Honing the Black Art of Speed or, How Downhill Skateboarding Re-Wired my Mind


         Seen above is humankind's closest attempt to mirroring divinity.  The imitating subject is Ellen O’Neal, a pioneer in her element yet a ragdoll to gravity—wings spanning absolutes, directing her body toe-first into the unknown. She may as well be teetering on the ledge of a cliff.   Motionless around rolling desert hills, her eyes remain fixated beyond the blurry abyss in search of her deities' secrets. Petty details such as her speed, nervous jitters, & every obstacle that had ever knocked her off course lay outside of the picture's border.  Left behind by the aperture—immortalizing her as a daredevil unlike any before.

The current land speed record of a downhill skateboarder was set in 2017 by Pete Connolly [Ref. 2] at 91.2 mph (146.7 kph) [Ref. 3]. There are few public roadways that cars—with their airbags, proximity sensors, and seatbelts—can legally achieve 91 mph, much less a punk on their board.

·  ·  ·

Don’t you get nervous?
Why would anyone in their right mind find joy in this?
Don’t you know you’re one distracted driver, one tiny mistake away from dying?


These are the questions screamed in instinctual reactions of horror upon seeing Mrs. O’Neal doing what she does best. Having just been given the same information, I find the worthwhile questions to be rarely muttered, and read something more like these:

What rare, elusive fruit** is she staring at?
Is it worth dancing with death to get some?
But most importantly: how does it taste?

[** — ‘fruit’ referring to an embodiment of the infinite, impossible to fully attain knowledge one can gain from achieving true perfection within a skill]

·  ·  ·

         Hawaiian beachgoers took to the idea of surfing the concrete tides on inspirited skateboards in the 1950s. In their inception, the boards they created fused the hardware of normal skateboards to longer, teardrop-shaped, or similarly asymmetrical bodies. When the idea traveled inland to California, their popularity skyrocketed. By the mid-1970s, early mainland adopters of longboarding bolted larger wheels to trucks with wider wheelbases, facilitating the birth of the “black art of speed” as we know it [4]. Today, this utilitarian magic-carpet has diverged to fit many niches worldwide, from a commuter vehicle in cities to a conqueror of mountains on well-kept backroads.  But what does any of this have to do with the human mind, and how do deadly past-times re-wire it? 

The bountiful answers are best cored, the asymptotic horizons between body and geography are best straddled, by a story.  Of elevation & altitude sickness, of rubber gum-soles & bubbling blacktop heat.

·  ·  ·

         At age twelve, my family members and I took a vacation to a house near Lake Michigan to the annual Coast Guard Festival. One evening early in our stay before most of the tourists arrived, my older cousin Timmy and his friend mentioned they were going to the skate park across town. Since I had recently got a longboard, they offered for me to tag along.  Compelled by the excitement only known to younger cousins, I had to oblige. Timmy and his friend grabbed their BMX bikes and I set off with the two of them on my board.

As they paraded through the festival town, I trailed behind.  I propelled myself off the ground, looking for the skate park not sixty seconds into our trek. The two of them were acquainted with the area, leading by example as they navigated the communal web of hot asphalt littered with cars & pedestrians. Beneath the horizon line, the skate park appeared in view and sprouted a smile on my face. I could finally hang out with my older (therefore cooler) cousin and his friend and meet people at the skate park, the younger cousin’s dream.

Near the final stretch, all that separated me from the halfpipes was a break from pushing. This perceived pause in effort rapidly approached me in the form of a treacherous hill.

The bikes I tagged along with had brakes and confidence, so they took the hill without thought. Not likely considering the generally unsure kid tailing behind them lacked the brakes or helmet to enter this bullring safely.  Trying to soak up the elevated view amidst my panic—I saw no alternate way to make it to the park.  This neck of the web stretched steep and far away from its spinner, a make-or-break moment that rattled my ribcage.  When yelling forward to Timmy asking for another way, he roughly responded with It’s no big deal, just do it

The wheels under me began to rev up, their rumble erupting from fizz to snarl—the white noise of euphoria: Oh, this is what adrenaline must feel like.  My wheels rolled too fast to be stopped, or so I thought.  Gliding over the asphalt’s fissures and their consequences, I fixated on the now and fumigated my skull silent with a few deep breaths.  I rode into summer’s golden afterglow as it draped over the town.  Twilight's howl raced up from the buoys, calling ships back to shore.

