Why I moved heaven and earth to build a backyard bocce court.

The stadium scene.
Aug. 1 2006 12:43 PM

Let's Roll!

Why I moved heaven and earth to build a backyard bocce court.

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The word has gone around via neighborhood drumbeat that there's this long, green, rectangular thing in my backyard that looks like an Area 51 landing strip. Most people have heard of bocce even if they've never played it, and they're curious. So, they come. Once they're here, they feel the glorious 2-pound, 2-ounce heft of a bocce ball, and they experience my backyard court's smooth glide. When they let fly with that first shot, they're already addicted, because that's the way bocce is. Indeed, I think society is lucky that bocce balls are too large to load directly into a crack pipe.

My road to bocce glory started and ended with ignorance. I'd never heard of the Italian game of kiss-ball until 1996, when I was living in Hoboken, N.J. One summer afternoon, my wife and I went to a nearby public pool, where I noticed a long, gravelly rectangle off to the side. Closer inspection revealed that it was a beat-up old bocce court. Before long, I got into a game with a competitive Italian-American geezer who haunted the place like a trapdoor spider.

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Looking me over and no doubt thinking "meat," my opponent explained the basics. He started by throwing out a little ball called the pallino—the target. Then he rolled one of his four larger bocce balls, establishing the distance from the pallino that I had to beat. After that, I rolled until I got closer or used up all my balls. If I did get closer, he had to roll, and so on. At the end of each frame, you got a point for every ball closer to the pallino than your foe's closest shot. Four points max per frame, play to 12.

Somehow I scratched out an upset victory that day—beginner's luck, I guess. In any event, that was The Beginning. What followed was The Caesura, a 10-year period of reflection, doubt, and inactivity in which I didn't play bocce at all but thought about it a lot. I'd tried many backyard games, but bocce was clearly the best. It was fun and challenging and hypnotically relaxing, easy on the mind, body, eyes, and soul. My unrequited pining increased during a three-year stint in Northern California, where bocce (I'd heard) was widening its appeal beyond the classic demographic of geriatric Italians. There were whispers that it was also popular at nudist camps, wineries, and the backyards of forward-thinking enthusiast dudes whose wives were a little too slow with their rolling pins.

The dream really came to life in 2001, when we moved to Santa Fe, N.M., and bought a house with a 60-by-90 rectangular backyard in which almost everything had died. I would have filled the blank space with a bocce court right away, except I'd heard that a custom-made setup costs $8,000. And in the back of my mind, I kept hearing my mom's voice saying, justifiably, that I would "quit" before I completed such a mammoth task myself.

I stalled by planting trees, building paths and shade structures, and (as a warm-up) constructing an 8-by-16 brick patio. This spring, I decided to go for it, knowing from the patio that the digging would be murder. The shape of my yard locked me into an 8-by-50 rectangle that runs into an upslope. I tried to concoct a scheme that involved not digging—basically, a system of railroad ties supported by flying buttresses—but quickly realized this was impossible. So, out came the shovel: I had to dig trenches for my frame of pressure-treated 4-by-6 beams and keep digging down far enough to add successive coats of rubble, gravel, sand, crushed granite, and the top layer.

I did all that by following the idiot-proof instructions in The Budget Bocce Court, a tract self-published by a Californian bocce buff named Bryan Mero. The shovel work was horrible, but my bigger problem turned out to be finding the obscure substances Mero recommended for the top layer: crushed oyster shells and a finely ground companion product called "oyster-shell flour." I eventually found the crushed shells at a local feed store—chickens eat them, so they're commonly stocked. I couldn't find oyster-shell flour anywhere. Judging by the words of Commander Mero, blowing off this magic dust was unwise—it was the binder that helped solidify the rolling surface. "Without the oyster shell flour," he warned, your court will play "very slow." No!

Boy, was he right. I tried to substitute crushed granite for the oyster-shell flour, but it was too slow and rough. Then I went ahead and spread the crushed oyster shells I'd bought—that was even slower, like playing on a bed of Chiclet casings. Growing desperate, I tracked down an oyster-shell flour supplier from Washington state who offered to sell me a shell-and-flour mix for the "delivered to your driveway" price of $1,250. I'm sure this was great stuff, but that was a budget-buster and a buzz kill. Was I fated to get stuck with an alley of sluggish despair?

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The completed bocce court

A few days later, I lucked out. Mero and other bocce wizards had mentioned that tennis-court clay can also work. I called a local tennis club that, I'd heard, had retired its lone clay court because of the maintenance headaches. Bingo! For the sweet price of $150, they sold me two pallets of prime granular clay that had been trucked in from Colorado. All I had to do, with help from friends, was haul it, stack it, wheelbarrow it, shovel it, spread it, and roll it. That wasn't easy: My arms are now 6 inches longer, I think I hallucinated a few times, and I definitely would have quit if those extraterrestrials hadn't shown up with their big squirt guns full of Kool-Aid. (Sorry I didn't have any cold beer to offer you that day, guys.)

Was it worth it? Yes. The bocce court unifies my yard, it's great for socializing, and it makes me feel better instantly anytime I'm depressed. It's like a Japanese rock garden with colored balls. Since finishing the great crusade, I've had several groups give the court a whirl. At first they're a little confused: What's all this? But before long the transformation occurs. They play a few games; and the combination of the beautiful balls, the soothing clay, the nifty contrails your rolls leave behind, and the game's inherent pleasures suck them in.

When I first picked up a ball 10 years ago, I realized that bocce is one of the few games in which losing is just as much fun as winning. Perhaps it was stupid of me to build a court having played the game only once. If so, it's the best stupid thing I've ever done.

Alex Heard is the editorial director ofOutsidemagazine.