Two men in green T-shirts stand guard, flanking the rolled-back chain-link gate. Beyond, a gravel drive leads to an unremarkable warehouse. There’s no number visible anywhere; the men clasp beer bottles.
I roll down my window. “Is this…” I say hesitantly, giving them the address.
“Depends on what you’re looking for,” one replies.
I gesture toward his shirt, which bears a circular insignia with the word “Thrashville” ironed on in a rainbow pattern. “That.”
He points up the hill with his beer. “Head straight. Man up there will park you.”
Thrashville is a skate park that can be found only by those who already know where it is. This is both intentional and, in some ways, necessary.
“They’re called keyholder bowls,” Shawn Youtz explains. “Members-only skating organizations.” He goes on to describe something like a co-op: 30 members, all told; each one has a key, and they split the rent and other expenses.
“We, as a group, came to a decision about the total number of members,” says Youtz. “You want to have enough to lower the rent to an amount it doesn’t break the bank to pay, but you don’t want to have too many and overcrowd the location. Each of us can bring two guests, but that’s all.”
Secrecy, says fellow member Ryan Seymour, “is really just about demand. We have nothing against skate parks, of course, but they tend to be very crowded. You have a lot of children out there and a lot of moms, and we’re a bunch of guys in our 30s and 40s. This way, we have a space we can call our own.”
Numbers aside, the simple fact is that skateboarding’s stereotypical image hovers somewhere between Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the Sex Pistols. And while that would seem to make it a natural fit for the fringe-blender that is Asheville, there are challenges. “It’s illegal in public,” says Seymour. “You have to do it at a park or you get fined. It naturally pushes people to underground locations.”
Today, though, the warehouse is packed: It’s the only day of the year when Thrashville is open to the public.
The occasion is the second annual Mountain Masters Gentlemen’s Cup, held May 31 this year. The event draws skaters from across the region. It’s easy to see why: Thrashville is a skateboarder’s dream, specifically designed to accommodate sick tricks and physics-defying stunts.
Half of the cavernous space is taken up by a skating bowl, where most of the action goes down. The rim stands about 10 feet above the warehouse’s unforgiving concrete floor. Underneath sits an engineering degree’s worth of wooden struts and crossbeams. The shape of it resembles a top-heavy jellybean. On the far side, the floor-to-rim distance increases, nearly reaching the steel-beam rafters and metal roof. An integrated halfpipe structure runs along the bowl’s straighter side. The rim consists of welded sections of metal piping about 3 inches in diameter — perfect for grinds.
Thrashville members built all of it themselves.
“One of our members is a carpenter,” Seymour explains, “and very, very careful. We always overbuild: Everything is 16-on-9. In fact, he was reluctant to do it. But I told him, ‘Come on, you’re the only one who knows how to build a round wall.”
Each section is overlaid with Russian birch. “That stuff was hard to get,” says Seymour. “We had to import it through New Jersey. But it’s just a better surface than concrete.”
Still, the park’s obscurity comes at a price. “We don’t have bathrooms, air conditioning, any of that,” he reveals, yelling to be heard over the cacophony. “We don’t have insulation either.”
What would happen if a city code enforcement officer found out about Thrashville?
“Ah…” says Ryan. “Well.”
Chalk up another reason to keep it on the down low.
“Heard about this one park in Atlanta: Bunch of people came in and said the place had to get an underground sprinkler system, would cost $12,000. Had to go out into the community and raise the money. What a nightmare.”
“A skateboard has three parts,” Thrashville member Nathan Freeman explains. “You have the board, the wheels and the trucks — they’re the things on the bottom that hold the wheels on. There’s a pin inside with rubber bushing that lets the board pivot, depending on what the rider wants. The trucks can last a long time. The ones I’ve had are about 5 years old. The boards? Well, we break boards all the time.”
It’s a rough sport, which contributes to the subculture’s isolation from the mainstream.
“A lot of people are afraid of skateboarders,” notes Seymour. “They think we’re just a bunch of degenerates out there hurting ourselves.”
Skateboarding grew out of the 1940s surfer culture. No one’s entirely sure where the first skateboard was made or who first had the idea: In many ways, it was a natural evolution, bringing surfing to dry land. Early skateboarding took most of its cultural cues from that archetype. The current image — part daredevil, part punk rock, part beatnik — took shape only after the sport had moved inland, away from the water. And as the sport’s become more popular and the Internet has spread it worldwide, the stigma has lessened. That’s reflected in the audience for the Gentlemen’s Cup, which runs the gamut of race, age and profession.
“One of our people is a surgeon,” says Youtz. “Another’s the vice president of a bank.”
One skater, a mop of curly hair poufing out from under his hat, looks no older than a child.
Asked his age, he says, “Sixteen.”
“You from around here?”
“No, I’m from Boone.”
“How’d you hear about this place?”
“I’ve been here a couple of times,” he replies, deftly dodging the question. “It’s pretty cool.” And then he’s off, obviously having better things to do than talk to a nosy reporter.
“Degenerate” is way too superficial and extreme a term to cover the spectrum of people careening about the warehouse. It’s possible, though, to see how somebody could make that leap.
