About a decade ago, I found myself in an alley outside a bar in northern British Columbia, Canada. I had a flap that held two grams of awful cocaine cut with all sorts of speed, and I was lining it out on top of a dirty dumpster covered in spray paint. As I chopped out lines with a Safeway club card, the only piece of graffiti I remember seeing was just one word: CUNT, hastily scrawled in yellow by some angsty teen with nothing better to say.
I was standing in muddy snow with someone I met in the scummy, piss-filled bathroom where I bought the flap, and he was standing beside me, waiting for his turn. I paid more than him, so I was first, as it goes when doing drugs with strangers. The temperature was hovering somewhere around -30 celsius and my although ears were very cold, my nose was dripping and my armpits were sweating. As I bent my neck to snort my fifth or sixth line of the night, a stiff breeze whipped through the alley, sending little whirls of snow around our ankles and the cocaine off the dumpster. We bought more, of course. I sucked up cocaine for the rest of the night and for a long time afterwards, because drugs were cool and the amount of liquor and coke you could ingest correlated directly with dick size. Which, interestingly, is smaller and more limp after the bar is closed and you’re in bed with a stranger who expects great things. Whiskey and cocaine are not aphrodisiacs, especially if you really get after it.
But drugs aren’t all that cool. Sure, they’re fun in passing for a few short years, but all too often “passing” turns into “permanence,” and before you know it you’re a washed up junkie still working the same menial job you held in your early 20s, banging lines off toilets and waxing poetic about your youth with a stranger who doesn’t give a shit.
Unfortunately, there are a handful of people in the surfing world that still see that seedy lifestyle as cool (whatever that means)–but they’re looking at it through the thick, distorted lens of the spectator. Or, at least, people who haven’t realized that the stories about fucked up, sad people aren’t something anyone should want to emulate. That lens, for most people at least, clears up with age. But there are a few that still look through it, and for whatever reason, there are more of those people in surfing than in most other sports. I think it’s got something to do with preserving the culture, which is the largest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard.
The town with the dumpster was Prince George, and the bar was called the Iron Horse. If you know it–which you probably don’t–you know that it is, quite literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. A set of train tracks separates it from a slightly-less seedy part of town, and at the time, only stupid college kids and people looking to get royally messed up– whether by booze or fists–went there. It was a bad place to be, run by Hell’s Angels and frequented by rough oil patch workers. I was working on pipelines in the winters, trying my hardest to scrape up enough cash to spend a few months somewhere with warm waves, good drugs, and cheap liquor before I went back up north to start my summer gig falling snags on wildfires. I was young. I was really into drinking and cocaine, watching fights and getting beat up in snowy parking lots by cowboys. It’s funny how much things have changed. At least now I do my drinking in a quiet place instead of a shitty bar in the asshole of the North. I’ve also realized how much I hate cocaine and why I do: because I loved it so much.
A few days ago, we published something on this site by a friend of mine named Jacob McCafferty. In short, it’s a shot at those in surfing that glorify drugs and drinking in surfing. Surfing has a long and storied history of societal outliers, many of whom filled themselves with poison in the name of fun. It’s a great piece, and totally on the money. Part of what makes surfing so great is the fucked up people with crazy stories, living on the fringe of a society that so many are disenchanted with but are too scared to leave. There are those that want the lifestyle being sold to them. Some might even dabble in it. But the ones that truly live it often end up unhappy or dead.
While the hardships do make for a better story, it’s only to a certain point. Andy Irons and Miki Dora are two of the most fabled men in surfing’s history, largely in part to their demons. They’re still sold to the masses as kings among men. And while I never met either of them, I think it can be said with some assuredness that neither was especially happy. Irons and Dora were supremely talented people who came to the end of their roads in the saddest of ways. Andy died a tragic death alone in a hotel room. Miki Dora raged against the commercialization of surfing while at the same time making money off of it. By the ’70s, he was on the run from the law for a variety of offenses. In 1981, he was arrested in France, then spent most of ’82 incarcerated. In 2002, he died of pancreatic cancer with no wife, no children, and only the memories of shimmering youth that grew dim with age. A fantastic story, and a miserable life. And yet, we look to both of them as role-models instead of teachers. Companies still profit from their lifestyles, selling it through images, quietly sweeping the real story under the rug in the name of the almighty dollar.
As harsh as it sounds, they’re not people for people to look up to. Instead, they’re people to learn from. Because in the end, they’re NOT stories. They’re people with real issues who needed help, and the industry’s glamorization of a lifestyle that helped shape surfing’s anarchist aura is only leading more down the same, unhappy path.
But Jacob’s piece condemned those who might glamorize a certain lifestyle. And while I agree with him, it got me thinking about something: why is it that we’re so eager to cheer on someone to risk their lives in waves when, at the same time, we’re so eager to condemn them for doing something that can be equally as risky?
A quick Google search shows that far more action sports athletes have died from their sports than have died from drugs. In 2009, motocross racer Jeremy Lusk died in Costa Rica after under-rotating a backflip and crushing his skull. Dean Potter, the noted free climber, BASE jumper, and highliner, died last year on a wingsuit flight in Yosemite. Mark Foo died at Maverick’s in 1994, Donnie Solomon died at Waimea the next year, Todd Chesser died at Alligator Rocks in ’97, Malik Joyeux at Pipeline in 2005, Sion Milosky at Mav’s in 2011… the list goes on.
Just last year, there were more than enough near-death wipeouts in a month-long span in Hawaii, including Evan Geiselman, Bede Durbidge, and Owen Wright. And yet, the only real action sports related company that has looked at the numbers and decided the lives of their athletes don’t have a dollar amount is Clif Bar. They dropped a handful of their top athletes because “the climbers take risks that make the company too uncomfortable to continue financial support.”
None of this is to say that drugs are better for you than sports. It’s simply to ask a question: when do we as spectators draw the line? It’s a losing battle, I think. Humans are, for the most part, hard-wired to watch destruction. We love to see people tempting the Reaper. We love to watch as death knocks on someone’s door, if only to live vicariously through them. We love to watch as talented people destroy themselves, then talk in whispers about it later. But it’s important to realize that they’re not just stories to talk about. They’re people with families, and in glamorizing it we’re shaping a narrative that sends those looking for role models down the wrong path. We’re adding fuel to a very dark fire.
So while hardships do make for a better story–that cocaine fueled night at the Iron Horse is an interesting tale to tell–when it comes down to it, it sucked. I hate the fact that I was there in that alley snorting shit-cocaine off a dumpster. But at the time, it felt raw and gritty. In a strange way, I was proud of myself. So whether we’re glamorizing drug use or glamorizing death-defying stunts merely by watching them, aren’t we equally as responsible when things go bad?