Stunts, Detours, and Surprises in the Deep South

Canada Boys Weird and Revered take the Southern Road

28 Dec 2017

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ASU Equinox Structure – Photo: Wikipedia

Words by Justin Schwanke

When it comes to planning a BMX trip, the world is your playground. There are plenty of obvious destinations to choose with consideration of warm weather, incredible spots, and strong scenes; think Los Angeles, Barcelona, or Vancouver. However, there are also the often overlooked or rarely explored locations in the BMX landscape. The former is likely to prove fruitful while the latter can be a gamble.

On our most recent trip, we opted for the unconventional. After much deliberation about where we wanted to film next for our upcoming DVD, we chose to head to the Deep South. Many people—both at home and on the trip—were perplexed as to why we would travel to this region. To them, the last place they would want to be is the Southeastern United States. To us though, this destination offered intrigue and adventure. We wanted to see what the Deep South is really like compared to what we’re told it’s like. The media often portrays the south as a land of toothless gun-toting Trump supporters. We knew there was more to the region than a stereotypical anecdote, and thus we decided to find out for ourselves. 

After some flight time, our trip officially began in Atlanta, Georgia. We were greeted at the airport by a quartet of pre-teen pop divas. Thomas accompanied them in song while we patiently waited for our rental vehicle. Contributing his occasionally flat notes, Thomas immersed himself in Beyoncé covers with the girls. Eventually, these airport harmonies came to an end as we completed the paperwork to obtain a pearl white Dodge Grand Caravan. Wasting no time, Thomas connected his auxiliary cord to the dashboard of our “soccer-mom-mobile” turned “20-something-road-trip-wagon.” He cued up Outkast’s ATLiens and we were suddenly taken back to the renaissance era of southern rap. This musical testosterone boost gave him the bravery to tackle a frantic maze of freeways and “Spaghetti Junction[s].” Our travels would take us through a variety of cities and towns in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Below is a collection of stories from our time on the road.

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Rest in pieces. Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Thomas Henderson

Popsicle Sticks

On our first riding day of the trip we stumbled across a multitude of we what we dubbed “Big Boy Set-Ups.” These weren’t normal street set-ups; these were “file-your-own-taxes, serve as power of attorney for your grandmother, grown man street spots.” Throughout downtown Atlanta and the Georgia Tech campus we found lengthy gaps, impressive wallrides, and large stairsets. The hype was high and the nerves were low. These conditions made for a productive day of filming. 

After riding the last spot of the night, I noticed my bars felt loose. I grabbed an Allen key to give the bolts a twist. To my surprise though, they were all tight. I pushed on my bars once more and they suddenly pealed away from the bike. Startled, I examined the separated pieces. The dichotomized bicycle part was my stem. It had sheared in half like a two-stick popsicle on a sweltering afternoon.

"It had sheared in half like a two-stick popsicle on a sweltering afternoon"

Weeks prior to this event, I had gloated to my friends about how much I treasured my stem. With no cut-outs and a lengthy 65mm reach, I figured I would be riding this block of metal for life. Thomas and Jesse would often mock me for trusting an archaic component dated back to the early 2000’s. My over-confidence clearly came back to bite me. The component—fatigued from old age—finally broke.  

Despite no longer having an operational bike, I experienced the safest outcome possible. Had the component failed while riding some of the bigger set-ups earlier in the day (Ex. Gap to firecracker at 2:43 and parking lot drop at 3:04 in the video), I could have been seriously injured. In hindsight, I should have listened to my friends and replaced my stem long ago. Nonetheless, this was an opportunity to reflect on the blessings within my mistake. 

The next day resulted in frustration as we tried to find a bike shop that stocked BMX stems. During our phone calls and visits to various shops we cringed at the recurring line of “We can order one in, but you’ll have to wait 2 weeks.” Finally, we contacted a bicycle rental store and were told that they had BMX stems in stock. Awaiting us was a generic forged Taiwanese catalog product with no logos. I had nothing to lose so I handed over $30 and installed the stem in the parking lot. Hours later I realized the stem’s clamping area was mismachined and ovalized. My bars would continue to slip for the rest of the trip.

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Statue of Limitations 

Our next destination on the trip was Montgomery, Alabama. Parked at a university, we unloaded the bikes, pedalled around campus, and hunted for spots. Jesse immediately saw something in the middle of the campus square. The structure awaiting us could be best described as a demented Hot Wheels Loop De Loop with obtuse angles at its apex. Deemed another “Big Boy Set-Up,” we decided it was best to come back later in the day. We proceeded to session various spots within the city’s core and returned to the unusual statue in the afternoon. 