“Most people’s only experience with a skateboard is the one time they step on it and it flies out from under them,” notes Youtz. “I’d say it’s the most extreme of extreme sports: Either you’re going to control it or it’s going to control you.”
That’s exactly what draws or repels people. “I got into it because of the adrenaline,” says Youtz, “that rush of endorphins.”
A skateboard has no safety restraints: no harness, brakes or gyroscopic balancing system. Unlike other extreme sports, there are no straps securing your feet. The only real analogue is its grandfather, surfing. It’s a person standing, bereft of security, on a piece of wood with four wheels underneath. And while injuries occur in more mainstream sports — America’s beloved football, for example — that lack of control is a clear dividing line.
And most of the skaters at Thrashville today — the onlookers too, for that matter — do have an edge to them. Devil-may-care is the appropriate adjective. Almost all of them, including the 16-year-old, eschew protective gear. Most sport cargo shorts and T-shirts; a few are in jeans. The cigarettes smoked during the event’s eight or so hours could keep the tobacco industry solvent for a year, and by day’s end, a lake’s worth of Pabst Blue Ribbon has been vaporized as well.
But those are just the trappings. What most characterizes these devotees is their passion, leavened by a tacit understanding of deportment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the free skate preceding the competition. The skaters enter the bowl one or two at a time, and once someone wipes out, he exits politely, seamlessly replaced by another. Upon witnessing a great trick, the skaters slam their polyurethane-coated maple boards onto the raised wooden floor, creating a terrific clatter. Avoiding collisions by inches, they crisscross in an intricate dance. And when, inevitably, they do collide, they pat each other on the back.
Once, two skaters obliviously fly toward the same spot on the rim in perfect triangulation: one along a leg, the other following the hypotenuse. At the last second they notice each other, and hypotenuse jumps off his board as both climb the steep ramp to the rim. The other skater pulls up, flies out of the rim and catches the vacated board as he hops off his own. The onlookers whoop. Hypotenuse gets his board back, and they elbow-nudge each other, laughing as if at a private joke.
After a while, you start to wonder how it’s possible that no one’s been grievously injured yet. In one memorable instance, a skater hits the deck. His board, however, continues on its merry way, up the ramp and out in a negative parabolic curve so perfect that an algebra teacher would weep, arcing downward straight at a gray-haired couple sitting no more than 10 inches apart. The board slices right between their heads, and you get the feeling that under any other circumstance, someone would be going home with a dent in their face. You also suspect that the requisite indifference to bodily harm somehow negates that fact.
“Oh, we’ve had some broken bones before,” says Seymour. “But everyone that’s gotten hurt is still skating.”
Injury is one of the sport’s more notorious byproducts, but skaters’ devil-may-care attitude is also what engenders the particular brand of looseness that enables them to go with the flow. Loose legs can maintain balance on a skateboard that’s riding a ramp so steep it’s nearly vertical. Loose torsos provide the necessary counterweight to instantly adjust to sharp changes in angle. Working with the very physics that would otherwise smash them to kibble, loose skaters simply accept the wipeout, fall into it, letting the momentum carry them forward till their bodies smack the Russian birch and roll wherever and however the resulting forces take them, breaking the fall by welcoming it. It’s heavy metal tai chi.
Look long enough and the discipline emerges. Beneath its surface madness, skateboarding girds itself with a subtle but very real prosody. Of necessity, each skater owns an intuitive understanding of physics, deftly navigating a cavalcade of morphing angles, exponential ramp structures and triangular shifts at high speeds with nothing holding them onto the board save gravity and centrifugal force. They waft along, embodying a kind of enlightenment they don’t even know they possess. Out of the madness comes rhythm. Out of the havoc comes beat. Out of the mayhem comes poetry.
Rorey Hipps, 27, sits in front of a big fan that accounts for much of what passes for Thrashville’s ventilation system. Born and raised in Asheville, he’s been skating for fully half his life.
“My parents worked for a children’s home,” he says, “and one day I saw some kids on skateboards. I was like, that looks really cool.” These days, he enters three competitions a year: “It’s as many as I can get to, honestly.”
Hipps is well-known among the Thrashville contestants, most of whom seem to be acquainted.
The Gentlemen’s Cup runs in heats of eight to 10 skaters. Today there are two heats, each beginning with a 20-minute jam session. Three judges, all Thrashville members, select their top 10, each of whom gets a one-minute solo ride. Based on those, the judges winnow the list to five, and after a final 10-minute group jam, the top three are chosen. In addition, there’s a 20-minute “best trick” jam. The prizes are as follows: first place, $700; second place, $200; third place, $100; best trick, $200.
“Dude, it’s purely subjective,” says Seymour. “There aren’t any score cards or little tabulations or anything.”
Another member, Jamie Ingram, says: “What we’re looking for is tricks: technique plus bigness plus style plus speed. All have to combine. You do a hard trick ugly, it’s not so good.”
Hipps is in heat No. 2. His skill and experience are immediately apparent, as is his highly aggressive style. During the free skate, his board slips from under him and his momentum carries him smack into the half-pipe’s upswing. It’s the only time all day that a skater sits injured for any amount of time.
