What’s the last thing you want to hear when you’re driving a 30-foot rented RV down a winding mountain road?
I’ll tell you what.
“Where’s that water coming from?"
It was a simple instruction: don’t use the toilet, boys. And if you have to (which you don’t) make sure it’s emptied. But no, it’s happening again. This is only the latest in a series of plumbing disasters to have plagued our American road trip. All of them self-inflicted, I hasten to add (apologies now to the nice folk from the rental company who might be reading this). The video edit we’re working on is threatening to become a belated sequel to Waterworld – and only marginally less costly.
It’s mid June, and the UK Vans team are in Mt Hood, a pilgrimage of sorts to the undisputed mecca of summer snowboarding. For the past two decades, this lonely volcano in Oregon, with its two freestyle camps – High Cascade and Windells – has served as an annual polestar for the shred community. Riding careers have been born here, new tricks thrown down in the slush with clockwork regularity, and amusing fashions (skinny pants, bucket hats) unleashed upon the wider winter scene – spurred on by nearby Portland, the plaid-shirted capital of all things hipster.
All this is incidental, however, for right now we are driving down the famous tree-lined road from the beginning of The Shining with a mystery stream of what might be piss lapping at the edge of the driver’s seat. Kubrick this ain’t. Events on this trip are a bit more… Inbetweeners 2.
In hindsight – no, forget hindsight, it was pretty obvious at the time – the trip began to go off the rails when the boys scored a Tupperware container full of biblically potent weed from some blokes at a backwater gas station. Gareth Andrews, a stubbly stoner and graduate of the Milton Keynes indoor scene, immediately rolled up the first of what would prove an almost hourly spliff.
“I swear I could happily spend my entire life living in an RV," he says, brushing stray tobacco from his favourite festival knit hoodie and twisting the joint into a crooked cone.
I look around. I’m not so sure. The van is beginning to resemble the set of The Young Ones. Seven blokes have set up camp amongst a squalour of dishes, damp outerwear, stray socks and beer bottles. There’s a bong in the sink.
"Swear down bruv!" pipes Sparrow Knox from his perch on the back of a foam bench. “When you're camping, you don't need to wash up. You just re-use that bacon fat innit."
Sparrow is wearing his favourite chequered thermals, shovelling cereal from a greasy bowl. As usual. He was carrying a bowl of cereal when he picked up his lift pass from the manager at Timberline. He was wearing his thermals then too. In fact come to think of it he hasn’t worn anything else for almost the entire trip. He wears them to bed; he wears them on the mountain; and he was even wearing them earlier when he fell on his arse at 30mph whilst skitching off the back of the RV. Chris Chatt, Vans’ UK team manager, had originally planned to be here to “help crack the whip" but circumstances meant he could only wave us off at the airport. I’m not sure what Chatt would make of his charge’s wardrobe choices – he was last seen stuffing a catalogue into my hand with a load of clothing circled which he specifically wanted me to shoot. I don’t remember seeing the thermals in it.
In truth there is no taming Sparrow Knox. That is his whole charm. Since rising to prominence alongside Jamie Nicholls as one of the country’s supergroms (‘Mowgli’ was his apt nickname at the time) his own path has taken a more meandering route. Not for Sparrow the straight and narrow of the contest circuit. He rides what he wants, when he feels like it – which for a year or two recently, wasn’t that much. Skating London with his pro brother Tom and just enjoying life took priority. But now’s he’s back on a snowboard and killing it with that same effortless style that had him marked out as a kid. He is a snowboarding version of The Gonz: spontaneous, loose, creative, a tad hyper. He looks at the world sideways, and always with a big grin on his face. Example: I walked into the campsite bathroom the other morning, and heard a familiar voice from behind a cubicle – warbling loudly.
“Sparrow, are you singing while you shit?" I ask.
“Nah man I’m shitting while I sing!" comes the reply, without skipping a beat.
That’s Sparrow. Up in the mountain carpark the next day, we bump into a pair of high school girls who tell us they’ve come all the way from Portland to catch a glimpse of their hero Sage Kotsenburg. In the time it takes a neuron to fire in that strangely-wired brain of his, Sparrow has adopted a Texan accent and told them that he’s good mates with Sage. An outrageous lie, of course. He then proceeds to take out his mobile and conduct an imaginary two-minute conversation with the Olympic gold medallist, leaving the girls slack jawed. ‘Hanging up ‘, he flashes a cheeky smile and announces they’ll find him taking lunch in the Lucky Guy Chinese restaurant, down off the freeway. The girls wander off excitedly in the direction of their car…
It’s nearly midday at this point, and despite setting my alarm for 7.30am we’ve only just arrived at Timberline resort – home to all the summer riding on Hood. This is standard practice for this trip. Even though we’re actually sleeping in the vehicle that will take us to the mountain, it takes over four hours to herd the crew up the hill and into their gear via the inevitable showers, shits, skin-ups and skate sessions. Only Rowan Coultas, the youngest member of team, appears able to get ready within a reasonable time frame – thanks presumably to being the only one of the riders not inhaling colossal amounts of THC on an hourly basis.
