I once trespassed on US government land with six of my close friends to ride a twenty-foot-tall full pipe on my BMX bike. The pipe was near a tiny town in southwestern Wyoming—a three-hour drive from our hometown, Rock Springs. We woke up before dawn to ride this monolith.
The full pipe sat atop a massive spillway, which fed into a reservoir. To get to the spillway, my friends and I had to put our bikes in a shitty Kmart raft and paddle across fifty yards of ice-cold water. The rubber raft could only hold two people at a time, and it had a slow leak. My two friends made the first trip, paddling across the channel and then letting the current guide the raft back. By the time it reached shore, the raft had deflated, so I pumped it up and my friend piled our bikes in before we hurriedly paddled to the spillway.
When we’d all made it across, we walked our bikes up the large embankment, feeling giddy. The spillway was long and sharply sloped, like the ramps Olympic skiers jet down before hitting the long jump. My calves burned by the time I reached the top.
The pipe opened like the mouth of a whale—a black maw extending for over one-hundred yards. I could see light at the end, shining down onto a gigantic transition, which extended from the rest of the pipe at a ninety-degree angle, leading into sky.
Debris covered the bottom of the pipe—rocks, dirt, pieces of wood, plastic bottles, and what looked like a rat’s nest. Along with our bikes, we’d all brought a snow shovel or broom, and we spent the next hour clearing away this detritus. Aside from two messily tagged names, there was no graffiti in the pipe. Compared to the other full pipes I’d ridden, which were covered in spray paint, this one looked untouched. By the time we’d leave, dozens of black tire marks would snake through the pipe.
The friend that found out about this full pipe, who was six years older than me, said, “We’re some of only a handful of riders in the world who know about this place.” His voice echoed off the concrete. No one had told him about the pipe; he had found it by doing research on reservoirs in Wyoming and exploring several of them. We all understood what he was saying: Respect this place, but also rip it to shreds. I eagerly watched him and my other friend carve the pipe’s transitions.
When it was my turn, I pedaled at the end of the pipe for all I was worth. Air rushed past my ears, drowning my friends’ voices. As I climbed the monolithic transition, time slowed along with the rotation of my tires. A foot or two past the point where the transition became vertical, I lifted my handlebars and angled my head to look down. My tires left the concrete, and I tapped my brake lever, abruptly stopping my freewheel.
I was suspended, hanging in air.
Tendrils of hair reached from my head, as if I was underwater. Every thread in the fabric my being came together to serve a singular purpose: to carve this concrete tsunami and ride away in one piece. I turned my bars slightly, directing the rotation of my back end. During that moment, I coalesced with my bike and the concrete pipe, becoming a singular mass for a fraction of a second.
I was weightless.
Dogtown and Z-Boys, a documentary about the origins of modern skateboarding, begins with this quote from Craig Stecyk: “Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential. But it was the minds of 11-year-olds that could see that potential.” Later in the film, talking about skating pools, full pipes, cement embankments, and other structures not originally built for skateboarding, Stecyk says that this act “makes them into something more human than the architects originally had planned,” which also happens when you ride these objects on a BMX bike.
I grew up in Rock Springs, Wyoming, a dead end boomtown. For as long as I can remember, the industrial side of this place terrified me. I used to drive around and stare at massive machinery and equipment in industrial yards and near coal mines. All I really knew about these machines was that they could destroy me.
My dad worked in a power plant for over seventeen years, and he’d usually come home irritable and drained after working his graveyard shifts. He’d set his keys down, take off his work boots, and collapse onto the couch, putting the back of his hand over his eyes. From an early age, I understood that this type of work consumes people, constantly grinding them down. Dad had to retire when he was fifty because he has two herniated discs in his back.
In high school, my classmates would often talk about working tough blue-collar jobs. I’d try to follow these boys’ conversations, pretending like I understood what it was like to endure long, backbreaking shifts involving machinery that could swallow you. Really though, this world scared the shit out of me. BMX was a way for my friends and me to turn Rock Springs into something playful, making it our own.
One summer day, my best friend Steve and I drove along a highway just outside town. Steve noticed rows of huge metal pipes, all lying on their sides in an industrial yard right off the road. “I wonder if we could ride those things,” he said.
The gate was open, so I just drove in, passing three or four ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Barbed-wire-topped fencing lined the perimeter of the yard, and immense work equipment surrounded us. I stared at metal teeth, intricate piping, and humongous tires.
With some maneuvering, we were able to get our bikes through a small opening in one of the cylinders. Rust coated the inside of the pipe, and it took a minute or so for our eyes to adjust. The cylinder was hard to ride. Unlike a half pipe built for riding and skateboarding, there was no flat bottom, which would’ve made it a lot easier to accumulate speed.
