Monday, July 23, 2007

The sport of the century: Skunneling.

From Metropolis Magazine:
by Bill Donahue

At two in the morning, Greg Small, a scraggly cook with an Einstein-like tangle of hair, is traipsing through the suburban streets of Ventura, California, and talking (God knows why) about the collective unconscious. "It's weird to think about," the 24-year-old muses. "I mean, the whole idea that urban myths and stuff stem from the imagination of, like, so many people."

Small reaches a weedy culvert and hops in. Then, as a large dog hails him, barking and bashing against a high cyclone fence, he sinks into the ground. He disappears within a tubular storm drain, lies down feet-first on a makeshift long skateboard, and starts to roll. The sound of his wheels roars in the pipe, and ahead of him, way beyond the puny range of his headlamp, there is human noise--the haunting, echoey laughter and shouts of a friend careening along at 20 miles per hour.

Ah, skunneling! The very word--a mutation of "skateboarding in tunnels" and a phonic cousin of the slur "scum"-- captures the ancient punk heritage of America's newest way to shatter your collarbone. Skunneling, which has been flourishing in Ventura for the past couple years, is one more pastime invented by scrappy malcontents determined to milk joy out of concrete.

The conquest of urban-jungle-as-sport arguably began in the tunnels, in the Fifties, when surf legend Greg Knoll first piloted his Flexible Flyer sled through California's smooth storm drains. Knoll's wave-riding descendants popularized "street style" skateboarding, so now kids everywhere are hurling themselves at parking blocks, stairways, and curbs. There is even a California sneaker company, Soaps, that puts a slippery, Teflon-like slab on its outsoles, so that wearers can hop up onto railings and, teetering on no more board than their own skinny feet, glide down like a favorite skate star.

Meanwhile, under the ground, an analogous form of skull-duggery is blossoming. "Tunneling," skunneling's more mild elder, involves trespassing on foot. Practitioners wend through subterranean passages, down ladders, and along hot, clacking pipes as the threat of being busted looms. Many colleges are underlaid by tunnels; it's a popular freshman activity to skulk through them. But such pranks are far beneath the radar of the two-year-old Toronto-based zine that is galvanizing tunnelmania. In a recent issue, Infiltration celebrates the "Holy Grail" of Minneapolis, a "block-sized natural cave attached to the storm drains under 50-story skyscrapers." There's also an article about St├ęphane, a Parisian who has computer-mapped six levels of his city's catacombs, and a how-to on exploring subways, by Infiltration's editor, Ninjalicious. "There is little danger of electrocution," Ninj advises, "but don't quote me on that if you die."

If Infiltration boasts some crackle and wit, the skunnel scene seems, in contrast, a few notches lower on the brain stem--Beavis and Butt-head to the Simpsons of Ninj's publication. Skunnel boards are, for starters, an unholy sight. These are not the graceful, longboards that are now the rage among older, surf-inspired skateboarders. No, the skunnel craft is actually three Seventies-era skis bolted together. Or a battered water ski affixed with wheels and a footrest (a chrome tube snagged at Goodwill). The things are ungainly and top-heavy, but who cares?

Greg Small lives in a low-slung Ventura ranch house bedecked, year-round, with Christmas lights. The living room is a hellhole of beer bottles, CDs, Playboys, and cheese-slimy pizza boxes. On the wall, I read a proudly scrawled, multiple-authored list of "One Million Reasons to Be a Bachelor." (Number 16: "Dusting is done with a putty knife.") A voice cries, "Let's roll!" and then Small and three disciples and I pile into somebody's father's Land Cruiser and begin winding through the hills of Ventura, toward a naturalist's nightmare.

William Fulton, author of Reluctant Metropolis: Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles (1997), considers Ventura's myriad storm drains "a metaphor for how the engineers have triumphed in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, there's a trend toward green urban planning--toward, say, letting water flow naturally and seep into the ground. Here, the creek beds are concrete chutes, and everything--skateboarders, rainwater, the oil from cars--flows right to the ocean, quickly."

Greg Small has been touring this un-ecological underground on foot for six years, and often when he's drunk he forays into the pipes to play "Cleansers of the Damned," smiting make-believe demons. "The tunnels," he says, "are like my neighborhood." But much of Ventura's labyrinth, built to send flash floods out to sea, is unskatable--made of corrugated metal, for instance--so we search for new skunnel paths. We plunge into a four-foot-high tube and start hiking on wet sand. "Possum," says Small, noticing some fresh animal tracks. "Have you ever been cornered by a possum? They go crazy. They'll tear you apart."

We push on, our backs stooped, our sneakers splashing in puddles. Soon we hear flowing water--irrigation runoff trickling in from the orange groves above. It is not clear, really, whether the stream might gush at us. Sagely, Small's housemate, Nathan Paul, finds a tiny chamber topped by a manhole and advises, "Knock the spider webs off of that thing and crawl out."

"There's a road over us," quavers a neophyte named Dave, "You want to die?"
Nathan pushes the lid up himself and scrambles out. Quiet, no cars: We are fine, and, in fact, none of the 15 or so Ventura worthies who've skunneled has ever broken a bone. "Once," Small says, shrugging, "I went over this jump in a pipe and slammed into the wall, hard." I inquire about the police. "How're they gonna catch us?" he asks. "Luge cops with lights on the front of their heads?"

We hit a parking garage so that Dave can learn how to brake by dragging his heels and gloved hands on the pavement. Dave crashes. He does a somersault, actually, and gets up laughing in that hearty way of someone who's been embarrassingly wounded. I am not inspired. But then we drive back to the hills and, in the darkness, Nathan hands me something--the water ski. My vehicle and I enter the underworld.

"Go!" someone screams, and I go so I can feel the seams in the concrete jolt up into my shoulders. The board keeps listing right, up onto the elliptical wall, and all I can see is a sliver of light. The tunnel twists. It gets steeper and my board goes faster and my shirt gets snarled up in the wheels and it rips and I keep going until eventually one idea, Zen and blissful, fills my mind. I think, "Bro, this pavement is smooth!"

But after a mile, the ride spills into a long, flat landing. My wheels stop, and then, all around me, I hear the dogs again, the dogs driven crazy by a weird rumbling under the earth. They are howling at us, snarling and leaping. They think we are ridiculous and uncivil. And as I skitter away, across the last lawn toward the car, I know this: The dogs are right."

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