It came to me in my dreams. Occasionally, in my nightmares. I could feel the soft whoosh of cool, moist air passing over my body, the soft rumble of urethane passing over aged concrete jangled my nerves. The spirits of legendary skaters from days gone by filled my mind's eye--Howell, Page, Peralta, Alva, Alba, Roskopp, Smith, Miller, Hosoi, Hawk. Their faded whoops and catcalls seemed to echo from its dark depths, calling like sirens, drawing me toward it. I'd spent a lifetime looking for it, and the time had come. I'd found it. It was right around the corner. I felt like a penitent monk, whose 15-year vow of silence was finally to be lifted in just one more anxious moment....
And suddenly, there it was. I'd only ever seen it in magazines. The largest skateable concrete pipe west of the Mississippi. The Glory Hole. I admit it. I gaped.
It's one of the few times I was in awe of concrete. Having grown up in Southern California, I'd grown to accept the bland sameness of concrete--its utilitarian uniformity. It was a useful construction material used as a convenient means to simple ends--to house businesses, to drive cars upon, to build pastel-colored shopping malls to assuage the collective thirst for consumption. But I'd never appreciated the grand scale of concrete structures. Until that moment.
Thirty feet in diameter. For those of you who aren't geometrically inclined, that's a fifteen foot transistion, baby. Imagine pumping a transition that's almost three times your height. When you finally work up the speed and you hit vertical, you're five feet beyond the lip of most garden variety vert ramps. If you're ballsy enough to go beyond vert, you're upside down almost eighteen feet above the unforgiving floor. As you pump through the bottom of the pipe, your knees strain to withstand the g-forces and you struggle to maintain a graceful carve as your eyes begin to water from the speed and dry air. An equipment failure like a snapped truck bolt would smash your puny human frame into the pipe with awesome destructive force. The hollow "slap" of flesh against concrete would fade slowly against the inevitable moaning that would ensue....
I found it almost by accident. I'd moved to San Francisco to go to college. I'd been skating for almost two decades by that point, and at the time, street skating had come into its own. But I'd been brought up on concrete skateparks, with huge vertical walls and thundering transitions. My teeth were cut in places called Concrete Wave, Skatopia, Del Mar Skate Ranch, and the Upland Pipeline. I craved vertical. And in San Francisco in 1986, it was in disappointingly short supply.
So I took my classes and made do. I played around at Embarcadero, and ollied around the city. I managed to find the old Hunter's Point ramp, and skated that until the ramp splintered and failed, mirroring the urban decay surrounding it.
Before I moved up to San Francisco, I had asked everyone I knew where the Glory Hole was. There were tantalizing hints in the few articles I'd read about it. But nobody seemed to know for sure.
"Oh, it's out by the Salton Sea," I'd heard. "Naw, it's out in the middle of the desert in Arizona," another skater chirped helpfully. "No, I heard it was really at Hoover Dam, and the skate magazines got special permission from the government to skate it," offered another Glory Hole theorist.
The breadth and variety of the stories surrounding this legendary skate spot were so diverse that I began to doubt that it even existed. "Could it be that it's just a myth--an urban legend perpetuated by photographic tomfoolery to keep young skaters dreaming big dreams, and buying fancy tennis shoes?" thought I. After years of false leads and broken dreams, I finally gave up hope, and stopped asking.
One afternoon after class, I'd skated down to a local skate shop called Skates on Haight. I hear now that it's a pretty big mail-order place. Whatever. At the time, it was a fairly good-sized warehouse skateshop with a big inventory. I had come to pick out some wheels, when this old longboarder came in for a set of bearings. Admiring the old soul-stick the guy had, I struck up a conversation.
"Where you from?" I asked.
"Oh, here and there. I just drove down from Sacramento today. It was gettin' too damned hot there, so I thought I'd hit some hills in the city." he said.
"Is there good skating in Sacramento?" I knew there was, but he looked knowledgeable, and I was hoping he'd flow with some local insider info.
"Well, I skated this totally bitchin' ditch with Sam Cunningham yesterday. It's by this church, and it's right by the freeway. Pretty happening." He glanced behind the counter, probably wondering where the sales clerk had disappeared to.
"But," he drawled, "I felt like relaxing, so this morning I stopped by the Glory Hole and skated it for a couple hours before driving down. Like I said, it was gettin' hot." he said as he yawned.
