A Simple Plan

“The great disasters occur, not as a result of major blunders, but when finely reasoned calculations, begin to slip, just a little.” S.L.A. Marshall – Quoted in the preface to Bernard Fall’s account of the 1954 French military debacle at Dien Bien Phu.

On any of the many websites celebrating the “Darwin Awards,” my name deserves to appear among the list of contenders. It’s been a little over three years since my grown son presented me with a forty-inch, “Sector Nine” longboard skateboard, and before finally hanging it up just short of my seventieth birthday, I’d logged over eighty hours of riding. Despite forty years of competent skiing and more recently snowboarding, the learning curve on the longboard was gradual in the extreme. I needed dozens of half-hour and one-hour sessions on the nearly flat surface of a movie theater parking lot before taking on the slight to moderate grades of the quiet suburban street in front of our house. Soon, the more challenging topography of an adjacent street began calling me.

The respectable rise in terrain on that nearby street entered my brain and started to dominate my internal landscape. This mountain of my longboard ambitions had on one side, a gently graded, straight descent of about one hundred and fifty yards, and on the far side, it dropped much more sharply, curving and leveling off after a run of about two hundred yards. Months of false starts and nervous reconnoitering went by before I mustered up the nerve to take the plunge. When I did, there was little room for technique. It was all just bombing and holding on until the flat run-out slowed me down. Gradually, I began to gain the riding skills needed to control my speed by carving my board back and forth across the fall line of the hill in what I believed was a series of graceful slalom-like moves. Every run produced an amazing rush, and every run was never less than scary. I was quickly hooked on the thrill of riding, and I suspect, to the utter improbability of the idea that someone at my age would be on a longboard skateboard. Adrenaline and vanity can make for a near lethal combination.

While all of the above was taking place, I routinely drove on a nearby county highway, one I’d driven on for decades. But now, each time the car climbed what I came to think of as the “great township escarpment,” this otherwise innocuous stretch of four-lane highway began to warp and morph its way into my consciousness with a growing and ever more obsessive attraction, gradually and seductively revealing itself as the ultimate in a longboard rider’s ideal of desirability.

Going to the hardware store for an extension cord, or on some other mindless errand, I found myself gauging the angles of this highway’s wonderful long downhill grade, four full lanes wide and newly paved with a perfectly smooth asphalt topping. And I’d think, “this would be a beauty of a ride.” Until then, my longest run on a board had been in the two-hundred-yard range. The downhill slope of the highway clocked out to a wonderful eight-tenths of a mile-long with a steep grade from the crest running downhill for almost a half-mile. A half-mile! That would be like a snowboard or ski run, almost endless. The grade then leveled off before dropping more gently for about one third of a mile down to the next intersection. Over a period of several months, I increasingly indulged the fantasy of what it would be like to ride a longboard down that nearly endless, smooth, four-lane highway, gracefully arcing, carving from side to side, on and on and on. Daydreaming moved steadily toward a plausible, if not entirely reasonable prospect. “Why? Because,” as the alpinists put it, “it’s there.” I was like an adolescent focused on sex. Whatever powers of intelligent judgment I might have possessed were of nothing in the face of my desire to ride that devil’s highway. The obvious arguments against the patently foolish nature of the enterprise were reduced to whispered and trifling echoes.

The board my son had given me was not the right vehicle for this endeavor. At a local skateboard shop, to the amusement of a couple of incredulous, pierced and tattooed stoners working the counter, I dropped a hundred and sixty bucks on a “Original” longboard skateboard, a board with sprung trucks, a carveboard. It’s very goosey and responsive, designed to maximize a rider’s ability to carve or turn on a hill to control the rate of speed, and it performed exactly that way on the two hundred-yard run on the street next to home. After two weeks of almost daily outings, doing technical work, carving and turning, I decided that the big one, the highway hill was doable. Ostensibly out on an errand, I left my car in the parking lot of an office building fronting the highway. Walking the nearly full mile down to the bottom and then back up the hill on the other side of the road, I made note of manhole covers, searched for potholes; none visible, and checked for any other impediments to a smooth ride. Like an astronaut before liftoff, I had completed my checklist.

The basic premise, all rationality within in a broader context of what some might call madness, was that with the new carveboard I would be able to control my speeds on the long, steep downhill run of the county highway. My planning did reflect the application of a logical, if flawed, methodology. The single variable piece of my equation was the fact that county highways are designed for automobile and truck traffic, and that no allowances had been made for longboard skateboarders. From the very first instant of seeing that highway as a skating surface, the presence of traffic on the road had been the dominant barrier to my proceeding. But from the beginning, my plans had been premised on a simple proposition of probabilities. How many cars would there be on a secondary county road at first light, say five-twenty five a.m., on a summer Sunday morning? In fact, more on my mind than the risks of encountering traffic at such an hour was the possibility of getting locked up if my outing attracted the attentions of a passing police cruiser.

Just before first light on a July Sunday morning, after a restless night of anticipation, I tiptoed out of our bedroom without awakening my wife. She was somewhat aware of what I had in mind, but not the imminence of its application. Within minutes, I was driving up the dark and deserted highway toward the summit of what I knew was going to be, one way or another some sort of a peak experience of my life. In an office complex parking lot, I suited up like a matador, actually puffed out more like a Michelin Man; helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards and padded street hockey pants.

