Photo by James BunoanThe low desert around Palm Springs is a dubious destination: trailers explode (meth), irrigation is so unnatural as to resemble Martian terraforming, and vintage post cards hint at a promise that tarried once briefly, then kept going. Its claims to fame are date shakes, lesbian golf, and the wind. Eight months a year, this sump grinds down anyone unlucky enough to venture outside. Pounding heat desiccates you alive, gritty winds sandblast your flesh, and endless sun tans the remains. But a handful of these tiny, sweaty, sometimes bankrupt towns are the perfect place for footloose Orange County skateboarders on the prowl for cracked, half-empty swimming pools to drain, patch and skate with other people's money. They're far enough from the long arm and tight grip of suburban law that you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want. Remnants of their past—a winter playground for tourists and celebrities like Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers, Raymond Loewy and Desi Arnaz—survive, from an era when pools were still built right. Fortunately for pool skaters, the buzz died and pleasure seekers began leaving in the late '60s—around the time the first pool ride was documented—making the low desert an acquired taste again: cash-poor, which has hobbled development, and sparsely populated by snowbirds, retirees and desert rats.
Today, these parts are ground zero for a certain type of pool skater: the kind with a wanderlust and a keen sense of adventure, who sees the fun in driving three hours after last call in search of a half-empty peanut, kidney or square gunite-lined hole that could be shot to shit by off-duty cops with machine guns or filled with dirt, washing machines or abandoned cars.
"It's a whole little subculture in and of itself," Eric Sentianin, managing editor of TransWorldSKATEboardingin Oceanside, says of pool skaters. "When it comes to skateboarding, certain people just prefer certain terrain."
People like Huntington Beach pro skater Dave Reul, a.k.a. Hank Reuler, lead singer for the Skatanic Rednecks, a bar band whose members are part Hank Williams Sr., part Bam Margera. Reul, 36, styles himself the quintessential HB skater dude: he worked on the LordsofDogtownmovie now in theaters; he had a ramp in his garage until the Weeklywrote about his house and, he says, neighbors complained; he stays afloat without being overly employed; and he can name-check you back to the Stone Age with a who's who of skate-dom. But underlying the local-boy roots is a soul surfer's rootlessness and yen for the unknown. It makes Reul the perfect guy to lead us out the 10 freeway to a place he skated so long ago that he's forgotten how to get there.
On a warm night in mid-April, his crew is Matt Ortolani, a.k.a. Pancho Boomhauer: "24 of Huntington Beach, and I stand 5-10," he tells me when we finally meet over Coors Lights in the desert darkness. And the pool . . . well, the location of this location is classified, though our photographer is quick to point out that if you've been a serious skater in Southern California, you may already know it. Reul helped clean this pool and skated it for a Thrashermagazine photo shoot about 10 years ago. Then he and his crew rode it a few more times, and then, well, they went somewhere else, like everyone who got a little tired or bored of the desert. Until now: lured back by the prospect of a free road trip paid for by the actor Stephen Baldwin, and by the almost indescribable feeling of skating a really, really good pool no one else knows about or remembers—in the middle of the night.
"It's, uh, definitely the most amazing feeling—at least compared to other skating. What's good about pool skating is you're always moving and changing," Reul says. "Whatever pool you're skating, it's always different from the next pool. It's a sensory thing, the wall's always coming out, up at you. You're coming out of one transition and pumping hard for another. What feels so good about it is going so fast." Made to last, then abandoned, desert pools magnify all this.
"It was a real feeling of freedom," Reul says, explaining why they ended up out there in the first place. "You really can do whatever you want out there."
Diehard Inland Empire pool skater Steve Alba—who hears of Reul's adventure via the pool skater grapevine long before this article goes to print—agrees.
"I think pool riding is the closest thing to riding a roller coaster. You pull some Gs sometimes, it feels like that when you're zipping around. You can feel the wind on your face and your hair," says Alba, 42, whose existence focuses on "trying to find a steady diet of new pools. That's my thing. The thing is, every crew's got their own little deal. [Dave] kind of had a hard-on for the Nude Bowl." We're not at the Nude Bowl on this particular night—it's been filled in for several years—but even in death, the Nude Bowl is thereason we're here at all, huddled around the beam of a lone flashlight, exploring an abandoned, graffitied building next to an abandoned, graffitied pool—where a bat whirls and squeaks in the next room and pigeons nest in the walls. The Nude Bowl made Reul; its restoration is his blueprint for tonight's mission.
