James Hudson rocked the wheels of his skateboard into place on the beige-tile pool coping. His eyes locked on the blue concrete slope below. With swift motion, the young man shifted his weight forward and fell.
He hung in space for a moment.
Then came the rattling hiss of skate wheels, as James rode down the curve of the pool and up the opposite wall; flying almost, into the first turn of his run.
In Santa Cruz, there's a a handful of official skate parks to choose from: Derby Park, Jose Avenue or Mike Fox Skate Park near the Boardwalk. But James and his brother, 16-year-old Ben, prefer the out-of-the-way locations for the freedom they provide.
James calls them "spots." Unlike parks, spots are often on private property or in restricted areas where skateboarding is considered illegal.
"It's using the environment in a way which wasn't intended." James said. "Skating spots is more about adventure, like finding new places." Hudson explained. "Its a little more risky, too, 'cause most spots are private property, so you're trespassing, even if you're just skating and not doing damage."
Santa Cruz is a haven for improvised skateboarding, with miles of urban concrete, backyard pools and abandoned utility structures for skateboarders to use. On a recent Sunday, the brothers gave Patch a tour of some of Santa Cruz County's hidden skate spots. James laid out the plan for the day; skate a drainage ditch in Aptos, then drive to an irrigation pond on Highway 1, just north of Santa Cruz.
The ditch is a wide drain that funnels water from the highway into an underground tunnel. James held the wheel of his roaring, sputtering van, and shouted to be heard. "My dad took me there," he said, "back when I was 10 or 11."
Thick oak and redwood forests passed-by. "He used to skate it when he was growing up, 'cause his grandma had a house in La Selva. They'd come over here on their motorcycles. And they knew about it. It's been there for a really long time.
The family tradition of skateboarding was passed on to the brothers — both learned to love skateboarding while still in elementary school.
James' van shuddered to a halt beside a green fence on Bonita Drive. Nearby telephone poles were splashed with colorful graffiti. James and Ben grabbed their skateboards and climbed the chain-link barrier, then walked a beaten path into the shadowed foliage. The ditch came into view; a concrete clearing, gradually sloped towards the mouth of a tunnel more than ten feet tall. After clearing leaves and trash out of the way, the session began.
James dropped down the rough gravel bank. The board seemed to be fighting him, it popped and bounced off rocks and cracks. Despite the difficult conditions, Ben and James were eager to skate. Ben was nursing a rolled ankle, but he managed to pull a few 50-50s and board slides. Both brothers took turns riding inside the tunnel; their wheels tore up the paint-covered walls.
They rode the ditch for an hour, until James fell from fifteen feet up the concrete bank. He slid down the side, then ran out his momentum.
It was time, the brothers decided, to drive up north.
The spot James and Ben had in mind was near Scott Creek, the exact location semi-secret. "Heard it from a friend," James said as he drove up the coast. "We just barged it up there one day and found it.
The sky was grey, the wind was picking up, and the air was cold. "It's pretty rough" James began.
Ben interrupted him "It's not too rough," he said.
James' eyes rolled in the rear-view mirror and he said, "I dunno, I'd say its rough, but the way they built it is sick because it's never really been shut down. So they've been able to build good stuff there, and it stayed there. No one ever interfered."
Ben added, "I've had some incidents lately with cops shutting down spots and stuff."
James parked in a dusty pullout.The spot was several hundred feet from the highway, hidden by sand dunes and sage brush. It was an empty man-made pond, covered in graffiti, cracked and patched, one wall caved in entirely. Five men were there already, taking turns riding a short steep ramp known as a kicker — they were local pros in the midst of filming a new video.
James and Ben greeted them casually; high-fived and shook hands. Soon all seven were cheering each other on. The wind bit into their faces and tore at their hair, but the skateboarders weren't discouraged. They fed off each others' high spirits, boosting airs and executing flip tricks. Around 6pm, the light began to fail. The other skateboarders left; the brothers took their last runs. Tired, eyes half shut, James and Ben drove back to Santa Cruz.
Why does James skateboard? Why does he travel across the county and risk being ticketed or prosecuted? "It builds a foundation of friendships," he said.
He thought about it for another moment. "I skateboard for pure pleasure. Nothing other than that."