"You can't really cry while you're smoking. You start gagging on the smoke, so you have to stop doing one or the other. I pieced that together a couple years ago, when I was working out at Big Prairie for the Forest Service. My buddy's five-year-old son was out there with him, and he couldn't say 'smoking,' so he'd say 'poking.'"
'Why are you poking?'
I could never think of a good reason to tell him, and it didn't really hit me until the end of that summer, but I thought, 'There's your answer, kiddo. There are things in life you don't understand yet. I know it's a bad choice, but it's my choice.'"
It's after midnight. Jason Robinson and I are standing on the side of a Montana back road in bitter cold, trying to avoid an additional cleaning fee while our rental car runs aside us.
At this point, we're two hours into an interview I had no prior intention of doing. J. Rob has experienced stuff most of us haven't, and on that drive I asked him to detail some of it, then I hit record and tossed my phone on the dashboard. That night was only the beginning, however.
As a snowboarder, Jason is powerful and well-rounded. As a person, he is enigmatic and self-aware, better at engaging in thoughtful conversation than small-talk. Jason's life has been a cycle of high highs and low lows, and that's what this is about. It is as much a series of short stories as it is an interview.
Every portion of the following has been recorded on the move—in different months, in different states, but always moving.
— Taylor Boyd
In 2013, after your first year filming with Absinthe, you thought you were facing prison time. How did that happen?
So I get back home to Whitefish after this two-month dopamine bender. I've been on this high, on another planet. Now it's back to reality, like, "Here's the girlfriend, and since you blew off the relationship all winter, it's done." I've got to move out or figure something out.
I had never surfed more than two or three days in a row, every two or three years. And Blair [Habenicht] was saying all winter, "Dude, you've just got to go surf for like a month straight, and you'll figure it out." I just needed to escape, so I booked a ticket to Nicaragua. The night before I leave, I'm at the bar catching up with homies, and all night, I have my passport in my pocket. I wake up the next morning at 4 am, in my ex's bed, no passport. So I have to cancel the flight to Nicaragua.
I started looking for a place to rent and found this spot on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, right on the edge of Glacier National Park. You look west, and it's just Rocky Mountains in your face. You look east, and it's plains as far as you can see. I called the guy who posted it and explained that I just broke up with a girlfriend and was trying to find a place. He's like, "Say no more, brother. This is the spot." He also said, basically, "You can do whatever the hell you want out there. Straight up anything you want—it's none of my business."
That sunk in a little. I owed Justin Hostynek and Absinthe Films 20 grand for my buy-in to Dopamine. So I built this 20-foot long greenhouse all by myself. It was a really good process after the breakup. I'm in paradise, and I've got this sick veggie garden with this big greenhouse with all these little starts taking off. I'm kayaking all the time, getting super into it, hiking around Glacier Park, meeting some locals, and feeling good about things. This black horse with white socks shows up, and a week later, he's still roaming around. I tell this Blackfeet woman, and she says, "Well, get a halter on that thing, brand it, and it's yours." I'm thinking, "What? That's how it works out here? But I'd step on a twig 100 feet away from him and he would bolt like a maniac. But I had this idea. With zero experience, I was going to train this horse.
“Obviously I'm stressed because there are cops staring straight at a greenhouse full of marijuana plants.”
I went on this little kayak trip, and when I got back, my phone wouldn't turn on. When I got home, something was kind of off. I had this big Dakine backpack that I was pretty sure was loaded with stuff, but all the stuff was out of the bag, just sitting on the table. I thought maybe I left it like that.
Anyway, I'm out there in the field trying to train this horse I named Whitefeet, and the Blackfeet tribal police roll up and just keep driving, then park in a meadow, facing the greenhouse. Obviously I'm stressed because there are cops staring straight at a greenhouse full of marijuana plants.
