On a spring afternoon, Walton skate park is a brutal wash of white, a valley of scuffed concrete and sheet metal fixed in the shadow of the Oakdale police station.
Lanky young men in their 20s with bruised knees and banged-up boards — the reigning generation of neighborhood skaters who own this humble place — line the cramped plateau of a quarter pipe.
A skater dives down the belly of the ramp toward a pyramid with a flat top. As the incline rushes up to meet him, he kicks up a trick. One by one, they take turns weaving through the park, crossing back and forth. No one says a word.
When Joel Goltry strolls through the chain link gate, passing the rock memorial of a beloved skateboarder who died the previous winter, it's obvious he's a stranger on strange turf. At 35, Goltry, with his full sleeve of dirtbag chic tattoos, is a lot older than these tender North High grads. Nobody's seen him before.
For people who aren't known for their reverence for rules, skateboarders have certain edicts about their parks. You wait your turn. You don't cut off anybody else's run, especially if you're some fresh-faced tourist. The locals can be dicks.
This day there's just enough room for Goltry to keep to himself. His movements are rigid. His balance needs work. He attempts some tricks, but his mind and his ego are leagues beyond his actual ability.
As the other skaters cast long glances, he stops, bends down, and folds up the denim of his left pant leg to show off the fiberglass prosthetic underneath, signaling an explanation without the awkward conversation.
Don't give me shit, the leg says.
A younger man rolls up. He has a bouldering build more suitable for the crushing physicality of football than the delicate balance of skateboarding. His hair is cropped like a jarhead's, his cheeks ruddy from the biting cold of Oakdale in April. He introduces himself as Sam Sellie.
Sellie offers Goltry a tip for that complex, kick-flip plus shove-it combination trick that keeps tripping him up. Relax, keep your shoulders back, the young skater suggests. Goltry takes another shot. He gets closer.
Sellie can't help but ask: How does Goltry feel the board?
As anyone who's tried to fly a plank of wood suspended on four wheels knows, the tilt of the earth beneath that board is a constant rumble of information. How is it even possible to skate with a fake leg?
Goltry admits he has yet to figure it out.
In 2010, he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident. After dozens of painful reconstruction surgeries to save it, he begged the doctor to saw it off. It took time to relearn how to walk.
Four years later, an itch returned from his teenage years, when he skated with neighborhood kids around the schools and homemade ramps of West Bend, Wisconsin. He bought a new board and started playing around in the parking lot of his North St. Paul apartment, trying to regain his balance.
This is his first time skating as a gimp at a park.
Sellie is in awe.
Over the next year, Goltry returns regularly. His friendship with Sellie is fundamentally simple. They skate and watch each other crash. When one lands a trick, the other feels it too.
By the following summer, Goltry begins to get his bearings. He's got balance and speed. He's catching air.
One day it strikes him that Sellie hasn't been around.
Soon enough, another skater approaches and asks him about his amputation, how long it took him to skate again, what he needed to do.
A friend just lost a leg, the skater explains. His friend Sam Sellie.
The time bomb inside Sam
Sellie is 21 years old, a son of North St. Paul. After high school, he enrolled in Minneapolis Business College in Roseville, a tiny for-profit school that assured job placements for 90 percent of its graduates.
Two years later, after piling up loans studying graphic design, Sellie discovered that Minneapolis Business College's way of fulfilling that promise was to send him job openings at Office Depot.
He got a temp job at the University of Minnesota's ag department, laying experimental fertilizer in fields of research corn. He was working toward moving out of his parents' home, moving on with his life, eventually going to a real school.
His escape was the park. Since age 12, Sellie had skated nearly every day at Walton. The way he saw the world, every rail or curb or ledge was something to skate.
But Sellie was born with a bicuspid aortic valve: a leaky valve that stubbornly refuses to close between pumps of the heart. The condition is difficult to detect in infants and deadly to adults. He wasn't diagnosed until 2012, when asthma flared in his chest and his heartbeat began to rap with an offbeat flicker.
Doctors monitored his heart for three years. By April of last year, an operation was necessary to save his life.
After surgeons closed him up, two seismic heart attacks, one after the other, stopped Sellie's heart. He was hooked up to life support as pressure in his left calf muscle built to critical levels, cutting off oxygen to nerve cells.
Forty-eight hours after they sent their only son to the operating table, Sellie's parents were told the leg had to come off.