We typically arrive at the top of the park just as the shapers are closing it for an hour’s grooming. The boys take the opportunity to enjoy a warm-up lap and a cheeky pre-rolled while us media sherpas fry in the sunshine surrounded by gear.
The lunchtime reshape is part of the daily routine on Hood’s Palmer Glacier, a necessary procedure to prolong the life of the snow in temperatures that – even here at nearly 3,500m – regularly reach the mid 20’s in summer. In fact while the annual ash cloud of video edits that spew forth from this volcano make it look like the most relaxed place on earth, there’s a military precision to the whole operation. Campers at High Cascade are split into groups of no more than seven and assigned one of a 30-strong coaching team; a squadron of shuttle buses promptly ferries them each morning from the complex at nearby Government Camp to the base station at Timberline. Every hour of the subsequent day is equally planned out. There are handplant clinics, halfpipe clinics, front board and freeride clinics – an army of 18 diggers ensuring all freestyle features are perfectly groomed. Visitors like ourselves are made to check in or face mandatory expulsion – the mantra we keep hearing is “campers come first". Considering the average cost of a week is $1800, I can see why.
As impressive as the organization is, the camps at Mt Hood aren’t quite the vast playground they might appear from the videos. High Cascade’s private park boasts one decent-sized kicker, a dozen or so rails and a halfpipe. And while you’d be forgiven for thinking the competing crew at Windells occupy some far-off corner of the mountain, in truth their park sits right alongside HCSC, separated only by a rope. For now, however, Windells’ creative-looking set-up remains off limits – I’ve swung many a media pass in my time, but tickets to this place are harder to blag than front seats to a Led Zep reunion.
No matter – the boys set to work at High Cascade, hiking hits for the benefit of Grindhouse director Jamie Durham, who’s been employed to shoot the official Vans edit. I say ‘for his benefit’ – in reality the long-suffering Jamie is the crew’s bitch. “Film this. Film that. Nah I don’t like the way my arm looks, can we film it again?" He embraces this subservient role with all the deadpan enthusiasm of Marvin the Paranoid Android.
At the end of day, we float aimlessly around the RV, making bacon sandwiches amid the debris and skating traffic cones. Panic briefly sets in amongst the stoners when the solitary ketchup bottle cannot be found. Cupboards are emptied out into the main mess pile until somebody digs out the receipt for the big shop and discovers it was never bought in the first place. “Fuck! Life!" howls Will.
There’s a familiar extra face in the van. Jesse Augustinus, Burton’s jib kid from Holland, has become a regular hitchhiker for the journey to and from town. He is acquainted with our group’s award-winning levels of mincing, and is wisely playing with his phone while he waits for someone to break the general inertia. The trouble is, time and place carry no discernible signal inside the sphere of a campervan. Eventually we peer outside our little Tardis and discover we are the sole remaining vehicle in the vast parking lot. Again. I crawl into the front seat and begin navigating our way down the hill. It feels like piloting an oil tanker. The boys sit around the living room table, swaying in time with the switchbacks. One of the usual suspects has begun the process of rolling another bifta. “You guys are, er… consuming a lot of weed huh?" observes Jesse. Coming from a Dutchman, I think the guys take it as a compliment.
“Paedos don’t always think about fucking kids," I hear Gaz pronounce at some point above noise of the engine. “Like, sometimes they think about what they need to get from the shops." I’m constantly amazed by these surreal conversations. Now Jesse has his phone out again and is showing everyone a video he was sent by a girl in town. She’s playing with her tits in the shower. I nearly career off a bend. “No, we never did anything," he insists. “She just keeps sending me this stuff since last year. Look…"
The small town of Government Camp (aka ‘Govy’) is dominated by the infrastructure of High Cascade. They have a main lodge, numerous other accommodation blocks, foam pit, nurse’s office, demo centre and dodgeball court. The jewels in its crown, though, are the epic skate facilities – two mini ramps, a large street course and, across the road, an amazing all-wooden bowl complex. This being the Vans team, each afternoon sees the boys use their last dregs of energy tearing up the coping in the hot sun. Sparrow, in particular, crushes it.