I decide to ride my bike over and spark up a conversation. I'm like, "Can I help you with anything?" In a thick Blackfeet accent, they're like, "No man, we're just waiting for the game warden. The neighbor said he saw a grizzly bear out here." I saw a grizzly a couple days before, so I thought maybe that was legit. Part of me probably knew better, but I think I was scared to let go of all this work I'd done and not pay back this debt. As I'm leaving, here comes the game warden. I'm like, "Right on, they weren't lying."
I dropped my phone off to get fixed and went camping for the night. Had it been on, I would've been aware of the events transpiring without my knowledge and been able to remedy the situation. The next day, I picked up my phone and turned it on to find four or five text messages, all from my landlord. The first one was, "Sorry to bother you, but were you building something out there last night?" Then, "Oh, never mind, man. It's my crazy ex-girlfriend. She broke in and tried to steal back some of her stuff. The next was, "Cat's out of the bag, dude. I'm not mad, but I know what's going on out there, and you've got to wrap that shit up ASAP." The next one was so insane; it was a message she sent him that he forwarded. It said, "Give me my shit back, or I'm going to the cops," with a picture taken inside the greenhouse.
Now it's all clicking. "Oh, they weren't there for a grizzly bear; they were there to bust me."
I think I smoked a pack of cigarettes on the two-hour drive home, freaking out. I parked a couple miles down the road in an aspen grove. I just have an empty backpack to try to get anything important out.
I've got the binoculars out and I'm looking. No sign of anyone, just the greenhouse that's ripped open.
Right when I walk in, on my coffee table, there's this big search warrant. It's got my name and all my information on it. It's got a list of what they took, and first thing on the list is handgun, shotgun, marijuana plant, marijuana plant, marijuana plant. "Fucking guns?" I didn't even have any guns, but apparently, the landlord did. All I remember seeing is guns and drugs, and I know I'm in a lot more trouble than I would've even been without guns. I'm going down big time.
In Montana, 30 plants or more of marijuana is a mandatory state minimum of two years in state prison. If you're found guilty, whether you've been a church-going, volunteer, frickin' honor roll student, who's never broken a law, smoked weed, or jaywalked your whole life, but you did this, mandatory minimum: two years in prison. I met with a local attorney, found all that out, and asked him what to do. Do I confront them and turn myself in? Do I run away to Mexico? He's like, "Oh just go about your life. It'll probably be a couple weeks, but they'll come looking for you."
Now I'm back at my ex-girlfriends house. This tinted-out truck comes rolling down the driveway, and I kind of knew they were coming for me. So I met the guys out there. They cuffed me, brought me down, and booked me. Luckily, ex-girlfriend bailed me out. When I got out, I was like, "Well, at least a little weight is off my chest. I'm not hiding out." But I don't know what to do. I'm going down, dude.
Yeah, I'm just trying to hold it together. So I'm at this bar, and I randomly meet this Indian woman who somehow knows Danny Kass, of all people. I thought it was a pretty random connection. So I was pretty comfortable talking with her. I was like, "Here's my situation. How fucked do you think I am?" She's like, "Oh you're fine. They always screw the cases up. The sheriff won't be working there by the time it comes to trial, or they screw up the evidence. They don't know what they're doing out there in Glacier County."
I liked the optimism. We're hanging out a little more. She's probably a 300-pound Native American woman. She's like, "You know what? My boss is here—I'll introduce you to him. Maybe he can help out or something."
Next thing you know, I'm cheers'ing shots with this guy in the Kwataqnuk Indian Casino in Polson, Montana. I guess she told him I was in trouble or whatever, and he writes his number on a napkin and gives it to me and is like, "Hey, you seem like a really nice guy; I'd like to help you out. Come by my office on Monday. We'll see what we can figure out."
He retires for the night, and I'm still up hanging with this lady and her friend. She gives me a little warning, "So you know, he's got a family and everything, but he's into men." I didn't really think much of it at the time; I was just so grateful. I've had such a cool interaction with this guy who seemed like a little beacon of light. I told her, "If there's ever something I can do to help you or repay this favor, just let me know." She's like, "Well, you could fuck me." I was thinking like pick her up at the airport or watch her kid or something. It was a pretty firm "no" for a while, but she was pretty convincing. She's like, "I haven't gotten laid since my divorce. It's been three or four years." Next thing you know, we're in the back of her Chevy Silverado in Kwataqnuk Indian Casino parking lot.