Sellie lay in a medically induced coma for two weeks, his mind ensnared by psychedelic dreams of swimming in lakes of nacho cheese. When he woke, he wasn't sure what year it was. He did the wiggle-your-toes thing — first his right foot, which worked fine, then the left. No response, but whatever. Beyond the window of the intensive care unit was a sea of friends with their noses pressed up to the glass, staring at him like somebody had died.
Sellie cracked a drug-addled grin and held up the devil's horns. "Hey, what's up guys?"
Then the doctor came in and told him about the leg.
When Sellie got out of the hospital, the gawking commenced. There were times he'd crutch into a bar with the gaping shortage where his leg used to be, and people would offer to buy him drinks. They'd thank him for his service — not a farfetched assumption for a bulky dude with a jarhead cut. Sellie always set them straight.
There was pain, a constant, drilling agony from misfiring overactive nerves. He self-medicated with blunts, rolled by friends as they cruised the backroads of Stillwater at 1 a.m. Little else helped to fill the long hours he spent at home stretching and trying to eat back the 30 pounds he lost in the hospital.
In the quiet of his room, his new mechanical heart made a mighty ticking sound, steady as the hands of a clock.
One month after Sellie's return to the land of the living, Goltry started blowing up his phone.
What they never talked about at the park, Goltry said, was the vast world of adaptive action sports, a ripe reservoir of opportunity for extreme snowboarding, skateboarding, and watercraft for amputees just like them. There were other people in town who'd already traversed that tunnel of pain lying before Sellie, people who could teach him everything he needed to know to get back on a board.
"Half the battle is keeping your head in the game," Goltry says. "There's a million people out here who want to see you succeed. So much love, man. There's this weird little group in Minneapolis. We're all very active and hang out together and do awesome shit."
Dreams of skateboarding again had clouded the slow and droning moments of Sellie's new sabbatical. Abstinence was cruel.
His friends were skeptical of this new association with Goltry, his mom anxious. The man was a relative stranger. What did Sellie even know about him?
The bond was difficult to explain. It wasn't that they were amputees. It was that they both chased that mysterious sense that skateboarding releases. Call it adrenaline. Call it transcendence. Call it euphoria, the high that comes with landing a trick you broke a bone learning, the dismantling of that noxious fear you held deep in your chest as you charged for the edge.
"He's a skater," Sellie tried to explain. "I trust him."
The Amputee Adventure Club
In early November Goltry invited Sellie to meet some friends — fellow amputee athletes and coaches — at the Dog House Bar in Maplewood. Before rallying with the others, the two chilled on Goltry's couch, watching reruns of South Park.
In the legendary season one finale, "Cartman's Mom is a Dirty Slut," the foul-mouthed yet periodically sensitive Cartman tries to locate his dad, but must first sort through his mother's robust sexual history. There's a scene in a bar where Cartman's third grade teacher denies fathering him and shouts across the room, "Who here hasn't had sex with Mrs. Cartman?" The mayor, the principal, the priest, and Jesus all have.
"I haven't," answers Halfy, an amputee who looks something like a shaggier Shaggy from Scooby Doo.
"You don't count, Halfy," the teacher snaps. "You don't have any legs."
Sellie and Goltry burst out laughing as they recounted the episode over pints at the Dog House. Sellie had watched that episode a half-dozen times, never noticing a second-long scene showing Halfy sitting on the floor because, well, he has no legs. It took him a moment to register how terribly offensive it was.
"Most people are like, 'That's funny...' But we're like, 'OHH, what? Hey, hey! That's funny! That's fucking funny!'"
Joining them were skaters Daniel Edmondson and Troy Benesh, as well as Matt Hawkins, an adaptive skateboarding coach from Kansas City. They're mountainous, athletic men embossed with tattoos and piercings. Below the table was their artillery of sleek, top-of-the-line prosthetic legs.
They clinked glasses. "Sam, welcome to our amputee adventure club," Goltry toasted. "Flingin' stumps. Rush life."
The amputee community is growing, they told Sellie, because doctors are getting better at saving lives. In 2010, Goltry was living in Milwaukee when a car crashed into his motorcycle and crushed his leg.
Edmondson was freight-hopping on Nicollet Island two years ago when he lost his grip on a ladder and slipped beneath the train.
Benesh lost both legs to a staph infection that grew from a microscopic cut on his pinky finger.
Hawkins survived a 2008 wreck that left his car a twist of steel and glass.
With more amputees in the world, the prosthetics industry responded with lighter, smarter, more dynamic limbs. This shrunk the once unbreachable channel between amputees and the able-bodied.
