Words & Photography by T.D. Baldwin
“Fucking fuck fuck!” I had fucked up. Jed had almost died gapping onto a walkway, and I blew the shot. The camera wouldn’t focus. The new digital piece of shit kept shifting to an office building in the background. It must be a sign. The first shot, and for sure the best shot of the trip, is fucked. It is time for the next career.
One of my oldest friends, and cofounder of Torment Magazine, Ian Boll, had given me a call two days earlier asking me to fill in on this trip. Though I hadn’t shot snowboarding in five years and thought I’d moved on from the industry that left me broke, with little relevant experience, I agreed. I’d just quit my job, left my hometown, sold most of my belongings, and split up with my long-term girlfriend, so I figured I didn’t have much else to do. I had been filling my time studying art, science, and philosophy, and setting out to capture those ideas as a street photographer in NYC. To actually have a reason to be photographing on the streets sounded nice. Two days later I’d find myself driving the wrong way out of a parking lot in Pittsburgh yelling, “Fucking fuck fuck!”
I made it out of the first spot without anyone asking to see the photo, and I hadn’t bummed out these strangers yet. I needed a plan. I figured the best course of action was to switch to only film, that way if someone asked to see the photos it wouldn’t be possible until long after the trip. I would need to nail the remaining shots so the fucked up really important one would not be as important. I would stay in hotels for the next couple of days because they are awesome, and no one would ask to see the photos there. Best of all, now that I would not be working in this industry again, I was free to make the most of this trip, a rare chance to enjoy Pittsburgh in January.
Unfortunately for my vacation plans, these people were motivated to snowboard. Jon Stark, the other cofounder of Torment, was the filmer and all-around coach/leader of the group. He has a lot of energy. He would scan the city for spots on Google Maps, then drive around at all hours to look into them. Stark was always the first one up, filling water bottles at 8am and waking us up with a repetitive and sarcastic, “Let’s get to work this week, boys.” Then he’d turn to someone else in the room, “Let’s get to work this week.” When he is not working as a snowboard videographer, he is an eccentric, snowboard encyclopedia and all-around hilarious person. You never know what he is going to do and even less about what he is thinking.
He would yell war cries, “IYIYIYIYI” as we filmed in a peaceful park or ask you in passing, “You heard about Mark Zuckerberg?” “No?” “Yeah, massive heart attack.” Pause, “Both arms gone.”
Jed Anderson, Jacob Krugmire, and Spencer Schubert were the riders, and they were all pretty motivated too. Jed’s riding was really impressive. He’s a good dude with good style, works hard, is really technical, and rides big spots, but for some reason, his jacket doesn’t have 12 patches of sponsors all over it. If there is anyone in street snowboarding that deserves to be sponsored by Tide and Audi it is Jed.
Jacob is a younger rider out of Seattle. He is a last name guy; a lot of people call him Krugs. Like most last name people, he is funny, positive, and crushes hard seltzers. He was usually last in order to ride at a couple of spots, as he was the youngest, but he wouldn’t waste his turn and whenever you needed it most he’d ask if you wanted a margarita in a can.
I never really knew Spencer, but he scared me—at least from what I could judge from the couple of video clips and photos I had seen. He looked like someone who is good at talking shit, the Dolph Lundgren of snowboarding. Turns out Spencer is the man, fucking funny, insanely talented, and a nice dude. He even cooked us family meals, the best peanut soup I’ve ever had, and I’m not just saying this so he doesn’t roast me like he is fully capable of doing.
For the next nine days, I lived two lives. Half, reluctantly with the snowboard crew reliving the financial mistakes of my youth, shoveling for hours, pulling bungees, and taking photos of some of the best snowboarding I have ever seen. For the other, larger half, I set out on a mission to enjoy myself. This would likely be some of the last aimless time on the road I’d have. I would need to take Pittsburgh for all it was worth. I would eat three meals of Chinese food a day, stop into all the dive bars, shop for samurai swords, and wander the streets of downtown in a blizzard with a wise Native American nursing student. Camera in hand for both halves, I’d let you decide which was better.
On my last day in Pittsburgh, I was still sorting out what the fuck I was doing there. I figured the best thing I could do was start writing it down. It went something like this: I forgot my wallet for breakfast. The cashier, a middle-aged man working the bakery counter, did not like that. He probably thought I was a junkie, early thirties, with bloodshot eyes, bad hair, in baggy old clothing meant for being outside for hours. He took back the coffee. He knew the hustle: drink as much as possible while slowly picking out baked goods.
I was 30 minutes late to the spot, but I could not stand this man’s doubt of my return. 40 minutes later I was back at the bakery. As he grabbed my food, my questions about forgotten wallets annoyed him. “Would you let someone do the dishes?” He responded with, “No.” I went on, “How long would you want the floor swept for a donut?”
