What’s the furthest you’ve ever skated? The corner store and back? Across town? Well good for you, but Clay Shank skated 700 miles… with 58MM hard wheels. Pushing across great swathes of the unforgiving country, stopping to skate winding snake runs of rough rock deep in the mountains, bombing icy highway hills as snow falls, slamming hard, subsisting on canned fish, and shitting in the woods, Clay is a rare breed of human. Along the journey, he had a chance to talk with a ton of people – conversations he will sprinkle into his upcoming full length documentary, “700 Miles” that paints a unique portrait of California. We talked to him about his skateboarding only trip, the evils of car culture, and the etiquette of hitchhiking.
Skating 700 miles, how do you prevent severe ball chafing while pushing great distances?
[Laughs] I’m just lucky I guess. Or maybe I’m just used to it. I’ve had testicular torsion and everything, well, not everything, but I’ve had my ball issues. Skatings not as bad as riding a bike, though. When I was done biking across the country, my whole ass was just raw. I did deal with other random bodily issues like pooping blood or general blisters and strained muscles, but even with these hindrances I felt good, and felt really good when I was done.
Run us through these 700 miles, where’d you start and end, and how long did it take?
The whole thing took me about 6 weeks straight. It pretty much started at Ocean Beach in San Francisco and ended in Tijuana, Mexico. I skated across SF and took the BART to Oakland. From Oakland I skated east to the Yosemite Valley, which took me about 10 days. When I got to Yosemite, my feet were just fried, so I took about 5 days to let my blisters heal before hitting the trails.
Then I hiked the John Muir trail that goes south along the crest of the Sierras to Mt. Whitney above Lone Pine. That took about two weeks, which is pretty fast. From Lone Pine I took 395 south towards San Diego, through the Mojave desert and down into the urban sprawl, then across the border into Mexico. I did the last 300 miles in like 10 days, which is crazy, but I was just so ready to reach the end I just pushed through. The finish line was basically cross the border, turn around, and get on a bus back home.
What kind of gear do you pack for this kind of trip?
I have a really dope LL Bean sleeping bag that I’ve had for like 15 years and a tarp that I lay out on the ground. Other than that I carry a lil’ MSR Pocket Rocket portable stove, a pair of super lightweight pants, an extra T-shirt, a wool sweater, iodine tablets, a headlamp and my Sony RX-100 camera and microphone. The Sony is a small camera but has a pretty big sensor.
How did you carry water? What about other drinks like Gatorade for long distances?
I carried two water bottles the whole time, two Nalgenes with a total of 2.5 liters capacity, and carried a plastic juice bottle for an extra liter capacity once I hit the desert. I also carried iodine tablets so I could fill up at a creek should there be no tap around.
There’s nothing better to drink than water. Gatorade is just sugar in expensive water now days, so unless you’re cracking coconuts or hitting health food stores, you’re best just drinking water. Drink your juice as well, but for nutrition, not hydration, and milkshakes, for cooling and joy.
Where did you sleep? Did you camp every night of the trip?
Pretty much. I was doing it in August, September, and October, so it was really welcoming weather to be outside. I had friends that I stayed with in SF and Oakland, but after leaving Oakland, I would just use my iPhone, look at Google Maps, find a green area, and just aim for the forest to camp out at. There were a lot of times where I’m trying to find a little cut out in the farmland, just kinda zooming in and being like, “That’s the spot.” The phone was super helpful.
Did you ever just take a night off and get a hotel and a nice steak dinner? What did you eat?
I’m not actually opposed to treating yourself with a hotel on these kind of trips, but I didn’t do it on this one – and I actually ate pretty well. I’d carry peanut butter, bread, whatever, and only had a few stretches where I’d have to worry about running out of food. Whenever I was hungry I would just go to Safeway Supermarket and pig out. Pretty important while burning all those calories. I ate lots of canned fish too, sardines and kipper snacks. They are packed with Omega 3s which helps to keep the joints rollin’, keeps it all lubed up in there.
Also, I’m not proud to say it, but going down through San Bernadino and stuff I ate so much McDonald’s. I got to hand it to them, they make a pretty good rest stop. You can cop some dollar menu shit, chill out, use the wifi and surf the net, whatever… But the main thing is to just eat as much as you can. You burn a lot of calories doing this kinda thing. By the end, I was never worried about making too much food because I could never eat too much. It’s fun being hungry!
What was the daily routine like?
