Set a course along Shasta Serengeti

WHAT'S THE single most beautiful place in California? One thinks of Yosemite's dazzling granite grandeur, like the set for some great cosmic opera. Then there's Big Sur with its kaleidoscope of sea spray, black rock and enchanted green forest. This vast and varied state abounds in spectacular natural beauty, even though we seem determined to pave it over as fast as we can for the next mall, subdivision and freeway.

My personal favorite place lies in California's far north near the town of Weed. It's a lovely high-country spot boasting tall stands of sweet-smelling fir and ponderosa pine, a sparkling brook and, best of all, a breathtaking view of perhaps the West's most majestic mountain, the snow-capped volcano of Mt. Shasta.

This Shangri-La of the Siskiyous is not a park or wilderness area. As unlikely as it may sound, it's a little golf course tucked just off Interstate 5. Golf, I know, conjures the image of rich white men in tacky plaid pants, and environmentalists like to bash golf courses for contributing to gated community sprawl, not to mention the tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used to manufacture that velvety green carpet look.

The Weed Golf Club, however, doesn't fit the stereotypes. Anyone can play this public track. It costs just $12 for a full round. You'll pay more than that for a souvenir key chain at the ritzy, blue-ribbon courses in Monterey and Palm Springs that cater to corporate higher-ups and rich golf nuts from Japan and around the world.

The town of Weed itself is no blue blood enclave. This was a company lumber town until the International Paper Co. closed down some 30 years ago. Local boosters have tried to reinvent Weed as a tourist destination ever since the big mill's closing. "I'm high on Weed ... California," say the T-shirts for sale at the gas station convenience stores.

Weed will never be a Californian St. Moritz. It has a gritty, working-class feel with the same sad, half-dead old business district as in so many American small towns in the age of Wal-Mart and the other big-box retailers.

You'll see the locals, young and old, at the course. They include firefighters, schoolteachers, retired loggers and cashiers from the McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King along the highway in their free hours. The Weed Golf Club exemplifies the world of the municipal, or "muni" course, a far cry from the proverbial exclusive country club. It's golf democracy in action at these modestly priced, sometimes scruffy tracks nationwide where you'll find people of every age, ethnicity, occupation and skill or lack of it.

But what, really, does golf have to do with the outdoors? We see courses everywhere. Put together, they cover an area of the United States twice the size of Rhode Island. Are golf courses just more uncontrolled development and conspicuous consumption -- imitation nature cooked up with chemicals? Or admirable, oxygen-generating green zones -- forested parks by another name? Some courses nowadays boast belonging to bird sanctuary and wetlands conservation programs.

The Weed Golf Club looks like Teletubbieland, my young daughter says. Perfect, she means. It's a panorama from the palette of Heidi in Technicolor with the alpine meadow green of the fairways, purple lupine and golden poppies along the shining brook, and picture postcard vistas to Mt. Shasta and the snowy Siskiyou peaks.

I like to play alone in the soft evening twilight. The course can feel at that hour like some mountain wildlife park, a Shasta Serengeti. You'll see deer, quail and rabbits with a glimpse now and then of a weasel or fox slipping fast away into the brush. Once while searching for my ball in the tall, dry grass behind one green, I almost stepped on a big, ropy rattlesnake.

A bobcat was spotted several times last winter, reports Dixie Nehring, the friendly, no-nonsense woman who collects green fees, runs the grill and sells balls and hats at the little clubhouse.

I don't mean to suggest that playing golf at Weed or anywhere else is somehow a "natural" or "unspoiled" outdoors experience. Unlike more upscale private clubs, true enough, the Weed course has no glitzy fake waterfalls, high-tech turf grass or even sand traps. But the two maintenance men work hard mowing, watering and spraying the occasional dose of nitrogen fertilizer and weed-killer. A golf course is neither city nor wilderness. It's nature under tight control by human hands, a hybrid at once artificial and natural.

Golf, I think, reveals a certain ambivalence about the outdoors. Those of us who play want to get out in the fresh air away from the cramped office and the factory floor. But, very often, we don't want to venture too far from a cold beer, hot shower and life's other creature comforts. Golf lets you get away without really leaving civilization in the first place.

Those more rugged seekers among us, of course, want a pristine wilderness experience. In a way, however, the very idea of being away from it all may be an illusion at this point in human history.

I backpack sometimes in the Marble Mountains Wilderness area, 100 miles west of Mt. Shasta toward the Pacific Coast. As lovely as the Marble Mountains are, they are by no means "untouched." They are crisscrossed by hiking trails, the wispy trails of 727 passenger jets in the wide blue sky overhead, and cattle trampling the meadows and spreading giardiasis so you can't drink the water.

Nature is a matter of degree in our shrinking world. A golf course and a wilderness area mark points along a continuum of relative remoteness in these new times where no place is truly wild anymore.

Don't get me wrong. That we've done so much violence to nature makes protecting what we have left of it all the more urgent. We need more protected national forest and not shopping malls, strip mines or, for that matter, golf courses. And if you belong to that big band of people who find golf boring, stupid or worse, fair enough. It's true that the game has very often been linked to snobbery, exclusion and some very bad fashion decisions.

If you do happen to be one of America's more than 20 million golfers, then the Weed Golf Club remains a great anonymous treasure. Stop by this poor man's Pebble Beach on your way up to Seattle or Portland. If you don't have clubs, Dixie can rent you a Cold War vintage set for $5. A package of tees will cost an extra 50 cents.

"No Better Way to Spend a Day," proclaims a sign by the Weed Ladies' Golf Assn. at the sixth hole.

I couldn't agree more, there in the sublime beauty of the red mountain sunset.

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Orin Starn is the author of "Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last 'Wild' Indian." His website is www.orinstarn.com.

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