You carve around hitch pins, lost keys, bottles, cans, tire debris, big rocks, deep cracks and roadkill turtles, pheasants and skunks — anything that could catch a tire and send you flying onto the hot asphalt. Gravel, tar, shallow cracks, hills and head winds aren't often avoidable — they slow you down repeatedly, frustratingly, sometimes to the point that if you stop pushing, you stop moving.
Like a bully that shoves you down again every time you stand back up, it gives new meaning to Nebraska being a no-coast state.
Some of these highway shoulders are rumble-bar rough. Some are smooth as glass. Some are nonexistent, and some are wet slicks that spit mud up at you. After about 360 miles, much has changed since we left Scottsbluff last Sunday on a mission to ride longboards — skateboards up to 42 inches in length with larger, softer wheels — all the way from Nebraska's Panhandle to its capitol.
Instead of the scenic bluffs and lush grasslands we saw the first couple days, the view has become almost exclusively whatever is on the ground about 10 feet in front of us. And while we had a boosting tailwind and comfortably sloping path through much of the Sandhills, the landscape around Lake McConaughy included some monster hills that offered little downhill reward. Rolling through central Nebraska to the east, the land is flat as a waning noon whistle, and it feels infinitely long.
The way it works is our lead vehicle drives ahead 10 miles, then waits to offer a break — water, food — for the skaters, before advancing for the next haul. On long, hot skates between grain elevators, cattle yards and small towns with slogans like, “a slice of the good life” and “the smile city,” the truck appears as a mirage more frequently than it physically manifests.
Along with actually reaching the vehicle on each stretch, the goal is to raise $50,000 for Bay 198 Skatepark. Located in Westfield Gateway Mall, the Bay is a nonprofit, and the state's only indoor skatepark. This project, Skate the State, is the brainchild of Bay 198's 28-year-old director Mike Smith, who hatched up this adventure to raise awareness of the need for a safe, healthy place for kids, and funds to help sustain it. He also wanted to see if he and his friends could actually do it — skate 420 miles in about a week.
Smith, Steve Andel, 36, and Phil Burcher, 51, have so far succeeded — moving their longboards through every inch of this state to arrive tonight (Sunday) in York. These guys didn't train long for this marathon — though they should have. Burcher is normally holed up at his shop, Precision Skateboards, which he's owned and operated for 25 years. To prepare, he skated about 15 miles one day with Smith. It wasn't nearly enough. Ice on his knees and ankles each night and morning after skating from 40-55 miles — and up to 11 hours — a day, his legs are exhausted and aching. Still, he says, he feels stronger than he did a week ago.
But while it's easy to focus on the struggles from this week, there have been at least as many positive moments and discoveries. We found isolated half pipes — one of warped wood planks off the highway in Bayard, and another of rusty steel near a daycare in Gibbon. They didn't appear to have been used much recently. Burcher and Andel rode them as if they were scratching the back of an old dog.
In North Platte and Grand Island, about 15 and 25 skaters, respectively, met us and skated past homes, businesses and traffic and into the cities' skateparks — serving as boundlessly energized wings for our final ascent into that night's destination. It was exciting, this moving, growing community of 6-19-year-olds that, to some degree, validated why we're doing this.
Angie Norman and I have been manning the support vehicle most of the time, working on our computers from the Chevy pickup's cab and documenting the trip. Angie has been shooting video and photos, and talking to every person she sees — in small town coffee shops, gas stations and restaurants. She hands them Skate the State stickers and explains how this project aims to allow Bay 198 to move to a new space, with cheaper rent, that would offer free skating for kids — many of whom don't have many other productive options for staying out of trouble, especially in the winter. The goal includes building a Hear Nebraska stage that would allow us to put on all-ages shows, and to generate some much-needed revenue to pay our server fees and continue to develop and evolve this site. So while Angie's ridden her bike about 60 miles, and I've skated about 90, we're spending much of our time proselytizing for Nebraska music. We want Nebraskans to be as proud of our artists as they are of our athletes.
And we've been discovering more reasons why this state's music scene is as diverse as they come. In Bayard — about 5 miles from Chimney Rock — we stopped at the Starr Street Diner, decorated with the owners' giant model trains and photos of local and family war veterans. They host live bluegrass and country music from musicians ranging from 18-80 the second Saturday of each month. And in North Platte, we met the owner of Caravan Skate Shop, Brandon Raby, and his brother, Luke. After feeding us BBQ, the Raby brothers grabbed guitars and played some gypsy jazz that was like nothing I've heard in Omaha or Lincoln.
In Hampton, Kevin Marks — Andel's friend who met us for the last few days of the trip — pulled out his guitar and P.A. and performed “Hot Rockin'” and “Living After Midnight” by Judas Priest, and “Skate and Destroy” by Johnny Rad to the tired skaters and otherwise lonesome grain bins. He'll be performing when we reach the State Capitol on Monday, May 30 at about 6 p.m. We hope all of you music lovers and skateboarders who believe in this mission will meet us there. (Here's the Facebook event.)
By the time you read this, we'll be on the 52-mile homestretch to reach that finish line. The wind is projected to blow at about 30 miles — let's hope it's from the west. Regardless, we'll be pushing to the beat in our headphones. Our personal soundtracks have done a lot to keep us going, one song at a time, so I asked each of the skaters for three songs that have helped move them:
Andrew Norman is the editor of Hear Nebraska. He flew face-first over his board again the other day, and somehow shredded both sides of his right hand. The culprit: what could only be described as a trench on the highway's shoulder. He's happy to pay taxes for highway improvements. Tell him what you think in the comments below, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.