Maybe you’ve never heard of the wild indie-rock band Portugal. The Man. But chances are good you’ve heard of their hometown of Wasilla, Alaska. And when we found out that the band, which just released its third album, Censored Colors, was from the same town as Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, we figured it’s a small enough burg that they’d have some good stories to tell.
Last month, singer/guitarist John Baldwin Gourley — who grew up in a remote generator-powered log cabin with no telephone outside Wasilla — wrote a passionate essay on his feelings about his former mayor’s ascension to the national stage, but it was bassist Zach Carothers’ story about his battle with Palin over a skate park that really caught our attention. We asked him to recount his tale for us.
The Saga Of Sarah Palin, A Bunch Of Alaskan Small-Town Teenagers, And The Wasilla Skate Park
Growing up in Wasilla, Alaska, was not the most exciting time. Out of all the thousands of things there are to do in a land as beautiful as that, there is a lot of downtime. My family brought me up to love the outdoors. Almost every weekend, we were fishing, hiking, camping or snowboarding. I loved all of it.
As boys become teenagers, we get bored. And, in a small town such as ours, it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in bad habits. I was lucky enough to discover skateboarding. My parents bought me my first skateboard in Santa Cruz, California, while we were on a family vacation when I was 12. I returned home and talked most of my friends into getting skateboards as well. Honestly, my Think deck, Independent trucks and Alien Workshop wheels saved my life. Starting the summer before eighth grade, my friends and I would do nothing but ride into town and skate all day.
As we got older and more skilled, we were quite limited on where we could practice our hobby. Businesses were obviously not too fond of anyone hurting themselves for hours a day on their stairs or handrails, and those who have been to Wasilla know there is a general lack of pavement.
Being extremely jealous of the skate parks that we’d seen in movies and magazines, we decided to make some of our “California dreaming” a reality. We started small. During my sophomore year of high school, I talked a few friends into signing up for wood shop. The five of us earned our grades by building all sorts of ramps and rails that we carried across the school parking lot to the outdoor basketball courts that never really got used. We had the time of our lives, skating all day in a place where no one would bother us and we wouldn’t bother anyone else.
This didn’t last long. Several times, we showed up after school to see most of our ramps ruined either by guys who didn’t like us or by kids trying to jump four-wheelers and dirt bikes off our ramps. After fixing our little park a few times, we decided we needed a more permanent — and safer — solution to our boredom.
Our parents brought up the idea of going to the city to ask about the chances of getting a real, concrete skate park built. The number of kids skating was growing like crazy, and with all the baseball diamonds, hockey rinks, and tennis courts around, it seemed like a reasonable request.
Apparently, the City of Wasilla did not agree with us. Bummer. Sarah Palin, the mayor of our small town, informed us that a skate park simply would not fit in the budget.
Oddly enough, a few years later, we heard rumors of a multimillion-dollar hockey rink that was going to fit in the budget. Now, I don’t have anything against hockey, I played my whole life, but there were already several places to play hockey in Wasilla. Of course, us dumb kids wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. A few of my friends and our parents attended city hall meetings every week. Eventually, our persistence paid off. Mayor Palin made what could be considered a “safe bet” when she suggested that if we could raise half the money, the city would match it and we would start construction. We were very happy and very determined.
The “Wasilla Skate Park Committee” went to work immediately. Over the next few months, we held bake sales, car washes, raffles and six or seven benefit concerts. We convinced local businesses to donate goods, services or labor to help support us. We even put up one of those giant, lame thermometers in city hall and colored in every $5,000 we made. And, incredibly enough, we raised roughly $42,000. Not too bad for some punk kids in a small town in Alaska.
I really don’t think that Palin thought we could do it. She was certainly surprised when we filled in the red ball at the top of that stupid thermometer. And boy, did she have a surprise for us.
After all of our hard work, she informed us that the project was going to have to be delayed … indefinitely. That slippery little skate park had gone off and slipped right out of the city budget again. The Wasilla Skate Park Committee was not too pleased, and once again, we were back at city council meetings every week. Overall, the demeanor of the council was not a kind one. We felt looked down upon and generally not taken seriously. As we loved to skate, they probably thought of us as hoodlums. They may have thought we all did drugs, skipped school and defaced public property — and, you know, some of us did. But that is what I tried to explain to them. Wasilla’s youth needed a place to go. We needed activities that would keep us from getting into trouble. Skateboarding is a sport. If kids were constantly playing football in front of the grocery store, the city would have had a problem with that as well. Eventually, and after jumping through numerous hoops, our persistence paid off.
Over a year and a half later, the project was finally under way.
Now, 10 years later, the Wasilla Skate Park I fought for as a 15-year-old boy is still functioning and as busy as ever — and celebrated its 10th anniversary on October 10. Despite the hoops that Mayor Palin and the city council made us jump through, I think the city agrees it was a very worthwhile investment and that it’s done much more good than bad. I’m proud of myself and everyone who helped the Wasilla Skate Park come to be. All in all, I’m very grateful to have been part of the experience.