On this afternoon, Reese Simpson is king of the "verts," the steep, vertical sides of the awesome new, 12-foot-high skateboard ramp at the Encinitas YMCA. The ramp looks like a large wooden back-yard swimming pool, elevated above ground, with one end open so that boarders who crash and slide to the bottom can escape.
Simpson earns hoots from his 20 or so adolescent male admirers for each gnarly stunt. They ring the bowl on a plywood catwalk, peering down at the action, wearing baggy skateboarding shorts and T-shirts, helmets, knee pads and high-tops.
Heavy metal pumps out of a cheap stereo that adds to the music's fuzzed-out sound. Shirtless, his back tanned deep brown from long afternoons of skateboarding, Simpson drops into the bowl, streaking down one side and up the other, where his momentum launches him several feet into the air above the vertical wall. Knees bent, he grabs his board with one hand, spins 180 degrees in a move known as "backside air" and drops back into the bowl for a smooth landing.
Now he shoots up the other wall and performs a feat of balance that would make Nadia Comaneci proud. He turns his board so that both sets of wheels straddle the bowl's lip. And he skids along for several yards this way, metal grating on metal in a textbook "grind."
The Y is the busy hub of a red hot North County skateboarding scene. Several world-class pro skateboarders live in North County, including Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Chris Miller and Kris Marcovich. Hawk, McGill and Miller are among past and present skateboard champs who also run their own skateboarding-related businesses in North County.
McGill owns a skateboard shop in Encinitas. Hawk and Miller, who are good friends, both offer their own lines of skateboards, T-shirts, stickers and other vital equipment. Also, Transworld Skateboarding, the monthly magazine for serious skateboarders, is published from offices in Oceanside.
Once upon a time, North County skateboarders could choose from among several skateboard parks, including veteran skateboarder McGill's place at the Carlsbad Raceway and parks in Del Mar and Escondido.
But with cities' liability fears mounting and liability insurance hard to come by for park owners, the parks all closed during the late 1980s, leaving the Encinitas YMCA as the only public skateboarding park in the county.
The demise of skateboarding parks has driven skateboarders either to the Y, or to the streets in search of fresh terrain. Each vacant parking lot, schoolyard, sidewalk and man-made obstacle beckons.
Skateboarding is a sport dominated by males. At the Y, only 10 of 800 skateboarding members are female.
Much of the time it's a loosely organized sport, often coming together like a game of pickup basketball or touch football.
On a recent typical Saturday, Rob Dotson, 22, who works at Street Life skateboarding shop in Encinitas, began calling fellow boarders in the morning to see what's up. By 12:30, 15 boarders were skating in the parking lot of a now-defunct business in Encinitas. Later, they moved to a larger empty lot a couple blocks away. They didn't quit boarding until sundown.
On a Sunday afternoon at McGill's skateboard shop, Adam Spiro, 13, and Travis Kelly, 13, sprawled on chairs watching skateboarding videos, boards at their feet.
Spiro, Kelly and Dotson all agree that what they like about the sport is its individual nature.
"There's no coach who tells you what to do," Spiro said. "You learn by yourself, and there are no limits to what you can do."
As skateboarders have taken to the streets, North County has been forced to come to terms with skateboarding.
It's been a struggle. Attitudes toward the sport vary widely among property owners, public officials and law enforcement officers.
For some, the skateboard has come to symbolize the young and restless--or reckless. Those who love the sport say it's a misleading image and argue that while some boarders do skate with little regard for the rights of pedestrians and motorists, all boarders should not be penalized.
In most North County cities, it is against the law for skateboarders to interfere with pedestrian or auto traffic, or to skateboard on private property where a sign is posted that forbids skateboarding.
But interpretations of these municipal codes can vary. Some skateboarders receive only a verbal warning, while others are issued citations that carry fines of $50 or more.
Some skateboarders said they seldom run into trouble in Encinitas, for example, while others report being stopped often by law enforcement officers in San Marcos.
Veteran pro skateboarder McGill, 27, ran a thriving skateboard park at the Carlsbad Raceway for three years until closing it early this year. McGill wants to reopen, but says he is fighting the high cost of liability insurance required by his landlord, along with the city of Carlsbad's policies toward skateboarding.