On the hunt for secret skate spots in the Inland Empire
The car’s headlights pierced bright holes in the dusty road in front of them.
Night oozed across the hillside as the sun lent itself to another part of the planet. A faint smear of red hung on the ridges to the west. The driver and passengers shifted uncomfortably.
The young men were sure the old nudist colony was somewhere ahead of them. Their friends spoke of it in awe. The legendary stories about the colony’s famous clientele weren’t the reason they were bouncing up a desert road after dark; it was the huge empty kidney-shaped swimming pool perched on the hillside just below the ruins of this once-secretive weekend getaway. The skateboarders’ blood pulsed and thrummed. By all accounts, the pool was massive.
They laughed, smoked weed, and shot the shit about the legacy of the area. They discussed how, in post-War America, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and other Hollywood heavyweights would drive out from Los Angeles and spend the weekend sipping drinks in the hot sun. Gorgeous, big-breasted women would be on hand to lend a hand, a mouth, or whatever else might strike the fancy of the famous visitors. Stories had been passed down all over the local area. Legend has it that Sinatra looked down at a woman kneeling in front of him as he zipped up the fly on his pants. When she said, "Will there be anything else?" He smiled and quipped, "Brush your teeth, honey."
The 1950s in the United States was a decade of hubris. It made sense: The war years were in the rear-view mirror, and that spelled relief. America had triumphed over Adolf, whose Aryan dream came crashing down around him when—cowering and sweat-soaked—he put a Walther PPK in his mouth and ended his life in a dank Berlin bunker. At least he was still on the stage when the curtain fell. He could've done the world a favor and executed that endgame far, far earlier.
In the optimism following the war, Southern California flourished. People moved toward the Los Angeles area in huge numbers. They built homes, put in swimming pools, bought new cars, went to the movies. Life was good again. Developers built from Los Angeles eastward into the dry and desolate desert. Engineers tunneled under hillsides and built dams and waterways. They rerouted water. The thirsty desert lapped it up.
Freeways were poured. The asphalt ribbons of road wound and twisted upon on themselves. Concrete, bricks, and mortar rose up out of the earth at every turn. The railroads were already in place, with the Chinese labor force buried beside the tracks they toiled on for so many years. “Progress.” Expansion at any cost.
The guys in the car knew that there was always a cost. Ultimately someone paid. They crunched over a narrow gully and found themselves on a flat plateau. It was dark, but they could see the outline of an empty swimming pool spread out before them.
The skateboarders set up a tent in the glare of the cars headlights and built a small fire. The orange flames cast wavering shadows on the pool walls while the skaters drank beer and passed a joint back and forth. They told stories—their words and laughter rising with the smoke. They talked about the lines they would draw in the pool the next day.
The skaters succumbed to the desert night. One of them sat awake outside. The cold uncaring stars glittered. He let the ancient desert seep into him. Wind fluttered the tent flaps. The foundation slab and ruins of the old nudist colony resort loomed in the background barely visible by the dying firelight.
"Fitting," he mumbled quietly. A dying fire. A long-dead resort. The whole area seemed that way to him. The desert didn't want them there. Mankind was pushing into the desert, and all the while the desert was pushing back. It was reclamation on a purely primitive scale. As he went to sleep that night, the skateboarder realized that wherever they looked for pools, they always ended up in the remains of someone's broken discarded dream.
The Nude Bowl (as it came to be known) is one of many abandoned pools that litter the Inland Empire: that is, the areas east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Indio, and the Salton Sea.
With temperatures topping out above 120 degrees at times, having a swimming pool became necessity. During the post-war era, investors scrambled to keep up with the American Dream by putting in subdivision after sprawling subdivision on the long, winding interstates that run west to east. Palm Springs became a retirement destination for golfers. The nearby Salton Sea was originally developed as a boating resort in the 1950s. Jet boats ripped across its 15-by-30-mile surface. Movie stars made the drive to the glimmering waters and took up residence at the hotels, bars, and clubs. Unfortunately for them, the sea’s salt content steadily increased over the decades, and the fish and birds began to die. Tourism declined rapidly. The area foundered, and now only ruins remain. The residents who have hung on are a mixed settlement of stubborn original inhabitants: people on the run from a less-than-laudable past or just those that lead a bleak nomadic life.
