It’s a familiar sensation. A protracted return to the world around me, cradled by my hammock’s synthetic material. I gently swayed above the cracked white paint of the bleachers below. Pulling myself upright was enough to expose me to the morning sun. Its intensity rudely forced recognition of the previous nights descent into vice.
The Summerland Rodeo Grounds were already populated with skaters lethargically moving around their established zones. Familiar companions laid suspended next to me marinating in their sleeping bags, not yet willing to rise. We were about to begin another year of the Giant’s Head Freeride. Another three days of skating, swimming, and bojangling with friends; friends intermittently enjoyed during the events of summer.
Our point of departure was Oakland. Five vehicles permeated with skateboarders and their equipment. A spliced together troop of west coast natives, former east coast residents, and south coast transplants connected through habitual relationships developed over years of traveling. Our northbound exodus retained a whisper of novelty as both the odometer and my dashboard clock measured the distance we put between us and home. This would be the first time some of our company finally crossed into the Great White North to skate The Giant – and for others it would serve as an atypical journey – immersed in the fellowship of companions often separated by competing sponsors. Retaining the burden of bleeding our depleting saving accounts had afforded us a certain selectivity when deciding who would accompany us on our trip.
All the romanticism aside, we didn’t have choice about who was paying for the trip to begin with. Downhill skateboard manufacturers, marketers, and retailers are asphyxiating under their own weight. The companies that have reveled in the intoxication of a growing industry are being reduced to skeletons. Abandoned and starved by a customer base no longer infatuated with their brand of adrenaline high. Event attendance, expensed trips to mountain passes, and the steady flow of products to sponsored riders now percolates slowly as each passing month of missed sales goals forces our former juggernauts to cannibalize their marketing budgets.
The current state of affairs was on display as our caravan pulled into Maryhill in the last hours of the event. Conversations around the finish line depicted an event with empty race slots and limited vendor booths. Once the premier race of North America, Maryhill had been downsized to accommodate the shrinking rider fields. Not everyone was disheartened by the circumstances, as the Utah crew expressed their fondness for a small event attended by cordial faces. Mercury was in retrograde.
Our caravan continued to throttle north. Pushing deeper into the prolonged days and cooler nights. Heavy eyes became restless once again as we neared our appointment with the Long Island crew at the top of a run just a couple hours south of the border. The self-proclaimed Bong Islanders had disembarked on their own course a week prior to our caravan. Skating and producing media as they serpentined their way through Cascadia. As tired travelers, we disembarked from our vehicles with renewed spirit. Making camp and socializing over beers and mole bowls until getting a sufficient sleep became unobtainable. Those few who had imbibed less – or merely abstained – from the previous night’s communal gathering woke early to join in on an early morning session to skate with Washington locals. The sounds of skating were too alluring for even the most incapacitated of us to rest any longer. Before breakfast was finished more vehicles were emptied for repurposing as shuttles, and a heavy session was underway. Tom had already gone to work. Keeping radio communication consistent, the single access point blocked, and filming runs of the crew with his precision footwork and a cultivated talent in videography.
Canada was calling. Camp was broken, vehicles were stripped clean, contraband was discarded, and the Sultan had finally returned from Xanzabar. Reports of border trouble presented me with an excuse to call for an immediate departure for the crossing point. The tension and anxiety I struggled to manage quickly melted away as we cleared the border without getting pulled into secondary. “Rhythm of the Night” drowned out the nervous giggles and rattled the empty bottles crammed into the door pockets of my car as we drove deeper into the country. My perpetually heavy foot closed the gap, and our collective vision of the Rodeo Grounds were fully realized.
Fuel exhaust from the Budget truck and the odor of perspiring skaters coalesced into a powerful stimulant. Everyone is too frothed out to notice the granulated urethane accumulating in their sinuses as they make their way down The Giant. The olfactory experience only lasts a few runs. In stark contrast to Maryhill’s status, The Freeride was swelling with skaters who struggled to find room in the shuttle vehicles as the day progressed. Riders repeated the cycle with increasing mastery and boldness, escalating the intensity of each run as packs rode tighter through each corner set on their way to the bottom. The hoard of skaters at the summit – dispersed into their respective microcosms – scrambled to get as many runs down before the sun set. At the end of each day, event attendees and organizers alike congregated on the dock resting over the Okanagan Lake, cleansing themselves of dust, urethane, and blood in the cool waters of the lake front. A fulfilling air of satisfaction was carried along as the fiery sun and jade-hued water consummated their segue into the night.
Our final night at the Rodeo Grounds developed as a subtle and genial affair. Those with schedules to maintain departed from the event, depleting the numbers of campers on The Grounds. We re-located our caravan to the space previously occupied by Striker’s RV to crack beers with the last remaining inhabitants of our temporary refuge. I’ll admit, I was initially surprised by the liveliness of our last nights exchanges, considering the past 72 hours we spent attempting to completely exhaust our physical and mental aptitude. Glancing around while pulling a slug from the reflective rim of my beer can was enough to realize that it was my own estimations that were in error. That evening’s ensemble was determined to consume the recompense returned for their labors in full. These trips were a part of our collective identity, serving each comrade as a motive, a rationalization, or a justification to audaciously pursue our pipe-dreams. Some of us will fade out of skateboarding, the memories of our participation preserved by voices echoing the cultural myth. But many of us will continue to adventure into the mountains with our skateboards – even if the world is no longer watching.