Tucson is a really fascinating place. Established by Jesuit missionaries in 1692, and incorporated in 1877 (making it the oldest incorporated city in Arizona), Tucson is lush with southwest lore and history set against a backdrop of colonial Spanish and Mexican influences. It is also a verifiable cornucopia of roadside attractions and oddities, as my favorite websites, Roadside America and Atlas Obscura, pointed out so extensively. More importantly, it is a modern metropolis of nearly a million people that live squarely in the shadow of the military-industrial complex. The infrastructure required to support this unlikely desert oasis means that the skateboarding opportunities here are simply outstanding. The best part of it all is that Tucson is a mere two hours away from my Phoenix home, maybe three if I manage to hit some traffic along the way. That allowed me the luxury of spending a few relaxing weekends in and around the city exploring the environs, and all of the colorful attractions that they had to offer. Tucson appealed to both the skater and the unapologetic nerd in me in really huge ways. It was, quite literally, the very best of both worlds. This is my photo-journal diary of my exploits and my many misadventures.
Photos, top to bottom: A-4 Skyhawk, illustration by the author; the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, AZ; F-4C Phantom II at the museum; P-51D Mustang, illustration by the author; F-4E of the Thunderbirds; B-58/B-57/B-52 panoramic. Saturday, July 30th, 2017
Tucson is probably best known to the outside world for the sprawling Air Force “boneyard” on the city’s far south side that serves as the final resting place for all sorts of advanced military aircraft.
Here, multimillion dollar jets are parked, slowly disassembled for their precious parts, and finally cut up and force-fed to the fiery smelter to be reduced to inglorious aluminum ingots. Sure, I may be an avid skater… but an aviation nerd (like me) does have his own set of peculiar priorities. This had to be my very first foray into the city, my inner geek simply wouldn’t have it any other way. Besides, I had evening dinner plans with Mr. Gesmer to discuss some pretty serious skateboarding business. The last thing I wanted to do was to show up at some swanky eating establishment all sunburned, sweaty, and stinky from skateboarding all day long.
Thankfully, the Pima Air and Space Museum that rests right across the street from the fabled boneyard has four air-conditioned hangars, all filled with amazingly historic aircraft, that offer extended respites from Tucson’s blistering sun. Unfortunately, they also have acres… maybe even a couple of square miles… of outdoor exhibits as well. Nothing ever really goes as planned for me; I managed to show up sunscorched and stinky for dinner, anyway. Sorry about that, Dan.
Photo: Boeing B-29 “Sentimental Journey” and the quiet solitude of an aging admirer; Boeing B-17 “I’ll Be Around”, 309th Group Museum, Pima Air and Space Museum. Saturday, July 30th, 2017.
Photo: The Corona Calibration Project, Casa Grande, AZ. Saturday, October 28th, 2017. Art by Juan Paris, courtesy of Premises Skatepark in Tucson, AZ.
Back in the 1960’s, spy satellite technology was still in its infancy. Satellites were pretty stupid back then, and were prone to getting lost and/or out of focus.
The answer for the US Intelligence Agencies was to arrange a series of concrete focal points and optical targets in the Arizona desert for spy satellites (and their masters) to use to orient and position themselves before proceeding on their clandestine sleuthing missions over the Soviet Bloc. These concrete targets are huge… at least a couple hundred feet square… yet oddly invisible to passers by due to their extremely low profile, and how readily raw concrete blends into the desert landscape. With a little bit of hiking through overgrown cactus thorns, I somehow managed to track three of them down in the span of about twenty minutes. It felt like something of an accomplishment.
Photo: The Domes, Casa Grande, AZ. Saturday, October 28th, 2017. Art by Juan Paris, courtesy of Premises Skatepark in Tucson, AZ.
