Stranger Than Fiction

by Mike Corrigan & r & & r & Skatetopia & r & Zero hour, 8 am -- Hillyard Skate Park: The air feels crisp in the lungs as the sun inches up over the hills in the east, filling the bowls of concrete with light. Featureless at midday, the slate grey surfaces come alive in low-trajectory sunlight, as glowing crescents are carved out of the negative spaces. Wave meeting wave, the product of fusion energy meeting a site of untapped potential energy. It's irresistible to those with skatelust in their blood.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & twas 14 years old when skateboarding first consumed me. That's when I discovered I loved the feeling of bombing down hills with the wind blowing through my hair, carving up secret pools and fighting gravity on a backyard halfpipe. Most of all, I loved that moment of weightlessness achievable only through inertia and death-defying speed. Soon I wasn't just doing it. I was reading about it, dreaming about it, scheming about it. I seemed like a chronic case.

Yet the object of my teenage obsession was casually discarded like an old gum wrapper upon the introduction into my life of cars and girls, jobs and beer. Though not so much discarded, it turns out, as placed in cold storage. For as my skating mania went on hiatus for more than two decades and my decks gathered dust in the basement, some part of it was kept alive. All it needed to break dormancy was for me to stand on the lip of a smooth concrete bowl -- and before me, a vast array of riding surfaces made just for skateboarding.

That, and another skater taunting me with "What are you waiting for?"

I guess I'm not the only one. In addition to the masses of kids who have a legitimate claim to the ranking mobile activity of American youth, the Hillyard skate park is also frequented by a considerable number of young adults and older dudes who can't seem to stay away despite years of exposure to the wisdom that no one over 30 should engage in such a perilous activity.

But then skateboarding has never had much to do with common sense. It's about turf, skateable turf. Craig Stecyk III, the pioneering photojournalist who first codified the skateboarding aesthetic in the pages of Skateboarder Magazine, circa 1975, put it this way: "Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential. But it was the minds of 11-year-olds that could see that potential."

Seek. Find. Skate. It's the modus operandi of every true skater. And for each of them, the initial scars, the tokens of passage into the skating cabal, are earned on the streets, sidewalks, staircases and just about every other conceivable monument of the modern world.

So how and when did all this happen, this skate park thing? When did "Skateboarding is not a crime" bumper stickers begin disappearing from the backs of old Subaru wagons? Had skateboarding ceased to be the public nuisance it had been in my hardcore skating days? Had it in fact become legitimate?

It was heresy even to suggest such a thing.

Skate Parks & r & Skateboarding has traditionally been looked upon by the power elites of Western civilization as a destructive, anti-social, borderline-outlaw activity. It's pretty remarkable, then, that the free pursuit of skating within public parks has been championed in recent years by forward-thinking civic leaders. Sure, it's one way to get skaters off the sidewalks, but it still seems odd. Yet there it is: Cities across the country (Spokane and Coeur d'Alene included), are finding the foresight, benevolence -- whatever it is -- to bestow skate parks upon their local communities. It's estimated that there are more than 1,500 in the United States alone. Skate parks for everyone. Yeah, the idea is definitely worth saluting.

Heidi Lemmon heads up the Skate Park Association of the USA, an activist group formed by skaters from Southern California who began advocating for skate parks in 1996. "Cities and municipalities have an obligation to their communities to provide safe places for their youth to skate," she says. "It is an investment in their future."

According to SPAUSA, there are close to 10 million skateboarders in America today, fueling a $720 million-a-year industry. In that light, parks make a lot of sense.

And our local parks are only a small part of a much larger national experiment. Currently, skate parks are springing up at a rate that eclipses even the most frenzied boom years of the late-1970s, when commercial skate parks first began blooming in the California sun.

"Parks are being built so fast that we are having a difficult time tracking them," admits Lemmon.

But unlike the old commercial model -- which ultimately succumbed to rising property values and liability issues -- most latter-day parks are being built by communities and purchased with tax revenues. Liability issues have been mitigated with a simple posted admonition: "Skate at your own risk."

In the Northwest, the experiment is working, with skate park numbers on the sharp increase since the late-1990s. Skaters here currently have scores of skate parks to drool over in such far-flung communities as Carnation, Wash.; Klamath Falls, Ore.; Hailey, Idaho; and Whitefish, Mont. There are about 50 skate parks in Washington state alone, with more coming online each season. Spokane currently has three: downtown under the freeway ("UTF") at Fourth and Bernard, the 8,500-square-foot YMCA park at Mirabeau Point in Spokane Valley, and the 12,000-square-foot Hillyard park on North Market.

More than most of the skaters at Hillyard, 32-year-old Canyon Crary feels an acute sense of park ownership. Perhaps that's because he actually helped with its construction two years ago.