I positioned myself at the bottom of one transition, then, pushing off, quickly rotated a bit less than 180 degrees on the other side. I spun on each side, then put pressure on my handlebars, pressing my front wheel into the transition’s curve to gain momentum.
The pipe amplified sound. A metallic roar replaced the usual zip of my tires.
Rust rose from the pipe’s surface, swirling around me as my tires touched the point where the transition curled over itself. Rust particles floated into my nose and mouth, sticking to my teeth. The pipe weighed thousands of pounds, but it shifted, slightly, against my weight and momentum.
Breathing in the rust became too much to handle after twenty or thirty minutes. The cylinder also magnified the dry Wyoming heat. A large work truck pulled up right after we got our bikes out. The driver, a middle-aged woman with short hair, said, “You guys should get out of here. I just called the sheriff’s department.”
Whenever I drove past the yard after riding the cylinder, I remembered the weightless feeling I experienced as I carved the pipe. I never found out why these cylinders had originally been built, and I didn’t care. After I rode one of them, the pipes seemed like they were made of something more malleable than industrial-strength steel.
Like the industry in Rock Springs, the town’s natural landscape always scared me. Sandstone cliffs, endlessly rolling hills, and hardpan prairie surround the town. And wind drones constantly. This environment only sustains the toughest vegetation—prairie grass, sagebrush, and cedar trees. Growing up here, you have no illusions about nature being kind and forgiving.
Large stretches of prairie divide the town, and there’s more than a few empty lots between houses and buildings. When I look back and try to figure out why my friends and I chose BMX instead of skateboarding, I think about the prairie that yawned behind my parents’ house, where dirt paths made by kids on motorcycles and four-wheelers cut through the sagebrush.
Back here, some neighborhood kids also built dirt jumps for their BMX bikes in a circular clearing. When I was eleven, I watched an older kid pedal toward the biggest jump in the clearing. I sat off to the side, on my Diamondback Viper. The kid’s white tires zipped off the lip, and the spokes in his front and back mag wheels looked like the blades of a slowing ceiling fan.
I needed to know how he felt in the air.
Along with my friends, I started building jumps out here, also making the old ones bigger. Throughout seventh, eighth, and ninth grade, you could find us digging or riding in this clearing pretty much every day, weather permitting. This patch of prairie became ours.
BMX was a tool that enabled my friends and me to transform the industrial and natural landscape into our playground. While skateboarding is a way to make sense of alienating concrete and metal objects, you can’t skate in dirt. A lot of kids in Rock Springs ride dirt bikes, roaring through the monotonous hills that encapsulate the town. But we wouldn’t have been able to ride full pipes, swimming pools, handrails, and cement embankments on motorcycles. BMX gave us access to the best aspects of skating and motocross.
At its core, freestyle BMX is a hybrid between these two activities. Freestyle was born when kids from the dusty Southern California hills began mimicking motocross riders by hitting jumps and popping wheelies on their Schwinn Stingrays. BMX quickly evolved as these kids built bigger jumps, catching more and more air. When BMX riders saw pictures of Dogtown skaters like Jay Adams and Tony Alva carving empty pools in the 70s, they knew they could do the same thing on their bikes. From here, it didn’t take riders long to start blasting ten-foot airs on vert ramps.
In a lot of ways, this trend of taking equal parts from skateboarding and motocross is still the lifeblood of freestyle BMX. As I type this, riders across the globe are grinding ledges and handrails like skate legends Jamie Thomas, Mark Gonzales, and Andrew Reynolds, and just as many others are flying off perfectly sculpted dirt lips, whipping their bikes to the side like motocross heroes Ricky Carmichael and Jeremy McGrath.
Scientists have been theorizing about why animals play for a long time. The most widely accepted idea, and the one that makes the most sense to me, is that play helps animals develop and sharpen skills they need to survive. Wolf pups tussle with each other so they can eventually wrestle an elk to the ground; lion cubs stalk their siblings and parents so they can ambush a gazelle one day, and dolphins practice aquatic acrobatics so they can evade sharks and catch fish.
But there’s a few examples of play in the animal kingdom that don’t serve such transparent purposes, like the crows that use sticks and other small objects to glide down snowy slopes. There’s a video on YouTube of a crow repeatedly riding what looks like a Snapple lid down a roof. Standing on the roof’s ridge, the bird sets down the tiny disc, tentatively putting on one foot. The crow then stands on the lid with both feet and rides down the slope, an act that looks unmistakably similar to snowboarding. After sliding for a few feet, the bird puts the disc in its beak, flies back to the top, and does it again.
