The subversive joy of hiking through private golf courses
Golf courses have long been islands of exclusivity and privilege in America. But one avid urban explorer says that, when in the right hands, they can also be a quiet oasis amid the craziness of the big cities.
Eight years ago, Miles Howarda journalist and outdoor enthusiast based in Boston, was stuck in a quarter-life crisis and felt restless. Looking for a challenge that would boost his motivation, he planned an urban winter hike across the state, carving a path along what he assumed were quiet back roads with decent pedestrian access.
He was wrong – the path landed him on an uncomfortable series of freeways with no sidewalks, leaving him at the mercy of passing cars. As he neared the town of Hudson, about an hour’s drive west of Boston, Howard realized he needed an exit. Through a line of trees in the distance, he saw her: a sunny stretch of green grass that seemed to lead directly to his next landmark. Howard made his way from the road to the edge of the meadow, only realizing at the last minute that the property was actually Charter Oak Country Club, closed for the winter season. He looked around, saw no one, and slipped onto the field.
“After about 20 minutes of walking through all the holes and bunkers, I realized that I was having more fun than I had in the past few days in hiking areas that were not designed at all for pedestrians,” he told me. “Part of it was about the peace and quiet of the course, but it was also nice to realize that I had used this space for something that went completely against the intended design of the whole thing. .”
Golf courses have long divided communities, raising difficult questions about exclusivity, access and sustainability. These courses typically represent some of the largest and most pristine stretches of green space in many large urban areas, which makes the history of golf courses all the more problematic. It was one of America’s last frontiers in the struggle to break racial and sex discriminationand cultural cornerstones like the Masters still Wrestle to face his recent sins.
Not to mention the debate around the environmental impact of golf courses, including water and pesticides use to maintain the well maintained fairways. Despite credible complaints that responsibly managed golf courses are a net positive for the climate, calls for abolish golf courses or otherwise transforming them into public parks continue to multiply.
For Howard, being on a golf course was new: growing up “at the bottom of the economic ladder” meant he never thought of trying to get into a country club. And he didn’t really walk on a golf course after that winter of 2014, until the pandemic hit in 2020 and drove him crazy in Boston, once again.
Still in winter, he decided to walk from a footpath to Franklin Park on the hilly town-run golf course that runs through the heart of the site. His experiences recently inspired an article for his newsletter, Watch out for foamin which he urges that we “take back all golf courses” by entering them in good faith, with no other intention than to enjoy the scenery and the subversion of daring to walk on a green space designed to hit a small white ball.
It’s not just a winter activity either, although seasonal closures make it easier not to get caught. Many courses are so large that there is a lot of underused green space at all times, even with golfers playing there, he notes. This means plenty of opportunities to explore the natural flora and fauna of the lands bordering the green, which research shows can be centers of a surprising biodiversity in urban areas.
And while the hike on an active golf course is likely to attract attention, Howard suggests it adds cheeky humor to the whole trip: “I’m not necessarily infringing on their rights and on what they paid for, which is the right to play golf. . I’m not doing that or taking that away from them. I just happen to be part of their environment,” he says. “There’s layers in this subversion which I find very amusing.”
If there is is a confrontation with a golfer or a gardener, the easiest way is to pretend to be lost and to be on a public road; you can also keep a cold beer or two in your backpack as a peace offering. But as Howard points out, there’s not much inherent evil to get mad at; the impact of walking the course is certainly less than that of anyone playing it. Instead, it’s a mild form of subversion – a reminder that breaking the rules can both be fun and send a message about our right to roam, even in the face of privatization.
“One of the most liberating things you take on with urban hiking, as opposed to the normal more rugged type of hiking, is that you can do it right from your doorstep, literally. It’s not an escape in the sense of a journey to a distant destination, but a journey on foot through an environment with an unfamiliar and disarming perspective. In some ways, it’s one of the most accessible forms of hiking,” he says.
For him, the whole experience is reminiscent of a sketch of the first Donkey movie, in which Johnny Knoxville and Co. sneak onto a golf course, hide in rough golfers, and surprise by honking their horns as they swing. It’s a childish little something that’s hilarious mostly because of the reaction of the golfers, who bellow and stomp with existential rage because their game has been interrupted. “I felt like they were really getting something deeply elemental and human with that skit right there, between the absurdity of golf culture and the exclusivity of it all,” he says.
Trekking on your local golf course is not quite this confrontational, of course – but the spirit of the act remains the same. Golf courses can also be fun for non-golfers, if you’re willing to push the envelope and hit the green.