"There's about 80 hours of my life in this thing," he says, adding with a smile, "I can even show you where all the Pabst Blue Ribbon cans are holding up the rebar."

Crary has been skating consistently for 27 years and has seen virtually every trend. His arms are heavily tattooed with icons that signify his allegiance to both hardcore music (a Black Flag logo) and hardcore skating (the Powell Skull & amp; Sword).

Like many who grew up skating the pitifully non-radical natural terrains of the Inland Northwest during the 1980s, Crary and his friends made the best of it by scrapping for every foot of skateable surface, sneaking into the few dry pools in the area and building their own wooden ramps in public spaces.

"We had to share a court with basketballers," he recalls. "Mostly, we got along fine with them. But there were a couple of times that -- well, let's just say that there were definitely a few of those guys who went home with wheel-sized knots on their heads."

An Incomplete History & r & Skateboarding first emerged in the mid-1950s as an activity California surfers engaged in whenever the waves were flat. A decade later, pressure from municipal authorities to ban public skateboarding coupled with the performance limitations of first-generation gear (namely, unforgiving wheels of clay), nearly killed it off. With the invention of the urethane wheel in the early 1970s, skateboarding made a strong comeback. Riding on smooth, grippy urethane, sidewalks and streets no longer posed grave, imminent threat of injury. Sidewalk seams and micro-gravel were no big deal and slide-outs were greatly reduced. The potential of skateboarding had been liberated.

While further innovations in both equipment and technique occurred on several fronts simultaneously, modern skateboarding -- indeed, the entire modern extreme-sport phenomena -- had its genesis in a very specific place and at a very specific time.

The architects were a group of blank generation kids living out a mid-'70s pre-teen existence in an urban wasteland they called Dogtown, a discarded strip of California coastline between Santa Monica and Venice Beach. Each morning, they surfed amid the broken pier pilings of a decaying beachside amusement park, and each afternoon they skated, translating those same hard-won surfing moves to hot asphalt. The local surf shop transformed them into a skateboarding team -- a team that, at its first competition, would smash the old regime and ignite a skating revolution. Their low-slung, fluid style aggressively applied to sloping, nearly vertical surfaces quickly became the new paradigm, replacing the upright maneuvers and flat terrains that had characterized the '60s freestyle model.

On the commercial side, skateboarding exploded into a multi-million dollar industry. Suddenly, kids were going "pro" in the sport, earning cash to participate in what had formerly been considered child's play. Commercial skate parks rose up to meet them, hosting competitions and providing legions of serious skaters with concrete terrains to develop their rapidly evolving skills.

Once those skills produced the first aerial, flatland riding and strictly ground-based tricks were relegated to the past. Air-based maneuvers went on to define the sport in the 1980s and beyond.

All the while, kids from around the country were following the exploits of their favorite California skaters through the words and images found in the pages of Skateboarder Magazine and Thrasher.

Skate or Die & r & While the commercial side has experienced numerous spikes and dips in its growth trajectory over the years, skateboarding as a phenomenon has never been dependent upon mass appeal for survival. That's because it is less of a traditional sport than a complex, three-decades-old subculture. Just as surfing always has been practiced by hardcore enthusiasts utterly indifferent to the waxing and waning of popular involvement, so too are devoted skaters part of a close-knit community somewhat removed from society at large.

And the skate subculture embraces all ages. Nine-year old Cory Dahl, for example, is a Hillyard park regular. With natural ability, a taste for the radical, and a small frame that bounces right up from punishing spills, Cory shreds most surfaces here with deceptive ease. He gets air in the bowls and does grinds atop the halfpipe -- all on a wide, old-school board nearly as long as he is.

His dad, Richard, is an old-schooler, a transplant from California who spent the 1980s riding the vertical walls of some of skateboarding's most legendary commercial parks. In fact, he says, it was the images of those adventures that first sparked the fire in his young son.

"My mom and dad would show him old videos of me skating parks in Southern Cal like Upland and Del Mar," he explains. "Cory couldn't believe I was skating alongside guys like Tony Hawk. So when he decided to start skating, he wanted to skate old-school."

Though his dad says he started at age 6, Cory moves to clarify. "Well, I started skating vert then," he says. "But I've been skating since I was two-and-a-half."

When asked what he would be doing with his time if he didn't skate, Cory grins and quickly responds, "Probably sitting on the couch all day."

And off he goes.

True To Your School & r & To the untrained eye, a congregation of skateboarders may appear to be nothing so much as a homogenous bunch of fools on wheeled boards. Yet there are, within that mass of sinew and sweat, subtle differences in style, aesthetic and preferred terrain. If you study those differences for even a short time, you'll recognize that there are two main approaches by which skaters evaluate and then attack any particular surface. You've detected the two tribes: old-school and new-school, aka "surf-style" and "street-style."

