Friday, February 13, 2015

Meditations and Confessions of a Geezer Longboarder

Pre-Ride Hike
The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.” —Walter Begehot (Quote on a Good Earth tea bag)

Growing up in Akron, Ohio, it’s possible that I was the first kid with a skateboard—and if I wasn’t, certainly one of the first. My board came to me by way of California following a holiday out West in the mid-1960s. I have a hunch that few of today’s more youthful riders have ever seen a skateboard like my first one—with it’s short, narrow wooden deck, and steel wheels. Perhaps it was a sign of my fate, but even as a youngster, I learned how to slide the wheels on our smooth, sloped concrete driveway that dumped onto the rough chip-seal of Stevenson Avenue.

I don’t know what became of that skateboard, but there were others that followed and there were times in my life when there wasn’t a skateboard at all. That said, it seemed like there was always someone nearby who had a board if I was hankering for an occasional ride. To be clear, I haven’t spent my entire life on a skateboard like some, but I’ve never been far away or too out of practice to confidently jump on a board when such opportunities came along.

If you were to ask me back in the 1980s what I thought I’d be doing for fun as a 50-year-old, I probably would have answered you with something like fly-fishing, golfing, or bike touring. Surely one of the last things coming out of my mouth back then would have been anything to do with a skateboard.

• • •

My on-and-off skateboarding life continued until 2002 when a college student in need of some quick cash convinced me to purchase his Gordon & Smith 43-inch pintail longboard. Prior to that time, I had seen a few of the “giant” skateboards around, but never rode one. As it turned out, curiosity was the driving force that ultimately sealed the deal in my first longboard purchase.
Longboarding Home

For the next several years, I pushed the G&S pinner around my flat, little town of Powell, located in the high desert country of Wyoming, but unlike a true enthusiast, I never entertained the idea of taking it further.

Despite the flack directed at Original (a longboard maker) from the longboarding community (and I'm not sure why this is either), I’ll confess here that it was an Original video on YouTube that blindsided me one day and made me start thinking about that old G&S in a new light.

Not long afterwards, I started studying up on other forms of riding—freeride and downhill specifically. This line of thinking was influenced by that Original video and a geographical feature just outside of Powell called Polecat Bench.

Polecat Bench is a hybrid of mesa and plateau dominating the Powell horizon from the north to the northwest direction—rising 500-feet above the town. The “Bench” (as we call it) is the closest recreational destination for the locals—whether it’s riding an ATV or mountain bike, arrowhead or bird hunting, or just a place to look over the land in quiet solitude. It is also home to the community airport and a gas refinery beyond the airport. Connecting these operations with the community is State Route 295 (also known as “Road 9”) which includes about 1.5 miles of sloped asphalt that climbs the Bench at a five-percent grade. For the most part, there is very little traffic on this road-to-nowhere except for an occasional truck hauling crude or refined petroleum product along with the pickup trucks of those few who work at the refinery. The highway is absolutely deserted on Sunday mornings, and even when there is an occasional car or truck, you can see it coming with ample time to get out of the way.

As I contemplated the Bench and learned more about freeride and downhill longboarding, I started to realize that my Gordon & Smith FibreFlex wasn’t going to cut it on the steeper parts of the Bench. And so, not long after this epiphany, my Landyachtz Switch 40 arrived followed by a helmet, slide gloves and a set of pads for my knees and elbows.
• • •

To say that things have been “happily ever after” since the drop-deck Landyachtz arrived would be a boldface lie. To be blunt, some of my worst fails/falls have been at the slowest speeds and were attributed mostly to bad judgement rather than poor riding skills. There have been spills so embarrassing that I wouldn’t even speak of them in a confessional—let alone these pages, but I’ll humor you a bit here with a couple that I can stomach.

Before my Switch 40 ever saw an incline, it threw me off the sidewalk and into the street in the first 10 yards of my maiden voyage on it. I could say that the bushings were soft and the trucks looser than I’ve ever ridden, but as I washed the gravel out of my hands I knew it was just poor judgement on my part.

Not long after I’d been riding the lower sections of the hill, a friend of mine was in town and decided to tag along with his camera. I’d like to think my riding was no different than any other time that day, but I suppose having a bona fide camera-toting spectator along alters one’s abilities or at least perceptions of their own ability. Before we returned to town, I had managed to shred my entire forearm and slam by helmeted head into the asphalt thanks to high-siding on a toe-side carve that was reminiscent of any head-to-head collision from my youth of playing football.