After some deliberation, I decided I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to ride this unique spot. I planned to ride up the transition on one side, jump through the middle, and land in the transition on the other side. After some camera set-up, I was ready to go. I pedalled hard towards the structure. My wheels travelled up the transition, eventually reaching the vertical. As I tried to transfer to the right, I realized I had misjudged my speed. I went too far up the vertical and was unable to hop and level out across the gap. My front tire rode off the side and I was sent into a full nose dive. Picture an overzealous kid trying to impress his friends by riding his bicycle off a drop. He approaches the edge of the drop, but fails to lift the front wheel and is inevitably sent over the bars. After roughly 18 years of riding BMX, I too succumbed to that amateur error. I plummeted off the statue and my bike was sent bouncing across the pavement. Pandemonium erupted. Cheers and jeers filled the campus square. “That white boy’s crazy!” a student hollered. 

Gasping for error, after having knocked the wind out of myself, I grabbed my bike and hobbled away. We sat around the corner on some stairs as I tried to catch my breath. Eventually, the student spectators found us and began asking questions like, “Are y’all Youtube stars?” It was an odd exchange of sheer shock, complete confusion, and slight awe. We gathered such a crowd that some other “campus stars” interpreted the event as a marketing opportunity. Two local rappers awkwardly promoted their hip hop crew’s latest mixtape as we sat there in disbelief. Once I caught my breath, I indicated to Thomas that I may re-attempt the stunt if the crowd dispels. I picked up my bike to cruise around, but soon realized I couldn’t complete a pedal stroke. My knee was swollen and seizing up. The university’s unusual concrete homage to Ratchet & Clank was victorious. I had lost the battle.

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Jesse harnessing his inner fish. Gulf Breeze, Florida. Photo: Justin Schwanke

Attack of Electric Steve

After a couple dramatic riding days, we were ready for some beach time on the coast. Of the three of us, Jesse was most excited to harness his inner fish. Within 15 minutes of arriving in Gulf Breeze, Florida he had procured commercial grade snorkelling goggles. Jesse’s enthusiasm elevated as we headed to the shorefront. He sprinted towards the water and quickly submerged himself. Thomas and I lounged lethargically on the sparkling white sand beach, occasionally hearing shrieks of delight from our friend. “I found a school of fish!” he shouted.

Eventually, Thomas went to join “National Geographic Jesse” on his quest to spot “Electric Steves” and “Sting Daves.” This adventure was short lived, yet arguably successful. From afar, I watched as Thomas flailed in a frenzied panic. He galloped and swam towards the shore. After having recovered from his inner turmoil, he later explained that he had obliviously stepped on an electric ray. This land-locked prairie boy was no match for the creatures of the Gulf of Mexico. Electric Steve: 1. Thomas: 0.

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Thomas Henderson. Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Justin Schwanke

Ratty Riverwalk 

It wouldn’t be a trip to New Orleans without seeing the French Quarter. Our experience in the Big Easy’s famed cultural and party district was memorable. We parked our minivantastic automobile on the outskirts of the neighbourhood and took a leisurely stroll. It was unusually quiet as we walked through the residential area of the district. We admired houses coated with yellow, pink, and blue pastel hues. Residents sat nonchalantly on their porches or balconies, enjoying a comfortable evening. The air was humid and calm. The streets were even calmer; or so we thought. 

When we finally wandered to the nearby Mississippi River we were met with an unruly sight. In stark contrast to the previous scene, a woman was squatting on the river bank with her skirt pulled up and her underwear on the ground. She was taking a dispassionate poop. We awkwardly made eye contact, but she was unperturbed. Perhaps this was a regular routine. Baffled, we continued to walk along the waterfront and away from Miss Excrement.  

Thomas, Jesse, and I proceeded to sit on a bench and admire the vastness of the river. A rustling noise was heard in an adjacent trashcan. “What was that?” we wondered. An oleaginous creature swiftly emerged from the bowels of the garbage can. It scuttled down the metal rails, sprinted across the walking path, and hid in the grass. Beady eyes poked through the damp blades of greenery. The animal waited cautiously and then scurried back to the trashcan. Upon further examination, we realized the creature was a rat. With ease, the rodent climbed back to the top and dropped inside for a late-night snack. Jesse aptly named the rodent, “Pat the Garbage Rat.” We began cracking jokes and analyzing the rat’s every move. 

To many, rats are grotesque animals with little to admire. However, for us, this rodent was a source of entertainment. Being from Alberta—proudly proclaimed a “rat-free province”—the resourcefulness of the rat impressed us. Travelling inadvertently broadens your perspective both in trivial and meaningful ways. I can’t say that admiring a rat or witnessing a woman poop on the side of the Mississippi River were necessarily enlightening experiences. However, what I can say is that stumbling upon something foreign is memorable. I’m sure one day my friends and I will reminisce about Pat the Garbage Rat. For better or for worse, these images, sounds, and feelings will be etched into our brains for years to come. It’s these unusual experiences that form the foundation of an unforgettable trip.

