Do you know what the hardest thing about a five-day, 100-mile rollerblading trip is? It's when a friend asks, "Do you know what the hardest thing about rollerblading is?"
Punch line: "Telling your parents that you're gay."
Yes, this actually did happen to me, and, no, my friend's not a character from The 40-Year-Old Virgin—he's an open-minded and Bohemian journalist and indie-rock musician. It's just that my favorite form of spring and summer exercise is so completely reviled and un-cool, people don't think twice about going there. The joke my friend told is even listed in the Urban Dictionary under "rollerblading."
In truth, the hardest thing about the sport of inline skating (Rollerblade, like Xerox, FedEx and Zamboni, is a trademark that became a verb) isn't people mocking you. Nor is it weirdly patterned blisters, learning to stay upright, or nasty macadam strawberries. It's finding skate-friendly terrain.
Where most outdoor athletes understandably seek out remote, unspoiled locations, skating basically demands development—at minimum, an empty two-lane highway, but ideally a dedicated, gravel-free and not overly fissured path.
I am probably the only person in Missoula who was thrilled to see more of the city's Riverfront Trail get paved. Certainly I've never seen another soul on skates while living in Montana. When I wanted to consign an old pair of K2s at the local Play It Again Sports (worth at least a token 20 bucks in other cities), they wouldn't even take 'em.
You may think inline skaters are '80s disco relics—even the hipster rise of roller derby hasn't helped, since those tough ladies use classic "quads"—but in our own way we're as determined as surfers searching for the perfect ride and have the same sort of cultish, forlorn pride as American soccer freaks, or fans of that one band none of your friends are into (granted, said band may be the Kelly Family rather than the Flaming Lips).
Which is how I found myself in Post Falls, Idaho, helmet and wrist guards on, taking a blind corner with an unwieldy pack of 27 other skaters on a section of the Centennial Trail that crosses north to south under Interstate 90.
"You guys are crazy!" a pedestrian exclaims. Earlier, an idling gang of road construction workers took good-natured advantage of the "Hi, My Name Is" stickers that the trip's outfitter, Zephyr Adventures, had given us to slap atop our helmets.
"Take it easy, Susan!" they yelled at Susan Syria, one of several hockey moms from Marquette, Michigan, who took the summertime trip as a girlfriend getaway and birthday present for a member of their group.
"C'mon, hustle Becky!" they shouted to Becky Taee, who joked that she hoped to run into them again on our return lap. "As you get older that kind of attention is welcome," said the 42-year-old mother of two—borderline false modesty from a lithe New Englander-turned-Londoner who resembles the actress Olivia Williams.
While a five-day trip that takes you from the Red Lion Templin's Hotel in Post Falls to the Wallace Inn isn't nearly as exotic as some of Zephyr's other offerings (among them Martha's Vineyard, the German Mosel River Valley, and Quebec), what the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes has over those locales is pure, uninterrupted, perfect trail (albeit on a former EPA Superfund cleanup site, thanks to silver mines. We're told that if you accidentally drop an apple on the trail, it's best to throw it out).
"It's the best skating we do in the country," says Zephyr guide Gary Passon, a ropy-calfed 50-something Minnesotan on fluorescent-green-wheeled brakeless speed skates. "The best trail in Idaho, the country, the world, the universe."
The bike path runs from Plummer, a few nautical miles (but a 40-minute drive) east of the Coeur D'Alene Resort, to just shy of the Montana border in Mullan, thanks to a rail-to-trail conversion on a section of the old Milwaukee Road line.
Zephyr Adventures itself is headquartered in Red Lodge, Montana, with a sole full-time employee, Kris Thomas, who watches over things for owner Allan Wright, a recent transplant to Boulder, Colorado. The business was once called Zephyr Skate Tours, but as the '90s wore on, the inline skating industry went from trendy to stable to declining, and Zephyr branched out. The company launched bike and multi-sport vacations (including winter in Yellowstone), then wine country tours (in Sonoma, Oregon and South America), then Machu Picchu treks and, most recently, a series of wine, beer and food blogger conferences. Its latest brainstorm, a Yellowstone National Park trip that combines hiking and biking with craft beer, comes in addition to five 2011 bike tours in places like Florida, Alaska and the Netherlands.
Zephyr rotates its skating locales and lets some go dormant for several years since, at this point, most people in the customer base who want to spend $1,600 to $2,400 for fully supported inline skating vacations have already been on every trip the company offers. When I went on Zephyr's roll through the Montreal and Quebec mountains three years ago, nearly half the group had taken the Coeur d'Alene trip (and raved).
Several of my current cohorts are skating Idaho for the second time, including a few people Zephyr fondly calls "lifers." Out of 28 skaters, 23 of us are repeat customers.
One telling stat reveals all you need to know about the state of inline skating: The average age is 53. (I'm 42 at the time of the Idaho trip; the youngest person is 32).
You'd have to say extreme culture and vert culture did the same thing to rollerblading that snowboarding did to skiing. Also of note, and perhaps the sport's best-kept secret: The female-to-male ratio is about 3-to-1, exactly the opposite of what you'll find on most outdoor trips. The Idaho skaters include 21 women and six men.