That was a nice gesture.
So on Monday, I call the senator, and he's like, "Hey, I'm super busy today; do you think we could just meet at a bar and have this talk?" And I'm like, "You know, I'd prefer if we could just meet at your office."
So I'm in the office. I've got this cute chick I'm hanging out with there too, trying to almost send a message, because I'm picturing him like, "I can get you off on all the charges; you've just got to get me off first." I remember before this conversation, I'm like, "Okay, if it comes to this—out of prison or in prison—is it worth it?" I was like, "Honestly, if it's black and white—this or that, you know this is going to happen if this doesn't—I guess I'm probably going to hook up with this guy." I've already sold all my soul and morals and slutted myself out, slept with this woman. I'm already at rock bottom.
But he was a complete professional. We went into his office, and he asked what happened. I told him the story. He's like, "If this was a Blackfeet tribal thing, I could probably help you out. However, you being charged by Glacier County… You've probably heard about me in the paper recently, because I've got my own situation with Glacier County right now."
So he's like, "What I can do is give you the number for my attorney. Don't tell him that you got it from me, but I bet he'd represent you." I called, and he said he would take the case. The moment I walked in his house, I just got this overflow of "everything is fine." He's full Blackfeet and has all this traditional tribal art on his walls. So I went in for my arraignment with no idea what they were going to say. Ultimately, I ended up with a deferred prosecution—like it never even happened. And that day, they let me off on my own recognizance with no travel restrictions. The Dopamine video premiere was the next day in Park City, and I drove down there. I had no idea I had opening part or anything. When that movie started and my part came on, I can't explain that feeling. The whole theater was chanting my name. It brought me to tears.
Jason’s part from Absinthe’s Dopamine. Filming with Absinthe was a dream-come-true for J. Rob. He just always imagined it a little different, with his brother Aaron by his side.
Unreal. I can hardly imagine that feeling. And you filmed that whole part in two months, after going to Alaska for your first time?
What was the biggest terrain you'd ridden before that?
Probably Mount Baker, out on The Arm or something.
That doesn't compare to the stuff in that part. How do you make that leap?
Yeah, I mean I'm glad I didn't get the call to film with those guys up there at like 22. I wouldn't have been ready. But Aaron [Robinson] had a big influence on me. When I was younger, it was all about freestyle and jibbing, so that's what I did. Freeriding wasn't really cool in snowboarding at that time. But Aaron was always freeriding, honing that skill and having fun with it. I was doing backcountry jumps, rails, and park, and that. He was just snowboarding. Riding powder. Going to school in Seattle, riding Alpental and Baker. Then there was this kind of a shift where freeriding was becoming cool again; it wasn't all about doing a trick. This is what makes snowboarding snowboarding.
Right. That's inherently snowboarding. Park and street riding are in many ways imitations of skateboarding.
Yeah, it's pure. When you start snowboarding, you aren't doing tricks; you're riding down the mountain. But the reason I started going more in that direction had a lot to do with Aaron. And after he died, in my grieving process, I was fully using snowboarding as a drug. In the summer, I'd get super down. Then winter would come again, and I'd feel alive again. Just dive into snowboarding. But shit was going crazy with my family. That may have been the catalyst. My youngest brother got busted selling heroin and was facing twenty years in prison. My mom was in such a fucked up spot, such crazy shit. She was just looking for something to feel alive. And my dad was just internalizing it all, and you could tell he was just miserable as well. I just wanted to go snowboarding. This would be like fall of 2013. I didn't really know what was happening career-wise. I was going bell-to-bell, every day, pretty much just riding by myself. I wouldn't ride with anyone because people would want to stop for lunch or beers, and I just wanted to keep going.
So you weren't filming for a project at this point, right? This is in the months before starting to film with Absinthe for Dopamine.
