Morro Bay skater pushes across America

Jack and Cathy Smith at the Morro Bay Skateboarding Museum. (Photo by Ruth Ann Angus)

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on Jack Smith’s skateboarding adventures across the U.S.

It was 1976, and summertime in California. Most young men were lounging at the beach or surfing. Some had graduated from high school and college and were looking for jobs. Not so Jack Smith, Jeff French, and Mike Philbin.

“We were looking for something to do,” Smith said with a smile, “instead of getting a real job. So, we decided to skateboard across the country.”

Skateboarding, which has been around longer than most people think, had already been part of Smith’s life for a long time. He had contacts with a supplier in Florida called “Roller Sports” and wrote to them telling them of his idea to try and skateboard across America hoping they might sponsor the expedition. After anxiously waiting two weeks, a letter arrived in the mail. “What do you know,” Smith said, “they liked the idea!”

Roller Sports told the boys they would give them all the gear they would need, boards, wheels, t-shirts, and $500 each. There was a catch however, the $500 would only come to them if they made it. To finance their trip each boy saved up $200 and they decided to use Jeff’s 1969 Firebird as their support vehicle. The expedition, which could never be done this way now, was off to a rolling start.

“We used the leapfrog technique,” Smith explained, “one-person skates and the vehicle drives three miles ahead of him and stops by the side of the road. Each time a skater caught up to it, the vehicle would go forward another three miles. At each stop equipment or skaters could be changed.” This method allowed the boys to do about 100 miles a day.

In 1976 boards were a little less sophisticated than they are now and certainly not electrified. When skateboarding first began, the wheels were a rigid material until someone came up with a more pliable material making the ride smoother. Roads are not smooth, and the route taken had the boys skating up the hill and down dale. “We decided to go across the country on roads in the northern part,” Smith said, “thinking it would be cooler. It wasn’t, but it did prove to be a good route.”

In a video they shot of that trip it shows just how difficult the trip had to be. Pushing along with one leg and skating a ways and then pushing again. Crossing the Rockies and other mountain ranges, using only rural back roads, sometimes having to go north or south in order to meet up with an eastern road. “We had no idea what to expect,” Smith said, “we even took a 22 rifle with us, but it never came out of the trunk. As it turned out, we made it across in 32 days and collected our $500 each.”

You would think that after a trip like that the bug would have been out of their system, but no, in 1983, Smith wanted to try something again. That year Highway 1 was closed during the summer season due to landslides, so Smith got some of his buddies together and they decided to do a little skateboarding on part of the closed road. “Just before it opened in 1984, we were ready,” Smith said, “We went to a section around San Simeon and skateboarded back 58 miles, escorted by the California Highway Patrol.” The police were there not by invitation nor did the guys obtain any permit. “Never ask permission,” Smith said laughing, “only ask forgiveness.”

In 1984 Smith wanted to try another cross-country trip to raise money for Multiple Sclerosis. They needed a good support vehicle, so his buddy Paull Dunn wrote a letter to Chrysler Corporation addressed to Chairman, Lee Iacocca. In it, he wrote how this would show off the come-back spirit of Chrysler which had suffered from hard times. Chrysler came through and agreed to give them a van, but they would have to come to Detroit to pick it up. “By this time, I was about eight or nine years older,” Smith said, “and supposed to be more responsible. I was really afraid to tell my Dad that we were doing it again.”  One day when they were driving to an arcade his Dad owned, he asked his Dad what he might be doing the next week and would he consider flying to Detroit with him. He explained that he had to pick up this van that would be the support vehicle for another cross-country skateboarding trip. Smith’s Dad thought about it and finally told him, that if he was a young man, he would probably want to do it too.

At the Chrysler headquarters in Detroit, Smith asked if Lee Iacocca actually had seen the letter Dunn had written. He was shown the copy of it and scrawled across the bottom of it were the words, “Looks good, Check on it, Let’s do it.” Smith and his Dad went to the storage yard and picked out a van, one with the best stereo in it, naturally. Stickers were attached, and Smith was asked when he would bring it back. He said mid-August. “We didn’t have to sign anything, no insurance questions, nothing,” he said, “they just took a chance. But I did have to do a handstand on a skateboard down the hallway before they would give me the keys!”

So, once again four guys skateboarded across the country on the same route and they did it in 26 days.

To be continued...

Jack and Cathy Smith at the Morro Bay Skateboarding Museum. (Photo by Ruth Ann Angus)


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