Skating on a roll
July 26, 2006
The pool is for everyone. Young, old, male, female, rich, poor, black, white – it doesn’t matter. All are invited to drop in.”It’s like this,” says Othello – just Othello – one day at his popular skateboard shop, located on the back side of the Mill Street Commercial Center. “If you’re a gang member and you were a Crip, you could go to another state and wear your colors and no matter what color, age, race, creed you are, you’re part of them. That’s what skating has been. I can go anywhere – and I mean anywhere – and have friends at the end of the day at a [skate] park, because we all share this common thing.”It’s a telling analogy, especially when you spend some time at the Rio Grande Skate Park – Othello’s outdoor office, and a refuge to local skaters both young and old.If the walls in the pools could talk, they’d speak of the camaraderie among those who arrive each day to glide across their smooth banks. The rush, the stoke, whatever you want to call it. The sensation of surfing concrete on a wooden board with polyurethane wheels has an undeniable pull, and it creates a tribal connection between all kinds of people. Locals Lad Forde, 14, and Jack Bowers, 53 – both of whom skate at Rio Grande nearly every afternoon into the waning daylight – know as much.Of course, the walls themselves don’t speak, which poses a problem. Nearly all that has been written about skateboarding in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley focuses on walls – the ones that have been taken down, the ones that have been put up and those yet to be built. There’s no denying that the construction of skateboard parks tells a story, one that conveys the growing popularity of the sport here and beyond. According to TransWorld Business Magazine, a trade publication that covers board sports, there were only 110 skate parks nationwide in 1996. In 2004, that number jumped to more than 1,500 … and counting. Locally, said city parks manager Steve Chism, the skateboard park at Rio Grande is the second-busiest amenity maintained by Aspen Parks and Recreation. Only the Aspen Recreation Center draws more people.But the numbers don’t tell the complete story.How to depict the local skating scene beyond the blueprints? How to extract the substance from the concrete and metal, the soul, if you will, from the bowl?Easy – grab some kids with boards and ask them about what drove them to the park. Except they might just say their mom – or the bus.
To scratch more than just the surface of the concrete, it’s imperative to find the right skaters – the ones with full-time jobs who skate the pools in the afternoons.They’re easy to spot, says Othello: “Just look for the older guys with the “ASS” stickers on their helmets.”That’s “ASS” for “Aspen Skateboarding Society.””They’re the main reason why the skateboard park is there,” Othello says. ‘Just a bunch of like-minded people’The guy with the gray helmet and the glasses over there strapping on his knee pads, he has a sticker. So does the skinny dude with the peaceful green eyes and the messy tangle of brown hair who is getting ready to drop in. Both are 35. Both remember the valley before there were useable concrete bowls and wooden ramps built from Carbondale to Aspen.But will they talk?”You have to record me?” says Brady Hurley, the skinny one, while staring at the tape recorder.”It’s just for accuracy.” Accuracy – an important word. It’s obvious from Hurley’s demeanor that he doesn’t want a story to distort his sport or his circle of friends.
An awkward silence hangs in the air.”OK,” Hurley says, relenting, his eyes coming into focus.First off, ASS really isn’t a society with formal meetings. There are no rules to join, no charter. From its genesis, Hurley says, the Aspen Skateboarding Society was “just a bunch of like-minded people who were into the same thing.””I didn’t know anybody when I first moved here,” he says. “You meet people through skating. All of us, we ended up sticking together and making a scene. We made this park happen.”Pat Jones – the guy with the glasses – tells a similar story. He got into pool skating in the ’80s, but lost interest later in the decade and in the early ’90s when street skating came to the fore. When he moved to Aspen 12 years ago, Jones fell in with a group of snowboarders who also loved to skate. When Hurley moved to the valley four years later, he became part of the crew.There’s also Jesse Davis – who has since moved away to North Carolina – and Josh Bailey, Greg LeBlanc, Chad Simon and Keith Taylor. They were all there when ASS took shape. They’re the guys – like other core groups around the country – who never jumped ship, never lost interest when skateboarding went through its lean years. And there have been plenty of them.Since its inception in the 1950s, the sport has undergone multiple face-lifts. First slalom, then street surfing, then pools, then vert ramps, then street, then back to vert, then more street… and so it goes. In-between, diehard skaters were the glue. Jones says he and his friends are all survivors. Despite a lack of places to skate locally for many years, they never got discouraged. They found ways to get their skating fix.”We used to take every Saturday morning in the summer and drive over to Salida,” he says. “It was two hours each way, and we’d skate over there because it was the closest good concrete skate park. We’d camp on Kebler Pass sometimes, then drive over to Crested Butte to skate there, too. There were a lot of road trips, just to skate.”
