Skateboard heroes

A group of friends, a few legends and a Saturday on the streets of Sacramento

From left, Matt Rodriguez, Omar Salazar and John Cardiel, three of Sacramento’s pro skater legends, hang out at the Hangar near B Street.

From left, Matt Rodriguez, Omar Salazar and John Cardiel, three of Sacramento’s pro skater legends, hang out at the Hangar near B Street.

Photo By Don Button

Derek Nielsen is a skater and intern at SN&R.

We’re addicts, really.

People call skateboarders all sorts of names: slackers, loiterers, vandals, nuisances, extreme athletes. But only one word accurately describes the craving we’ve felt inside from that first moment on a skateboard.

Addicts. Twenty-four-seven skating: We watch skate videos, talk boards, think up moves—textbook addiction.

But we’re lucky. There’s an entire city, Sacramento, at our disposal—a complex and sprawling grid of art and architecture where we feed our dependence, often to the point of overindulgence, sacrificing health of body and bank account for mere seconds of levity.

That moment, rolling away from a trick, is a high few things can compete with.

And while skateboarding is at the height of its popularity, too, the average Sacramentan really doesn’t have any idea how the local scene came about. MTV and ESPN have fooled the masses into believing skateboarding is Life of Ryan, gold medals and mega ramps, but the soul of skateboarding is and always has been in the streets.

A day trip of Sacramento’s most popular skate spots: Southside Park.

Photo By Don Button

For local professional skateboarders John Cardiel, Matt Rodriguez and Omar Salazar, the streets of Sacramento led to successful careers.

For they and many others, skating is rock ’n’ roll, their movement. But what people don’t realize is that Sactown has been fanning this revolution’s flames since the beginning, standing on its own, a tear-jerking peppercorn on skateboarding’s palate.

My buddies and I are Davis locals, so planning a day in Sactown begins the night before, when we map out where we’ll skate. “Set alarms for 9 a.m., be on the road by 10!” is usually the plan, but that wake-up call never feels reasonable the next morning amid blissful slumber.

We call this hour “skate AM.” I think most people just call it being late.

But no matter: We’ll spend the entire day outside in this great city doing something we love more than anything. Our bodies will ache, our clothes will be soaked and dirty, and our elbows and hands will be bloody. But that’s skateboarding, and that’s how Sacramentans have been doing it for years.

The sun is up and already high in the sky on this strangely warm February afternoon. We’re two hours late, of course, cruising across the Yolo causeway in a ’94 Corolla filled with dudes, stereo pumping Iron Maiden, sun on everyone’s faces, Sac’s cityscape in sight.

Getting up and ready for a day of skating is slow going for skaters, and we’re no exception. Someone needs to pick up Dave, Fil forgot to charge the camera batteries, R.P. needs a new deck even though he has a perfectly good one and everyone needs cigarettes. My ride has the best gas mileage, so I’m stuck driving. Lucky me.

Interstate 5 pedestrian overpass.

Photo By Don Button

But eventually, finally, we get off the freeway and pull into the city, which is at our disposal. Skateboarding was born in California, yes, and if you wanted to be a pro, you moved here. That’s how it worked, with a few notable exceptions.

But there are some, like local skate legend Rodriguez, who have been holding it down for decades, and his efforts led to the city becoming a breeding ground for talent and a destination for skaters.

“Especially in the past six or seven years, you got cats from all over the world that want to skate spots that have been in the videos that locals put on the map,” Rodriguez explains later that week during a rainy afternoon at the Hangar, a skate park near 28th and B streets in Midtown. Back in the day, Rodriguez would skate in downtown’s Wells Fargo building, on Fifth Street and Capitol Avenue, when it was abandoned, just garbage and smoked cigarettes. “We’d show up, just ollie the staircase or whatever, and we’d get arrested and have to go to court.”