That's the promise of technological progress, the older men told Sellie. What's harder is dumping the mental blocks that weigh them down.
"But because you're a skater, you already know how to push through pain," Edmondson said.
"You roll up to a hill, you do it and you fuck up," Hawkins added. "You do it again and you fuck up, it hurts. You're like, all right, I'm gonna do it again."
Hawkins had been skateboarding heavily for a decade when his car crashed. Returning to the park meant everything was different — the foot placement, the pumping, having to kick where he used to drag. Muscle memory could drive a good skater crazy.
Though Sellie had been a fountainhead of questions throughout the night, this gave him pause.
At closing time, Goltry, Edmondson, and Hawkins resolved to reconvene at Walton. Sellie opted out. He'd been tired ever since the surgery.
In the middle of the night, the men charged into Walton, slipping and crashing and flying high.
Goltry admits that he wouldn't take his leg back for everything he's accomplished since he lost it. The motorcycle accident was a wake-up call, an opportunity to quit his job at the screen printing business where he'd stagnated for years. He wanted to study prosthetics, and Century College in White Bear Lake happened to have one of the only programs in the nation. So he moved to North St. Paul and got his degree.
It's a novel idea — that life is better after amputation, all things considered. He wouldn't trade his new life despite all the blood and the pain, the daily struggle and daily looks, the unwanted attention from Instagram fetishists and the dating complications of Tinder girls who ghost at mere mention of a handicap.
Hawkins agrees. He didn't have his head screwed on right before the wreck. He was a shithead who got into fights, broke into cars. Now he teaches skateboarding clinics for kids, and heads a network of amputee skaters from all over the country.
Edmondson is more reticent as he reflects on that troubled year before his fateful "howl at the moon" moment. He'd been unwittingly enabling an alcoholic girlfriend who eventually broke his nose in a drunken outburst. He was laid off from a full-time job at the downtown St. Paul YMCA, and used the severance to buy a van, which sputtered out and died within a month. Broke and in pain, all he'd longed for as he reached for the passing train that winter night was an adrenaline shot to the heart.
What the men know now — and what they want Sellie to hear — is that a cataclysmic event either destroys you or reinvents you.
"Anybody who goes through amputation goes through shit," Goltry says. "We don't want to try to explain to you. It's a world you don't want to walk into. But if you have to, there are people who will hold your hand and take you in the door and out the exit and say, 'It's okay, we got through this. Now it's just about moving forward.'"
Tugging the string
Twice a month at Allina's Courage Kenny Rehab Center in Minneapolis, Sellie lies on his back in a giant spring bed as a physical therapist pushes his knee back into his chest as far as it will go. His face is a rosy grimace.
The therapist orders Sellie onto a tiny trampoline tauntingly imprinted with the brand name "Pure Fun." He hops on one leg for three minutes at a time until rasping breath and the rush of blood make him want to puke.
Sellie's recovery hit a snag when the first prosthesis left a throbbing ache in his residual limb. Doctors suspected neuroma, a frayed nerve that wants to extend its endings into new tissue. Finding none, it bunches into itself like a bonsai root, producing agony.
Until doctors could absolutely identify the cause of his pain, they took his leg away.
This uncertainty is a source of constant, debilitating frustration, holding up every aspect of Sellie's life. So he stays with his parents, who subsist off his dad's job painting classrooms and dorms at the U. He doesn't feel great about it.
Sellie hasn't held a job since before the surgery, when he harvested corn for the U. That kind of heavy labor is beyond his realm of ability now. He has yet to assemble the courage to crutch into an interview room with his residual limb hanging loose.
Blood thinners also prevent him from returning to the park. If he crashes and hurts himself, he could bruise and bleed excessively.
But Goltry and Edmondson keep beckoning him to the 3rd Lair skate park in Golden Valley. They believe Sellie could put his mind ahead of his body just by watching the basic modifications amputees make in order to skate. They also want to get him out of the house. Isolation causes the mind to run.
Sellie always has some excuse, but he insists all's right in his heart.
"I occasionally get that feeling, like depression and that kind of stuff," he admits in halting words. "I just wanna be as happy as I can all the time, just for the fact of my friends. I didn't go through what they went through. I didn't watch their best friend almost die. I've been trying to be as happy and as positive as I can be for them and for my parents and all that."
Sellie prefers to spend time with his high school friends, the guys who popped up out of the past when he needed it most. Their company, along with weed, is the only thing that helps.