Yeah, I was just riding like a freak at my home mountain. I was really progressing my eye. Aaron had a huge influence. Watching him, the two years before he died, what he would call mini-golf, I'm thinking, "These are the biggest lines I've ever ridden." His line choice and fluidity and how good he was at gauging speed for stuff, it opened my eyes to that style of riding. It's crazy to see that caliber in person. Sometimes I felt like I was watching Terje [Haakonsen] or Craig Kelly, and it's my little brother. So that got me stoked on that side of things. Then I went to the Baker Banked Slalom, and I always had this idea that it's about who rode the most that season. Who spent the most time on their board? And it might not be the guys that are out filming video parts.
Right. You're not actually riding your snowboard as much.
Yeah, not compared to hot-lapping bell-to-bell; that's where you're honing the skills. I had probably 80 days by the time the Slalom came around. And that's when I got third, with a butt-check. That was such a huge accomplishment for me. Then two weeks later, Hostynek called me. It wasn't solely based on that, but that result had a lot to do with it. And that was Aaron and I's dream. We wanted to film with those guys, together.
It's wild to think about his potential. I don't think I fully grasped the amount of influence he had on your riding. But you were the one who introduced him to snowboarding, right?
Yeah, and skateboarding. He got into skateboarding pretty heavily. He was the first of my homies to do a kickflip. We were two years older and had been doing it longer, then he just took off with it. You'd go to a park and everyone would just watch him. Just doing crazy airs and shit. He was a world-class snowboarder and insane skateboarder. He went up to Alaska three years before I even went up there. If he wouldn't have died, my first year up there would've been his fourth. It would've been my little brother showing me the ropes again. I mean the film Manifest, Aaron built that crew. Blake Paul, Alex Yoder, everyone involved, he brought us all together, gave us the tools and outlet to pursue careers in snowboarding, and left us with that.
“It was a way to run from these less than favorable realities, even if it was just for the day.”
Is there anything you want to do in terms of an unconventional project that has the potential to bring people together?
I mean, especially this season, I want to do something new and exciting—of course, the snowboarding, and the travel, and adventure, but also engaging my creative side in the overall direction of the project. I feel like there's a movement right now where people are opening up a little more and sharing a little more of their personal lives, not just as snowboarders or athletes. I think a lot of stuff is pushed under the rug 'cause we're essentially marketing tools for these brands, and there's not a lot of room for your own humanness or faults.
There's no outlet for that unless you're disciplined enough to find ways on your own to talk about that stuff, and deal with it, and confront it. I think so many of us drawn to this lifestyle in snowboarding—who excel at it and are able to make a career out of it—are unique individuals. I do think that this draws these sort of extreme personality types. Maybe that's why they call it an extreme sport. I know for me, a lot of how I've been able to excel at snowboarding is from things that were negative at the time. They push you to find this escape, and it's a lot healthier outlet than things like drug and alcohol abuse, so having something like snowboarding to put that energy into has saved me from a lot of darker paths.
It's absolutely escapism, similar to the way substances can be.
From the time I was a kid, it was always an escape. My dad was a pretty gnarly drinker. My parents were fighting all the time. I just wanted to run away. And I'd get to do that every weekend through snowboarding. It was a way to run from these less than favorable realities, even if it was just for the day. Drift off with the snowflakes and play around.
How would you describe your relationship with your dad then?
Some of my best memories with my dad are from when he'd take me on these hikes when I was so young, and it instilled an appreciation for nature, and he was always super adamant about not littering, picking up trash if we saw it. But as a kid, there was always this frustration, this anger. I just wished he could stay sober to raise his kids. It pissed me off. He'd show up to these social things, just wasted, slurring his words. I remember some sort of soccer team meeting, and he showed up for the second half, obviously so wasted. I was just so embarrassed and bummed out. We lived like five miles from town, and I didn't want to get in the car with him, so I just ran home. One of the coaches stopped on the side of the road, legitimately concerned that I was running down the side of the highway at dark. And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm fine, just running home." But I'm super proud of him now. He's been sober for 16 or 17 years; that just didn't happen 'til I was probably like 14. At that time, it felt like too little, too late. I think it did force me to grow up quicker, which, looking back, I can appreciate.