The pre-dawn quiet was broken only by a few birds, the buzzing of the parking lot security lights and by the sudden passing of an occasional car. The measure of my delusions was that I was surprised by any cars at all. But there weren’t so many that I was ready to stand down, cop a plea and go back home to my bed.

In the darkness behind a grove of trees by the side of the road, I counted the infrequent cars going by and waited for enough daylight to go. There were some stifled misgivings as each car or truck went by. The traffic pattern at five-fifteen a.m. on a July Sunday morning was utterly random. Long periods of no cars at all, then an unpredictable one or more cars. I tried to calculate my chances of getting a traffic-free window of time long enough to make my run. It was futile. As the light increased I could see that all was clear for almost a visible mile ahead of me, and for about a third of mile behind me.

I pushed off across the road. The new asphalt surface was as wonderful as I had imagined, and things began well. My first turn back across the road was a beauty. The grade was steeper than I had realized, and I was quickly picking up speed. Ahead of me, down the road as far as I could see was an empty expanse of wide, smooth blacktop. The sound of the wind rushing past my ears and around my helmet rose higher and higher. Traversing the four-lane width of the highway, I was doing it, a dream fulfilled beyond all expectations. In fact, it was going so well, I was ecstatic, on top of my game and then… I spotted the headlights of an oncoming car in the distance.

The governing premise of this whole thing was that I would be able to control my speed by traversing and carving across the four-lane width of the steepest parts of the roadway.
Even with the approaching headlights, I calculated that I still had enough room to get in at least another back and forth across the road to keep my speed under control. It was at that instant that everything got complicated beyond my ability to process information, let alone act upon what I was apprehending.

As I was starting a controlled traverse over to the right side, the safer side of the road, a car crested the hill behind me. That forced me back almost directly in the fall line, and back into the lanes with the oncoming car that by now was beginning to close on me. In the twenty to thirty seconds it took for the car coming down the hill behind me to go by, I had not been able to carve back across the road; that is, I had not been able to check my rate of acceleration by turning across the face of the slope. And as a result, I had begun to approach downhill speeds that were now scaring the shit out of me. There was no chance at all of my executing anything resembling a carved, controlled turn. I was into a zone of pure terror. I suppose it must be analogous to a diver’s encounter with a shark or a parachutist realizing his or her canopy had not deployed. The best I could hope to do was just hang on, hunker down and try to survive at skateboard speeds I had never imagined possible. The board was chattering, vibrating and flexing and I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t be pitched violently off and onto my head. Dropping into a crouch, keeping my center of gravity as low as I could, I tried to ride out what felt like a free fall from a high-rise building. So much for best-laid plans.

At the half-mile point, the grade leveled off briefly, before resuming its gentler and final three-tenths of a mile downhill. My velocity began to abate and I was able, just barely, to execute a u-turn back up and into the hill that brought me, at last, to a stop. Shaking, shivering and gasping, I stood by now empty road in the silence of a Sunday morning dawn, and said aloud, “that’s it, enough.”

I now had to trudge back up the half mile hill in the quiet half light, an absurdly costumed figure, a senior citizen carrying a long skateboard, a bit dazed, but grateful not to be lying on the shoulder of the road awaiting the EMTs, or worse. So much for the wisdom that’s supposed to come with advanced years. It seemed it might finally be past time for me to put away the things of a child. However, stay tuned.


2 Responses to “A Simple Plan”

  1. 1 David Rogers May 16, 2012 at 6:52 am

    I was expecting a woeful story of bone-crushing defeat, but you actually conquered the hill, and came back in one piece.. Albeit Apollo 13 style. No Darwinism award for you; Congratulations are in order. The take-away: We both need to learn the slide stop.

  2. 2 Tom May 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    Every couple of days I climb a 10-something percent grade for a mile and a half on my mtn. bike, stopping for a breath several times as I’ve long had emphysema from never smoking – truly – and I like to challenge myself. The ride is some 40 minutes to the top, I do two or three loops on the steepest section then finish with a 5 or 6 minute bombing descent at around 30 -36mph. That’s before last month’s blowout of my front tire on a long curve. What happens when a bike tube goes, after what sounds like a .22 going off and no other sensation, leaving you to wonder if someone’s pinging at birds or rabbits, is that the tire begins to wobble. Wobbling quickly gives was to squirming as the tire tries desperately to get off the rim, which is now trying to cut it in two – first on the left bead then on the right. There’s no way to tell if you should lean one way or the other – and I had no idea how to apply the brakes (my son asked me later “Dad, did you hit the rear brake?” Answer: No, I couldn’t remember right from left. The only instinct I had was trying to center my weight fore and aft as the bike, unresponsive to steering, yawed this way and that and just ride it out. My other thought – why didn’t I have a helmet with teeth and lower jaw protection, which sure as hell I was going use to bite the pavement when angry Mr. Front Fire succeeded in his best efforts to fly off the rim and lodge up into the fork, instantly launching me into the air at 30 or so. So here I sit today, reverently praising the makers who moulded that steel cable into the bead, the cable that defeated the tire that worked to repay me for exceeding my basic downhill speed limit and common sense at the age of seventy six. Tom,
    Santa Monica Mtns.

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