The road to Bieringville is marked by a series of modest homes backed up to the treeline and a yellow No Outlet sign plastered with skateboarding stickers. Follow that road until the pavement gives way to dirt, look left past the mobile home and the dumpster brimming with construction waste, and behold the ramshackle vision that is the Bieringville Bowl.
"This is our church," says Rusty Thornley, one of the regulars at the invitation-only Johns Island skate spot. "This is where we come. This is our release from life." Thornley, a carpenter who lives in Huger, drives more than an hour after work to skate the Bieringville Bowl, where he shows up early before a Wednesday evening skate session to clear some leaves from the deep end. He clambers back up the steep curve to pause for a smoke and a beer as another skater drops into the bowl. "People follow football and stuff, right? And they've got a favorite player and shit like that, but they'll never get to hang out and actually play football with the guy. But I get to skateboard and have camaraderie with some of the guys that are the best in the world."
Little known outside the skateboarding subculture, the Bieringville Bowl is an East Coast legend among underground vert skaters, with aficionados praising its split-level 7-foot and 12-foot bowl and beginners and veterans alike dropping into a smaller neighboring bowl. Pros including Lance Mountain, Bob Burnquist, and Benji Galloway have come to ride, and amateur skaters have booked trips from as far away as Germany to test their mettle. Husband and wife Hank Biering and Danielle Wolke, who built and maintain the bowl on a handmade deck in their backyard, have never charged money to ride, and Wolke has been known to cook meals for guests at special events. This year's annual Halloween Bowl Bash will mark the 20th anniversary of the bowl's construction.
The scrappy little skatepark is a landmark in itself, but it is also one of the homemade havens that serves as an overflow for frustrated downtown street skaters who have been squeezed off the peninsula by strict no-skating zones and for vert skaters who can't find a full-blown public skatepark within city limits. For more than three years now, the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission has been making promises about building a world-class, 40,000-square-foot skatepark, even going as far as setting aside $2 million in reserve funds to fund the project and hiring Florida-based skatepark company Team Pain to design it. At community meetings hosted by Team Pain, conceptual drawings of the park featured a 12-foot bowl, a 520-foot street course with granite grinding elements, and a winding snake run.
But Park and Rec's original proposed site for the park, an undeveloped tract on Meeting Street in the shadow of the US-17 overpass, has hit more snags than a skater grinding at the Pineapple Fountain. Due to the site's proximity to the highway, it is subject to state and federal regulations on everything from concrete thickness to seismic safety to drainage to airspace usage. As designers worked to comply with the highway departments' demands, the estimated construction cost skyrocketed from $2 million to $3.8 million. Finally, at a July 22 meeting, the commission scrapped the original plan and voted to authorize county employees to negotiate the purchase of a new site on the peninsula.
County officials have not announced the address of the new site, which still has not been purchased, but Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said that it would be centrally located and that people would be able to "walk, skate, and bike there." Park and Rec Executive Director Tom O'Rourke was more effusive in describing his vision for the site.
"A year from now, maybe a little bit less, we're going to cut a ribbon, and it's going to be one of the most awesome places anybody around here's ever seen," O'Rourke said in a phone interview the day after the meeting. "And the timing is all going to be forgotten about the minute the first person goes down that thing. What's most important is the quality and the vision of what we originally thought this thing was going to be."
Shannon Smith, president of local skateboarding advocacy group Pour It Now, spoke in favor of expediting the skatepark's construction at the Park and Rec meeting. Her organization has been lobbying for a skatepark for a decade now, and Smith said she and her children have to travel 100 miles to the small town of Bluffton to skate at a quality skatepark. (On July 16, the Town of Summerville also opened its own small skatepark, which cost about $25,000 and features a number of street skating elements.)
"Our closest park right now, other than going to Hank's house, is to drive a hundred miles," Smith said. "We are just really tired of waiting. I don't want to be retired by the time our park gets here. And that's not a joke even. I'm 42 now, and I still like to skate."
Biering and Wolke also attended the meeting, and they mingled afterward with fellow skaters, who expressed reserved excitement about the new skatepark site. "The sense of urgency was there to me, but that could easily be just smoke and mirrors," skater Jason Wagner said. "Until they actually act on it, you know ..."
Bieringville has been a home in the wilderness for Charleston's wandering vert skaters, but it's not a permanent solution. For one thing, as Hank acknowledges, parents of young skaters do not always see Bieringville as a kid-friendly place. "There's a lot of kids who want to skate, but their parents aren't gonna bring them out here to skate with a bunch of old dudes," he says.
Biering is all for a new county skatepark. He says it could even help heal a rift in the local skating community between street skaters and vert skaters. "The park will change that," he says. "That's what changed it in all the other places. It makes a diverse skater that can skate anything. It's all there, and so they want to skate it all. Skateparks have turned out some killer all-around skaters."
Wolke said the news about the potential new site for a county skatepark was "the best we could hope for."
"There are a few places in Charleston that have ramps, but that is not the type of skateboarding that this crowd does," Wolke said. "Anybody could build a mini-ramp. It's not very expensive; you can do it in your backyard or your driveway. But to have a true facility, something you can really skate, takes a lot of time and effort."
And she should know. She and her husband have been putting in the effort for nearly 20 years now.
