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Rocks and Roll

[whitespace] Don Baker
Christopher Gardner

Lawn Shredder: Don Baker, the King of the Hill among valley mountain-boarders, carves a turn above Cupertino.

Mountain-boarding packs all the thrills of snowboarding--minus the soft white stuff. Here, our reporter learns that the newest extreme sport is for braver men than he.

By Justin Berton

DON BAKER OF San Jose is standing at the top of a small hill overlooking a few Cupertino homes, getting ready to do something fun. I stand next to him, ready to do something stupid. By the end of the day, one of us will do a magnificent belly flop from an 8-foot-high cliff, and the other will wrestle with digestive problems.

Before we both descend, I am overwhelmed by the spirit of summertime. I drop to my knees and put a handful of dirt into my mouth. I read once that Missy "The Missile" Giove, the extreme-sports poster girl famous for wearing a dead piranha around her neck when she rides a bike downhill, does this dirt ritual to show respect for the mountain. If I have to eat dirt to be extreme, it might as well be on my terms. So I pay my respects and then make a silent pledge not to go out the way Sonny Bono did.

With a wad of mud still packed in my mouth, I receive words of encouragement from Baker. He tells me to keep straight, not get fancy and watch out for the speed-wobbles. I have to take his advice for two reasons. One, my feet are attached to a mountain board, a thing that throws a person downhill very fast; and two, he's reputed to be the best mountain-boarder in the valley, so he knows what the hell he's talking about.

The mountain board is much like a skateboard, but with big wheels and fat, knobby tires designed to roll over pebbles, rocks, small animals and anything else that gets in the way. It has no brakes, no steering wheel and certainly no reason to be underneath the feet of a person who feigns sanity on a day-to-day basis.

As I roll, picking up speed, I follow Baker's first two instructions firmly: I stay straight and avoid the fancy-pants stuff. Fear and desire combine in me to produce a kind of rigor mortis: I remain stuck in the statuesque position of a bad hood ornament.

Before the ride flattens out into a meadow, the speed-wobbles Baker warned me about start shaking my ride. I look down at my board to acknowledge this fact, and hope that it goes away. But the shakes don't go away. I do.

The board throws me out before I'm ready, and I perform what feels like a triple impersonation. First, I do Edvard Munch's The Scream, then the Tazmanian Devil, and finally Ricky Henderson sliding into third. I jump up, thrilled to be alive and, frankly, a bit whacked out from the high-voltage shock of adrenaline pumping through my veins.

With my helmet below my eyes and gobs of grass up my nose, I run around like an idiot for a few seconds. Baker raises a fist of approval in the air and yells down, "That's what the sport is all about, man!" I'm amped on a thrill-buzz, so I believe him.

A Killer Ride

SIMPLE FACT: Extreme athletes are born, not made. Hans Steiner, M.D., a professor of adolescent psychology at Stanford University, studies "these kind of guys." Sitting calmly in his office, he explains that the extreme athlete is half showoff and half cold-blooded killer, and has no business walking around with us normal members of the general public.

"With young adults, it has more to do with testing your limits," Steiner says. No news there. "It's showing your prowess to the females," he adds. Hardly unknown information. "Our genetic traits get modified in our environment by socialization." Uh, yeah, whatever.

When I finally ask the doctor whom he's been studying to come up with these groundbreaking conclusions about extreme athletes, his answer comes out slowly. "I deal a lot with murderers, delinquents, psychopaths," Steiner says. "Those are my kinds of people."

Wait a minute.

"We've always had these types of people in our society," he says. "In my generation, these people would have gone to the Congo as mercenaries. They fought. They killed. Then there was the French Foreign Legion. Same kind of person."

Extreme athletes, the doctor concludes, are like Rambo, like Genghis Khan--"just a bit more socialized."

Baker, who is married and has a 7-year-old daughter named Gina, assures me he has never killed anyone.

"It's a complicated story here," Steiner says with a sigh.

In the field, as scientists call it, extreme athletes don't all fit the picture Steiner paints. Take a close look at any mountaintop in the valley this summer. Count the uncoordinated pasty-legged goobers clinging to $2,000 mountain bikes. You won't find many more if you attend a job fair at Intel.