He muttered, “Most people don’t come back.” Eating while driving to the spot I noticed there were no blueberries in the muffin he picked out. I would need to go back later that day.
The BBC radio was reporting that a large bridge had collapsed just down the street from us that morning. The entire 447-foot concrete slab had dropped 100 feet onto a forest valley below. The 50-year-old bridge collapsed under the weight of two inches of snow and six vehicles, far less traffic than typical. This collapse was particularly newsworthy, as President Biden had just flown in that morning on a previously planned trip to promote his 1.2 trillion dollar infrastructure package. This could be an inside job. I would also need to check that out later.
Spirits among the riders were low at this point. There had been nine productive days, each less productive than the last. Everyone had filmed a couple really good clips, and a hangover was kicking in. Jed had a hurt back, Spencer seemed like he was over it, Krugs had a messed up toenail whenever he needed it to be, and Stark had more energy than ever.
Krugs started the day off at a spot he had tried the afternoon prior before running out of light. He was trying a switch front board on a steep double kink rail with stairs and spiky plants on both sides. It was just about the last thing you would want to half-ass at the end of a long trip. He squared up and threw himself down the set about 15 times until he rode away with one of the better clips of the trip. He would celebrate the rest of the day.
I missed the last spot, as I was already headed to check out the collapsed bridge. Stark seemed a little surprised. I had been late the whole time, but I had not flat-out turned down a spot. As I got closer, helicopters circled and traffic was being diverted for blocks. Luckily, they were figuring out what the fuck to do about the wreckage. It looked like they decided to gather as many flashing lights and yellow tape as possible and do that. I found the last parking spot at the end of a suburban side street, had a smoke, and entered the valley.
The park was calm, just a couple of cops, no wind, and bitter cold. The only sound was the humming of generators powering floodlights and the cops telling me to get lost. They eventually left. At the bottom of the valley I met a young photographer named Tumorick rolling her bike through the deep snow. We spotted an open patch of woods along the far side of the valley and decided to follow it in for a closer look. We bushwhacked and boot-packed through snow and a river for about 500 yards until we were right next to the beast, looking up at a bunch of state troopers.
When you find yourself in a difficult situation like that it’s best to just look down and tinker with your camera and seem frustrated. The bridge was huge. A four-lane crumpled mess of destruction with a giant red bus still teetering. Fresh white snow blanketed everything; it was beautiful.
In my rush to get there before dark, I had only grabbed my medium format camera with five frames of black and white film and a zoom lens. It was dark; the photos would look like shit.
Tumorick was just getting into photography, so I shared with her a couple of things I had learned in my 20 years of shooting, even though she never asked for it. “The most important thing is to always have a camera on you.” She probably thought I was an idiot. “Second, have something to say. Third, always find good lighting. Fourth, if you want to take better photos, get in front of better things… you are set on that. Fifth, have a consistent and unique look.”
I shook the camera as I snapped a photo of the bridge. I wanted an abstract image. I liked that there were lots of lines in the shot, which already made the image jumpy. The motion blur of the camera would add some more movement, mainly to the brighter bridge, and remove some of the trees filling the foreground. I wanted an action shot. I wanted a dreamy metaphor for being fucked.
I left the bridge for the museum. Pittsburgh was Andy Warhol’s hometown and had a seven-story museum on his work. On the first floor, I was joined by a lonely traveling salesman from Alabama. He admitted he didn’t know anything about art but found himself there with nothing else to do on a Friday night. It is impossible to think and talk, so I eventually recommended that he approach this girl that had been looking at us. I told him that museums are a romantic place to find a girlfriend. “She probably dreams of this shit,” I said, “It’s like an episode of Sex and the City.” There was no chance he had seen that show and neither had I. He went over to say hello, not knowing the fatal flaws of the museum pick-up: it’s quiet, the room is filled with highly attuned, pretentious people who can hear your shitty small talk, and you will need to walk from room to room with this stranger no matter how it goes. That said, it could work. I recommended asking where the painting of the dogs playing poker is. I went the other way to look at some art.
After the museum, I stopped by an ATM so I could pay Jed back for some film he had sold me. I figured while I was at the ATM, I might as well take out a little extra cash, finish the mushrooms, and check out the casino.
Going from the museum to a casino is fucking weird. Suddenly, everything is for sale and the goal is to get dumber. I was in a video game, and judging by the flashing lights and coin sounds I was doing great. I passed an old man with blade sunglasses that looked exactly like Joe Biden. He was sitting at the slots but not playing; his head turned and locked onto me in silence, watching expressionless every time I passed. He reminded me of that thinning hair lady in the beginning of Shutter Island. “I’ve seen this shit before,” I thought to myself and took a photo to see if he was real. A strange blur and blob of light came back on the negative a week later.