“…so my mom pretty much let me take off the second half of seventh grade and bought me a spring pass to Mammoth and a bus ticket. I just showed up in Reno and got picked up by some snowboarders…”
So were your parents together at this point?
Yeah, and they're still together. I don't know the root of it all, but I know he put a lot of things aside to raise us kids, so I really do respect that. He financially supported our family. He just wasn't really there to emotionally support us. When it was at the worst, I was about twelve. I remember, I was riding for Ignition Snowboards.
So you got sponsored early.
Yeah, and it was getting so bad with my family life, and I had this opportunity to go live in Mammoth, so my mom pretty much let me take off the second half of seventh grade and bought me a spring pass to Mammoth and a bus ticket. I just showed up in Reno and got picked up by some snowboarders, and I moved in with those guys in Mammoth. So it was Matt Kass and this dude Phouty Vongsaly.
So you're twelve years old, living with Matt Kass, who is how old at the time?
He was probably in his early twenties. That's when he was at the peak of his career, right before Danny started blowing up. It was sick. They just called me "Junior." We'd never had good parks in Montana, or a pipe, so every day I was just learning new tricks and trying new stuff. I didn't really have any fear.
How long were you out there?
Like three or four months, and they were adults, so they would go off for like up to a week. I'd be this little dude just living there, eating my Chef Boyardee, cooking ramen, taking the bus to and from the hill. I was probably living off a few bucks a day. I remember Matt joking about that.
So what was Matt like at the time? 'Cause I know he struggled with some issues at some point.
I remember hearing some stuff blew up with Grenade or whatever. I don't remember the details, but I remember being pretty surprised 'cause he was a pretty mellow dude. He always seemed like a really smart guy too.
To me it seems that, like stars in other realms, snowboarders may have a higher propensity to mental illness.
I think it's tough. You start off, and you live and breathe snowboarding, then you get to this point with it where maybe you feel like your highlights are sort of behind you or whatever, or you're trying to find your own identity outside of snowboarding. I feel like it's pretty easy to get lost in that. At times in the past I've found it hard to identify as a snowboarder and with snowboarding. Recently, I just feel like I'm coming full circle, like this is really where my roots are. Snowboarding has brought me so much joy and so many cool experiences and awesome relationships—just out-of-this-world stuff I've gotten to experience because of it.
“It’s like playing chicken with a bull, every day. Then the bull’s gone, and part of you is relieved, but part of you misses that thrill.”
When do you think it was that you felt most distant from snowboarding or the snowboard community?
Well, I think everything was building up, but the biggest disconnect I felt was the summer of 2015, after filming that Eversince part, where I had the ender. That winter, however, I couldn't have felt more connected. I had such a crazy season. It was all ramping up to the max. That was one of the times where I quit smoking weed. I was mentally in this really good place, had a consistent meditation practice, was eating really well, doing a lot of stretching and yoga. I always want to do better than I did the year before, but that winter I really set this intention of working toward getting Video Part of the Year, and also to not smoke weed while I snowboarded, 'cause they've always gone hand-in-hand. I feel like when Aaron died, those were my two main memories with my little brother: getting stoned and snowboarding. Those were the two main connections we had growing up together, and I think I really dove into that pretty heavily. So in all my video parts, people would be like, "You don't smoke weed and do that." But yeah, some of those lines, I'd smoke a spliff on the top and on the bottom. But when you're smoking that often…
Right. Might as well be a cigarette. You've said weed is your kryptonite, but from what I know of you, it doesn't seem like you have a problem with alcohol. For many, it's the opposite.