Just up the road from the Corona Calibration Targets was another abandoned technological wonder…
“The Domes” were erected in the late 1970’s to offer an advanced, climate-controlled structure where micro-electronics could be mass-manufactured out in the unforgiving, arid desert. Huge air bags were inflated, and a mix of concrete and insulating foam was sprayed over them… a foot thick in places… before the air bags were deflated, leaving the caterpillar-shaped buildings to stand solidly on their own. The factory was never completed; The Domes were soon abandoned, their subsequent owners vainly looking for a lot in life and a purpose for them. Ever since, they have attracted vandals, squatters, graffiti enthusiasts, visual artists, intrepid partygoers, photographers, conspiracy theorists, academic researchers, and fringe religious fanatics (including a rumored satanic cult) to their gracefully, yet mysteriously, arched interiors. When you talk inside The Domes, the reverberating echoes relentlessly bash away at your eardrums; the acoustics of this place are absolutely mesmerizing. Jen, Chris, and I spent quite a bit of time yelling gibberish at the walls like crazy people, and listening to the crumbling walls loudly mumbling back. We are, if nothing else, easily entertained.
Photo: The mellow ditch I found near Continental Ranch; Franklin motor car illustration by the author; Continental Ranch Skatepark, Marana, AZ. Saturday, October 22nd, 2017
Now, this is the sort of service that I expect from a publicly owned skatepark.
The landscapers are here, kicking the little Razor scooter bastards out of the skatepark, so that they can blow all of the dust and the debris out of the bowl with their high-powered air compressors. While they’re tidying everything up, I have a rare opportunity to shoot a few photos of the park for Jeff over at The Disciples without any snot-nosed little pukes mucking around in there. It’s a great start to an inevitably awesome day.
This is not a city-owned skatepark. That surprised me. It was built by the homeowner’s association (HOA) for the neighborhood, and it’s professionally maintained by the HOA as well. Thus, the landscaping crew that comes by every day to kick out all the Razor kid riffraff and clean the place up for skaters like me. I never liked the HOA concept very much in the past. But today, I am fuckin’ lovin’ it.
The razor scooter kids are intimidated by my sheer bulk and aloof attitude, just the way I like it. Because of that, I get a bunch of scooter-free runs all to myself in the bowls. The place is quite a handful: steep transitions and tight corners abound everywhere. The roll-in bank also has an abrupt kink right at the base that makes it feel much more like you’re dropping into a janky ditch. It was hard on the ‘ol knees, but it hurt really good.
As I was leaving Continental ranch and making my way through the maze of residential development, I spotted the first of the many ditches that I would discover scattered throughout Tucson’s rich environs. It was a super mellow ditch, but one that required the bare minimum of sweeping to skate… so why not take a moment out of my day to sweep and skate that bitch? There were no fences, no walls, no signs… okay, there may have been a sign, but I probably ignored it because signs are for dweebs and so easily disregarded… and spent about an hour boosting Boneless Ones and sliding Berts around in my serendipitous solitude. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but that little ditch would prove to be the Big Bang Moment for my exhaustive series of seek-and-skate ditch missions. Tucson does, after all, get a lot of rain in really short downspurts. Turns out, all of that wayward water has to get redirected somewhere.
Photos: 22nd Street art, under the I-10 overpass; Santa Rita Skatepark’s bowls; art by Juan Paris, courtesy of Premises Skatepark in Tucson, AZ.
I must be at the wrong place. I’m at a city park… or what appears to be a city park, at least… driving around in circles through mobs of homeless people, looking for a skatepark. My map tells me that I’m at the right place, but my eyes aren’t really believing it. It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. Who in their right mind would put a skatepark right in the middle of an overpopulated homeless camp…?!
Well, apparently, the city of Tucson would. Because that’s exactly what they did. After a few more minutes of navigating through and around an army of meth tweakers, I finally found the skatepark. Solidly surrounded by ten-foot-high, wrought iron fence. It made me wonder to myself whether its real intent was to keep the skaters locked in, or the homeless wanderers locked out…?
As I was walking toward the bathrooms… they were locked down, as it turns out, because of the homeless orgies that were going on inside back when they were open… I heard somebody behind me talking, repeatedly inquiring about skateboard lessons for their son. I wasn’t really sure who they were talking to, at first; when I finally turned around, I was kinda surprised to find that it was one of the homeless contingent, talking to me.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m not from around here. So I don’t have any idea whether this park offers skateboard lessons for your son. I just don’t know anything about it. Sorry.”