You see, skateboarding wasn’t always about X Games and sponsorships. “When I was growing up and wanted to skate, it just wasn’t socially accepted. That was like a loser, dirtbag thing to do. People didn’t understand it, but that’s when it was so raw and rich and underground,” Rodriguez says.

His perseverance paved the way for this generation’s acceptance. But back then—while the mainstream skate world focused in on Southern California, vert skating and the Bones Brigade—guys like Rick Windsor and Sam Cunningham were shredding the streets of Sacramento, killing everything from sidewalk curbs to drainage ditches.

Sac’s reputation is gnarly.

Local skate legend John Cardiel remembers these thrasher heroes. “Windsor, Curtis Stauffer, Troy Clower, Snaggle—those dudes were the rippers, they were the ones who made downtown skateable. We were just trying to get some of what they were doing,” he reminisces via telephone.

McClatchy Park.

Photo By Don Button

Cardiel used to skate all over downtown, too, before it was mainstream. “Dudes like Troy Miller and I, we’d skate all day at, like, the bank at Seventh and L [streets], the channel at twin towers, the marketplace at Birdcage [in Citrus Heights]. We wouldn’t even go home at night; we’d sleep under the heaters at the train stations.”

According to Cardiel, the Sacramento style back then was all about jean jackets, leopard-skin print, chain wallets and dipping Copenhagen. “That’s what street skating was all about. These guys weren’t in the mags.

“They were just the gnarliest dudes in skateboarding.”

Cardiel points out that kids today do stunts to make videos, but back in the day nobody shot footage of their feats. That’s just how they lived. “Every day was a stunt movie, and that vibe lives on in Sac skating today.”

Skaters today strive to reach this gnarly edge. We embrace the spots they’ve made famous and hope to leave our mark. This will be our day.

After some debate, we decide on the first spot: Southside Park. Stairs, ledges of all sizes, plenty of flat ground—call it perfect for warming up.

And there’s an audience: Families and kids hang out, dudes eyeball Fil’s $1,000 VX camera, and for some reason everyone looks like they came out of Vice magazine’s “Dos & Don’ts” section.

Little creaturelike things littered all over the ground interrupt the skating. Upon closer inspection, we realize they are fetuses. Little stillborn baby opossums.

We keep skating but get rolled on by a crew of little kids. After a watching R.P. try to film something for about two seconds, they shoot us the age-old question:

“Are you sponsored?”

We’re not good enough to be sponsored, and I’m pretty sure young kids just naturally think dudes our age should have sponsors by now. I mean, why else would we still be skating well into our 20s?

“There’s always been a different kind of skating coming out of Sac, different than anywhere in the world. It’s raw, it’s original.”<br><i>Matt Rodriguez<br>local pro skateboarder</i>

Photo By Don Button

We all agree on a spot change. When the dudes in their 40s who’ve been eyeing your camera bag start texting their friends, it’s usually a good idea to move on.

Fil really wants to go to this pedestrian bridge over Interstate 5, which has been getting a lot of video coverage lately. “Omar [Salazar] has a trick there in the new Alien Workshop video. We gotta go there!” he argues.

The spot proves fun: It’s a freeway overpass with big walls on each side that you can ride on or grind the top of, if you’re gnarly enough. There isn’t any shade, though, which makes skating this place during the day similar to bikram yoga, but with more broken glass and hypodermic needles than women in spandex. There’s also nowhere nearby to get water, Gatorade or 40-ounce beers, the preferred beverages on any decent skate trip.

But that’s what makes this place fun, you know? Make your trick or you’ll fall and get stabbed. Or dehydrate and pass out.

We find out about these local places because others went there first and filmed some tricks. The tapes went viral, and Sactown got worldwide attention for its skateboarding spots and unique local talent.

We end up at Salazar’s Midtown apartment, and we’re talking about the evolution of now-epic local skate spots.

“It was pretty much guys like Rodriguez and Matt Pailes and a few other locals who were building all these spots where all these bums and weirdos would do drugs,” he explains.