I've had moments with it, but for the most part drinking is a fun social thing for me, where weed is escaping into my own little world. I'm sure part of it has to do with the fact that the first time I smoked weed I was ten years old. I was smoking it every day by the time I was 12. It's probably shaped my brain chemistry. If I'd started when I was 18, I'm sure I'd have a totally different relationship with it. That's how I made my living for quite a while too, so maybe I associate it with good times. And I respect the plant. I think it has amazing healing properties and positive things about it, and for me, I think it has saved me in times when I wasn't ready to fully face or confront grief, or traumas, or fears. I'd love to get to the point where I could enjoy it recreationally and just partake in it every once in a while. But I use it to just shut down. Yeah, so I guess after putting everything into that, at the end of the winter, I felt accomplished, I felt like I'd done an awesome job. I wasn't smoking weed out there though. I remember that feeling was way more intense. 'Cause for me the weed takes the edge off a little bit, and maybe you're not fully grasping how dangerous and crazy some of this stuff you're doing is. But after that season, I was fried, dude. I put so much into it. Then it all ended. Boom. Season's over.
Jason considers the season he spent filming his ender part in Absinthe’s Eversince, that earned him Snowboarder Magazine’s Big Mountain Rider of the Year, to be among his most productive and focused periods in life. But in its aftermath he felt more disconnected from the snowboard community than ever. (Watch this. It’s one of the best parts in modern snowboard history.)
Even if you take the substances out of it, it's a bender in its own right. No booze, no weed, no nothing. I know, personally, I can get in a rut, but as soon as I start traveling and snowboarding again, everything feels fine. It's when you stop that you really have to think about things and face things. It's comforting when you can bury yourself in work, or snowboarding, or whatever it is for different people.
For sure, it is. It simplifies things a bit, and as crazy as it may be, you're only worried about what's right in front of you.
It's nice to have that excuse in your mind. "This is what I'm supposed to be doing right now; it's not even responsible of me to be thinking about these other things or dealing with these other things."
For sure. And I've done a lot of that. I've used snowboarding as my excuse to not do all these other things that I should be doing, just push 'em aside. After that season, I was pretty fried. I had this pretty extreme experience, triggered a dozen avalanches, got caught in one. It was intense. I put everything into it and came out just toasted. It's like playing chicken with a bull, every day. Then the bull's gone, and part of you is relieved, but part of you misses that thrill. Like we talked about, I've never really been a big drinker, but I was looking for some sort of feeling, so I started drinking a ton too, just smoking a ton of weed again, using sex and women as escapism too, and a way to find that high and that excitement.
“He started talking about hobo stuff, and I’ve always been fascinated with trains and people riding them. So many old country songs talk about riding trains.”
Yeah, so how did that all come about?
I rode my bike to the gas station to grab a few beers. I met this dude on a street corner. You could tell he's some sort of vagabond type dude. He had a big pack, big beard, kind of grungy, "Hobo Life" tattooed on his knuckles. And he's asking me if I have any weed. Just looking at him, I could tell something was up; he was sad. He looked a long way from home. I was like, "Are you alright, man?" And he kind of broke down and almost started crying. He was like, I just got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and I was like, "Holy shit, that's heavy news."
We talked for a bit before I biked off to go see my buddy. I get a couple blocks down, and I'm like, "I'm going to invite this dude to come hang out too." So I went back and was like, "I don't have any weed, but I've got these beers if you want to come crack one and hang out." He was such a charismatic dude, super positive, happy, big smile, big old Santa Claus laugh. I found out his name is Andrew. He started talking about hobo stuff, and I've always been fascinated with trains and people riding them. So many old country songs talk about riding trains.
Yeah, I can see how there's something dramatic or enticing about them.
Right. So that night, he asks if he can sleep under my trailer, and I told him he could sleep on my floor. But he's like, "Nah, this is perfect." The next day, I was planning on going to Mount Hood for Bode [Merrill]'s quarterpipe contest. Leland [McNamara] was going to drive out. So the next day, Andrew and I are hanging out, and I ask Leland, "You mind if my buddy tags along to Hood with us?" I didn't give any info as to who this dude was. I tell Andrew, "I'm going to Oregon today. We got room if you want to come." And he's like, "I love Oregon; I'd love to come." We finally show up at Leland's at 7 pm, and I'm with a freaking homeless guy. We drive through the night and show up to Govy at five or six am, grab coffee, breakfast, straight to the hill. Andrew hikes up to watch. His favorite snowboarder was Erik Leon. He was so hyped on Erik, dude. Just his whole style. And Nirvana [Ortanez], he really liked Nirvana. They were his two favorites.