Refuelling comes courtesy of another Mt Hood institution, Cobra Dog. This modest hot dog trailer offers up some tasty German sausages, and to cap things off we’re served by local Capita shredder Spencer Schubert. Anywhere else in the world this would seem strange, but in Hood pro sightings are a daily occurrence. Sage Kotsenburg (just as Sparrow promised) is in town this week – hosting a signature session for the kids; and our online editor Sam has already conducted interviews with Zak Hale and Dan Brisse. On our way back to the van we bump into a celebrity of a different kind – Jesse’s girlfriend from the shower video. She asks him what he’s doing tonight, lingering awkwardly and thrusting out her cleavage. I’m half expecting her to present him with a gun rack.
We leave Jesse to his next viral video and drive on down the highway to grab dinner provisions from the supermarket, one of those weird dim-lit American affairs with beige signs and a pervading smell of cinnamon. A woman who resembles Cat Lady from The Simpsons stops dead in her tracks at the mere sight of us. “You guys are a funny lookin’ bunch!" she screeches. “Ahahaha!" To be fair, our group is a random collision of beards, fishing hats and waffle soles. Sparrow, naturally, is still wearing his thermal trousers.
Will pays for the whole shop and, much to our collective amusement, we all pay him back in ones and fives. His wallet looks like a Monopoly bank. Food is already out and beers cracked as we climb back into a vehicle now smelling suspiciously like Cheech and Chong’s sock drawer. From out of nowhere Gaz has produced a second enormous bong, a plastic Frankenstein formed of a gallon jug, foil and some kind of twine tourniquet. He’s called it Gordon. Catching sight of my raised eyebrow, he sucks bubbles through the water and laughs huskily. “It proper works though!" Things are threatening to get looser than they already are, so I jab at the accelerator to keep them on their toes. The V8 roars into life, sending a can of lager all over Jamie’s £7000 camera. “Will! Mop it up with the money!" yells Sparrow. “It’s destiny!"
Another minor flooding managed, we return to our RV park in the woods. Oregon is full of woods. It’s like Endor – great big pine forests and ewoks as far as the eye can see. The trees provide us with some useful cover, out of sight of the camp organisers. For although High Cascade is “100% Snowboarding" – and we’re most definitely snowboarders – this bizarre rabble of British media types and perma-baked slackers probably shouldn’t mix with their impressionable clients.
“This trip’s weird," says Will as I turn the engine off. “Normally you travel ages to get somewhere, but this time we get there and we’re already there. It’s proper spinning me out."
I stop outside and find Sparrow and Gaz engaged in a knife-throwing competition using a nearby tree. Rowan is trying to get a fire going – he has all the good intentions of a boy scout, but none of the skills (as with most of his generation, Rowan’s prowess lies more in the 60-posts-per-minute-on-your-smartphone department).
“Has anyone got a lighter?" he asks.
"I got two lighters mate," says Gaz. “I got this fire going from BOTH directions."
Finally, with the help of copious lighter fluid, there’s a good blaze going in the pit. Spirits (and three of the campers) are high.
“Jamie! Film us y’cunt!" crows Sparrow. “Me and Gaz are about to smoke a cigarette in one drag."
Jamie sighs and picks up his camera.
Just as we’re settling into the marshmallow-toasting stage, we notice a steady tinkling sound from somewhere in the darkness. Slowly it dawns on us that there’s nobody there – though Gaz had recently disappeared in the direction of the van. Now water begins pouring from every crack, falling down the sides of the RV and onto the ground.
“Fuck! The water! The toilet!!"
We burst inside to find Gaz oblivious, rolling another spliff at the table while the toilet he’s just vacated is overflowing and refilling constantly.
“Who put the burrito in the bathroom sink?!" I ask, as we finish mopping up the latest calamity.
“That was me," replied Gaz. “To be fair, I ran in there when the toilet was overflowing and some of the potato fell out."
“Nothing puts a dampener on an evening like a flooded toilet," concludes Sam.
“Well it’s not flooded anymore," offers Gaz hopefully.
Nevertheless, it’s time for bed. Another funny fact about RVs: you get to ‘enjoy’ pillow talk with seven guys. The conversation on this night turns back to paedos, and who do you think is gonna be busted next in Operation Yewtree? Prime suspects appear to be Del Boy, Noel Edmunds and Bruce Forsyth. Cliff Richard doesn’t even get a look-in.