Trying to account for this type of seemingly purposeless play, as well as more directly useful forms, Jason Goldman, an evolutionary theorist, offers this: “Play might make animals more psychologically flexible.” Like us, animals that can mentally adapt to new situations have better chances at survival.
Industrialization has changed the world in staggeringly fast and irrevocable ways, requiring heightened levels of psychological flexibility for both humans and animals. In this context, freestyle BMX is a way to sharpen the ability to mentally adapt, to practice the act of finding ways to look at the world that make it less threatening, which is something we need to do.
As with skating, riding BMX is also a way to feel like an animal. You get to dart through the air like a swallow, moving as fast as a mountain lion as you carve cement transitions or zip through dirt jumps in the woods. But, unlike driving a car or flying in a plane, you have to attain this movement with your own energy on a bike or skateboard.
When we were seventeen, Steve and I went on a road trip to Denver to ride the amazing skate parks and street spots in the area. Some local riders told us about a wall ride in a drainage ditch, located in the southeastern corner of the city. After hearing them talk about it, Steve and I had to check it out for ourselves.
We parked at a nearby bus station and quickly found the ditch, which burrowed between two main streets. Like the wind in Wyoming, traffic droned—a looming sonic presence. While I couldn’t wait to move out of Rock Springs and into a city, densely populated areas and sprawling webs of urban streets also scared me.
Two massive embankments rose from the ditch, leading up to twelve-foot walls made of cinder blocks. Steve and I rode down one bank and up the other a few times, trying to figure out the best way to ride on these walls. The cement of the banks and walls was like sandpaper: if you wrecked, it would tear your skin off.
After riding up to the wall a few more times, I finally thought, Fuck it. I’m going for it. To get yourself to do any dangerous trick, you have to push past fear’s surface tension and over the threshold of action and inaction, which is always uncomfortable. But this mental exercise will make you feel powerful in a way that you’ll never forget, like you can fully control your own mind.
I positioned myself atop one bank, feeling the buzz of traffic in my chest. Before I could psych myself out, I hopped on my pedals and jetted down the bank.
I eased up on my bars to absorb the sharp slope of the other embankment, hitting it at a forty-five-degree angle. When you go off a jump on a bike, your natural inclination is to straighten out in the air. In order to do a wall ride, you have to fight this instinct, tipping your shoulders toward the ground to make your bike horizontal.
I hopped onto the wall from the bank, and my tires adhered to the cinder blocks. As a kid, I used to watch small lizards run up and down vertical rock faces, always wishing that I could climb and move in the same way. Doing a wall ride on my bike was the next-best thing. I jumped from the wall and into the unforgiving embankment, gliding down it like a surfer dropping into a wave.
After I did it, Steve rode on the wall, too. His tires zipped as he darted up and down the bank. With each wall ride, we left black tire marks on the cinder blocks. Looking at our scrawling signatures—our version of cave painting—the drone of traffic became a distant hum, and the embankments seemed more like clay than rough cement.
From the ages of twenty-one to twenty-eight, I convinced myself that I’d outgrown BMX. When I first stopped riding, it was because I was sick of getting hurt, which is an inescapable part of the BMX equation. The less I rode, the harder it became to push myself past the fear of pain to try a new trick, which, I’d tell myself, was simply part of growing up, of developing the ability to realistically assess risk and consequence.
I now live in Fresno, California, and I recently bought a new BMX bike—my first new bike in over twelve years. Fresno can be a boring place, but there’s all kinds of stuff to ride here, including one of the few BMX-only concrete skate parks in the world, Mosqueda. Before getting my BMX bike, I’d often ride my road bike to the park, enviously watching kids ten years younger than me rip the intimidating transitions.
Two days after getting my new bike, I went to Mosqueda early in the afternoon. The locals were still in school, so I had the place to myself. When my life revolved around BMX and I rode every day, my bike felt like an extension of my body. Now, I felt shaky and unsure doing even the most simple things, like dropping into a quarter pipe. After a few runs through the park, though, my bike started to feel more familiar.
In high school, my friends and I constantly pushed each other to progress, doing increasingly gnarly shit. But simply carving around a bowl and pumping transitions for momentum is enough for me now.
When I went to the zoo as a kid, I’d watch penguins slide around their enclosure on their bellies, wishing that I could be in there, playing with them. This desire to move like an animal has never left me, a desire that has a particular pull when I watch a hawk or eagle play in the sky, letting thermals push them into the clouds. When I skim across Mosqueda’s glass-smooth transitions, there’s nothing besides me, my bike, and this concrete playground.