On their snowboarding alone, or did he meet them?
Yeah, on their snowboarding. He just liked their style. He was fully fanning out; he was so hyped. He's just sitting up there on the side of the course, slapping people fives. Of course, we go to Charlie's that night, and everyone's like, "Oh you're J. Rob's buddy? How was it? You have fun?" And he's like, "Hell yeah, it was bitchin!" People are buying him beers, and he just fell in love with the whole experience. It really reminded him a lot of his little hobo tribe, the train riders that he might not see for years, but when they did, they'd pick up right where they left off. We also camped with Brendan Gerard, and he loved Brendan.
On the drive back to Montana, he tells me, "Snowboarding seems so cool. You guys are all so awesome. I'm so honored you shared that with me; I want to share my world with you." He tells me that the hobo convention is coming up in a couple weeks and that he wants to take me out there.
I was like, "Why the hell not?" He didn't have a phone, or a house, or any way for me to find him. But I had that trailer, and it wasn't finished yet. So before I went off on this trip, where I could, who knows… I wanted to at least mount it on a trailer, so it wasn't this huge burden for my buddy Scott, who was helping me build it and letting me store it on his property, if I wound up in jail, or never coming back, or something weird. So we scrambled all week to get it done. Then I packed my hobo bag.
What's your hobo bag?
It was just the same Dakine Poacher that I use everywhere. I've packed for a lot of trips, but never this style. I get dropped off in Whitefish to go find Andrew. We had a couple days to make it to the hobo convention, so I'm looking everywhere for him, at all his regular bars, but no sign of him. By the time I'm about to call it a night, it's like 1 am. I'm just going to sleep down by the river at the last spot I saw him, hoping maybe he shows up. I'm in my sleeping bag when I hear a freight train coming. One of the only things I knew about traveling on trains is that you want to get on—they call 'em an intermodal or hot shot—a double-stack train because those are going the distance; they're not going to break up until Chicago. I remember thinking I'd have to be an idiot to do this by myself. Then the train starts coming, and it's a double stack. So I take my collared shirt off and put on a hoodie and Carhartts, stuff my sleeping bag in my backpack real quick. The train stops and I run up and hop on. I'll never forget that sound. The brakes build pressure, and when they let the air out it makes this loud hiss, then it starts rolling. Then it's just duh-dunk, duh-dunk. And it builds, and it gets quicker. Then, dude, I'm on my way out of town, cruising probably 50 or 60 miles per hour. Now I'm up walking around checking it out, hanging off the side, just tripping. And it's a supermoon, so the sky's just lit up and you could see everything so well. And that was the first ride, dude. Pretty crazy.
So what about Andrew?
I heard from him like five or six days later. It turns out cancer was a misdiagnosis; it was hepatits or something. He never made it to the hobo convention. I made it, though. I met a couple people that knew him, but everyone was kind of blown away that I made it, having never done it before. Maybe I was a little out of my element; you don't get a briefing on how to properly ride a freight train, but don't do stupid shit. That first night was a trip. It stopped under this roof that protects the tracks from avalanches that I've always wanted to snowboard off. There's a sick spot there. I'm looking at all these rapids I've kayaked through, and the mountains are illuminated by the moon. It stopped for a couple hours, and I passed out. I woke up when it started going again. Now the sun's rising on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, and I remember seeing this eagle. I'm up high enough that I'm looking down on this eagle, still a couple hundred feet off the ground, just gliding above the river. The whole river bottom is still in the shade, but this eagle is in the light. And I was like, "I'm on the path; I'm supposed to be doing this; I'm in the right place right now."