"Comin' up on your left," one of the Marquette ladies, Adrienne Vermeulen, shouts at me in an ironic, sunny tone during the long downhill between Mullan and Wallace. "It just means I weigh more. Isn't that great?" she explains as she shoots by. Actually, she's a strong enough skater to pass me on the uphills, too.
Colleen Clark, a girlish and Sarah Palinesque 53 (everybody comments on this), dresses for skating the way Venus and Serena dress for tennis: short skirt, sexy tank top. A member of the Mad Knockers Roller Derby team and a Senior Director of People (a real title) at Eastern Mountain Sports in New Hampshire, Clark has been on seven Zephyr trips and owns 15 pairs of skates, including classic San Fran "Haight Skates," i.e., hiking boots on wheels. Unlike most of us, she started off on wheels and only recently tried ice skating and skate skiing. "If I won the lottery, I'd use the money to spark a rebirth of the skating craze by giving everyone free skates and free lessons," she says. "Skating keeps you healthy, fit, young and happy. I hope I roll into my grave."
Laura Jelinek, 32, is on her first trip. A determined athlete and former figure skater, she ends each day on the path with a pirouette or curtsey. (Immediately upon returning home to Grand Forks, N.D., she begins planning a local inline skating marathon that's slated to unfold this August).
Colorado resident Janet Starkey is just two months removed from a broken tailbone. It's her third Idaho tour, but the first time she's conquered its great jewel: the lengthy, tiered-ramp Chatcolet Bridge that straddles the St. Joe River, pretty much the highlight of the trip. It's visually stunning and an irresistible bit of terrain—slippery smooth, with such a long run from a sufficiently gradual but zippy downhill that (sorry, Janet), you can do it without braking. I climb back up it twice for repeats.
The isolation and the beauty of the trail are incredible. Paved path aside, there's near-total wilderness between Plummer and the lakefront town of Harrison, tucked way back in the forest. And there's a still-isolated run along a mostly uninhabited side of the lake: nothing but you and the rocks and trees and water. For a skater especially, that's precious, since paved paths usually mean lots of other people, or wars with cyclists and pedestrians in places like New York City's Central Park.
The Idaho trip features daily options—a short, medium or long route—with support vans to pick people up at bailout points, drive them to spots along the trail, or take them to the hotel.
The skaters have lots of different skill levels, not surprisingly, but some of them also have lots of stuff, whether or not they need it. Our group includes two extremely well outfitted men from opposite ends of the spectrum. Chuck Smerdon and his wife, Kathy Wagle, are longtime competitive speed skaters who always move in tandem, drafting on each other the whole trip. (Someone jokes that they even draft each other walking down the hotel hallway). Chuck is also probably the only guy who rotates his wheels.
Conversely, Vik from Chicago has all the trappings of a hotshot: Spandex jerseys, inline skate-specific socks, and prodigiously padded shorts, making him come off as the Sandy Pittman of the gang. At the end of day one, I overhear stories about his 50-mph speeds and epic wipeouts, but it turns out the guy is actually still learning and has no business being on the same kind of brakeless skates our guide uses.
That aside, the nice thing about the group is that there's not much ego. Somebody's always going to kick your ass, which is a good thing. But there are also people who make you feel like you're a better skater than you thought you were, and some of them are even under 60. A few skaters are happy to do seven miles a day. Personally Iwouldn't go on a trip like this just to skate for an hour or so, but for other people the goal is relaxation, sightseeing and camaraderie. And there's always that one impressive guy who's ready to go 70 miles in a single day, as someone did on my Quebec trip. (We gave him a round of applause.) The longest stretch in the Idaho jaunt is 38 miles, which means I can't beat my own personal best, a little over 40 miles. It's probably just as well.
The day I roll 38 miles—including a section from the decidedly un-scenic Smelterville Wal-Mart to Osburn to Wallace, after a giant chicken-fried steak lunch at the Snakepit in Enaville—is unbearable. Months after the trip, I'm still minus several toenails, despite my carefully jerry-rigged combination of a sock liner with the top cut off and blister-preventive ankle socks. "That's skating," Colleen says on the second-to-last day, looking at my taped up, Band-Aided toes, which of course she snaps a picture of.
By the time I get home, I'm exhausted. But that's the beauty of skating. Yes, people make fun of it, but it's not an easy sport. You can get hurt, you can go fast, there's arcane equipment. It's a good workout for building the same muscles you care about for skiing, hiking and climbing. It's a weight-bearing exercise, unlike biking (research shows that cycling alone doesn't do enough to boost bone density). And it won't make you sterile.
Plus, the people are impressive: tough, but nice. Even outsiders who rib us about being dorky are quick to say that. Anyway, the skating community can't really be bothered to take offense at the jokes. Our love of the sport is such a genuine thing, such a strong thing. Skaters don't care what other people think of them. We really don't.
Obviously we don't. In this world of constant searching for the new thing, the different thing, the more unusual thing, if not the more extreme thing, why not skating?
Oh, all right: It's the knee pads, isn't it?