Vehicles of all descriptions line the rutted dirt road that climbs through the wet woods in this Western Massachusetts town of 1,884 people. The trail of vehicles, some battered and of sufficient age to have been part of the caravan that trailed the Grateful Dead, comes to an end in a bumpy clearing next to a sign: Highlands of Conway Disc Golf.
The pile of empty juice and beer bottles, however tidy, at the foot of the sign gives a clue that this is no ordinary golf course. Along with the instructions about camping and the promise of live music, and the price posted on the sign: $5 per round, $8 per day. Not to mention the occasional, distant whoops that echo through the forest.
Several yards later, the road ends at a tent canopy covering a table where players in today's tournament, called Volksfest, can fill out entry forms. Dave Balkema, who built the course with his wife, Jennifer Jensen, sits in a folding chair nearby, chatting with a Jerry Garcia look-alike sporting a Dead T-shirt and tie-dyed headband.
Despite a forecast of torrential rain, about 50 players have signed in, some from as far away as New Jersey and Maine. "This is a NEFA points event, so players can qualify for future tournaments," Balkema says, referring to the New England Flying disc Association. (Because Frisbee is a registered trademark, and golf discs tend to be smaller, harder, and sharper-edged, players allude to their primary equipment as "flying discs.")
This 18-hole, 45-acre course is one of more than 70 in New England, 2,500 in the United States, and countless more around the world. California, where the sport was formalized in the 1970s, boasts 130 courses, and, with the help of college students all over the country, lent the sport its aura of laid-back fanaticism and trippy cool. The previous evening, the Conway course had hosted a "glow round," in which golfers followed a course illuminated by chartreuse fluorescent rings, tiny electric lights, and battery-powered tea lights.
"It was beautiful, really awesome," says Rich Reilly, 51, of Rochester, N.H., who is competing in the professional grand master category and camping here for the weekend with his wife, Diane. Reilly, playing in a sleeveless T-shirt, denim shorts, and cross-training boots, has been disc golfing for seven years, after playing recreational hockey and soccer for most of his youth and adulthood. "I'm getting older now, and this sport is easier on my body," he says. "And it's given me an extension of the joy I found in those other sports."
At hole No. 5, near a tree emblazoned with a bright Buddha poster, Reilly winds up for a throw, cocking a disc tight to his chest, then extending his body to release the dessert-plate-sized object. He freezes, watching the disc sail into a perfect, right-arcing turn - an Anheuser, in the sport's vernacular - gliding around a bend in the fairway without grazing a single tree. "It's more like hurling a discus than tossing a Frisbee," says Reilly, looking pleased. "These discs have quite an edge - you'd break your fingers trying to catch one."
Like Reilly, most of the folks here today are white and male, and most hail from New England. And like club-swinging golfers, they travel to play - as far and as often as they can. Andy Fileta, 28, has come down from Jaffrey, N.H., to compete in this tournament. That's only about an hour and a quarter from here, but since he took up the game in 2001, he has played in more than a dozen far-flung states. "It's a great way to make friends," Fileta says.
Jeff Mahler, 43, a theater technician who has driven up from Bloomfield, N.J., nods in agreement. "You can walk up to players anywhere and say, 'Can I join your group?' and very few will say no."
By and large, disc golfers have borrowed the rules and language of traditional golf. A stroke in golf, for instance, is a throw in disc golf, but both kinds of golfers putt when they get close to the hole. Both kinds of golfers tally the number of strokes or throws it takes to complete the course, the fewer the better. Of course, a disc that averages eight inches in diameter won't fit into the traditional 4 1/4-inch golf hole, hence the "pole hole" - a basket suspended about 30 inches off the ground on a metal pole. Chains draped from the top of the pole send the disc skittering into the basket instead of bouncing off the pole.
By necessity, disc golfers also have tailored some of the rules to accommodate the realities of their rougher-hewn fairways and full-body throwing techniques. Like, it's OK to fall down in front of the marker when you take your throw, except when putting. With some exceptions, it's cool if your disc lands on a roof or in a tree - and just stays there. You can schlep as many discs, of as many different types and sizes, as you like. And you can play on most courses year-round, in snowshoes, if need be.
In terms of culture, disc golfers come from a galaxy far, far away from their club-carrying counterparts, and ball-golfing terms, however apt, can sound unnervingly dissonant when uttered by a disc golfer in conditions that are the stuff of ball golfers' nightmares. Witness David Stidham, 63, his T-shirt and knees streaked with mud, hauling himself up a nearly vertical boulder-studded slope on the Conway course, with the aid of his buddy Reilly and a climbing rope.
"That's an unplayable lie, I'd say," Stidham wheezes when he gets to the top, using the term for the location of the ball (or disc) when it comes to rest. In 1999, when he managed Buffumville Lake, a recreation area in Charlton, Stidham built a disc golf course at the suggestion of a student conservation-corps volunteer. "It's turned out to be one of the most popular courses in the state," he says.
Buffumville is the home course of Wendy Boutin, who demonstrates superb form as she launches a disc down the fairway a few holes away. Although a newcomer to disc golf, Boutin, 31, of Holland, Mass., is a full-fledged jock, a triathlete, skier, and kickboxer. Does anyone migrate to this sport from traditional golf? "No way," she says. "This is more of a crunchy-granola kind of sport." But she sounds like a lot of women in non-crunchy golf when she bemoans the sport's gender gap: "There are probably 30 male golfers for every female."
While Boutin takes her throw, Rick Williams, who lives in Somerville, limbers up for his turn. Williams, 54, has been a player since 1978 and a champion since 1992, racking up a string of championships all over the world. "I've been to Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, and Vancouver for the world overall championships, and to Italy for the world freestyle championships," he says. He competes in disc golf, but his specialty is freestyle, which comprises routines, solo or with a partner, choreographed to music, à la professional figure skating, only with a flying disc.
As an officer and committee member of the regional group, Williams competes throughout New England practically every Saturday of the summer. But he's not just a fair-weather fan: "I've played in tournaments where the snow was waist deep," he says. "It helps to have someone along to spot where the disc lands, so it doesn't get lost."
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at regan-brown.com.