It all started on my weekly trip to the town transfer station, formerly known as the dump. There, languishing by the caretaker's shed, were two perfectly good full-size bowling balls. One was a shiny black, and the other had a red-and-black swirl like 1930s linoleum.
Since I cannot resist the allure of a useful item that someone has put up for grabs, even if I have no present use for it, I loaded the bowling balls into my van, alongside the other treasures: a roll of house wrap, several pressure-treated two-by-sixes, an empty gas can, and an old electric fan.
When I pulled into the driveway, I couldn't wait to give the bowling balls a test spin. The finger holes were a mite tight, but workable. I swung my arm back, aimed, and let 'er roll. Across the gravel and into the clover it went, bumping over sticks and through divots and mini-swales. The dogs tried to chase and fetch it, like curling sweepers guiding a stone to the icy bull's-eye. What fun. Free-range bowling!
This oughta be a sport, I thought.
Little did I know that it already was, complete with an association and a devoted, if quiet, league of players. In fact, at their summer meeting, the Castine Off-neck Free-Range Bowling Association (COFRBA) decided it was time to petition the International Olympic Committee to include their sport in the 2004 Athens Olympiad. I concur. Being the association's newest member, I am not its best spokesman. But I now consider myself an Olympic hopeful. I'm in serious training, thanks to my coach, Tom Curry, the game's master.
Anyone can bowl on a flat floor with perfectly contoured gutters to contain errant rolls. Where's the challenge in that? But try bowling on something called "a course," instead of "an alley," with topography and unpredictable wildlife hazards. I'm talking about a woodland floor with stumps, rotten logs, mole tunnels, and red squirrels scolding from high in the treetops. Try targeting the pins (10 spruce logs arranged in the customary flying-V formation - but that's all that's customary) by planning a banked shot off a fieldstone wall, hoping you've put enough "mojo" on the ball to come out of the pine-needled crater in the lee of a tamarack stump. And try swinging the big free-range ball while swatting the swarming mosquitoes of late-summer Maine. Until then, you just don't know the true meaning of bowling.
It's fair to call free-range bowling a hybrid sport. Golfers would recognize the improvisational adjustments to the dictates of an erratic playing field, and croquet players would be at home with the cutthroat bumping of an opponent's ball out of range, but the bowler alone can fathom the true legerdemain of the grip, balance, and release techniques.
I could only imagine someone with such finesse - and then Florence, the local association secretary, heard of my nascent interest. She offered to introduce me to Tom Curry, the COFRBA chairman and a grand-prix player.
"There aren't many of us who have Tom's gifts for 'feeling the roll' and 'pushing the pitch,' as we call it," says Florence. A mentor for me had appeared.
Curry spent his formative years on the boccie circuit, a franchise player for several European clubs. He had endorsement deals from top manufacturers and his own line of boccie apparel. However, he grew tired of the limited momentum and soft roll of the game.
"Too much like candlepins or marbles," says Curry. "I like the hurly-burly of free-range bowling in the old-growth settings we have in North America."
I arranged a tutorial with Curry on a day when he was practicing at a remote blueberry barren full of glacial erratics and embedded granite hazards, far from the gaze of fans - and opponents. The sky was a glittering, electric pastel azure.
As I watched Curry rolling ball after ball toward the phalanx of his heavy, weighted training pins, it was clear that one man's hazard is another's tactical advantage.
With a subtle swirling twist and release, each of Curry's rolls found a different, hyperbolic arc through blueberry bushes and over rock outcroppings. They bounced from boulder to boulder like pinballs, despite the mass of the gargantuan free-range ball. The pins always tumbled exactly as he predicted. And he was just getting warmed up.
No wonder aficionados called him "the Wizard." Curry played barefoot - "the better to pick up the vibrations of the boulder-banking shots," he says. "Mostly I just try to 'be the ball.' Hard to teach. It's a kind of zen thing."
Watch and learn, I thought to myself, and tried to imagine free-range bowling at the Acropolis.