In a plaza by the Brandenburg Gate, near the center of Berlin, lies a field of gray concrete slabs, each about eight feet long and three feet wide, some as little as eight inches high, others reaching just over 15 feet. The space between them forms a grid where visitors wander in somber remembrance, for this is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. On a gray, cold July day in 2005, shortly after the memorial opened, I was one of those wanderers, and I noticed two things.
First, in their precise dimensions, the concrete rectangles resembled inverted graves, revealed to the world instead of hidden underground. Second, the memorial’s smooth stone, perpendicular angles, and gently sloping slabs would make it an awesome place to skateboard. In the reflective quiet, I could almost hear the click of maple plywood on the hard ground, could almost feel the concrete grinding against the metal trucks of my board, the vibrations shivering up through my legs. Solemnity? Reflection? No.
Beneath my fantasy, of course, flowed a strong undercurrent of guilt: What kind of amoral weirdo thinks about skateboarding at a Holocaust memorial? (Especially one who happens to be Jewish.) But when you’re a 30-year-old who has skated practically every day since you were 12, you look at the world through a skate-filtered lens. That’s just how things work. We are shaped by our experiences as children, and as adults we have little choice but to see the world, and especially its unfamiliar parts, through those lenses formed long ago. If you ran cross-country in high school, you probably note every challenging slope in the rolling hills of western Turkey. Former Model-UN members likely spot the inconspicuous flags of small-nation embassies in the side streets of Paris. Chess club kids—I can’t even imagine what they might notice, but it’s something I would surely overlook. So it should be no surprise that I observed the Holocaust memorial the same way I had once examined, say, the steps of a suburban elementary school or the yellow curbs outside a 7-Eleven.
Among these other pursuits, however, skateboarding has a special relationship to travel. For one thing, it is essentially a mode of travel, a means of getting from one place to another. And kids who obsess over skateboard tricks the way I did—fixated on nailing a perfect 360 flip down a set of stairs, even if it took 50 painful attempts—are natural explorers, forever in search of the next perfect curb or the smoothly curved drainage ditch rumored to exist somewhere on the outskirts of town. In high school, my friends and I would roam the Virginia Tidewater region in my parents’ Toyota Tercel seeking out schools (guaranteed to have smooth concrete) and industrial zones, where fun, challenging embankments could usually be found behind warehouses and factories, and security guards were rare.
Perhaps more important, as I traveled after school and on weekends to Newport News, Surry, Richmond, and Washington, D.C., in search of public plazas and other hidden skate terrain, I met new people. And they were a heterogeneous bunch: black, white, Asian, wealthy, struggling, bookish, rebellious—all of the above. Yet these differences, barely discussed, rarely mattered. What mattered was that we skated, and skated together, sharing experiences that transcended class and race.
We fled security guards together, scrounged pocket change for Taco Bell, ogled the few girls willing to endure our presence, and landed hard tricks with style (sometimes). We found ourselves in strange cities together, slept on the couches and floors of new friends’ homes, and woke up knowing exactly what we were going to do that day. We were going to skate. Without realizing it, I was learning essential skills that would serve me well as a traveler: how to meet strangers and make friends, how to adapt to unforeseen circumstances (including how to sleep absolutely anywhere), and how to approach the world fearlessly.
By the time I graduated from college, however, I was barely skating. That youthful obsession had been supplanted by more adult interests, such as movies, food, and actual relationships with women. Three months after graduation, I prepared to seek my future in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a decision that felt as natural as sneaking off to D.C. for a skate weekend. But when I imagined the life I would live overseas—writing, learning a new language, exploring a far bigger world—the board just didn’t seem to fit in. It was a tie to the past, and it would stay behind. Still, this felt weird. When had I ever been boardless? And what if the former Saigon turned out to be a skater’s paradise?
In that last sense, I was lucky. Back in 1996, the year I moved there, Ho Chi Minh City was no place to skate. Sidewalks were cracked and crumbled, ferocious motorbike traffic clogged the streets, and locals would gather merely to watch a white-skinned foreigner sip an iced coffee. A single skateboarder there would have drawn hundreds, maybe thousands, of gawkers.
But as I got down to the business of adapting to a new culture, I realized I still had my skateboarding eyes. I still noticed the cracked slab of pavement, so annoying to pedestrians, set at the perfect angle to be a launch ramp. New apartment buildings and office towers were slowly going up, their bases surrounded by smooth marble plazas. When I went to Bangkok to get a visa, I caught a glimpse of Vietnam’s future: malls, office towers, sprawling plazas, granite benches. Where other visitors saw evidence of the Asian economic boom, I saw an expanding universe of prime skate terrain.
What I didn’t see were skateboarders. Yet I kept hoping. I spent a rainy December in Hanoi thinking I might spot one near Lake Hoan Kiem, one of the city’s few places with stretches of wide-open pavement. In May, I flew to Taipei, but in the gray density of the city, I heard no polyurethane wheels, saw no board-smudged marble ledges.
In July, however, nearly a year after I’d moved to Asia, I returned to Bangkok and finally saw a skater. I was descending the 318 steps of the Golden Mount, an artificial hill crowned by a Buddhist temple’s gold spire, when I heard a strangely familiar noise, like something hollow being dragged across the pavement. As I rounded the base of the hill, I saw him. In the 50-foot swath of smooth asphalt that led from the street to the first step of the Golden Mount was a Thai teenager riding a skateboard. His board was relatively new, and the tricks he was trying—kickflips on the flat ground, simple 50-50 grinds on the curb—suggested he was up on current skate trends. He wasn’t some kid fooling around on a cousin’s leftover deck. He was serious. He was the vanguard.
Rushing over, I asked, in English and hand gestures, to try his board. He kicked it over to me without a word. I put my right foot on and pushed off with my left, gliding for a moment and feeling the rumble of the pavement through my sneakers. I tried a few tricks on the asphalt—the flips and shove-its that had once been my daily obsessions—and even landed a few. Soon I was sweating, my muscles sore from lack of use, and I handed the board back to the smiling kid. We had no common language but this, and it was enough, just as it had always been enough for friendship back in Virginia. Meeting him, simply knowing that he existed, was a comfort. Even if I wasn’t skating these spots in the far-flung corners of the world, at least someone was, or would be soon.
In the years of travel that followed, I borrowed boards from kids in Malaysia, in Kentucky, in Las Vegas. Once, I even spotted a skate park in a tiny beach town on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. It wasn’t much, just a rectangle of relatively smooth concrete, a steel rail, and a steep, squat quarter-pipe ramp—with no skaters in sight. Luckily, I had been feeling nostalgic before the trip, and I’d brought my board. As I fooled around, a crowd of kids gathered, the oldest among them around 10. They cheered when I landed a trick, murmured consolation when I fell, and, when I paused to rest, showed me how to get mangoes from a nearby tree by throwing rocks. When I offered my deck to any who wanted to try (“¿Quieres aprender a skateboard?” I asked), a couple of kids took me up on it.
Each time they wobbled across the concrete, I felt a brief, weird surge of hope that these kids would continue skating as obsessively as I had as a kid. I hoped that they would take up the skater’s endless quest for new terrain, which would fuel a curiosity about the world, and that they would follow that curiosity out of town, around their country, and around the globe. And in the process, they would learn the same skills the sport had developed in me: adaptability, openness, perseverance.
What’s more, I realized, I didn’t have to skate to be a skater. The ethos of exploration, independence, and brotherhood had been part of my identity for too long to be negated merely by a lack of practice. The same goes for travelers, too. You don’t have to be on the road to think like a wanderer. It’s who you are, not where you’re going. A
Illustration by Tavis Coburn. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.