In the late 90s, there weren’t many places in the valley to skate. There was a small run-down ramp behind the middle school in Carbondale, another substandard ramp in Glenwood Springs, and the Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel – the renegade “park” that took root in the old abandoned warehouses located on the south side of Highway 82.Royal Laybourn, a local skater’s father, donated wood and supplies for a ramp and some other features inside the old U.S. Forest Service storage facility. Word of mouth spread quickly among skaters in the valley. Then Eagle County found out about the park and tried to shut it down.Local pressure mounted to keep the park open, which eventually led to an ill-fated association between the county and Herb Weisbard, a twice-convicted cocaine dealer. Weisbard was put in charge of maintaining the park under guidelines outlined by Eagle County. The county was in charge of keeping an eye on Weisbard. Neither did a very good job.In summer 2001,10-year-old Jamie Close of Carbondale was killed at the makeshift park when a 250-pound steel beam fell on his head. When Close’s parents went to inspect the park two days later, they found holes in most of the ramps, strewn piles of trash and broken glass and boards with upright rusty nails lying on the floor.A background check on Weisbard then uncovered his criminal record. The Closes filed a lawsuit against Eagle County for negligence. The suit was eventually settled out of court.Despite the tragic accident, which local skaters prefer not to mention, many look back fondly on their time at the Tree Farm. Othello recalls that there was no heating and it was “across the highway, then a crazy hike through this field” just to get there, but the place had its own unique charm.”Beggars can’t be choosers, man. That was the spot where we’d all hang out at. Plus it was indoors – so you could skate in there during the winter,” he says. “No one wanted to wreck what we had.””It’s the only place that had a roof in Colorado, as far as I am aware of,” Jones adds. “Folks used to drive up from Vail on a regular basis. We met folks who would drive up from as far as Durango. It was a real tight-knit community.”
The need for more skate parks – especially in the upper valley – was apparent, even before Close’s death. The tree farm sufficed for a place to skate, but it wasn’t ideal. Jones, Hurley and friends began working with the city of Aspen.Hurley says LeBlanc and Davis took then-Mayor Rachel Richards out to lunch in late 1999 to propose the idea. After receiving her support, Chism recalls, the process went relatively smoothly. There wasn’t much dissent on the concept – just the process of deciding the park’s size and cost, and selecting a building contractor.”The park was meant to be highly visible,” Chism says. “It was meant to celebrate skating, and put it front and center in one of the city’s most prominent parks.””I think it was just the right time,” Hurley adds. “It just all came together.”Construction on the $450,000 park – which was done by nationally-recognized skate design company, Team Pain – began in May 2000 and was completed in October. The official opening wasn’t until late April 2001, after all the trees and flowers were in. But all the skaters really cared about was the pools.”Kids were hopping the fence to skate it before it was even open,” Chism says. “That’s how great the need was. They couldn’t even wait.”Adds Jones: “That first winter, we kept the whole thing shoveled out. We didn’t get a lot of early snow, and we had a couple of thaws. There were a bunch of us available, and we all wanted to skate. We skated in there every month of that year.”
Chism’s remark that Aspen wanted “to celebrate” skateboarding shows how far the sport has come. Google “history of skateboarding” and you’ll become accustomed to modifiers like “alternative” and “renegade.”While the labels aren’t necessarily inaccurate, there’s a fact that is often overlooked: the rebellious image cultivated by skaters was partly fueled by mainstream society’s refusal to take the sport seriously.Push someone in the corner who doesn’t want to be there andhe’ll push back.The rebellious streak can be traced back to Venice Beach, Calif., in the 1970s when the legendary Zephyr Skate Team laid the groundwork for modern vert skating by jumping backyard fences and skating in empty swimming pools. It runs into the ’80s, when ramps popped up in back yards and empty lots, then later in the decade, when skaters took to the streets, ignoring posted signs until someone called the cops.The “Skate and Destroy” mentality came about because skaters weren’t going to stop skating. The attitude surfaced at the Tree Farm, where locals created their own safe haven to skate because they couldn’t go anywhere else. Still, skaters say the label is misleading.”Skateboarding, even though it’s always had a reputation for being a renegade sport, it’s really not so much,” Jones says, while watching Hurley slice around Rio Grande’s largest pool. “It’s a very positive attitude down here. People don’t always see that. When the kids first start, and they’re learning to drop in, the old guys, we’re the ones who teach them. Then they, of course, become better than us.”Arguably, the one thing that helped skateboarding shed its rebellious label was ESPN’s Extreme Games, which debuted in 1995 in Rhode Island. Instead of ignoring skaters, the X Games embraced them like never before. On TV, the acrobatics of vert skating showed an uninitiated public the athleticism involved in the sport – and attracted a whole new generation of skaters.