This is about when, in recollection, what I can only describe as motion sickness set in.  The blank sheet of asphalt between the gutters hinted at the many spaces for error, heating my sense of judgment to a rolling boil.  Sluggish to maintain their relevancy, the comfort creatures I stuck to were stripped by the wind.  My body reduced to choppy sets of fluid motion.  With the light and heat needed to smelt an invisible path of least resistance, I stepped into the forgery.  

As saltwater separated from the sea returns to its home underneath blue skies, I poured all my might into effortless action.

Upon reaching my summit, I dodged a few handfuls of cars dispersed through a parking lot (almost knocking a side mirror off one) and slowed down enough to safely dismount. After returning to the stationary ground, I searched for my breath like a lost contact lens. The trucks' growl still rumbled in my chest, sneaking my heart outside its ribbed cage.  My lungs returned to their rightful owner, and I noticed a fleeting sensation in my mouth—what, for the sake of story, I believe to have been a faint after-taste from a sweet but tart fruit. 

The whole event lasted a few minutes.  When I arrived at the skate park, I was too shaky to talk to anyone. This is what I pondered and try to constantly remind myself of when maneuvering in the everyday.

Life & death is separated by a thin rope we must walk across
Contrary to the enduring nutrition of the elusive fruit—the bolstered confidence that accumulates in the arteries upon successfully navigating through life is nothing but empty calories.  

Neuroscientists and motorsport fans alike have hypothesized that racecar drivers and drug traffickers share comparable neuron pathways, especially those tasked with processing real-time information. Legends in the sport and the smuggle like Randy Lanier show that both jobs share a necessity of lightning-fast decision-making in high-stakes scenarios [5]. 

By putting your life on the line for your livelihood, both professions are familiar with death in ways never glimpsed at by most. Experience remains champion in both realms, but nobody keeps their beginner’s luck forever.  Over time, there are more chances their mortal fears could collide with their self-esteem in the workplace if they become not too confident, but too comfortable in their abilities. 

Perhaps its greatest consequence is letting one ignore how a lifetime of tomorrow's can be swiftly swept out from under anyone in an instant. Choosing to ignore the long, sliding impact between you and the pavement that can result from converging with an ill-placed pebble is completely voluntary, and often, is something everyone is guilty of.  Maintenance of this confidence is often self-reinforcing—no mortal’s stitching can mend together a shield from each and every worldly danger, so you might as well hang-ten while you’re here. 

Nearly everything ahead or behind the present moment are outside our control
Despite the rush that descent was, I was not graceful during it in the slightest. Trembling in the body and mind throughout, the board reflected that shakiness back to me each time I wobbled left & right from curbside to curbside, a resultantly serpentine zigzag.  My only means of success was by temporarily circumventing that wobbly confidence or via a stretcher.  I had to choose to leave the petty details behind and out of my accelerating perspective, echoing Mrs. O’Neal, whether I knew her name at the time or not.

Most of us will not have the opportunity to re-enact the scene from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty where he ties volcanic rocks and torn necktie to his hands so he may zip across a perfect Icelandic roadway. Sliding through hairpin turns, flawlessly scoring the countryside by means of a master butcher. Fortunately for us all, life is not a high-budget introspective film.  Our paths are not clearly drafted with respect to the pitfalls and triumphs of a pre-planned plot.

Mr. Connolly has likely clashed with the pavement many times before a world record was even in his peripheral.  Most who have found solace in downhill skateboarding are likely riddled in scars at their knees & elbows, hips & shoulders. 

As I write this to you now, I wear a brace over my right arm from colliding with a boundary chain and landing on my wrist.  These injuries and mistakes are inseparable from the lives we lead. They tell a story and serve as reminders of past blunders. All you can do upon infliction is learn from them & let them heal.  Wear them with pride. 