“Oh, I’m all right,” he says later. “I smashed the left side of my face a little bit, but I’m good.”
The injury doesn’t seem to affect his jam session. Unlike the free skate, everybody’s in the bowl at once: up to eight people flying about, spinning out of control, slamming into one another, a frenetic swirl of motion that’s impossible to comprehend. Fortunately, another Thrashville member gives a running commentary, directing the audience’s attention to specific feats of derring-do when he’s not spouting off half-baked proverbs (“Remember, kids: To defy gravity is to defy expectations.) In between, he eggs the skaters on: “There should be eight people in there! Why are there only three? We’re talking about seven. hundred. dollars here. No one wants it, I guess?”
Hipps’ 20-minute jam run consists of repeatedly running the same route. Entering the left side at a corner of the bowl, he heads toward a vertical wall and swings up, using it to gain velocity, then shoots back toward the opposite wall and the second-highest ramp. The board swoops up the side, over the rim, high into the air, nearing the roof.
Then he grabs his board and, if he’s lucky, lands back on his feet. Just as often, he falls and tumbles down the ramp.
Hipps tells me later that he was attempting a “backside nosepick.” The boarder goes up a ramp, flips so that he now faces down it, catches the rim of the bowl with the truck and then descends. Hard enough on its own, but Hipps adds another layer of difficulty: serious air. Imagine dropping a ball from above so that it lands on and rolls down the side of your bathtub: The tiniest bit off and you’re history. Not surprising, then, that during Hipps’ heat, every attempt ends in failure.
“I was just a little off,” he says. “I’ll get it.” And despite repeated failures and his focus on the one trick, he doesn’t seem terribly concerned about advancing. “Oh, I’m going to make the top 10. Trust me.”
He does. But in the meantime it’s hot, and muggy, and all 10 have been skating for hours, so each person’s one-minute run is, well, underwhelming. One contestant has somehow managed to lose his shirt, revealing the tattoos along his arms and shoulders. He looks like he should ride with a cigarette in his mouth. Every time he wipes out, he leaves big Bob Ross brush-stroke smears of sweat on the Russian birch.
“These guys go all out when they’re in a group,” the commentator says sardonically. “But suddenly they get all shy when they’re alone.”
Hipps, too, is exhausted and increasingly frustrated. With every failure to complete the nose pick, his anger increases, till he begins slamming his board onto the plywood, cursing. Multiple times he’s hit the deck hard, and after a while his expression is stuck in a perpetual frown. His one-minute run is perfunctory, and he doesn’t make the top five.
That doesn’t seem to trouble him, though, and it becomes apparent that Hipps is focused solely on winning best trick. While the top five do their final runs in a 10-minute, multiple-person jam, Hipps rests, stirring only to smack his board against the wood to salute a good round of skating.
After the top five jam, the bowl opens to all skaters: 20 minutes, best trick wins, not necessary to have competed in the tournament, $200 to the winner. This is what Hipps has been waiting for. He enters the bowl, throws himself around the perimeter, shoots for the tall ramp, flies up, falls down, fails.
By this time the entire crowd has caught on, and each subsequent try is met with groans of disappointment and words of encouragement. Hipps tries again, doesn’t get it. Tries again, doesn’t get it.
“Come on, Rorey,” the commentator urges. “It’s going to happen this time. You’ve got it this time.”
Up, down, fall, board spins off into the ether. The other skaters might as well not even be there. By my unofficial count, Hipps has attempted this high-flying trick 15 times. The minutes tick by, and the only progress he’s made is in the number of bruises he’ll have that night.
The crowd is restless, simmering with disappointment; five minutes left. Hipps’ expression is stoic. He pushes off from the corner, up and around the curved opposite walls, the bowl practically empty, as if the other skaters, too, are determined to help Hipps see it through. He shoots back toward the front side, eyes straight ahead, wends around the ramps here, swings his body forward for an extra burst of speed toward the tall ramp, his nemesis. He rockets up the broadside, straight as an arrow, launches up, up, up…
And flips in midair, aims the board 180 degrees downward and lands perfectly, vertically, back on the ramp. The wheels carry him down and across the bowl; a deafening roar drowns out the music; 50 skateboards create a mortar-fire staccato as their owners all but break them on the rim. Other boards are thrown, graduation-like, into the air to fall into the bowl. Skaters and onlookers and cheering, jumping fans pour into it; the commentator babbles nonsensically. The mob overtakes Hipps and knocks him to the floor, total strangers dogpiling him.
Even though there’s four minutes left in the jam, the commentator announces Hipps’ victory, though he’s barely audible. It’s a last-second jump shot, a successful Hail Mary, the impossible proved doable.
Tomorrow, Thrashville will lie dormant once more, back in intentional obscurity, open only to those holding a coveted key. But here and now the place is rocking, and the walls shake. Through the mass I catch up to Hipps, who’s taking a well-deserved breather outside, 200 real American dollars clutched in his hand, and ask him how it felt.
“Dude,” he says. “I don’t even remembering doing it.”