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The number of publicly-funded skateboard parks that have popped up since those first X Games – now showing X Games 12! – illustrates how perceptions of the sport have shifted, in Aspen and the rest of the country. In the last six years, three new skate parks have been built in the valley. There are plans for a new park in El Jebel and an addition to the Rio Grande. There are also other signs.Eight years ago, Othello offered his first skate camps – simply “because I was just trying to come up with a job that I’d never get tired of.” “It was the one thing that popped up first,” he says. “I put up hand-drawn flyers around town and I offered drop-off at D&E [Ski and Snowboard Shop], where I worked in the winter. Then I’d just walk over there with a bunch of mismatched pads and helmets and wait. One little kid would show up, and I would be like, ‘Oh my god, this is awesome.’ Next thing, that kid would tell his friend and that kid would tell his friend, and then I have three little kids and they’re all wearing mismatched pads and we’d be heading down to the Tree Farm to skate.”Imitation, of course, is the sincerest form of flattery. Along with Othello’s, two other board shops – Radio and Polar Revolution – now offer day camp sessions in the summer, as does Camp Aspen/Snowmass.Some days, there are up to 50 kids at the skate park getting instruction. Moms and dads drop their kids at skateboard camp just as they would for tennis camp or golf lessons. Heck, Chris Evert’s kids are all rad skateboarders – and Evert herself comes to watch and cheer them on. In Carbondale, weekend skateboard lessons have become so popular at the local park that they tend to fill up long in advance. Local shops have also copied Othello’s model of forming a team of local riders by offering free equipment and paying contest entry fees.Finally, it seems, skateboarding isn’t an “alternative” sport. It’s just a sport, like any other, that takes coordination and balance and lots of practice.
Still, it hasn’t all been peachy.In the last few years, the local skate community has weathered its share of bad press. Start with August 2004, when more than 2,000 skating enthusiasts swarmed on Carbondale for a pro skating contest hosted by Thrasher Magazine.When the weekend-long Carbondale Run was over, hay bales on a nearby ranch were still burning and an ATM in town had been destroyed, as well as a few trees.To go with the illegal fireworks that set off the fires, festival goers also camped illegally, partied late into the night and slid through the mud naked during a drenching rain storm. Buried beneath the headlines, however, local business owners reported that the majority of the attendees were well behaved and that the event generated record sales.”There was some backlash,” says Chris Woods, who manages the North Face SK8 Park for the Carbondale Recreation Department. “The local businesses made as much money that weekend as Mountain Fair – which most people forget. In every event, there’s always some idiots. That’s just the rule of the masses.”Close’s accidental death certainly garnered a fair amount of press. The scene discovered at the Sopris Tree Farm after the accident only reinforced negative stereotypes.Hurley says the accident was still fresh in some people’s minds when locals began petitioning for the new skate park in Carbondale. He believes that may have impeded the process, but the end result was satisfactory. As for the proposed skateboard park at the new Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel, just up the road from the warehouses where the valley’s skating scene first took hold, Jones and Hurley remain optimistic. “We need some more places to skate,” Jones says, also mentioning the addition to the Rio Grande Park. “[Rio Grande] is already too crowded at times. I can’t even go over there on a long lunch to skate because there are too many kids.”
Whatever happens at Crown Mountain, one thing is certain: It’s a great time for local skaters.”It’s crazy, these little kids don’t know the difference,” Hurley says, smiling. “They don’t know it didn’t used to be like this, which is rad for now. It’s good for all of us. It’s cool that we’ve got these little laboratories all around the valley that are speeding the development of skaters.”Laboratories? Yes, that’s the right word. It encapsulates exactly what takes place on a daily basis at the various parks around the valley – and those beyond. It captures the exchange of information that passes from one generation of skaters to the next. The glue is stronger than ever.”I really admire skaters,” says Woods, a nonskater. “You’ll see 50-year-old guys learning stuff from 7-year-old kids. You don’t see that in soccer. It’s an amazing thing.”It’s a curious thing, and rare. As to how it works?You’ve got to drop in yourself to find out.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com