“Fucking fatass!”, she replied. “I’ll bet that if I had a goddamned cupcake, you’d be a lot nicer to me!” Then she stormed off, right back to the homeless camp.
Wow. That was a pretty rude bitch trip, right there.
On the other hand: I was kinda starving. So “cupcakes” did sound really good all of a sudden. Maybe I’m a fatass after all. Cupcakes. Yum.
It was a pretty rough start to the day, but the skatepark itself more than made up for the bad-attitude homeless gauntlet. Lots of big, gnarly bowls: an egg, a kidney, and a sprawling, mini-sized amoeba with hips and corners all over the place. I didn’t skate them very well, of course; my feeble mind was still pretty preoccupied with peeing and cupcakes. I did manage to pinch it up and get in a few runs, though. Smooth early-morning concrete shall never be passed by without at least a quick roll.
Photo: Kevin Coulthard standing solidly atop a backside tailslide, Santa Rita Skatepark; one of Tucson’s many boneyards that lie quietly in the shadow of the aircraft sprawl at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base; panoramic of Purple Heart skate park at Rita Ranch. Saturday, October 22nd, 2017.
Another long drive across town, and through Tucson’s infamous aircraft boneyard, brought me to another HOA-funded facility, this time on the extreme southeast corner of the city limits at a development called Rita Ranch, and a skatepark strangely named Purple Heart.
Purple Heart was a real departure from most of the skateparks I’ve visited this summer. Very large in terms of square footage, but very small in terms of obstacle size, this park is clearly built with the beginner skateboarder that is learning the basics in mind.
It’s roomy, mellow, and entirely unintimidating. Turns out, it also appeals to the aging, cupcake-eating fatass that is trying [in vain] to re-learn a few basics of his own. The scooter kids here were unusually clingy… they were dead, set, and determined to be my best friend in the whole wide world… but once they left, the park was a lot of fun. I stayed for quite a while, and learned a few new tricks along the way. It’s been a while since I’ve said something like that.
Photos and illustraitons, clockwise form top left: Felix Lucero bust, Garden of Gesthamane; overview of Tucson from Windy Point Vista on the Santa Catalina highway; detail of Roadside Glowing Cocoon; C-130 “Tail on a Sidewalk”; Boondocks Lounge giant concrete bottle; Datsun 280Z; Rattlesnake Pedestrian Bridge; Little Anthony’s Famous Diner. Saturday, October 29th, 2017.
Photos: BLX, inside and out. Saturday, October 22nd, 2017.
There are ten “skate shops” in Tucson and vicinity. Nine of those “shops” are either Zumiez, Tillys, or Vans outlets. That leaves a grand sum of one core, independent, brick-and-mortar skate shop anywhere in Tucson. It’s a stone’s throw from downtown, in the culturally rich Fourth Avenue arts-and-entertainment district. I was pleasantly surprised, even before I got to their front door. The neighborhood deserves a day of its very own to go and explore.
BLX… aka, “The Blocks”… is extremely skate-boutiquey. Lots of hipster “skate shoes”- Adidas, Nike, et cetera- and lots of east-coast urban street-skating flavor, circa 1996 or so. Ricky Oyola and Matt Reason would have found themselves right at home at BLX in their heydays. Slightly strange, considering that uptown Tucson is a world away from Philadelphia, geographically. But philosophically, they’re practically next-door neighbors.
Photos: Grijalva Skatepark (above) and St. Johns School Skatepark (below). Saturday, October 22nd, 2017. Art by Juan Paris, courtesy of Premises Skatepark in Tucson, AZ.
Prefab skateparks do exist in Tucson, for better or for worse.
The first one that I stumbled into, Grijalva Park, was the poster park for fucking uselessness. I suppose that the ledges might have been functional enough… any idiot can build a simple box, after all… but the “quarterpipe” felt like it was way less than three feet wide, which threw a real monkey wrench into the cogs of my skating ambitions. I could envision a million means of getting thrown off the sides and into the air, but only a few functional ways of landing on a skateboard at the end of the battle. I settled on doing a few frontside rocks, just so I could say that I skated it. They scared the shittasticness right out of me, every single time. I’m really surprised that I managed to survive the experience.