Years earlier before I ever gave serious thought to downhill, I rode a traditional skateboard down a small—but very steep—hill at the local park. Prior to that I’d never, ever heard anyone speak about something called “speed wobbles.” Although it was a narrow foot path with lush grass on both sides, the wobbles threw me right into the middle of the asphalt resulting in enough road rash on my legs and arms to go through a tube of Neosporin before the week was out. I hobbled the mile distance home with the board under my bloodied arms. At the ripe age of 43, I was not only embarrassed, but convinced I’d never ride a skateboard again.

I’ve stated in many conversations that, given my age, I’m probably one bad spill away from transforming my longboards into wall art. And I’ve already taken enough big hits that left me laying stunned on the payment wondering if any bones were broken. I’ve gone through several boxes of extra large bandages thanks to road rash and landed hard enough on my ass to turn it black and blue. My shoulder has likely suffered from a couple impacts with the road and I’m pretty sure I broke a toe and cracked at least one rib. Every time I head out, I always remind myself, “You can’t afford to fall.”

I’ve also been telling everyone in my world that I’m not going to ride any faster than I can run, but the one day I clocked myself at 26 mph on one section of the Bench. I’m pretty sure I can’t run that fast.

Despite the aches and pain on my 50-some-year-old body, I’m riding more than ever these days—and not just the Landyachtz. In fact, I’m downright ashamed to lay out my quiver (of boards) to anyone at this time because—for one—I’m too old to own multiple boards, and secondly—I’m not that good.

Nevertheless, I am considerably better when it comes to riding a hill. I can carve confidently and, for the most part, I’m pretty decent at a hand-down toe-side speed check as well as a shut-down slide. My hand-down Coleman needs work, and I’m unsure if I’ll ever pull off any kind of standup slide, but I’m not ruling it out either.

When I started working the hill last spring, I set a goal for myself to ride the entire hill before the summer was over. I underestimated my eagerness to ride; on June 19th (two days before the first day of summer), I made it all the way down without incident. Since that time, it has become my longboard laboratory and a getaway from the big crowds of a town with over 5,000 residents!

I think riding alone suits me in terms of focus, concentration, and ultimately safety. And there is something about the solitude and quiet of the twenty-minute walks back up the hill to begin another run. Several times I’ve been offered rides to the top by those in vehicles passing by, but I almost always turn them down and tell them that walking back up comes with the territory of riding down. Besides, if nothing else, it is a good little aerobic exercise.

I’m unsure of a particular riding style that defines me—freeride or downhill. Not to dwell on my age, but I simply want to get down any hill without catastrophe regardless of steez (style). Perhaps the only steez I’ll ever possess is in my geriatric efforts. For now, it’s the little victories that keep me going such as marking the highway with long thane lines (polyurethane skid marks from the wheels sliding). Recently I cored (and flat-spotted) a set of wheels which was akin to receiving badge of valor. Making it all the way down a big hill without falling or bailing—no matter how much steeze I lack—is always motivation to go back up or return the next day.

Living in the country’s least populated state, people are pretty spread out. No matter who you are, what your interest or profession might be, there’s always an element of isolation and with it comes a lack of feedback from others like you. This is certainly my situation as an over-the-hill downhill longboard rider. Late this summer I met a college student who has ridden the hill and he has a few other friends that are curious about longboarding as well. It will be interesting to see if we ever evolve into a micro-community.

The other day two old guys smoking cigarettes with grizzled beards and dirty ball caps followed me in their car as I worked my way down the Bench. Upon reaching the bottom, they pulled over for a visit and I discovered we were of the same age. I wondered if they were as surprised as me upon discovering one another’s age. I’m sure there are older riders with more skills out there who have been riding longer. There’s nothing too unique to my story here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not common.

• • •

In the Autumn 2014 Issue of Concrete Wave, the following quote stopped me in my tracks:

“Skateboarding has been around for a very long time now. With very little effort, you can find skaters ranging from 5 to 55 years old ripping at almost any skate park, bombing hills, doing freestyle, or simply cruising to get somewhere.” Because I’m 54-years-old now, this harmless little statement has been haunting me in a Logan’s Run kind of way.

I know there’s not much time left for me—not like a teenager, while the likes of Patrick Switzer, Kyle Chin, or Liam Morgan needn’t worry about me stealing any of their sponsorships. Yet, these are some of the folk I look up to in making myself a better rider. With that article quote in mind, I’d like to think I have a little more than a year remaining. Nevertheless, I know my years on a board are numbered. Assuming I can stay healthy, perhaps I have another five to ten years of riding. Yet, to think I’ll still be riding that hill or one like it when I’m 65 seems utterly absurd.

1 comment:

Pat said...

Hmm, I don't read anything too mature in that post. Lol. Thanks for sharing your somewhat insane sport.