Bieringville's roots go back to an earlier skatepark that put Charleston on the vert skaters' map. In the late '80s, long before Charleston County ever seriously considered funding its own set of bowls, pipes, and rails, Charleston residents Henry Finch and Nancy Moore commissioned Team Pain to design an indoor skate spot off of Ashley Phosphate Road called The Hangar. "It was one of the baddest built in the '90s," Biering says. When the business shut down after a few years, the skaters were devastated.
"We skated there every day," Biering says. "When it got ready to close, we found out about it, and we took up a collection in the parking lot and walked in to our friend, the lady who owned it, and said, 'We'll give you a thousand bucks and all the labor to tear everything out of here, cut it up in pieces, and move it.' And she was like, 'OK,' so we gave her 500 bucks that day, and we started the demo."
Biering, who works in construction, organized a team to break the bowl into sections and move them on rented semi trucks to his property on Johns Island. There, on a piece of land that used to be a cornfield, they cobbled together an elevated deck built partly with wood recycled from The Hangar's snack bar.
"It's not low-budget," Biering says. "It's no-budget."
Today, some of the regulars at Bieringville's Wednesday night skate sessions are sporting their first shocks of gray hair. Weather-worn banners advertise skate events from years gone by, and a section of the coping around the bowl's shallow end bears the names of area skaters who have passed away. Still, younger generations are finding their way out to Johns Island, and Biering estimates that 80 people came out for this year's Fourth of July event, camping in the fields and partaking in a massive cookout.
Biering says he's heard rumors and promises about an official skatepark being built in Charleston starting in the '80s with conversations he says he had with then-Police Chief Reuben Greenberg (who was himself an avid in-line skater). But the rumor weeds never bore fruit, so Charleston skaters adapted. They built mini-ramps in driveways and backyards. They skated downtown, leading to the occasional run-in with the cops — as happened in March 2007, when a skater uploaded a now-infamous YouTube video of a Charleston police officer pushing his friend off a ledge he was grinding in Waterfront Park. Other private skateparks have opened since, including the Skatepark of Charleston (which is actually in North Charleston), but the dream for Pour It Now and other skateboarders has long been a world-class public skatepark.
In 2009, skateboarders created a squatters' skatepark on vacant property in the stalled Magnolia development between Braswell and Milford streets, shaping the rubble into a home-brew street course unofficially known as Wasteland. A local contractor even donated some of his excess concrete to help the skaters smooth out the edges and build their own wavy, curved ramps. But early one morning in February 2010, a bulldozer hired by the Magnolia Company reduced Wasteland to rubble, sending the skaters back to the drawing board. A Magnolia spokesman cited safety and environmental concerns as reasons for the demolition.
At the Park and Rec meeting, one important factor seemed to signal that change was on the way: Mayor Riley expressed his adamant support for a downtown skatepark. "It's an athletic sport," Riley said. "It's something that's not like tennis or like swimming, but it is an athletic endeavor and a healthy one, and one that lots of people — young and not so young — enjoy."
Crazy Joe approaches the edge of the Bieringville Bowl's shallow end and props the back end of his board on the lip. Tilting forward, he drops in and quickly builds speed, crisscrossing the shallow end a few times before hurtling into the 12-foot deep end and attacking a curve head-on.
But just as Crazy Joe reaches the top of the bowl, his board gets out from under him, skittering away on the wooden deck. He twists in midair and slides down the ramp on his kneepads, shaking a fist and yelling "Dammit!" on the way down. "I wish I could still skate like I was 43," he mutters to no one in particular as he climbs out of the bowl.
At 53 years old, Crazy Joe — "first name Crazy, last name Joe" — is the oldest of the regulars at Bieringville, and still one of the craziest. Wiry and wide-eyed, with a bushy beard and tight-cropped graying hair, Crazy Joe is also a connection to a wild heritage for a younger generation of skaters, harkening back to a time before skateboard moms and government-run skateparks. He won't say where exactly his nickname came from, but the other skaters tell stories of now-mythic feats from years gone by.
One Bieringville skater, 25-year-old Chris Lowe (whose father, Randy Lowe, is among the skaters whose names are memorialized on the Bieringville Bowl), has his own Crazy Joe origin story: "One of the things he did was at this place Skatopia up in Ohio. They have a bowl kind of similar to this that's in a barn, and he got up and actually jumped off the rafters of the barn into the bowl — and I think he might have been barefoot too, I'm not sure."
When asked about the Skatopia drop-in anecdote, even Crazy Joe isn't so sure. "I was wasted. I don't remember," he says. "That's what they printed in the magazine."
Crazy Joe says he's 21 years sober now — and three years off of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "Ten years ago, they told me I had six months to a year, maybe two if I started treatment right away," Crazy Joe says. "I told 'em, 'Don't worry, doc, I'm a skateboarder, not a rollerblader. Bring on the drugs, we'll kick its ass.'"
Watching Crazy Joe skate today is a thing of head-scratching beauty. He still attacks the bowl with an abandon that would seem reckless for a man half his age, flowing gracefully at times and seething with anger when he bails. "The only drug I need now is adrenaline — and the occasional shot of chemo," he says.
As for the county skatepark, a faraway dream he's been hearing about for years now, Crazy Joe says Park and Rec had better get to work.
"They need to get it done while I can still roll around on a skateboard," he says, "and not a wheelchair."