The mushrooms were working. I found a safe place away from Joe to lay low, playing blackjack with an old Asian lady and two younger guys. I won a lot. Doubled my money, and now I was playing with Monopoly money. I moved on to roulette and lost it all. All but the 50 dollars I owed Jed. I put it all on red. That was dumb. I should have gone black. A white guy next to me left the table at the same time and yelled, “Wakanda forever!” He put it on black.
Before a large bet like that, I always like to ask a potential higher power if I should do something with the money if I win, like go to the strip club down the street. I didn’t win.
The entranceway to the gentlemen’s club was sparse, filled only with the muffled sound of music, blacklights that accentuated stains, and a large, middle-aged, unamused Black man. He hardly moved as he took my ID and looked up and down at my baggy snow pants and old, vertically striped black and white snowmobile style jacket. I had been wearing this outfit the majority of the week. Now this man was staring into my soul. He took his time, and I flashed back through my life to how the hell I ended up here. I did my best not to burst into a deep-belly, mushroom-induced laught, which would have seemed insane. He let me in.
Amber turned out to be a great dinner companion. We sat at the empty bar and shot the shit wearing our respective uniforms of underwear and a snowsuit. She said it was her first week dancing. That could have been a lie, but she did have a sweetness to her and a very real tongue ring. The fact she paid attention to me means she was probably still figuring this thing out.
Amber asked what I was doing in Pittsburgh as I stuffed my face with pretzel sticks. “I am a writer and a photographer,” I said. It was nice to have a title, even if this would be the last day I could say it. A strange set of emotions comes across some peoples’ faces when you say you are a writer. Maybe they think you could be working at that moment. Maybe they too are writers hoping to say it out loud. Whatever it was, she seemed to be interested. “I have been shooting snowboarding around the city after that blizzard.” She immediately looked less interested.
A pleasant warmth of not giving a fuck washed over me—along with some visuals. Any physical attraction to any aspect of this place was long gone. I figured, hell, if I still can’t figure out my life, I might as well see if I can help hers. I’d take advantage of this rare opportunity to speak frankly. Amber had no clue what she walked into.
I asked her something that had been on my mind for the past nine days: if she or anyone liked living here. She responded, “Yeah, well I have always lived here…
I’ll leave eventually, but it’s good for now.” “Shit, get out of here!” I said. She looked away towards the dancer who was shaking her breasts in the face of one of the three other patrons and went on, “I went to New York once when I was a kid… and Florida on a vacation once.” I could feel some remorse from her, and I could relate. I had spent nine days in this purgatory. What I had come to love about this place was the idea of this trip eventually coming to an end. I said, “Fuck. This is a good place. If you like it, stay. The most important thing to remember is… impermanence. Everything changes.” I was grasping at inspirational straws, “If you are staying here just because you used to like it, it’s time to go.” I heard a Buddhist teacher say something like that once.
We chatted for a while, and in my mind I was hitting it out of the park, spewing a lifetime of pointless knowledge in a couple of minutes. Something about how alcohol is poison, meat is fucked, don’t touch hotel room TV remotes, work for yourself, and the reality of karma. We even hashed out a five-year plan for her as a photographer and hair stylist in Fort Lauderdale. She was probably throwing up in her mouth. 40 minutes passed, and I realized I had not yet paid her for her time nor found out if I was supposed to do that. Was the drink and quality of conversation good enough? I thought about handing her a 20 after saying some shit about black holes but decided against it.
I made it rain Jed’s money on her while she was up on stage. After her dance was over, I took off. I didn’t want to say goodbye. There was still the off chance that she was lost too. Maybe she was genuinely interested in the story of a retired traveling snowboard photographer-writer. Maybe she only kind of wants money and really just needs companionship and enjoys the art of dance? Fuck, she got me. I got a cab home.
I said goodbye to everyone the next morning, packed up the 12 rolls of film I had shot, and texted Jed the bad news about his money along with a promo code for a bunch of free kombucha. It had been a productive trip with some of the best riding I’ve seen. I was fortunate to spend half the time aimlessly in a foreign city in search of happiness. In the end, just like Macaulay Culkin alone in New York, I could only photograph so many sights, eat so much sweet, delicious Chinese food, and suck down so many Coors bottles at the world’s best dive bars before I realized what was really important. I needed to move on; I had to do all that shit I talked about with Amber. Respect the karma, avoid meats and hotel room remotes and stuff. I started editing that messed-up first shot of Jed; I had to make it right. If the whole photo is blurry, then the blurry Jed wouldn’t stick out. No one would know.
On my way out of town, I stopped at a cafe. They still had a Covid window up so the barista asked if I would like to tip. I gave her some cash and tried to make a joke about the pressure of the verbal tip. She did not like that. She handed me my baked goods. Driving away through the fields of Western Pennsylvania with muffin crumbs going everywhere, I noticed the blueberries. There was one blueberry in the whole fucking muffin. I pulled over into a gas station, I would need to go back.