St. John’s School was a million times better. Bigger, better maintained, and not nearly as deathly, I actually managed to get a little bit busy here. The ramps are silky smooth; with 92a Bullets under my feet, my board barely made a “whoosh” as I rode up and down the ramps. But black-painted steel isn’t the best surface-finish choice for the searing Tucson sun; my first slam felt like I was being tossed straight onto a sizzling frying pan. This park is probably really great for talented skaters that can bang out long lines of tricks, and never fall. Old farts like me that bail on every third trick, and land on my ass with a splat? Not so much.
Photos: The enemy of core skateshops everywhere; classic VW Bug, illustration by the author; a memento of thoughtful customer service. Saturday, October 22nd, 2017.
My entire afternoon was a blur of mall-shop mystery-shopping…
Nine mall stores in six hours, whew. The only good thing about mega-malls are the neat cars that you sometimes find parked outside; today’s lucky find was a cherry red, lowered VW Beetle with a nifty roof rack. But once you step inside The Merchandise Mega Matrix, it’s all straight downhill from there.
There was one Zumiez, though, that shocked the shit right out of me. It must’ve been my lucky day, because I got this really great sales kid named Cam that actually knew his stuff. For Zumiez, this is tantamount to witnessing an army of pigs flying straight over a freezing hell. It just never happens. Or at least, it’s never happened to me until today.
Cam knew decks. He knew what old guys like, and what old guys like are big boards with even bigger wheelbases. Cam pulled a sweet Welcome deck off the wall, and advised me that it might be something that I might wanna check out. He was right; that board was straight up my alley. If I’d had the fifty bucks at hand, and a compromised enough conscience to stoop down and support a mall shop, I might’ve broken down and bought the bugger. Thankfully, my perpetual peasant status precluded me from getting too spendy. That’s how I avoid most of my moral dilemmas these days: by maintaining an empty checking account at all times.
Then, Cameron went even bigger. I asked him if he knew where the area skateparks are. Of course, I already knew where they were; I’d just spent ten hours of my morning skating them, and beating up my own ass in the process. So I would definitely know if Cameron knew his stuff or not. He did. And what’s more, he even wrote them down for me, just so I wouldn’t forget where they were and what they were called. I was shocked plum stupid. I’d never had a Zumiez employee treat me with such friendly competence, ever. Hell, most “core” shops can’t even bring themselves to treat me with that level of genuine customer care and competency. Yet, here it was. Right at the mall shop.
Good job, Cam. Hats off to ya, kid.
Photos: A sampling of Tucson ditches, just waiting to be discovered, cleaned out, and skated. Sunday, December 10th, 2017
The Big Ditch Mission
Somewhere in Tucson, a quote-unquote “Super Ditch” lays patiently in wait. Cameron didn’t know where it was, although he knew practically everything else. The guys at The Blocks got me pretty close. The guys at Premises Skatepark put me in right touch with Liam Pace… he was out back skating the park when I called… who got me a little bit closer. But nobody seemed to know exactly where it was. And if they did, they definitely weren’t sayin’.
A not-so-quick search of Google Maps got me more data than I could have ever hoped for. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ditches peppered throughout the greater Tucson Metro Area. Some small, some big, but all pretty super-looking from the sky-high view, it became increasingly clear that ditches might well be Tucson’s greatest single skateboarding resource. Yet, the real-deal “Super Ditch” still remained as elusive as ever. Armed with a few dozen printouts of various ditches in and around Tucson, my last weekend foray was at last underway. The thrill of the unknown and the promise of high adventure was beckoning me back south for one last great escape.