Yet there were problems with his life even prior to losing the leg. In the months leading up to the operation, Sellie would spend every night at the Dog House, drinking and smoking as much as he could, knowing he had a heart condition.
Goltry and Edmondson remain undaunted. Though Sellie avoids the park, Goltry discovers he can lure him out for burgers and beers at Neuman's. Edmondson also invites Sellie to watch his adaptive floor hockey team play. They end up kicking a board around in the parking lot of Wayzata High School. Leaning on his crutches, Sellie shows Edmondson how to do a shove-it with one leg.
When Goltry and Edmondson go to 3rd Lair on Saturday mornings, they invoke Sellie in countless Facebook posts, hoping that just seeing them skate will bring him around to giving it a try. Even if he has to roll down a ramp on his butt.
In early April, Edmondson strips off both prosthetics and places them by the side of the rink as he kneels on his skateboard. He speeds up and down the floor using only his arms, as the hordes of 10-year-old skaters that crowd 3rd Lair every weekend stare and take video. Usually averse to posting photos of himself without the legs, Edmondson wants Sellie to know there's no shame in learning all over and skating any way he can.
The first anniversary of the day Sellie lost his leg looms large as summer approaches. The memory of Goltry's plan to get him on a board by the end of the year seems like distant fantasy. There's no way anyone could have anticipated the medical complications that slowed Sellie's transition to prosthetics for so long.
Edmondson is moving soon to Kansas City, where he'll work for Hawkins as a coach for Adaptive Skate Kollective. Goltry is leaving too. He's just been hired to do marketing for prosthetics maker Ability Dynamics in Tempe, Arizona. By fall, Sellie will be on his own.
Doctors are still no closer to diagnosing the pain in his leg. His MRI came back showing no signs of a neuroma. Still, they've decided to put him in a new prosthetic, one that envelops more of his residual limb and rides higher on his thigh, which helps distribute pressure more evenly.
He wears it an hour a day, three days a week. The other day, he tried an ollie in his living room. He stood on the board, gave it a little pop with his back foot, and his front foot nearly flew off. He wants, so badly, to skate.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the first pleasant weekend in April, skaters trickled into Walton. A bare chested young man dragged in a cooler full of Grain Belt, popped a few bottles, then set the cooler at the base of a flight of stairs so the others could flip tricks over it. Goltry and Edmondson were warming up on the ramps when Sellie rolled up in his wheelchair, smoking a blunt.
Edmondson grabbed Sellie's wheelchair and pushed him down a bank, dragging along on his skateboard. They did wheelies across the concrete floor.
Edmondson insisted on taking Sellie to the top of a long hill just beyond the skate park to try some downhill.
"I don't like it. I don't like it," Sellie muttered, grinning nervously as he tried to fit himself on the board a dozen different ways.
Edmondson showed him how to lie on his stomach, or kneel with the board in his hands. In the end, Sellie sat precariously, residual limb extended out front, wrapped in a knee pad.
His face was set in stony resolution as he went whistling down the hill.
At the end of April, Sellie boarded a plane with Goltry and Edmondson, bound for Dallas and the WCMX World Championship, an adaptive skate competition. He's never been on a plane before — never been out of the state, even.
Goltry convinced him with free airfare — and the killer weed that comes with being around so many skaters. Hawkins' Adaptive Skate Kollective forfeited prize money to pay for the ticket.
Sellie, the park rat who never got noticed for a sponsorship, who never had much chance to compete or travel, couldn't resist.
With his ears full of the grinding of gears, Sellie spent the weekend riding a board on his butt, jamming with adaptive skateboarders from all over the world amassed in one pit. He dropped in on a ramp and hit a skinny metal rail over and over, bailing out, falling flat, eating shit. He worked so hard under the hot Dallas sun, he threw up behind the park after a couple runs.
"Falling actually felt good," Sellie said. "I would just black out and skate. I couldn't hear the roar of the crowd, the music, the announcer. The adrenaline just kicked in and I had no idea, I just kept going."
Goltry, Edmondson, and Hawkins were among the blur of skaters watching from all around the rink when Sellie sailed halfway on top of the rail and started sliding backward. He prayed to God to help him through. Balancing the whole way down in reverse, he rolled off smoothly and punched the air in triumph.
He'd unintentionally landed a 50-50 fakey, the trick of the day.
Everyone went wild. The park thundered with the clap of skaters slamming the tail ends of their boards against the ground in salute.