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Every butterfly meal is sipped through the straw of its proboscis, and most species will take nectar from flowers or the juice from rotting fruit. There is plenty of both at Covadonga. 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, no butterfly ever goes hungry.
And no golfer is ever bored. You're stymied from the tee by trees on both of the par-3s. A verdurous 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 stuff that ants throw out when they dig their homes. And to say the greens are slow doesn't really capture their speed. They are glacial. They are an old man walking underwater in lead boots. In short, Covadonga is a course that makes you grit your teeth, especially when the experts--Andr�s, Raymundo and a part-time caddie named Luis--are kicking your butt. Even after you play it for three days, Covadonga remains an unsolvable puzzle, like chess in the dark.
But Strimple will not allow anything but laughter. More cerveza, he says at lunch, then more. When someone notices how the sunscreen on his face contrasts with his pink skin, he begins to call himself El Diablo Blanco. "How do you do," he says in his awful pidgin Spanish to a new, very surprised acquaintance. "I'm the devil." At a bar, in keeping with his strategy for speaking Spanish, he asks for a Coca-Cola and rum-a. At a party in honor of the Americans under twinkling Christmas lights in the front yard of la casa de Andr�s 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 for his 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 of the third day, when Gilbert carries his clubs to the 1st tee, he has the black Hogan shag bag in his left hand. He nails his tee shot--he's an excellent player; he twice qualified for the Byron Nelson Classic, a PGA Tour event--but he doesn't leave the tee right away. He hangs back, then slowly walks into the dark 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 repeats this ceremony a few more times during the round. We leave him alone. Luis, who putts like a safecracker and has the strongest grip on the planet, knows what's going on. He talks for a minute about fatherhood and his own father. He and his wife, Maribel, have only two ni�as, he says, Karla and Zaira. His own padre was much more prolific, fathering eight boys consecutively, then five girls in a row. Luis's 12 Mart�nez siblings joke about his small output, he says. That's one of his brothers over there, Magdaleno, the man with the gray mustache and the rake standing by the creek in front of the 4th green. Magda has six children. The Mart�nez brothers smile and wave at each other.
"I go twice to Estados Unidos for work, cemento, and use that to buy the tierra--the land--for my house," Luis says. "I build the house." To make ends meet when he's not caddying at Covadonga, Luis tends bar in Valles.
After this, our final round, we walk through the abandoned hotel, the now empty, echoing space that had been Gilbert's home for eight summers. "The bowling alley--two lanes--was over there," Gilbert says. "I used to skateboard down that ramp. I hung my hammock on those hooks. My father used to come in here for a Covadonga cocktail, which was red. There were snakeskins on the wall, there and there."
No guests have checked in since the early '80s, Andr�s explains. That's when the government decided that Covadonga should be the center of a giant lake. The administration paid off the owner--a Spanish guy, according to Andr�s--and condemned the place. Then a new group came to power in Mexico City and forgot the lake idea. That's why, Andr�s says, we're left with ... this.
Before we leave, Gilbert gives Luis his watch and Andr�s his clubs, dozens of balls, gloves and golf towels--almost enough to stock his shop. As the Suburban bounces along the crooked path to the highway, Gilbert isn't sure if the pleasure of the last few days has outweighed the pain. At times it seemed as if the fun of the golf and the reunions had brought to the surface a dormant sadness. Yet he had come close to crying only once, when he carried the shag bag to the jungle bordering the 9th fairway and scattered the last of Avery's ashes. But at that moment the son also thought that his dad would live on, in a way, in this out-of-the-way place. As a butterfly floating over slow greens.