Best of 2016: Colorado longboarding legends Jim and Slim meet above Frisco
Editor’s note: This article was a long time in the making, and not only for myself. I met Jim for an article about vintage skis (Keystone founder Max Dercum’s, actually) and discovered his skateboard collection. I met Slim at a Frisco coffee shop, where he told me about an outlaw race down Vail Pass in 2015. I’m glad the two were willing to meet and skate together. All I had to do was sit back and listen.
It was only a matter of time before Jim and Slim started comparing scars.
On a stunning June afternoon high above Summit County in the Wildernest neighborhood, two avid longboarders from two generations of skate culture meet for the first time. At 74 years old, Jim Bowden is known as the unofficial godfather of skateboarding in Summit. He’s a New York native who first stood on a homemade skate deck while living in California during the ’60s. He brought his love of speed, wheels and pavement to Colorado when he moved to the Rocky Mountain full time in the ’70s and he’s been longboarding ever since — nearly six decades all told, the first generation of modern skateboarders. He still has the collection to prove it: lined up against the wall of his garage are eight longboards and a few retro skateboards, including the brand-new Never Summer deck he rides now and the one-of-a-kind Roller Derby Mustang with clay wheels from ’60s-era Cali.
“I drove by and thought there was a garage sale going on,” Tim ‘Slim’ Decamp says to Jim as he pulls up to the condo in a faded purple Chrysler slathered in stickers: AC/DC, Rocky Mountain Coffee Roasters, Downhill Boardshop and, one of the largest, “Give blood, longboard.”
At 51 years old, Slim is part of the second generation of skateboarders — or “second fad,” as Jim says — an Oregon native who, like his 74-year-old counterpart, first started skating in California when he’d stay with his dad near Huntington Beach. He works odd jobs in the winter and summer to “support my addiction to steep roads,” as he puts it. Jim has been retired for about a decade since selling his ski rental and repair shop at the Holiday Inn in Frisco.
But back to the scars. About six years ago on the Copper to Frisco recpath, Slim was riding his longboard like a luge, lying flat on his back with his feet splayed to the sides for steering and braking. A little over halfway through the 6.1-mile route past beaver ponds and aspen stands, he rounded a corner and came face-to-face with a mountain goat. Slim started to slow, but the goat was faster and lined up to charge, forcing the rider and his longboard off the trail and into the rocks lining the path. He shredded his right forearm and started bleeding — hard.
“I just skated down the path to Walmart and bought a ton of hydrogen peroxide, just started pouring it down my arm,” Slim says, miming impromptu first aid as Jim chuckles and idly twirls his board like a top. “My friends said I might need stitches: ‘Man, that’s pretty deep.’ I said, ‘Well, if I need stitches, I’ll just have to do them myself.’ I got duct tape and wrapped it up.”
Slim extends a shaking arm to show Jim the war wounds. It’s hard to tell he had a close encounter with a goat — just a few faded pockmarks on tan skin over long, thin bones. There’s a reason he’s known as Slim: At 6 foot, 2 inches, he’s a rawboned old-school skater who still wears black skinny jeans and Vans skate shoes. His are purplish mid-tops, Jim’s are teal-and-black patterned lows.
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“That’s wild,” Jim says. “One thing I learned: You don’t mess with cars.”
After just 15 minutes together, the two are on a roll.
“I do, man,” Slim says before launching into a half-joking, half-serious monologue about his longboard luge experiences on Loveland Pass, Lookout Mountain in Golden, Vail Pass into Vail and the crème de la crème of downhill riding, Maryhill Road in south-central Washington. “I’m invincible, I swear. I got a big ‘S’ on my chest — it’s tattooed in there. I’ve got the leathers and the full mask, you know? I’m the one passing the trucks.”
Jim can’t contain his laughter.
“Oh, I don’t have those balls anymore,” says Jim, who tells about passing a gas tanker on Loveland Pass when riding hand-made boards in the late-’70s. “I’m 74, man.”
“I’ve still got 23 years to go before then, but I hope I’ll have a walker on my longboard at that age,” Slim says, and then starts showing what it might look like to board with a walker attachment — all wobbles and shakes and excitement.
“You’ll have to get more wheels, put wheels on the walker,” Jim says. Another round of laughter from both before they get down to business, the reason they’re standing in Jim’s driveway on a crisp, clear, wind-free afternoon: longboarding.
“This is why I live up here,” Jim says, opening his arms wide to the sun-drenched sky, a white helmet secured to his head. Slim walks to his car to gather his gear: a massive longboard, worn gloves and full-face snowmobile helmet. He suggests bombing from the top of Ryan Gulch/Wildernest Road to Jim’s home — a solid 1.5 miles of hairpin turns, where the speed limit is 30 to 35 miles per hour for cars, bikes and longboards alike.
But Jim had other ideas.
“As soon as you get going faster than you can run, you’re stuck on the board,” Jim says before recommending a shorter and mellower run near the top of Wildernest. “You need a plan to slow. I don’t foot-brake or anything. You need other techniques.”
The two pile in Jim’s Jeep, Slim and Jim up front, both still chatting about long-gone festivals and skateboard companies and run-ins with police. Time for run one.
There’s a post on Slim’s Facebook wall with one hell of a catchy headline.