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Thomas Henderson at Parasite DIY Skatepark. New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Ooti Billeaud

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Hank Williams wears a helmet. You should too. Montgomery, Alabama. Photo: Justin Schwanke

No Margaritas in Margaritaville

Our nighttime walk eventually took us to New Orleans’ renowned Bourbon Street. We sought to find a bar that had the hockey game on TV. Our hometown team was competing in the NHL playoffs for the first time in 11 years. It was Game 7 of the 2nd round. If the Edmonton Oilers won, they would move on to the Western Finals. If they lost, that would be the end of their season. We understood that the chances of finding a hockey-supporting bar in New Orleans was low. With perseverance though, Thomas convinced someone to display the game for us. 

As we entered the saloon, we were greeted by sweaty middle-aged adults belting out Jimmy Buffet tunes. They sloppily drank and swayed to Margaritaville for what was likely the millionth time. We pushed our way through the sticky bodies, headed upstairs, and entered a relatively vacant room. We sat at the bar and asked the bartender if she could put the hockey game on. She unenthusiastically fulfilled our request. 

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Thomas Henderson at Waterboyz Skatepark. Pensacola, Florida. Photo: Justin Schwanke

It was the final period of the game. We screamed in panic as the puck glided to and from the Oiler’s net. The bartender was perplexed with our disposition. Three young men were losing their sober minds over a game of hockey in N’awlins while ambient electronic music played in the background. Ultimately, the fate of the Edmonton Oilers was sealed as the Anaheim Ducks scored their 4th goal. They would go on to defeat the Oilers 4 to 3. Our excitement suddenly died. We quickly exited the bar with our heads low and spirits even lower. 

Disappointed, we decided to return to our vehicle and call it a night. Along our way, we noticed that the first floor of the previous saloon encapsulated much of Bourbon Street. In one ear I could hear an Eagles cover band. In the other ear I could hear crocked dads on balconies hollering at women below. With open liquor and open floral shirts, they shouted obscenities. My impression of Bourbon Street is that it’s a place where middle-aged adults go to party like they’ve just reached the legal drinking age. As we walked towards our minivan, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony of it all. These 40-somethings had departed on a $500 flight to get as far away as possible from their minivan at home and indulge in debauchery. Meanwhile, us 20-somethings had boarded the same $500 flight to go on a peculiar BMX road trip in a minivan. Some may argue that things will change with age, but I just can’t imagine myself “wastin’ away again in Margaritaville.”

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Baton Louge, Louisiana. Photos: Justin Schwanke

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Gator Street

Baton Rouge is home to Louisiana’s state capitol and those slanted brick walls you’ve probably seen in BMX videos, but don’t recall the location of. We visited each of these attractions, but were rained out shortly after. As a minivan full of BMX riding foreign nationals, we planned the logistical next step when slick pavement threatened our two-wheeled acrobatics. We hightailed it to the nearest nature conservatory with the hopes of seeing alligators. 

Thomas—who was driving—was initially too engrossed in shrieking at the malevolent Garmin GPS to notice the sudden deluge of water that was overtaking the streets. We were in the middle of a torrential downpour. The raindrops pounded the roof of our minivan with such speed that it sounded like deafening white noise. We wondered, “Was this normal for the region? Was our windshield going to break from the violent force of the rain?” Amidst this chaos, our natural response was to laugh hysterically. We howled as a small sedan drove through what was probably two feet of water in a turning lane. We would later find out that mother nature even unleashed a brief EF-1 tornado in the area. 

Despite our rather nominal efforts throughout the trip, we did not see a single alligator in the Deep South. National Geographic Jesse was the most disappointed. During the downpour, I’m sure he was envisioning Baton Rouge’s roadways being overtaken by coarsely scaled swamp monsters. These alligators would prey on urbanites in convertibles. Lurking in the street’s murky waters, they would sneak up on unsuspecting yuppies. Without hesitation, a violent human lunch order could be fulfilled. Unfortunately for Jesse, his apocalyptic dream did not come true.

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Pasty white and/or sunburnt red. Dorky and/or weird. Photo: Justin Schwanke

‘Til Next Time 

The saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” rings true in the case of the southeastern United States. The Deep South is indeed an atypical destination for a BMX trip. Nevertheless—regardless of a few mishaps along the way—our gamble paid off. Beyond the false stereotypes and dismissive anecdotes, we met approachable and genuine people, saw incredible sights, found amazing spots, and captured some wild clips for our upcoming DVD. On and off the bikes, this trip opened our eyes to what the south is really like and the experiences it has to offer. Perhaps in the future we will see more BMX riders travel to this unjustly neglected region of America. No matter where you go though, with an open mind and an appetite for all things weird, adventure awaits you.

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3 Aug 2016