Pilgrimages come in all shapes and sizes. Religious, chasing a genealogy tree or hoping to catch a glimpse of Elvis hanging out in Graceland. Following the passing of my best friend, Walter, I found myself on one as well.
Together, he and I spent more teenage hours on skateboards than sleeping. His recent death sent me to the birthplace of modern skateboarding, Walter tucked inside my heart.
Dogtown is a funky little space with such an independent streak it reaches into two cities along the Southern California coast. Venice and Santa Monica found their streets overrun by skaters during the ’70s and ’80s.
Walter and I pasted our bedroom walls with posters of skaters from the infamous Zephyr team, better known as the Z-Boys of Dogtown. The team was your classic anti-hero team, constantly breaking the rules and pushing the boundaries of skating. And from our perch in the Midwest of the country, they were the perfect role models.
Walter and I jumped fences searching for empty swimming pools, concrete pipes on construction sites, and any surface that could get us the high of being vertical.
You can insert a lifetime here. We both grew up, went off to college and eventually became somewhat respectable adults. Children, mortgages and even 401ks replaced our buying the newest deck or particular set of bearings for our wheels.
But neither of us quit skating. Whenever we’d see each other, we’d find a way to skate. Once, in the basement of a children’s museum while our kids played upstairs, another time shooting hills around his neighborhood.
This moment brings me to a massive skatepark in Venice Beach, California, built in honor of the influence of the Z-Boys on skating. A concrete island surrounded by a sandy beach and a soundtrack of Pacific waves pounding nearby, the park draws skaters worldwide. Last week, I joined the club.
Dropping in, I couldn’t help but think of Walter and how we’d encourage and challenge each other to push faster and higher up the white cement walls. From the high-fives to the encouraging word as you lick your wounds after a nasty fall back into the bowl, I missed his voice.
After one terrific run, I felt the urge to turn to Walter and challenge him to top me. But then the memory of holding his hand in hospice a few months ago returns, and I remember why I’m here. On this day, I’m skating for two.
These days, my legs are good for half an hour at best, and I call it a day. Walter and I talk for a bit, his imaginary legs hanging down into the bowl, feet kicking. I can hear his voice, his laugh and his encouraging chant, “Heck yeah!”
Afterward, I’m standing on a street corner, looking across the Venice plaza, the skatepark out on the beach. I call an Uber and again find myself thinking of my friend and how much I miss him.
My phone vibrates, telling me my Uber driver is on his way. His name is Walter.