I am drifted toward consciousness by the dim light through the curtains and a faint tinkling sound from close by. No, it can’t be… No… Oh yes. Sparrow is taking a piss. Against advice. In the toilet system we’ve still yet to empty. Within two minutes the inevitable has happened and it’s all hands to the pumps.
“I was like, ‘slightly damp feet or just use the toilet?’" he explains, with an embarrassed laugh.
As punishment, Sparrow is assigned to sewage detail. Only, instead of waiting to use the designated ‘dump station’ he opens the valve where we’re parked, and we can only watch as clumps of bog roll float like yellow icebergs towards a neighbouring tent. Time to get out of Dodge.
Today Windells have granted us access to their hallowed snow and skate parks. Their set-up on the glacier includes some slightly quirkier jib features with plenty of tranny finder options. They also host the biggest kicker on Hood, an 80-ft super booter that’s designed to test the best of the visiting pros – which at Windells, unlike High Cascade, also includes skiers. Young Rowan wastes no time taming the beast, sending a slow motion back 7 after just one practice air. “I’m bored of speed testing with 3’s," he shrugs. The airtime is nuts – you can actually hear the riders’ clothing flapping in the breeze as they sail over the massed ranks of photographers, filmers and flashes. Smith and the rest of the crew, meanwhile, get busy destroying the rest of the park. Our posse of UK riders are more than holding their own in the home of summer snowboarding – in fact from the park to the town, they’re turning heads:
“Were you the guys skateboarding in the street the other night?" asks a woman down in Govy that afternoon.
“Erm, yes," we tentatively reply. Skateboarding isn’t allowed on the roads here – as we’ve been warned.
“That. Was. AWESOME! It was like renegades had taken over the town!"
That. Was. AWESOME! It was like renegades had taken over the town!
But as fun as our alien invasion has been so far, the famous Windells skatepark takes things to another level. Whereas the off-hill entertainment at High Cascade is spread around Govy, here the kids stay on a secluded campus set within the Oregon forest. And the whole place is one giant skatepark. Transitions wrap around the base of trees, whoop-de-doos thread between the bungalows and it all opens out into the most perfect concrete park you’ve ever seen. If Carlsberg did skateboarding, this would be it. I pick up a helmet from the demo centre, where every conceivable model of snowboard is stacked neatly in racks for the campers to enjoy, and join the boys in rolling around the smooth lines. Shaun White once honed his skills here, and today there’s a new prodigy named Sean – 13-year-old Sean Fitzsimons – who’s boosting boned airs out of the quarterpipe with sickening ease. Of our crew, only Sparrow might have been able to give this kid a run for his money, but he somehow twisted his ankle in a freak rope-tow incident and we are denied the chance to see what he could do to the place. That irrepressible energy has been visibly sucked out of him, and he mongs about in the corner like one of Gaz’s discarded bongs.
Luckily for Mr Knox, he doesn’t have to endure watching from the sidelines for much longer. Our time in Hood is up, and the next morning we make the two-hour return journey to Portland. Here we fulfill our Tony Hawk Pro Skater dreams with one last pilgrimage – to Burnside, the legendary park carved out of the shadowy recesses of a freeway bridge. It’s an intimidating place, with gnarled and cracked transitions, and weirdos gathered on the sidewalk. Jamie clutches his expensive camera a little closer. Even the other skaters look a bit menacing as they wordlessly drop in, the crack of ollies and screech of urethane echoing through the underpass. Holy land.
Soon however we are back in the more bohemian environs of downtown Portland with its vinyl stores, bike shops and vintage outlets. The hipster thing might be ripe for satire, but around here they embrace it whole-heartedly. The city has a palpable creative edge. It’s the kind of place where the strippers wear glasses, and the strip club has its own micro brewery. We check into the Crystal, a boutique hotel attached to a live music venue (see what I mean?). A night of clean-sheeted luxury awaits, and yet some weird prison mentality appears to have taken hold of the group – for the boys are strangely reluctant to leave their shared beds in the familiar confines of the RV. They have become institutionalized – so much so that I will later discover three of them hot boxing the luggage compartment.
The lady at the check-in desk explains that two of us will have to share a room.
“I don't mind sharing," says Will straight away.
“Innit," nods Gaz. “I'd almost rather. Hotel rooms on your own are a bit weird. They kinda turn into little wank dens."
And with that, I leave them and retire to my room. Alone.