Adam Chaffee is a 22-year-old geology student at Western Michigan University. On the tenth floor of Sprau Tower on a brisk winter Wednesday afternoon, he re-imagines his favorite route to longboard through the busy campus. A smile emerges onto his face as his finger turns into a pen, slowly tracing an imaginary line through the air starting at Rood Hall and ending at the Rec Center.
“You might have to push a couple times coming right through here,” Chaffee said, pointing at an area in front of Knauss Hall. “But other than that you can just coast the entire way.”
He sat back in his chair, his eyes still moving over his favorite route to skate on campus.
In a matter of weeks, with the snow melt, longboarders will be cruising around campus and the community, and that’s not exactly good news for some residents. Students such as Chaffee are very passionate about the sport, but many students and Kalamazoo residents have a negative attitude toward longboarders.
Alec Gonzalez, 27, is a Kalamazoo resident who works at Waldo’s Campus Tavern just off of main campus. Gonzalez has had problems with longboarders in the past, despite knowing some personally.
One day while Gonzalez was driving in his car, a young man came riding out into the street from a neighborhood. Gonzalez described the rider’s speed as leisurely, which was holding up traffic.
“I honk the horn just a little bit and without even looking back, he gives me the single finger salute. And he keeps this up for 200 yards,” Gonzalez said. “When I passed, he actually turned and made the impression that he’s going to hit the car with his board.”
This incident wasn’t the only time Gonzalez was threatened with violence from a longboarder. During another incident, Gonzalez was driving with his daughter when a longboarder on the side of the road fell, his board hitting his vehicle. When Gonzalez told the rider to watch what he was doing, he said the longboarder responded by saying, “Shut up, or I’ll kick your bourgeois ass.”
Bos admitted that he and his fellow longboard enthusiasts don’t get along with everyone, but he says this doesn’t need to be the case. The longboarding culture on campus is a great way to get to know a fellow Bronco, he said.
“It’s hard because a lot of short boarders don’t like longboarders. Bikers don’t like longboarders. Pedestrians don’t like longboarders. There’s a long list of people who aren’t super about the longboarding culture,” Bos explained. “Just try it once. Come out with me one time. If you still don’t like it, I’ll leave you alone.”
Those who choose to longboard on campus are misunderstood, said Bos. A lot of the people who ride through campus do so for easy transportation, and don’t actively try to annoy their fellow classmates.
Michigan currently has a law stating that nobody can skateboard or longboard in the street, so riding has been restricted mainly to sidewalks. Bos said that he doesn’t agree with the law; the sidewalks are too narrow, and longboarders can ride faster than people can walk.
“It can kind of become a problem because you’ll be cutting people off, and weaving through people. Obviously you’re going a lot faster than them,” Bos explained. “Generally, when I try to longboard around campus, I try to pick routes that not a lot of people walk. So I’m not running people over.”
Longboarding began as an offshoot of skateboarding, which originated in Hawaii in the late 1950s as an alternative to surfing. Longboarding itself did not grow in popularity until the 1970s when urethane wheels were invented, which made riding significantly easier.
The average longboard length ranges between 33 and 59 inches long, and typically between 9 and 10 inches in width. The longer length and width make for better stability, smoother riding and longer cruising distance. Boards are typically made from bamboo, maple, oak, and birch; each type of wood brings it’s own type of flexibility to the board.
Aside from being an easy mode of transportation, Bos says that the longboarding community offers a way for students to meet people with similar interests.
“It’s the greatest culture out there,” Bos said. “You see anybody else out there riding a board and you’ve made a friend. It’s the coolest thing. You’ll be out riding and you’ll run into someone else riding and be like, you wanna go skate this hill? All right, let’s go.”
Christopher D’Agostino, known by his friends as just ‘Toph” agrees with Bos about the quick friendships that form.
“I know people from all around just because I longboard,” D’Agostino said. “I went to Tennessee and posted in a forum asking people to show me around and they were more than happy to. Complete strangers that I have never met, and the only thing we had in common was that we love to longboard.”
Having a reliable mode of transportation and making friends is a good reason to get into the sport, but being passionate about riding comes before anything, longarders say. The activity can get dangerous, and Bos is no stranger to what can happen when something goes wrong.
Bos was in a race in Onekama, Mich. last summer. During the race, he reached speeds up to 55 miles per hour. At one point, Bos crashed into another racer and suffered a concussion. The rest of the day was just a fuzzy memory.
“It was such a fluke that me and my buddy were coming into the same corner at the same time,” Bos said. “It was either both of us go down or I go down, so I took the brunt of it. It was uncontrollable, and that kind of stuff happens.”
Longboarders may get a bad reputation, but for the most part, they say they are just people participating in a sport that they are passionate about. In every group there are going to be a couple of bad seeds, but at the end of the day the longboarders are going to continue doing what they love to do.
“As long as I can walk or run,” said D’Agostino, “I’ll be longboarding my life away.”