Once again, Mr. Gesmer factored heavily into my day, just as he had on my first foray into the city, creating an unintended (but extremely fortunate) bookend to my Tucson travels. We had another business meeting set up, this time over a hearty breakfast at Omar’s Hiway Chef Restaurant on the far south side of the city limits. Apparently, this is the second-best truck stop in the entire country, if their promotional propaganda is to be believed; for Dan, who has never eaten at a truck stop in his life, this seemed like a grand adventure. It looked, and tasted, like a throwback to the fifties; I have rarely eaten so many fats and carbs at one sitting, and damn did they taste good. Dan opted for the healthy-livin’ variety of garden veggie omelet, which got him a little bit of suspicious stink-eye from our tougher-than-the-ages waitress, who also managed to admonish my fat old flabby ass for not eating fast enough for her rushing-trucker timetable. It was a pretty tough crowd, but we weathered it with a few chuckles, and generally had a grand ‘ol time. After a few hours of discussing the finer details of skateboard wheels, socioeconomics, diesel (and skateboard) trucks, and slalom racing, it was high time for me to start on my massive ditch adventure. The concrete was waiting, and I was feeling pretty impatient.
There were twenty-four ditches on my itinerary. That represents more ditches in one day of skating than I’ve previously skated in my entire life. They came in all shapes, sizes, and forms, from uber-crusty, steep walled bastards to smooth, mellow, fast megaliths. A few were absolutely unskatable, a whole bunch of them were filthy… good thing that I brought my own broom, or I would have been sailing straight up shit’s creek all day long… but all were surprisingly accessible to the semi-determined, fun-loving skater. A couple could even be driven straight up to and parked beside, which was the ultimate in lazy lawbending convenience. And the only thing that ever stood in my way all day long were a few vertical poles (that were easily defeated by walking between them), and a couple of pipe fences (that were just as easily crawled through). But those small impediments aside, they were all freely accessible, as if I had an clear open invite to go skate them. Clearly, I took them up on that open invitation.
I intentionally started with the smallest and crustiest of ditches, and slowly worked my way through the city, and up to bigger and more intimidating ditches as the day progressed. When they got head-high, I started getting a little scared; by the time they topped out at ten, twelve, maybe fourteen feet, they were mortifying. Still, The Super Ditch lay in wait, silently awaiting my serendipitous discovery.
I had narrowed it down to three ditches. Only three ditches in the whole city looked like they might have “Super Ditch Proportions”. Surprisingly, all three were within close proximity to public greenways; shockingly, two of the three actually utilized the ditches themselves as part of their walking paths, which led me to believe that they might even be bust-free fun zones. I spent so much time sweeping and skating these smooth concrete monstrosities that I completely lost track of time, and nearly ran out of daylight in the process. As fun as they truly were, the Super Ditch (and its signature integral pipe infeed) remained steadfastly aloof and elusive. I was broken, sore, and exhausted. It was time to head home.
Before I left town, though, I decided to do a little bit of urban exploration. I wanted to see the city from the perspective of the bottom of a ditch, so I decided to follow it from one terminus to the other, just to see what I would find down there in the forgotten underbelly of Tucson’s infrastructural wasteland. A couple hundreds yards downstream, the ditch morphed from a slant-walled skate paradise to a straight-walled, featureless water hellway. The sand started to pile up, and vegetation began to grow in the flatbottom. It was a fascinating hike through the old industrial center of the cityscape, but it wasn’t any good at all for skateboarding.
I was just getting ready to turn around and head back to my comfy car confines when, all of a sudden, I walked around a corner, and surprised myself by finding that my mellow-walled ditch resumed just a few hundred feet further downstream. Not only that, but it looked like a far newer, and much smoother section than the well-weathered bit that I had just skated a half-mile uphill, a half an hour earlier. I threw my board back down, pumped up and down the sprawling walls, and started rolling very, very quickly to the distant footbridge that marked the concrete’s end. As I rolled up to the bridge’s shadow, I dragged my foot to a screeching stop, marveled at the massive cesspool in front of me, looked up toward the sky, and finally spotted my elusive quarry. Three distinctive mini-pipes that spilled into a micro-ditch, that in turn funneled straight into the massive chasm that I was currently standing in the belly of. Tucson’s Super Ditch, the prize of my day, had finally been signed, sealed, and delivered straight to my unsuspecting footstep.
I could finally rest, relax, take a deep breath, and take solace in the fact that my mental and physical exhaustion, my bumps and bruises, and my Tucson misadventures could finally be considered an incredibly resounding success.