I was out on a southwestern US tour with my band in June of 2009. A selfish kid in my early twenties, I was a recent college graduate whose shallow worldview was framed primarily by several years of living in a small mountain town and by a stereotypical abhorrence of the Bush administration. I didn’t know it yet, but my longtime girlfriend was going to leave me as soon as I got home due to reasons stated above. Although I would have never admitted to it, I was about as closed-minded as a person could get.
Looking back on that trip, there was a twelve hour period I think of as a sort of smack in the face with self-realization. We were in Grand Junction on a Tuesday night. I was with my bandmates loading our gear out to the van after the show when we noticed a guy had followed us outside. As he got closer I recognized him from earlier at the bar.
“Hey guys, how would you feel about trading that skateboard for mine,” he asked, pointing at our trombone player Brandon’s board, which sat pressed against one of the van windows. He held his board out for examination. Brandon stepped forward to have a look. This guy’s board was in far better shape than his.
“Why do you want my board?”
The rest of us stood in silence.
"I love that classic fishtail,” the man said. “I’m old-school. I can’t even turn on this thing.” He introduced himself as Kendog.
Kendog looked to be in his forties, with bleach-blonde hair and a face worn from what appeared to be a life spent outside on the streets. Still, the way he smiled made him seem friendly enough. “I love your music, man,” he said. “We never get this stuff coming through Junction. When you guys coming back?”
“Not really sure, probably in a few months,” I said.
“You gotta come check out the skate park tomorrow before you go! It’s sick man, I’ll show you all the best hits.”
“We’re taking off first thing, we have to drive to Salt Lake City tomorrow.”
Kendog was a bit crushed at first, but he cheered up when Brandon agreed to trade boards with him. A half hour of conversation began to flow smoothly. He told us stories of days spent at skate parks and surf spots around the country, his kids, his struggles. He had been all over the world on surf trips, and had proudly skated at some of the country’s most prestigious parks.
We began to open up to him a bit as well, talking about band life and our hometown of Durango. We settled on a quick stop by the skate park on the way out of town the next morning.
When my phone rang at 6am, my first thought was, “Why did I give Kendog my phone number?” Certainly not for him to relentlessly call at this unforgiving hour. Wrestled awake, we piled in the van outside the house we had crashed at and headed down to meet him.
The place was located behind a middle school and a grocery store, in the corner of a city park. It was not large, nor was it in great condition. Kendog was living there at the time. Each night he would string a hammock across the large concrete bowl and sleep in it, making sure he was packed up by sunrise to avoid confrontation with the park maintenance crew when they came to mow the lawn or empty the trash cans. To justify his squatting he would keep the place clear of trash, graffiti, and general hooligans. By the time we showed up, he had already gotten a good session in and was sitting on top of his new board, taking a break.
“He deserved that board,” Brandon told me later. “Honestly, there’s way more to him than I thought. He’s a pretty awesome guy, taking care of that skate park.”
I didn’t do much skating that day. I was not excited to be missing a couple precious hours of sleep before we spent the day driving. When we were talking to him the night before, I had half written him off as just another bum that hassled us after a show. I admitted to myself now that I had been wrong.
Watching Kendog push effortlessly through the park, my attitude began to change. He was so excited to show us this place that he was connected to. He took pride in being an ambassador of the local park, for lack of a better term.
The thing that has stuck with me the most about Kendog is that I was able to discover an entirely new layer of humanity in him and in myself just by spending a couple early morning hours in his world. He had stepped straight out of left field and into ours the night before. I didn’t really think much of it, or of what he must have thought of us. Often when traveling I find myself taking encounters with new people at face value, not wanting to open myself up too much because I probably won’t see them again. Friends might even say I am the same way around them. Is it fear of judgment? Fear of being called out on something? Or just a good case of self-consciousness? I’m not totally sure. But I do know that it felt so welcoming to have someone show me what they’re all about with no sense of caution.
We ran into him again in nearly identical circumstances last December. Out walking his dog on a cold Saturday night, he strolled by a Grand Junction bar where we were onstage. Through the window, he began recognizing our faces one by one. When we stepped outside after the set, he was there to greet us with one of the biggest smiles I have ever seen.
“Dudes! I couldn’t believe it was you,” he said, high fiving each of us before pulling in for an embrace. He promptly showed us his camper truck parked up the street, which he uses for surf trips.
“Quite a step up from the hammock,” I said.
“Yeah, but I still visit that park all the time!”
Meeting new people and discovering what they are about is one of the joys of travel. I have spent nearly seven years now trying to get better at putting myself into the shoes of those I encounter, trying to figure out what makes them tick. Everyone is passionate about something. Even in the most humble of encounters, everyone has something they can’t wait to tell or show if only they’d be given the chance. We’ll be back in Grand Junction for another show in April, keeping our eyes peeled for Kendog’s smile beaming from across the room.
Tim Wenger is a Denver-based journalist and music biz aficionado who has been reporting for multiple publications since 2010. After pursuing a BA in English/Communications from Fort Lewis College, he jumped in a Ford Econoline for a few years and hung out in dark bars playing ska music and falling in love with travel, good food, and local drink. Catch him on his weekly podcast Music Buzz Live on iTunes and read his work in Matador Network, MicroShiner, and more.