I wasn’t looking for enlightenment last week, when I ditched a meeting and routed my minivan toward Stillwater. No, like any adult with a 401K and enough gray hairs that they can no longer be obscured by strategic parting, I went west seeking skateboarding lessons.
A one-time snotty suburban youth and avid Sum 41 CD collector, I’ve always had a skating obsession fueled by Tony Hawk (the N64 game before the person, if we’re being honest) and Bam Margera. It blew my mind to watch them in motion, bodies languid but movements scalpel-sharp, a math-rock song made physical.
For myriad reasons—among them, the fact that I wanted to look cool, and mom enforced a strict wrist guard rule when I hopped on my Reggie Rocket board—I’ve never really done it myself. Still, there’s a Bob Burnquist buried somewhere in my soul, so I’m here, in 20-year-old skateboarder Nicole Hause’s Stillwater barn, staring up at a towering indoor halfpipe to engage in some literal stunt journalism.
Have you ever been intimidated by a collection of plywood and nails? The 13-foot-tall vert ramp is, in technical terms, “hella scary,” its 90-degree drop a death trap for clumsy writers. Nicole couldn’t be less afraid—her dad built it for her when she was as old as it is high—and she starts from the base before rocketing up its sides, defying physics as she propels her small frame ever higher and then launches out the top.
My target, on the other hand, is a quarter pipe in the corner no more than two or three feet tall. I’m nonetheless not sure I’ll be able to accomplish what I want, which barely counts as skating: just ride up it and back down without falling on my ass.
Nicole kicks a board my way, but the trucks are set up for her—an Actual Skateboarder—and it wobbles like grip tape-covered jello beneath me. “This feels so... um, loose?” I say, cautiously. Nicole, bless her, picks up on my exceedingly subtle hint: “Let me get you a different board.”
My attempt to stall has been dispatched with. Now what?
“I feel like you just... figure it out,” Nicole answers when I ask how, exactly, you start skating. “Your body knows.”
This is some Yoda-fucking-with-Luke-level advice, but to be fair, my questions are virtually unanswerable. (“How do you make your feet stay on there?” “How do you balance?” “How are you... doing that?”) She’s been skating since she was a kid; it’s all raw talent and muscle memory. It’s like I asked her how to walk or pet a dog.
And you know what? She’s not wrong. You just... figure it out. Each time I attack the ramp (some would say “tentatively roll up to it with less ferocity than a mall walker”), I inch the board higher. With each “run,” I come closer to rolling back down without every self-preserving neuron in my brain telling me to jump right off.
There’s a meditative quality in repeating the same motion over and over: kick, push, slide. (Bail.) Sensing that something about this is grabbing me, Nicole tells me about Mondays at 3rd Lair skate park in Golden Valley, when girls skate free. “You’re doing good!” she says.“Sometimes I can tell with people, I’m like, they might not ever understand.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” the rogue board counters a split-second later, scooting out from under me as I emit a very cool, very involuntary squeak.
Nicole has other advice, too: Go faster and it’s easier to balance, because you’re not thinking so much about the impertinent contraption beneath your feet. Bend your knees, you need to have some give to make it work. Relax, because if you’re overthinking, you’re never going to get it right.
“You can’t be afraid,” she says at one point—not of falling, or of getting hurt, or of embarrassing yourself.
It all strikes me as very poignant chatter for the top of a vertical ramp. Nicole talks about how she got started, teaching herself the basics before signing up for skate camp. “At the time, I think I was just like 9 or 10 years old, so I didn’t really care what other people thought of me.”
But it’s harder to try something new later in life, whether that’s landing a new trick or hopping on a board in the first place. I’m surprised when she says she hits the park early, because she usually prefers to practice—and to fail—in private.
And you’re going to fail. A lot. I spend the whole morning failing; there’s rarely a day Nicole doesn’t fall off her board. She’s unfazed, insisting that it’s okay to fall. You should expect to. It’s also okay to try to save yourself. You can always bail.
Adults should have to be bad at more stuff. We should all become late-in-life skateboarders. In the immortal words of Jake, the bendy yellow cartoon dog from Adventure Time: “Dude, sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”
My ever-patient coach promises it’ll click—there’s something that happens, a switch that flips, when you land something for the first time. And while land, in my case, means “roll up and down,” she’s right—when finally I glide up and down the quarter pipe, I get it. I’m able to do it the next three times I try.
“The human body,” Nicole grins. “Infinite potential.”
I came here for a skating lesson, and maybe the advice I got wasn’t even specific enough to count as one. But I think it was. The lesson was “you just have to do it.” The lesson was “you’re already here, you might as well try and figure it out.” “Do or do not, there is no...”
Oh my god. She literally did Yoda me.
Before I leave, Nicole generously offers to shoot some videos of me “shredding.” When I queue them up at home later, they’re laugh-out-loud-worthy: Not only does my gangly frame teeter around the entire time, but I’m rolling along at what I have to imagine is exactly one mile per hour. A baby could’ve out-crawled me.
And yet, in every one, I’m grinning, clearly having a ball as the two of us shout jokes back and forth.
I can’t wait to start spending every Monday at 3rd Lair.
Sucking at something.