“Skateboard geezers,” it reads, followed by a column about the apparent rise of aging skateboarders across the world.
“Men have a habit of continuing childhood pursuits into adulthood — making model railways, flying remote control planes and playing PlayStation all spring to mind,” reads a selection from the column by Lee Coan, a writer for The Telegraph in the United Kingdom. “But skateboarding is different. What annoys me is that these grown-ups are brazenly enjoying something that felt rebellious in my youth.”
Above the link to the piece — a whip-fast read that even mentions the rise of skateboarding’s third fad — Decamp left a simple note: “You’re never too old to skateboard.”
In Summit, where chasing childhood pursuits is more of a lifestyle than a man-child habit, old-school skateboarders like Jim and Slim are at home. But, as it has for decades, skateboarding and longboarding still draw ire.
“When other people who aren’t involved with this sport look at it, see us bombing down hills, all they see is that we don’t have brakes,” Slim says. “You will always have people who give a sport a bad name and there are some people out there who make poor decisions, but I’m just trying to open up people’s eyes to something new. We aren’t all dangerous.”
As the two drive up Wildernest, they start talking about the dozen or so tickets they’ve received over the years. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Summit County Sheriff cited Jim three separate times for operating an illegal vehicle — he managed to get off the hook when he bombed by the gas tanker at Loveland Pass — and Slim recently found a list of Colorado laws that define longboards as “other human-powered vehicles,” just like bicycles. He keeps a few cards with statute citations in his pocket to show police when they pull him over.
“Watch out for the skater haters,” Jim says to Slim as they pull to a stop near the base of his favorite run. “There’s a lot of them around. The first time you have a big accident the sheriff might step in and your fun permit he might remit.”
And that’s truly what it comes down to, from first fad to second fad to third fad: fun. Jim skated all across Summit with a small crew in the ’70s and ’80s — Gary Ritchey, Randy Smyth, Neely Woodward, Bill Harris, “even a few girls,” he says — and helped launch a short-lived longboard race series, dubbed Roadside Attractions, that traveled the state and ended with a race down Swan Mountain Road for a grand prize of $1,000. He even made boards, known as Heavystick!, in the back room at the Holiday Inn ski shop from 1976 to 1978. He built 2,000 of the rail-thin decks — Slim-like — and sold about 500 before giving away another 500.
“Heavystick! was known around the county as a complete failure, and it was a complete failure,” says Jim, who still has two Heavystick! models in his garage. “I’ll tell you what it was: Take ten grand and throw it away in the street.”
(Manufacturing is another common bond: Slim recently made a luge board of steel and called it Heavy Metal. It didn’t last long — he retired Heavy Metal after realizing the steel deck was uncomfortably fast and too stiff. He only skates wood now.)
That DIY sense of fun and freedom and creativity is shared by plenty of aging skaters, guys like Mike Paproski of Golden. The 43-year-old former IT manager is a longboard luger, just like Slim, and got into the sport late when his teenage son started traveling the nation for races.
“The best run of the day for me is right as the sun is breaking,” says Paproski, known as Pap Dawg, who takes daily pre-dawn runs on Lookout Mountain before cars and bikes clog the pavement. “It’s awesome: good colors, good vibe, good way to wake up.”
Paproski occasionally travels to Summit for longboarding and knows the locals well, including Slim. The two recently went to Maryhill for a free-skate session, joining about 15 riders from Colorado.
“They were showing off their new styles, the Summit County way of riding,” Paproski says. “It’s fast, it’s gnarly. Some of the fastest kids in the world have come out of Summit County. The roads you have up there are just so good. I hear a lot of kids call it ‘the longboarding mecca of the world,’ with so many gnarly runs right next to each other.”
And now, finally, it was time for Jim and Slim to take a run together.
Legends on pavement
Near the uppermost reaches of Wildernest, the longboarding duo emerges from Jim’s car and starts walking to the top of the run, talking and sharing nonstop. They’re dedicated to the longboarding lifestyle, and, to keep it alive and well, both are dedicated to safety. Jim mentions his idea for a longboard park in Summit — perhaps the Frisco Adventure Park? he wonders — and Slim starts excitedly weighing in with ideas. He ran for mayor of Frisco this last election and lost, but you’d better believe longboarding was on his platform.
The two reach the top of the run and drop once, then twice, then a third time. They can easily do this all day, but Slim has the itch for something faster, something wilder, something more death defying, something fitting of that imaginary ‘S’ on his chest. Even at 75 and 51 years old — first and second fad — the two have distinct styles born of the same sport: Jim smooth and flowy, a pavement powder hound; Slim straight and fast, a speed demon.
“I really love this sport,” Jim says as he loads into the driver’s seat and Slim gets on his board for the descent to the condo. “It’s a love thing — it really is. The feedback is like being on powder, like cruising on a powder day, and what it’ll do for you is refine your balance for everything. That’s the key thing, I’m telling you: It’s a no fall sport.”
A few short minutes later Jim reaches his condo and Slim swings in just a second or two behind, grinning wide beneath his full-face helmet.
“See that scar here?” Jim says and points to his knee when Slim sits in the passenger seat.
“I’ve got a bionic knee,” Jim says, matching Slim’s smile.
“Damn, that’s sick as hell,” Slim says. And then it’s back to the road for another run.
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