My heart jumped. I tried to remain calm. "Be cool, be cool!" I kept saying to myself. I like to pretend that I sounded really mellow as I said, "Oh yeah? Where's that?" In reality, I'm pretty sure my voice cracked like a schoolboy.
He glanced over at me, looked me up and down, and said, "You've never been there? It's pretty cool."
I put on my most deprecating look, and said, "I think I've heard of it. Where's it at, exactly?"
And then, the info came. He told me as if I should have already known. I've never been more attentive in my life. I committed every detail to memory, and it's etched in my brain still. The highway numbers. The town names. The miles to drive to get there. What to bring. What not to bring. The nearest skateshop. My mind was reeling. I wanted to grow wings and fly there that very moment.
The old longboarder bought his bearings, climbed into his VW van, and drove away. I never saw him again. But he left me a gift. It was a precious gift I've used over and over again. It's given me so much pleasure, and not a little pain as well. And it's this gift I want to give to you.
I spent two hours pushing the motive limits of my little maroon Vespa scooter as I putted from San Francisco until I got to the dirt lot that marked the trailhead to the Glory Hole. After a brief, but sweaty hike from the trailhead, I knew I had found my El Dorado. There it was, looming before me, the cool, black void of the pipe infiltrating my tired soul.
I stared at the grand expanse of the Glory Hole as it lay before me, and I thought briefly of the many people who had skated the Hole before me, and would continue to skate it after I was gone. I began packing my supplies into the small 2-person raft I'd bought at K-Mart the week before. After stuffing my skate, my athletic bag that held my pads, and my backpack full of food and drinking water, I squeezed in and paddled slowly to the concrete pad that extended beyond the pipe, and served as a landing area.
There were a few skaters there already. They'd seen me slowly paddle over, and unload my stuff. They told me to keep my stuff in the raft, since the wind had a tendency to come up, and blow the rafts back into the water. I did that, then padded up and watched the others skate for a bit, to learn the lay of the land. I skated all day, and met all the locals. I made a few lifelong friends, and others who were good skate buds for many years.
I'm a 33-year-old man now. I've got a real job, a wife, and a baby son to take care of. My knees make all kinds of interesting crunchy noises when I get out of bed in the morning. I haven't skated in about two years, although I still keep my old skate in the truck (never know when it might come in handy). I don't live anywhere near the Glory Hole any more, but every once in a while, I still think of it. And I smile.
WHERE IS IT? The Glory Hole is the spillway pipe for the Monticello Dam. The dam holds back a large freshwater reservoir called Lake Berryessa. Lake Berryessa is located about an hour and a half's drive north of San Francisco, California.
HOW DO YOU GET THERE? From San Francisco, take Interstate 80 northbound. Continue north out of the immediate bay area, and head toward Vacaville. Just as you're passing through Vacaville, keep your eyes peeled for the Highway 505/Winters exit. Take that exit northbound. From Highway 505, take the Winters exit. Winters is a small farming community. It's a few miles west of Highway 505. It's about 15 miles due west of Davis, California (there's a large university in Davis, and it has some pretty good skateshops). Anyway, the last time I was there, there were no stoplights in Winters (that's how small it was). The main road from Highway 505 through Winters is Highway 128. It goes from Winters, up beyond Lake Berryessa, and eventually dumps you into Napa, California.
From downtown Winters, take Highway 128 west, toward Lake Berryessa. Go approximately nine (9) miles to the base of the dam. You will pass by a seasonal store which sells things like drinks, food, and fishing supplies for the campers at the nearby campground. Just past the store, you'll drive over Putah Creek (no joke), which is the name of the creek that flows out from Lake Berryessa.
This creek is very, very cold. Because it flows from the bottom of Lake Berryessa, the water temperature is right around 50 degress year-round. It's a good trout fishery, and there are usually lots of fly fishermen during fishing season (April through October).
Just past the bridge where you cross over Putah Creek, you will see a dirt parking lot to the right. Fishermen use this parking lot to hike back and fish Putah Creek all the way to the base of the dam. Park here.