“Rodriguez was one of the main dudes to try to make skaters an organization, get parks built, and you would think the city would be more behind skateboarding, especially when they were cleaning up places where people were doing drugs,” Salazar laments. “Never did they get any love back.”

“Skaters today do stunts for their videos when they need gnarly footage. … Every day was a stunt movie, and that vibe lives on in Sac skating today.”<br><i>John Cardiel<br>local pro skateboarder, on the first Sac skateboarders</i>

Photo By Don Button

But now, he too says street skating is more accepted—but there’s a lot still to be done. “It’s great to see the city building parks now, but they should be doing more for skating. Skateboarding saves lives and keeps kids out of trouble, and it would be nice to see Sac giving a little bit more love to what we do, because there’s nothing bad in it. Really creative people come out of skateboarding.”

Community skate parks like Granite Regional and La Sierra are a good start, Salazar says, but notes that they “could definitely be better.”

“The way they are built, there’s no flow,” he adds.

Skateboarding was born on the streets, in the city. It came from people looking at something—a bench, staircase, sidewalk curb—and turning it into art. We skaters view Sacramento in a completely different way, always trying to turn something into a thrill.

At McClatchy Park, Fil finds his thrill. He’s trying to crack a certain trick that involves hucking oneself down a gap about as wide as eight or nine steps. Peter, not being much of a hucker, is appointed filmer. The rest of us jump down to the bottom for a few tries, too.

Attempting a trick down a drop over and over again makes you feel like Sisyphus, that Greek dude whose punishment was to push a rock up a hill, only to have it fall back to the bottom. Except for us, it’s more like pop your trick down the hill, get hurt and then carry your board to the top.

But oh, how good Sisyphus must have felt when he finally got his rock to the top of hill. That’s the feeling you get when you make a trick.

While Fil, R.P. and Thomas all struggle with various maneuvers down the gap, I am still just trying to ollie it. I visualize myself doing it, but can’t make myself stay on the board when I hit the ground. I think it’s this medical condition I have called “being a pussy.”

“Skateboarding saves lives and keeps kids out of trouble … really creative people come out of skateboarding.”<br><i>Omar Salazar<br>local pro skateboarder</i>

Photo By Don Button

As I pick myself up off the ground, look back and see Thomas flip his board over the gap, catch it in the air perfectly, stick it past the gap and roll away clean. A perfect kickflip. Cheers erupt from the crew, boards are smacked, Peter marks the footage and high-fives and knuckles are given all around.

When I speak with Cardiel later on, he shares our enthusiasm. “Sacramento skate scene? It’s on fire right now,” he exclaims. “You got dudes like Brandon Biebel, Salazar, Pailes, Stefan Janoski, and new cats like Tristan Moss and Blue Turner.

“There’s always been a different kind of skating coming out of Sac, different than anywhere in the world. It’s raw, it’s original, and we skate shit people just don’t skate.”

Sactown even gets props from the world’s skateboarding elite.

“I met up with Guy Mariano, and he told me Sacramento is by far the best place in America that he’s skated,” Salazar shares. “It’s got spots and a great scene. And I heard him say that in an interview before, but when he mentioned it again, I was like, ‘Shit, this dude really means it!’”

Back at McClatchy, Thomas sits down and enjoys a victory cigarette. With the trick landed and the sun fading behind the trees, we decide it’s best to hit the road. I don’t know exactly what happens in McClatchy Park after dark, but I always visualize it to be like that movie Warriors. Except I’d be the guy on roller skates who gets his ass kicked.

We pile into the car, which now smells like wet dog butt. With Sac in the rearview mirror, we head off back to Davis, with a 30-pack and a library of skate videos patiently waiting.

And even though only one of us got a trick filmed that day, there’s an overwhelming sense of satisfaction in the car. We just spent the entire day outside, in this great city, doing something we love. Our bodies do in fact ache, our clothes are definitely soaked, and my hands are bloody and cut up.