The best thing about these kinda trips is that it’s always different. First thing, wake up with the sun. I would usually go to sleep pretty soon after dark, so I’d be well rested by the time the sun was coming up, plus I was never really in a place where I felt that comfortable sleeping in, you know. Then, you just pack your shit and figure out if you’re gonna make coffee on your lil’ stove or go to a town to have coffee. Just keep pushing, and keep your eye out for things to point the camera at. But now I realize that the skating part was by far the easiest. It was so straightforward. I was like, “Oh, it’s gonna be hot, it’s gonna be hard, I’m gonna get thirsty.” But it was only after I finished when the real worries kicked in. “Where am I gonna go live? How am I gonna edit this movie I’ve been filming?” The skate trip was easy, just get up and skate. Real life bullshit is more challenging than skating from Point A to Point B.
Did you have different types of wheels for the different kind of terrain you were hitting?
It surprises a lot of people that I rode hard wheels the whole way, but they’re 58mm. I just feel like you have so much more control with some hard wheels, especially bombing hills with a backpack on. The roads through California were so smooth that I was cruising! Just skirting around in traffic, ollieing up curbs, and skating skateparks on the way, you wanna have some hard wheels.
”Real life bullshit is more challenging than skating from Point A to Point B”
So when you’re pushing on these long stretches, do you switch up your push to keep things even?
Oh, for sure, man. I’d be a lopsided freak if I didn’t push mongo some of the way. Part of me wishes I’d spent the time to get a good switch push, but I’m definitely good at pushing mongo. You know, mongo gets a bad rep, but it’s pretty fucking useful. I find myself pushing mongo down the streets all the time. It’s nice to mix it up. I encourage everybody to work on their ambidextrous push.
Are you familiar with those long distance world record holder skaters?
I definitely admire everything that those guys do, but they’re not gonna go to the skatepark and shred with those boards.
You pick up any chicks while out on the road, Easy Rider style?
“Hey baby, you wanna get on my board with me?” [Laughs] No, but one of the most brutal realizations of my trip was out near Livermore. I was just starting out, I wasn’t totally filthy yet, and this babe passes me on the road, turns around, stops in the middle of the highway all like, “Hey, you want a ride?” I had to tell her no cause I had committed to skating the whole way, you know? [laughs] I was like, “I can meet you up the road!” But no action. After that I was definitely committed. Anybody who offered me a ride, I was like “Nope! I didn’t get a ride from that girl. Not gonna get a ride from you, sir.”
Did such an epically long skate trip alter your perception of things in any way?
That’s a big question, and I’m just finishing up editing this movie about my trip so I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I guess if I had to say one thing… Damn, this is a hard one.
I’ll just say this: It’s important to go out into the wilderness to remind ourselves of the essential things so that you can return to your old life with this new perspective. People in the cities these days feel like, because of all the turmoil and distractions in life, they need to cut themselves off from everything so they can find the quiet in themselves. But I think that once you do see what it’s like to be alone and out there pursuing your own goals, whatever they might be – in my case, taking this long skate trip – I think you learn that the real joys in life come not from distancing yourself from everything but in actually connecting with people. I think that’s what people lose sight of.
If you had to convince someone to make or take a similar journey, what would you say to persuade them?
Oh man… taking the slow pace on a self powered mission over a long distance has a lot of wonderful perks. The first great discovery I experienced on my first long bike trip was the feeling of an interconnected landscape.
It’s inevitable that life in cars and airplanes paints a mental map of all the places you’ve ever been as little bubbles out in a vast expanse of nothingness. But on a bike or on foot, you quickly gain this trippy sense of connectedness to the places you’ve been and the spaces in between them. You gain a sense that they are equally relevant parts of the whole picture, of the continent, the planet, whatever.
”It’s important to go out into the wilderness to remind ourselves of the essential things so that you can return to your old life with this new perspective”
And there’s a freedom in this kind of travel that you just can’t get by driving. You can go as slow as you want. You can camp behind a bush, go swimming in some creek, or stop and eat beef jerky with some person you never would have met had you been rushing by at 60 miles an hour with the air conditioning on.
The greatest challenge of course is getting the time to do these things. But once you do, and you are on the side of the highway or on the trail, life is simple and lovely. It gets hot and you get sweaty. It rains and you can’t sleep, but there’s really nothing hard about it once you make the proper preparations and get into the flow.
Come up with a long route and forget about having to be any place other than exactly where you’re at, moving. You’re on the side of the highway? In the desert? Pooping under the interstate in West Texas? You can do whatever you want just as long as you keep moving, biking, walking, skating, whatever. You made it, you’re free.