* * *
Every empty pool that gets skated is christened at some point—for its shape, or a unique, external characteristic, or both. A good example is the Bart clover, pictured on www.poolrider.com: a small residential pool in the shape of a cloverleaf—with graffiti of Bart Simpson added in the deep end. The Nude Bowl was at an abandoned nudist resort in the hills above Desert Hot Springs.
"I believe I heard of it when I lived in Texas," says Reul, who moved out here after high school and first skated the Nude Bowl in 1986 as part of a skate crew featured in the BBC video Life'saBeach."That was my first experience of it . . . it was such a good pool, it was really in good shape—really good, really wide-open, good transitions, good coping. But the best thing was the location, just because it's up on top of this hill away from everything and you have to kind of four-wheel drive to get up there, so the best thing was the location and then the freedom that goes along with being able to skate as much as you want whenever you want and just having a view of the city right below you and knowing that nobody's going to hassle you.
"It was such an adventure to get there . . . we'd all meet up at about midnight and we'd skate till morning . . . and it would get really hot at about nine o'clock in the morning, so you'd just leave then and pretty much just not sleep. It's a lot of car crashes, leaving there."
A mild kidney with smooth, graceful transition curves between bottom and wall, the Nude Bowl is something builders have tried to duplicate at skate parks in Palm Springs and in Oregon, but somehow they can't. Their muse has gone underground. After numerous parties gone out of bounds—late-night standoffs at gunpoint between skaters and wannabe Gs who'd driven up from Desert Hot Springs; confrontations with desert rats packing heat in their tents—a man ran amuck during a rave at the Nude and stabbed several people, and the city had it filled in. Reul, who'd celebrated previous birthdays by painting and skating it, determined to dig out the Nude in April 2000, and he got extreme sports haberdasher Bluetorch to finance and film the exhumation.
"We went and rented a backhoe, and it was actually really easy. You just go and you put down the credit card and you have the backhoe delivered. They dropped it at the end of the road—my boy already knew how to drive it—so they basically handed the backhoe over to us," Reul says. "He drove it—[skater] Bean—he drove it up the hill and once it got to the really rutty four-wheel-drive area, he drove it up backwards using the scoop to help, kind of pushing himself up, kind of scorpioning. And it was just like, 'Wow, we're doing this.' "
The dig took Reul, Bean and four others 28 hours—and that was just to get the dirt out. For running the backhoe, they let Bean have the first ride, over a huge American flag someone had spray-painted in the deep end. After that they still had to replace all the coping, which they did as Bluetorch cameras immortalized the event: dropping in before it was even dry, their boards binding in wet paint and dumping them. After they left, off-duty police officers came back and shot up the pool with machine guns again. Later, they were prosecuted for this and other offenses. And the city filled in the Nude once again, more or less permanently. It's still up there, Reul says wistfully, but the land is fenced off: sold to a developer, waiting to become back yards and swimming pools with water.
"I think how much I'd like to buy that one home that has the Nude Bowl in its living room, and dig it up," Reul says.
* * *
Tonight, we're doing the next best thing—repairing a pool Reul says is of Nude Bowl caliber, and reportedly still extant. "This pool, I feel like it's one of the last of a generation," Reul says. "The Nude Bowl is gone, and this is almost like the Nude Bowl's brother, or mother. It's one of the few pools that is still left from that time."
As he did with Bluetorch and the Nude Bowl, Reul found someone who would pay him to patch, paint and skate this distant relative: the actor Stephen Baldwin, who four years ago found God; then slightly later, extreme sports.
During the past decade, extreme sports has become an increasingly popular way for Christian ministries to fill shrinking congregations by reaching—and converting—the kids. Earlier this year, TheNewYorkTimesestimated there are roughly 300 skateboard outreach ministries nationwide, and more than 30 skateboard teams that skate and preach. A skateboarder as a kid, Baldwin quickly realized the power of a nontraditional pulpit, and today he runs Livin' It (the apostrophe makes it street), an extreme sports division of the Oregon-based Christian ministry Luis Palau Evangelistic Association, whose leader was recently ranked the eighth most influential Christian in America by TheChurchReport,a business news magazine for Christian leaders. Baldwin hosts an eponymous extreme sports demo tour, featuring stars who have let the Lord into their lives. And he's currently producing a sequel to Livin'It,a 40-minute inspirational DVD he made two years ago, which featured extreme sports champs riding pools, ramps and streets—and discussing their belief in God. Due this fall, it will feature Reul, Christian Hosoi, Jay "Alabamy" Haizlip and others.