Walk up the trailhead 1/4 mile to the base of the dam. The trail ends at a large rock formation. Climb out onto the rocks, and peek around the corner. You'll see the Glory Hole. A small body of water is between you and skate nirvana. You could try to climb the rocks along the left-hand wall and make it there, but I've never seen anyone successfully do this. Especially with an armload of skate gear. Best to bring a raft, canoe, or some other flotation device. You could try to swim it, but your testicles will wind up in your lungs. It's very, very cold, year round. Even when it's 100 degrees outside, the water will chill you to the bone. I don't recommend swimming it, unless you're really into hypothermia.
WHAT DO YOU NEED?
1) You need a skateboard. Longboard, vert board, street board, it really doesn't matter. They'll all work here. I recommend larger wheels, softer durometers, and tighter trucks. The 'crete is a bit pitted in places, and you need to keep your speed to pump those humongous transitions.
2) Pads are a good idea. Use at least knee pads, anyway. Helmets are useful to prevent unforeseen expulsion of brain matter.
3) A towel (comes in handy if you decide to soak your feet after a hot day of skating).
4) Food (the nearest store is a couple miles away, and you have to hike out to the parking lot first).
5) Water (bring a LOT, because it gets very hot in the summer, and you'll sweat a lot).
6) A friend. It's a good idea to go with someone else. If you skate alone, and hurt yourself, there's no way anyone would even know you were there, and if you couldn't get out by yourself, you're screwed.
7) A raft/canoe/flotation device. You can't get to the pipe unless you cross a small body of water. And it's a lot better to skate when you're dry than when you're wet. Do yourself a favor, and buy or borrow one of those small 2-person rafts you can get at K-mart for like thirty bucks.
8) A broom and kitty litter. Why? Because there is always a trickle of water in the bottom of the pipe (it does run under a freaking lake, after all). A push broom works great to sweep out the water and slime, and then spread some kitty litter into the pipe to soak up any residual moisture. Voila--a good skating surface.
IS IT A BUST? Nope. It's been skated for decades by local skaters. I even met up with a park ranger walking in one day, and he was only interested in me to see if I was going to go fishing, and whether or not I had a fishing license. He asked me where I was going, so I told him. He just told me to be careful, and let me go on my way.
WHAT'S IT LIKE? The pipe is huge. It's a spillway pipe for a reservoir, and it's 30 feet in diameter, and extends about 200-300 feet into the face of a dam. It then bends upward until it hits vertical, then pokes out above the surface of the lake above the dam. You can climb up the elbow bend if you're feeling adventurous. I've seen guys climb up a very short way up that elbow and then skate down the length of the pipe. It's dark, it's fast, and there's a lot of debris at the bottom of the pipe, so watch where you're skating.
Most skaters stick to the first two sections of pipe at the end. The decades of flowing water have pitted the bottom of the pipe, so it's a little rough. Softer wheel durometers are recommended for best results. The bigger the wheel, the better. You're not grinding here, and you need lots of speed. The second section back is smoother, and you can start there, and skate out to the front of the pipe. You can even grind the lip of the pipe when you're feeling particularly gnarly. The coolest move I ever saw there was a local using a longboard doing a bert slide to vertical, then grinding down the lip. A few inches the wrong way, and he'd have been dropping fifteen feet to the flat concrete outside the pipe.
If you go in the summer, it's hot. Very hot. You'll skate for a few minutes, and then collapse from the heat. There are no services anywhere nearby. Bring plenty to drink or eat, because you have to hike in about 1/4 mile from the parking area to get there, then paddle across about forty feet of water to access the pipe. Bring toilet paper if you're prone to unexpected bowel movements (please don't shit in the pipe--it's just plain disgusting). Plan to spend several hours there, at least. It's a unique skating experience that should be enjoyed for as long as possible. It's usually an all-day session.
One last note--this little tale was written in 1998. We've just had the wettest year in 15 years, so the spillway pipe was most likely flooded out all winter long. Conditions in the pipe may be worse than I remember, since a lot more water was probably pumping through the spillway pipe. Your mileage may vary.
I hope someday you'll be able to hit the Glory Hole with the same spirit of fun and awe that I experienced. I've skated it hundreds of times since I first found it back in 1987, and there's always a fun vibe that I pick up when I skate there. The locals from Winters are totally cool (at least, they were when I was skating it), so respect the Glory Hole, and clean up after yourself.
If you've been there lately, maybe you can drop me an e-mail and tell me how it was. I still dream of it, sometimes.
Joe Griego--just another old skater