Conscious thought and accomplishment are not always correlated
I often look back to this moment in times of monumental indecision. The avoided dilemma helps me sustain trust and reconcile past doubts against my instincts, so they may not bloom to grudges. Because sometimes, acknowledging and managing conscious (and personally, unavoidably nervous) thoughts is best done with a white lie like all I have to do is reach the bottom.

Lifelong passions are always full of surprises
The winding road between having done a specific task one and a million times is the invisible path taken from amateur to master.  Hiccups of every variety felt along the way are integral to feeling out the right direction to take.  However, every once in a blue moon, the occasion arises where fruit seemingly always hung just outside of reach, suddenly falls within grasp. The human spirit thrives on the snagged (and historically forbidden) tastes stolen before the opportunity drifts away but reassures past ambitions.

Sharing fresh air, adrenaline, and affirmation of old lessons absorbed by younger selves, all while six feet apart from my friends, has proven to be ever ripe with new lessons.  Coming out of these stay-at-home orders with the same skills I entered with now re-sharpened, ensured a smoother transition into what braver new world lay ahead.  Just as the boy underestimated the abilities of The Giving Tree, what I arrogantly assumed had no further advice to give is still teaching, now more than ever [6]. 

Life is, at its nearest, a far cry from schooling

For the better part of my time in public schools, I fell victim to letting grades dictate a gross amount of my self-worth. By investing too much deep-rooted attachment to this failed construct, I got stuck into the belief that the world operated on a different basis of reality. One that would make me well-prepared to join it had I succeeded in every single class I took.

Downhill skateboarding indexed these attachments in one fell swoop and squashed them under its four wheels. The altitude sickness I spoke on earlier came from having what I regarded as important—the cardboard cutouts that I bowed to—get knocked over by the breeze.  Vertigo on flat land.

In the heat of the moment, I only had headspace for my connection to the ground, and where it was taking me. The mental clutter I was taught to regurgitate (and the rest of my second-hand experiences for that matter) were bent into submission, voluntarily choosing to integrate rather than distance myself from my environment. Had I not taken to this pursuit, the pair of mine likely wouldn’t have learned to cooperate, a failsafe beeline to cognitive dissonance.

·  ·  ·

In short—if I had to answer those questions from naysayers realistically with a single sentence as opposed to a drawn-out story, a neat list, & some fun facts, it would be this: A wise-guy once said do what you love, and let it kill you

However, uncontained recklessness makes for a horrible skater, bull rider, and human being. For each thing we can control, there are a hundred we think we can and a million we cannot, so be smarter than my tweenage self and wear a damn helmet. 

Mistakes are antidotes to perfection.  So, if it comes down to it, if you feel a jarring detour in your invisible path rapidly approaching in the form of a pebble that is too close to out-maneuver, do not flinch. Embrace the black within the tar-grey asphalt.



References
         [Ref. 1] “r/OldSchoolCool — Ellen O’Neal Hanging Ten in the 1970s.” Reddit, 2018, www.reddit.com/r/OldSchoolCool/comments/71it9x/ellen_oneal_hanging_ten_in_the_1970s/.
         [Ref. 2] Staff Writers, Lush Longboards. “Pete Connolly: Lush Longboards Skate Team.” Lush Longboards, 1 Mar. 2018, lushlongboards.com/team-items/pete-connolly/. 
         [Ref. 3] Stephenson, Kristen. “Watch This Skateboarder Travel at an Incredible 91 Mph at Gravity Sports Event.” Guinness World Records, Guinness World Records, 14 Feb. 2018, www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2018/2/watch-this-skateboarder-travel-at-an-incredible-91-mph-at-gravity-sports-event-514670. 
         [Ref. 4] Staff Writers, Lush Longboards. “The Black Art Of Speed: Longboard News: Lush Longboards.” Lush Longboards, 27 Feb. 2018, lushlongboards.com/black-art-speed/. 
         [Ref. 5] Staff Writers, Donut Media. “What Drug Smugglers and Racers Have in Common | WheelHouse.” WheelHouse, 26 Mar. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujk1HV7n91I.
         [Ref. 6] Silverstein, Shel. The Giving Tree. Atria, 2014. 
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