They are not exactly a who's who of death-row candidates, or the "kind of guys" Dr. Steiner hangs with. But they must think death row is a cool place to be mentally, because they are the ones buying extreme sporting goods hook, line and derailer.

According to an "adventure-enthusiast profile" compiled by Extreme Adventures sporting store in Campbell, buyers of gear and apparel within the broad reach of the extreme genre are mostly college educated, have a household income of $80,000, list "professional" as an occupation, have traveled overseas and spend an annual investment of $1,850 on adventure goods and travel.

Hardly the profile of the penny-scrounging punk with regretful tattoo work we see risking bone damage on ESPN-2. Maybe the equation goes something like this: Those who are extreme look good going downhill, and those who buy extreme go downhill looking good.

But for those who want the absolute extreme, there are the real killers.

the author Not-So-Hot Wheels: The author's good sense loses an internal battle with his urge to go extreme.

Christopher Gardner



Tough Love and Money

AT A CONVENTION for extreme products in Santa Clara, Oakland Raiders great Jack "Assassin" Tatum makes a well-received cameo appearance before the fashion show begins.

The man with quite possibly the greatest nickname of all time is here not only to sign autographs but because he has, quite possibly, the greatest nickname of all time.

The bravado doesn't end there. The real hit at the convention (which has attracted helicopter skiers, alpine snowshoers, skateboarders, sky-surfers, scuba divers and a few other nuts) is the United States Marine Corps.

The Marines offer a pull-up bar, which is by far the most active booth. Young men leave their girlfriends behind to line up and take the "Marine Corps Challenge." Those who can do 21 pull-ups to a chorus of barking jarheads get a free T-shirt.

"Don't you stop now! Don't you stop now! Don't you stop now!" three Marines shout over and over and over. One of the recruiters, Sgt. Walter O. Deleonecheverria, says the Marines--who also sponsor the Extreme Games--are there simply "to educate and promote." When I ask him, in not so many words, what the hell a pack of freewheeling sky-surfers have in common with a few good men, he says, Plenty.

"We are here to show that we too are challenging physically and academically," he says, really quite ambiguously. But the message is clear: If you are extreme, you can be a Marine (or vice versa).

Three spots down from the Marines is George Wiant, promoting his new mountain-boarding company, Terra Board. Wiant spent the last three years and much of his life savings waiting for the sport to get to this moment. He has sold all of two boards to date.

Both sales, he says unabashedly, went to employees of his three-man company.

His board offers something new to the market; it is lighter than most boards, has a slick bottom rail for sliding and is much easier to maneuver. He's also working on a motor for the board, with a throttle the rider controls via a hand-held leash, and a tiny gas tank. This will allow people to go down the hill faster, Wiant says.

According to Popular Mechanics, 10,000 mountain boards were sold last year, and the sport is growing in Australia, Japan and, of course, Colorado. K2, the mammoth skiing company, has just backed a small mountain-boarding company and is ready to enter the market. Mountain-boarders are confident their sport can answer the question every ski-resort owner asks each summer while staring at an empty mountain with no snow: "What the hell do we do with it now?"

All of this is encouraging news to Wiant. His regular day job with Bugle Boy Jeans just isn't fulfilling, and like most people, he wants to find a way to make a living "doing what I really want to do." I ask what he will do if the sport flops, as have other once-promising extreme sports that peaked with a 30-second appearance on a Mountain Dew commercial (think sand surfing).

He ignores me.

"I'm real positive," he says, and then continues talking about the uniqueness of his sport. Translation: I can't wait to make a financial killing on this sport.

Boys' Toys

THE SANTA CLARA convention is a big success for Baker, who is hawking boards at an Extreme Adventures booth. In August, he will compete at the second annual mountain-boarding national championships, where he hopes to place in the top 10 and earn an invite to ESPN's Summer Extreme Games. At the convention, he picks up two potential sponsors, depending on his showing in August.

Baker says Wiant's Terra board is a breakthrough for the sport and announces his plan to buy one, which will raise Wiant's worldwide sales to three.