Baldwin admits he sometimes wonders if the Lord created the skateboard specifically as a tool to bring His message to disaffected youth: "If [skateboarders] can be used as an instrument to start changing the way kids think about God and the Bible, then we have to do this," he says. Some of his own flock question using skateboarders as a conduit for the Lord's message, wondering if promoting guys who drink and barge—trespass to find and skate pools—is what the Lord really wants. Pro skater Lynn Cooper, an Anaheim native who now lives in Colorado and is involved in the sequel, Livin'ItL.A.,says skaters like Reul "don't need to do that. I don't approve of that at all. If skating wants to continue to grow to be a positive influence on people's lives, that's not going to help."
As you might expect, Baldwin sees it differently. "Jesus," he says, "was an outlaw. I embrace whatever God's doing, and it sure seems to me that this wouldn't be happening unless it were God's will." He and Reul are an interesting fit; unlike Baldwin, Reul is tightlipped about his beliefs. But perhaps his value to Baldwin is his skill on a skateboard—not his spirituality, or what he believes in his heart. Baldwin says as much when we talk, at a house in Huntington where he hangs out with Hosoi, Haizlip and former Korn guitarist Brian "Head" Welch, with whom he recently formed Livin' It Records.
"Just like the surfer thing, to catch a perfect wave, so must Dave Reul try to find the perfect pool," Baldwin says, adjusting a Panama hat. Which is ironic, because skaters—eternal optimists—always think the next pool will be the perfect pool.
* * *
After hours of phone calls; after they try to hit me up for gas money; after they get lost at least once, I finally meet Reul and Ortolani behind an abandoned motel, four hours late. It's a long, stultifying wait, watching the sun set on another day in desolation, keeping the windows of the rented Pontiac up to avoid squadrons of bees, dragonflies, mosquitoes and gnats that periodically thunk against the windshield like six-legged hail. Everything is so overgrown that I've given up exploring. Tweakers or gangbangers could be hiding anywhere—or, it turns out, nowhere. But as I timidly scout narrow walkways of the deserted two-story motel, I can't see around the dry leaves of half-dead, overgrown palms, and so I don't know if anyone's watching me from any one of scores of empty rooms, most of which are boarded up. I never venture where I can't see the car, and when a lizard rustles through a palm in the sleepy midafternoon swelter, I'm so spooked that I return to its velour-clad, poorly ventilated safety and try to eat a Lee's sandwich. The cured pork is rancid in the heat.
I'm amazed and relieved when my guides finally appear. We drive to the spot, try to hide our cars, then silently feel our way in: up pitch-dark stairs, along a walkway, through an amphitheater of deep, wide steps that fronts the pool, and over broken concrete to a break in the chainlink that fences it off. Ortolani finally goes back for a flashlight; Reul just slides in over the edge, and I inch my way to the steps, two-fisting the flashlight and a beer. Taggers have covered much of the pool with their gang names and exploits, but otherwise it's empty, save for a little dirt in the deep end and three tarantulas out for a stroll. A vintage tile on the top step still reads "Palm Springs" in chipped blue glaze. Reul takes the flash and inspects a slow-moving spider up close—but neither man is in a hurry to break out the generators.
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"Somebody will see us," says Ortolani in a loud whisper. He eventually persuades Reul to save the generators and pitch camp nearby for the night.
"You're always kind of looking over your shoulder," Reul says later, explaining the pool's uncertain vibe. I leave them with an 18-pack of Tecate that was cold 10 hours ago, to pitch their tent and patch the pool tomorrow. Watching them skate was a big part of the reason I stayed—but I realize later that even had I stayed, something would have been missing.
It's that sensory thing Reul talks about—something I'll never get, no matter how many pools I follow him to. I'm not a pool skater; and how it feels to rocket up a near-vertical surface on a tiny board—heart racing, wheels spinning, muscles locked, gravity and grip tape the only things keeping you in one piece—is something that can't be experienced from the deck of a pool. You have to be down in it.
And so I drive away, cranking up the high beams because there aren't any streetlights out where they are: two die-hard pool skaters secretly retaking a seminal skate spot in the middle of the night. It will be good when they're finished fixing it. But as long as it's out of reach, the next pool will always be better.