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The bamboo suspension bridges at Club de Golf Covadonga sag and wiggle, making a crossing feel like a field sobriety test for a drunk, so you extend your arms like a tightrope walker and try not to look down at the muddy tributary of the R�o Valles six feet below. � Covadonga and its thrilling bridges doze in a clearing in the rain forest between Tampico and Mexico City. The course's nine fairways are like tunnels cut through the jungle. Its greens putt like shag carpets saturated with honey. The indispensable tool of the four-man grounds crew is the machete. An air of mystery pervades the place. There's not a word about Covadonga on the Internet, or in phone directories or history books. Even people in the nearest town, Ciudad Valles, swear the club no longer exists. Yet despite its crumbling concrete entryway and the gray-green moss and peeling paint on its eerie, abandoned hotel, Covadonga lives. Barely. Although it is the only golf course in a 75-mile radius, tourists seldom stumble upon it and only 40 people still pay the $55 monthly dues.
What Covadonga has in abundance is mariposas. Butterflies. Butterflies are what brought Dallas club pro Gilbert Freeman to this place every summer when he was a kid, and butterflies are what took him back this winter for the first time in 32 years.
Avery Freeman, Gilbert's father, was the Tiger Woods of lepidopterology, the study of butterflies. In the Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society, Andrew D. Warren, a graduate student in entomology at Oregon State, said, "Few individuals in recent decades can match [Freeman's] contributions. Our current knowledge of Mexican hesperiid diversity is based on his groundbreaking research.... The excitement generated in the community of North American lepidopterists by Avery's early publications on Giant skippers cannot be overstated." Aided by grant money from the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian and the Carnegie Institute, Freeman, a biology teacher at Hillcrest High in Dallas, collected widely and well on his annual summer pilgrimage to south Texas and Mexico. He identified 107 new species and subspecies during his career--so many that he could afford a little whimsy when asserting the discoverer's right to assign a Latin name. He named three butterflies for his wife, Louise (Megathymus yuccae louiseae, Astraptes louiseae and Amblyscirtes erna); one each for his daughters Linda (Amblyscirtes linda) and Julia (Lerodea julia); and two for his son, Gilbert (Astraptes gilberti and Agathymus gilberti). Even a Covadonga caddie, Benito Reycendes, was bestowed a piece of obscure immortality (Poanes benito).
During the family's fourth summer at Covadonga, 13-year-old Gilbert discovered the game being played on the little course outside their hotel. Almost immediately he put 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 a diary ("Hit number 4 in two but bogeyed the 5th again!"), mimicking the careful, end-of-the-day notations in his father's butterfly logbook. Gilbert's parents took up the game less than a year later, and their days at Covadonga soon acquired a pleasing rhythm: golf at dawn, butterfly-stalking for father and precisely 100 practice shots for son, lunch and a siesta during the hottest part of the day, more butterflies and practice balls, then a final nine for mother, father and son before dinner. Those were the best days of their lives, they all say.
Louise can close her eyes, she says, and see her husband disappear into the jungle to the right of the 9th fairway, simultaneously looking gentle and fierce, with a long-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 up to the knee to protect against snakes.
Last month Gilbert returned to Covadonga with his father's ashes in a black Hogan shag bag.
Dogs aimlessly wander the streets of the muddy little towns between Tampico and Valles. There are speed bumps instead of traffic lights, and a mother wheels her small child on a dolly, like a mover. The people on the street stare at the pale faces in our car. We stare back.
"It's like hunting 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 they can't fly out. Then you have to kill them right away, to keep them from beating up their wings."
Skippers are what?
"Slightly smaller butterflies, with different veins in their wings and different antennae."