One of Baker's potential sponsors is a new energy drink named "Hype." Baker tells me Hype tastes good, but he's not sure if it will help him go down the hill any faster. But if it could, the drink is being digested by the right person at the right time.

At age 32, Baker knows there is little time to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a sponsored rider on a boarding team. "Right now, there's just less competition," Baker says. "In 10 years, when the kids get their experience, it's going to be more competitive."

Baker does it because he is "addicted" to board sports, he says. He lives to go downhill at 35 mph, carving hillsides the way June Cleaver lovingly applies peanut butter: nice and easy, with the fluidity of water streaming downhill. If he can't ride with his boarding brother, Derek, he finds himself alone on hills, practicing a sport that is so young it doesn't even have a derogatory slang term the rest of us can use to describe him.

The sport is so new, it lacks its own scene. And it's so cool, Baker often gets kicked out of Grant Ranch and other trails around the valley because park rangers don't know what to make of him and think what he's doing is too dangerous--the ultimate compliment.

That's the sport's conundrum: it is dangerous enough to give it street cred with core extreme enthusiasts, but it may be too dangerous for the pasty-legs who buy extreme. Baker says his sport may never catch on the way snowboarding has, if only because "the chance to do bodily damage is great."

And as with many extreme sports that are primarily fueled by testosterone, that is its attraction, too.

At Calabazas Park in West San Jose two 14-year-old boys on BMX bicycles argue about, to use their words, which one is the bigger pussy. Neither one appears to be a murderer in the making, but after Dr. Steiner's analysis, I know enough to keep a safe distance and sit one park bench away from them. Baker is also at the park, getting a 50-yard head start to fling himself and the mountain board off a 4-foot cliff.

The boys have come from Lynbrook High School to ride the jumps during their lunch break. The first boy, Mike Carleton, is a hefty kid in baggy jeans and a blue Nike Beanie. His pal is a lanky kid named Billy Spalanger.

They tell me that one of the difficult bike jumps is called "Flashback." It is a V-shaped dip with a higher ledge on one side, called a "step-up". Mike can accomplish the step-up trick, but Billy will not even try.

Mike: Why don't you just do it?

Billy: I told you why I don't want to.

Mike: If you don't do it (pause), that means you're gay.

Billy: I'm not going to do it. Look at the clothes I'm wearing.

Mike, turning to me: We came here to ride, but this guy won't ride because he's wearing white pants.

Me: Oh.

Mike to Billy: I live around the corner. I'll get you new pants.

Billy: Your clothes suck.

Mike, shouting: Then why'd you come here?!

Billy, shouting back: Because I had nothing else to wear, you stupid-ass!

I move away from the park bench slowly.

While the boys continue their debate, Baker sets his sights on a more challenging jump that drops eight feet to a flat-bottom dirt surface. Mike rides over to me, and I clutch my pen tightly, just in case. He says he's heard rumors the park's course will shut down soon because too many kids are breaking their arms crashing off the very jump Baker is considering.

"Their bones are all sticking out of their elbows," Mike says, twisting his arm backward while making a contorted face with his tongue hanging out. I keep a stoic look to let him know I don't wince easy.

Mike and Billy would like to stay and watch Baker go for it, but lunchtime has almost ended. I tell them school is important, so they should get back right away. Mike hammers away at Billy verbally as the two ride away.

After minor hesitation, Baker decides he can make the jump. I do not tell him about the bones sticking out of broken arms. As he gathers a good amount of speed approaching the jump, his face is determined. His lips tighten with concentration and his eyes are fierce as hell. He launches off the edge, flails through the air and lands on his stomach.

He's dazed, but pops up quickly with a smile. He lifts his shirt to reveal the damage: a skinned belly and possibly a bruised rib. "Yeaaaahh," he lets out, with self-admiration. "No blood. Not even that bad."

I stand there, wondering just for fun if I could make the jump. As I imagine speeding down the hill, I can already feel the thrill kicking in. But reality overtakes me. I realize I'd no more buy one of Wiant's boards than I would join the Marine Corps. And though I have not used the white pants excuse for at least three years, I have to admit it: I'm a pussy. A pussy with a bellyache from my dirt lunch.

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From the May 21-27, 1998 issue of Metro.

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