. Even after you play it forthree days, Covadonga remains an unsolvable puzzle, like chess in the dark.
But Strimple willnot allow anything but laughter. More cerveza, he says at lunch, then more.When someone notices how the sunscreen on his face contrasts with his pinkskin, he begins to call himself El Diablo Blanco. "How do you do," hesays in his awful pidgin Spanish to a new, very surprised acquaintance."I'm the devil." At a bar, in keeping with his strategy for speakingSpanish, he asks for a Coca-Cola and rum-a. At a party in honor of theAmericans under twinkling Christmas lights in the front yard of la casa deAndrés Morales in Valles, El Diablo Blanco declares the whole thing--the food,the drinks, the course and the company--to be awesomemomento. Most of all,Strimple the morale officer keeps an eye on Gilbert. Is his friend feeling forhis father, gone now for four years after dying of emphysema, or for his youth,gone now for much longer? And when and where will he spread Avery's ashes?
On the morning ofthe third day, when Gilbert carries his clubs to the 1st tee, he has the blackHogan shag bag in his left hand. He nails his tee shot--he's an excellentplayer; he twice qualified for the Byron Nelson Classic, a PGA Tour event--buthe doesn't leave the tee right away. He hangs back, then slowly walks into thedark jungle to the right of the fairway. He opens the bag, sticks his hand in,and a moment later some of the ashes of Avery Freeman hang in the air.
Gilbert repeatsthis ceremony a few more times during the round. We leave him alone. Luis, whoputts like a safecracker and has the strongest grip on the planet, knows what'sgoing on. He talks for a minute about fatherhood and his own father. He and hiswife, Maribel, have only two ni√±as, he says, Karla and Zaira. His own padre wasmuch more prolific, fathering eight boys consecutively, then five girls in arow. Luis's 12 Martínez siblings joke about his small output, he says. That'sone of his brothers over there, Magdaleno, the man with the gray mustache andthe rake standing by the creek in front of the 4th green. Magda has sixchildren. The Martínez brothers smile and wave at each other.
"I go twiceto Estados Unidos for work, cemento, and use that to buy the tierra--theland--for my house," Luis says. "I build the house." To make endsmeet when he's not caddying at Covadonga, Luis tends bar in Valles.
After this, ourfinal round, we walk through the abandoned hotel, the now empty, echoing spacethat had been Gilbert's home for eight summers. "The bowling alley--twolanes--was over there," Gilbert says. "I used to skateboard down thatramp. I hung my hammock on those hooks. My father used to come in here for aCovadonga cocktail, which was red. There were snakeskins on the wall, there andthere."
No guests havechecked in since the early '80s, Andrés explains. That's when the governmentdecided that Covadonga should be the center of a giant lake. The administrationpaid off the owner--a Spanish guy, according to Andrés--and condemned theplace. Then a new group came to power in Mexico City and forgot the lake idea.That's why, Andrés says, we're left with ... this.
Before we leave,Gilbert gives Luis his watch and Andrés his clubs, dozens of balls, gloves andgolf towels--almost enough to stock his shop. As the Suburban bounces along thecrooked path to the highway, Gilbert isn't sure if the pleasure of the last fewdays has outweighed the pain. At times it seemed as if the fun of the golf andthe reunions had brought to the surface a dormant sadness. Yet he had comeclose to crying only once, when he carried the shag bag to the jungle borderingthe 9th fairway and scattered the last of Avery's ashes. But at that moment theson also thought that his dad would live on, in a way, in this out-of-the-wayplace. As a butterfly floating over slow greens.
During the final round Gilbert spread the ashes of his father, Avery, who wasthe Tiger Woods of butterfly study.¬†
Covadonga was slated to become a reservoir, but that idea, like the hotel andits golf course, was abandoned.