Through this dystopian wilderness, skateboarders scoured the run-down and abandoned hotels along the north shore. They drained the pools and rode them. Except for the squalor, danger, smell of rotting fish, clouds of flies, and brain-boiling heat, it was a paradise.
Back at the Nude Bowl—an hour north of the Salton Sea—the skateboarders rose early. A hotel once stood above the pool, but its skeletal remains were long gone. The foundation was now a thick slab of graffiti-covered concrete. It was difficult to believe that this place was once a desired destination in any way. Here and there, small cacti nosed their relentless faces out of the barren, rocky ground. Even they looked like green bones.
"WHEREVER THEY LOOKED FOR POOLS, THEY ALWAYS ENDED UP IN THE REMAINS OF SOMEONE’S BROKEN DISCARDED DREAM."
The skateboarders started into the pool early. The searing heat washed over them by 10 o’clock in the morning. They carved quick lines in the face wall, surf-turning and slashing the vertical surface. They talked quietly among themselves about how skating had originated from surfing and what it meant to them. They talked about heroes of the past, old desert pools now long gone, and nearby giant spillway and pipe of Mount Baldy, the top of which could barely be seen in the distance.
They invoked legendary places and names that only a small community of skaters would recognize: Date Bowl. L-Pool. Tony Alva, Jerry Valdez, Tay Hunt, Gunnar Haugo, Kent Senatore, Gregg Ayres, Jon Warneke, Steve Alba. The skateboarders knew the history of the area and its pioneers. For them, pool skateboarding was a minor religion. It wasn't a fad, a sport or a hobby. Skateboarding was life.
They rode the Nude Bowl until it became a hothouse. Then, they climbed into the car and drove into nearby Joshua Tree for lunch and camping supplies. Taking advantage of the spotty cell phone reception, they called some friends to join them for the night. Within hours, they were back by the edge of the pool. Two trucks of friends had arrived. Drinks materialized, the unmerciful sun waned, and the temperature soon dropped. Skating began in earnest. The friends who joined them had been in Borrego Springs, on the edge of the Salton Sea. They had bucketed water out of a huge old pool out there for several hours.
Suddenly, a car door slammed shut. Legendary skateboarder Tony Alva appeared out of the darkness, inspiring exclamations of shock and wonder. He was one of the godfathers of pool skating. This was going to be a good night.
The session ended with these old and new friends sitting around a small fire. They talked shit among themselves. They gave one another a hard time, but only in good fun. They remembered contests and old pools that had been bulldozed long ago—sacred spots.
They traded opinions about legendary skateboarders and who had pulled off the best tricks. All of these things were brought out into the firelight, polished, examined, and put back away. It was a time-honored tradition. The fire flickered, the skaters clinked their bottles in a reverent toast, and the night wind swallowed them up.
The next morning found them driving back into the “real” world. Jobs, family, weekend-ending rituals were on their minds. They split up, with driving into Palm Springs for one last grid search.
As with most good intel, a friend had told the crew about a possible empty pool in an old 1950s neighborhood. He admitted that he was no skateboarder, but the pool looked pretty round. The skaters decided that it was worth a look, and shortly before nine o'clock, they pulled up outside of the house.
One guy reconnoitered. It was definitely an empty house. The side gate was latched. No lock. He scouted the pool: There was water in the deep end, but it could be emptied in no time. They spoke quickly and quietly. Each man had his task. It was a Sunday morning in a high-end neighborhood. Sleepy. Nothing moved, and no dogs barked. They slipped inside the property. Each man took the inherent risks in stride. Trespassing and potential charges are always in the back of a skater’s mind.
They did what they did in order to express what they are. If that meant shoveling dirt out of a half-filled pool for two days straight, so be it. All true pool skaters have been in this sort of illicit hunting game most of their skateboarding lives. They've bucketed the filthiest pools one could imagine. Most defy polite description. They’ll scoop out dog feces, human excrement, piss, diapers, syringes, slimy condoms, oil, car batteries, tires, dead dogs, car parts, pieces of buckled walls and cinderblocks, paint—it goes on and on—all so they can ride.
They are discoverers. Artists. They seek out these fragmented pieces of broken America. They scoop away the muck and lift their findings up to the light, all so they can express themselves in the form of smooth carving.
It was always this way with the pioneers of skateboarding. And so it will always be.