words steve mull | images alex farrara, tom mull, nick bell, & aeran squires
At six o’clock in the morning, we hop out of our Ford Econoline van with our skateboards. Blood rushes through our numb legs as we plod through the parking lot toward the crowd ahead of us. A number of tourists, point ‘n shoots at the ready, are pushing their way to a split-rail fence just a few hundred yards ahead. Beyond this fence is the attraction: the Grand Canyon, with the sun about to rise over the eastern ridge to fill the flat, empty hole with volumes of light. Instead of mingling with the group of eager onlookers, we let our skateboards direct us elsewhere.
Boards rolling underneath our heavy legs, we cruise to the right of the crowd and begin skating a path that extends for miles along the ridge. To the east, the sun slowly rears, and we watch the contours of the Canyon take shape as the light spreads. We lunge through the open space ahead of us, and feel the Canyon’s abyss in our stomachs each time we veer closer to the edge. Our legs thaw with every push of the skateboard, like the frosted shrubs in the sunlight.
I spot what I think is a flat and skate-able rock to the right of the path, and I ollie onto it to test its surface. The abrupt stop—when wheels hit sandy stone—proves my notion wrong. My body lurches forward, and I’m sent sprawling to my shoulder. I discover the Canyon’s sharp and unyielding texture, and though a burning sensation pulses in my shoulder, the exhilaration forces me back on my feet. I jump on my board and catch up with the others. The open air holds a general emptiness, filled only by the sound of our urethane wheels crackling along the sand-covered pavement.
This is what we do as we make our way cross-country. Whether it’s rolling along the ridge of the Grand Canyon, skating the hard-packed dirt underneath the lofty redwoods of California, or carving through a snow flurry in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, skateboarding is a tool used to experience the surfaces, textures, and contours of our surroundings. Even the occasional slam brings us closer to our environment, though sometimes too literally. In general, skateboarding roots us, embeds us into the space we inhabit, and helps us live out our landscape more fully. It offers an alternate way of knowing—a knowing not always manifested in the mind, but in the body.
This vision, however, may not fit with the common perception of skateboarding. Rather than being a tool for interacting with the landscape, it’s more often viewed as a tool for reacting against the environment. Having developed alongside the punk rock ethos of the '70s and '80s in Southern California, skateboarding established itself as an aggressive subculture. It clenched its fist against suburban sprawl and urbanization, and lifted its middle finger to rigid institutions like school, church, and organized sport.
As Vermont natives who grew up in an environment with more pine trees than skyscrapers, relating to this message wasn’t always easy. Since we weren’t experiencing firsthand suburbia’s suffocating concrete, growing into the subculture of skateboarding at times felt awkward and forced. And, while this fact left us with fewer standard skate spots, it pushed us to find new ways of utilizing the board. So, we took this ingenuity with us, cross-country.
Our trip began in Manchester, Vermont, where we created a rail out of a fallen maple tree, and used our boards to grind and slide along its surface. We morphed to its smooth curves and rugged knots, and with each dismount the tree’s sinewy spring subjected us to catapulting pop. It was like birch-bending when we were kids, but reinterpreted through the medium of our boards. We also skated in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where we were caught in the rush of a snow flurry. The sub-freezing temperature and whirling flakes informed our skating, and with exuberance we pushed through the falling snow, shielding our eyes to catch glimpses of the sharp and looming mountain peaks. These experiences, among many others, showed us that skateboarding was not only for destructive purposes.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, a transcendentalist philosopher who walked the woods of New England nearly two centuries ago, informs our thinking around the subject. “We live amid surfaces,” he wrote, “and the true art of life is to skate well on them.” While Emerson never owned a skateboard, he spent much of his time studying and being shaped by his surroundings, and thus the meaning behind these words transcends the mode of skating. It’s the activity itself—of moving through, blending with, carving around—that enables us to peruse our landscape.
As we move from surface to surface, we keep Emerson’s musings in mind. The slick surface of ice after a Nevada freeze becomes an obstacle for variations of slides, the red rocks of Utah become a series of skate-able transitions and pitches, and the frozen solid earth of a New England winter transforms into all new skate terrain. These surfaces, all naturally occurring, are the surfaces Emerson describes. The art of skateboarding allows us to engage them, and to be moved by their force and texture.
While we continue exploring the ridge of the Grand Canyon, the scenery permeates our senses. We hear the scattered calls of a few birds from the shrubs to our right, and to our left the Canyon emits a forceful silence. The burning in my shoulder forces me into the present, and acts as a substitute for my morning coffee. The smell of the distant precipitation from the previous night’s snowfall lingers, and our bodies welcome the increasing warmth of the sun. These senses culminate into a single moment, a moment that we’re grateful to spend by the Grand Canyon, pushing along its sandy-red ridge.