Hole 1: A Mighty Wind

Henry Miller once wrote that there is nothing more ridiculous than a man chasing his hat down the street in the wind. I wonder what he would have to say about a man chasing his tent across the steppe?

The expedition got under way on June 5, after a gruelling 20+ hour ride in a Russian mini-van (seats 12, actually seats 20) from Ulaan Baatar to Choybalsan. We ran out of gas twice during the trip and I was lucky enough to have the seat directly over the engine compartment, which meant no leg room but also that there was a near-scalding hot metal extrusion that I had to straddle or run the risk of melting the soles off my boots. My new friend, Alain Vandenplas from Belgium, made the trip with me to witness the start of the expedition. Alain is also a seasoned world traveler and we both agreed that this might have been the single worst journey that either of us had ever taken, anywhere in the world.

It was a sunny day with strong winds when I hit the ceremonial first shot. Alain made a comment about the winds seeming to be calming down, but as I would later find out, the opposite was true.

Salikh, I quickly learned is the Mongolian word for wind. The steppe is an enormous landscape of short grass at times only thick enough to form small clumps of greenish yellow in the sandy soil. There are gentle rolling hills on the steppe which give some three-dimensional feel to the geography, but trees are extremely rare. Thus, when the wind blows, it charges unabated across the countryside much like Chinggis Khan swept across Asia and Eastern Europe, conquering as he went, meeting only the most futile resistance.

Salikh is also the golfer's worst enemy. Finely tuned calculations of swing physics and gravity are rudely interrupted by the wind like a brute bouncer throwing two nerdy scientists out of the bar. This relentless wind blows at 20-30 km/hr every day on the steppe, whisking tumbleweeds across my path before I even see them coming. Salikh has become my first obstacle that I need to overcome in this long journey. But back to the tent incident.

I had made camp along the banks of the Kherlen river on my first night. I enjoyed the night sounds of crickets, frogs and birds, and in the morning I heard horses gallop past my tent to go for a drink in the river and then a roll in the sand. As I began to take down my tent, for some strange reason I chose to pull out the tent stakes first. Mr. Salikh must have laughed at this foolish novice mistake and quickly pounced. Within seconds my tent was rolling end over end towards the river. The Kherlen river cuts its meandering path out of the silty soil of the valley floodplain and I watched with horror as my tent disappeared over the edge of the bank, out of sight. I was sprinting at full speed when I leaped over the edge, and in mid-air I had only one thought; I may die jumping into this river but without my tent I'm certainly dead.

This was one of those events that happen so quickly you can't clearly remember all of the details, as if the adrenalin rushing through your body prevents the formation of a distinct memory in your brain. As I stood downstream with the tent miraculously in my grasp, I had one strange thought. "Gee, the water wasn't as cold as I thought it would be." Why this thought and not a million others I don't know, but it's all I can remember.

The mighty winds of the steppe are not all I've learned about so far. I've come to realize that this mission is much more difficult than I had imagined. Without being too long-winded let me explain. I'm carrying 25 kg (55 lbs.) on my back every day which any trekker would know is much more than you would want to haul on a long distance journey like this. [Aside: I've always liked the metric system and I'll be using metric units for the expedition portion of this journey. Golf talk will always be in yards, however. For the Americans in the audience and those unfamiliar with the metric system, 2.2 lbs. = 1 kg or 1 "freedom unit". The second "freedom unit" is the kilometer, which equals 0.6 miles] So, carrying 25 kg is difficult enough but it's taking it on and off my back a hundred times a day that kills me. As the weight takes its toll on me, I tend to hit poor golf shots, which means more lifting of the pack, more exhaustion, more poor golf shots, etc., spiraling downward.

My course roughly follows the Kherlen river, but in the flat floodplain there is unusually thick and tall grass, unsuitable for golf. So, I'm forced to play along the ridges where the grass is thinner. This means carrying more water (more weight) or trekking down to the river every night to get drinking water, which can be several kilometers from the hills. This is taking its toll on me physically, and my feet, knees, shoulders and back are screaming out by the end of the day. The big question then as I approach hole #2 is how much more of this can I take? And I'm afraid the answer to that question, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.

continue to Hole 2 >>