Old-school skateboarders generally prefer the deep pockets and vertical slopes of bowls, halfpipes and other curved lines, a preference that dates back to the '80s golden age of pool and pipe riding. They typically ride wide decks and exhibit a low, surf-inspired style.

During the 1990s, as the commercial parks closed and skateboarding returned to the streets, boards became narrow and more uniform in shape, with a swept nose and tail and a lightweight undercarriage. So armed, new-school skaters reclaimed the public infrastructure, utilizing variations of an aerial move called the "ollie" to pop their boards into the air, jump curbs, attack staircases, and perform a multitude of aggressive upright maneuvers.

But because the two schools are so closely linked by tradition and the laws of physics, the lines between them are blurred. Differences rarely eclipse the commonalities. After all, skateboarding may have been invented by surfers, but every skater who ever rode has started out on the streets.

Payment for Your Bliss & r & It probably should be mentioned at this point that there is, in fact, a price to be paid for this thrill. And that price is always paid up front, in flesh.

Canyon Crary considers himself lucky. "In 27 years of continuous skating, the only serious skate-related injury I've received was a hairline fracture in my wrist," he says. "And two years ago, I took my knee out."

Indeed, skateboarding has the potential to inflict grievous bodily harm upon your person. Concrete is brutal. It doesn't give -- it only takes. All you can do is respect it as you prepare yourself to encounter all manner of scrapes, bruises, sprains, dislocations and breaks. The seriousness of injuries can be mitigated with safety gear and reduced in frequency with experience. But pain is a constant, lurking companion, one that keeps every skater honest and well adorned with scar tissue.

Rather than a stigma of failure, however, these marks are viewed as a sign of progress. For behind each shiny pink-and-purple slash is a glorious tale of conquest.

Hillyard Tales & r & The dead time out here is early morning. But as soon as school breaks for the summer, the kids are out in force again at all hours of the day. On weekends, it's insane, with so many kids riding on anything with wheels that it keeps both beginners and a lot of serious skaters from dropping by.

Today it's just buzzing, and there's good a mix of old and new. Names are rarely given but they are there for the asking: Andy, Jeremy, Neil, James, Tasha, Bernard, Josh, Bryce.

Mark Harris is an old-schooler who heads to the mountains as a snowboard coach when the cold hits. Yet each spring, he returns to the lowlands to resume his passion.

"I was skating way before I was snowboarding," he says. "I made snowboarding my career, but skating is the one thing I do just for me. It's my therapy."

The Hillyard park is free and open to everyone. The terrain is diverse and accommodates both beginner and expert, both street rat and surf skater. And like all skate parks, it possesses dangers as well. In addition to the rock-hard surface, there are a multitude of bodies careening through the turns following unpredictable trajectories. You need eyes in the back of your head. In general, however, riders are respectful of each other and reasonably generous with the space -- though this is more often about survival than civility.

"You really have to watch yourself," notes Crary. "My biggest problem isn't with kids, but with the parents who don't seem to understand that this is not a playground. In here, it's crazy. You don't send your 5-year-old in here on a bike. He'll get killed."

Yet does all this finely crafted concrete, made available strictly for our pleasure, mean that skateboarding has lost some of its edge?

"Sometimes I miss the danger," says Harris, "of getting caught, of knowing that you had to skate it now because it might be gone tomorrow. That was fun."

The old-schoolers reflect on this for a moment before returning to the previous topic: planning a road trip to a new skate park in some cruddy, out-of-the-way little town that no one had heard of until now. It's probably the only thing all skaters can agree on: That for the most part, skate parks rule and that riding them is vastly superior to spending your precious skating hours picking gravel out of your knees, dodging cars and getting chased by security guards.

Epilogue & r & In spite of all this lovely access and apparent progress in popular perception, skateboarding outside of the cultivated world of skate parks is by no means a lost art. Illicit thrills continue to charge atmospheres of the present. And so skating retains its primitive soul. As you read this, somewhere on a lonely stretch of ocean-view blacktop, a group of slalom competitors are setting up cones. Elsewhere, skate-punks are gleefully shredding another public staircase, speed freaks are placing their lives on the line to dissect a mountain road, and determined bowl riders are risking fines and/or buckshot for a few weightless seconds inside of a newly discovered empty pool.

Fleeting moments like these have no analog within the park realm. Gradually, they'll be added to skateboarding's rich oral history. Sure, the parks are here today -- and we will conquer them. But the greatest adventures of all lie waiting to be discovered.