Incredible. I see how that would give you the thrill you were looking for.
It definitely did. It's a feeling I've spent so much time chasing, through so many different avenues.
For some, this thrill-seeking behavior leads down a bad path. It seems like your way of channeling it into adventures like this has ultimately worked out well.
Absolutely. When you're in that state, you're looking for something, and obviously it's a lot easier to take drugs than decide to hop on a freight train, or whatever. Not that that's the answer for everyone. Luckily for me, I never really turned to any hard drugs. When I was young, I tried opiates one time, like Oxycontin or something. It was such a good feeling, and the next day I had this pretty shitty day at work; I was cleaning out this crawl space. I remember thinking, "As soon as I get off, I'm going to my homie's house and just going to melt out. I drove there straight after work, but luckily they were out of town that night, and I pretty much made a promise to myself to never fuck around with that stuff. It scared me, really.
It's good you had the awareness to make that decision. Obviously, plenty don't.
I'd seen what it was doing to them. They were good people, but it was making them shitheads, just doing sketchy stuff. And I've seen what it's done to my brother, Sean.
Yeah, you mentioned he's facing charges again.
Yeah. I've always had this escape through snowboarding. Being able to pursue it on a high level, I put most of my energy and grief into that after Aaron died, but our brother Sean didn't have quite the same connection with Aaron through snowboarding that I had. What snowboarding was to me, opiates became to him. He got mixed up in that, which has been a long road. Being on it, off it, getting into trouble, getting out of trouble. At this current moment, he's recently gotten in trouble again for opiate-related stuff. He's in jail again, awaiting trial, for possession of heroin and opiates.
It's almost like fate has interjected every time you've had a brush with something that could send you down the wrong path. There's a situation in particular I'm thinking of. Do you want to talk about it?
Sure. I was pretty down and bummed out during the beginning of fall 2016. I didn't really have any winter plans or anything to put my focus into. I was still processing what I'd experienced up in Alaska that previous spring. Being on the scene of Bode [Merrill]'s avalanche rescue was pretty heavy. When we finally got to him, I thought he was dead. It was only a few days later when Estelle [Ballet] was killed in an avalanche. I met her the year before up there, and we had been messaging each other a bunch and even had plans to hang out in Haines that spring. She had left the day I got there, but we were still chatting and said she wanted to show me Verbier. She died a couple days after our last conversation. It broke my heart. That following fall, I was in a weird place as the season was ramping up, but I got this opportunity to do a video shoot with Sweetgrass Productions for this Chinese action film, Euro Raiders.
“It made me think I had to quit snowboarding because I thought without these crazy rushes and highs that I get from it, I wouldn't be chasing that feeling outside of snowboarding.”
That was when you caught on fire, right?
Well, not quite. The light suit melted through two puffies but somehow didn't burn me, but it was the craziest trip. I was on such a high after that. I did my first double backflip in a light suit at night. I remember thinking that if I retired from snowboarding right now, I'd be pretty happy. I was in this little rockstar state of mind. I end up having this crazy night with these two ladies up there in BC. From there, I went to Lost Trail for Smash Life. I showed up, still riding this high from this crazy trip, and I ended up winning. I was driving down to Tahoe to meet up with some of the Absinthe dudes. I remember driving through Idaho and seeing this billboard that said, "Meth, not even once." I remember thinking, "If you just did it once, how bad could it be?" I had that thought in my head. And as I'm getting gas and coffee, this dude who looks a little sketchy, a little methy, asks me how far it is back to the highway. He was trying to get to Reno, and I'm like, "Well, I'm going right through Reno; I'll give you a ride."
The whole time, he's talking about smoking bowls. He's like, "I can't wait to get there; I'm going to smoke the fattest bowl." I've never seen anyone so excited to smoke weed, and at some point, it clicks. That's not what he's talking about. He asks if he can borrow my phone to call a buddy to line some shit up. I'm still kind of on this high from this trip, searching for something, and he's like, "I'll totally hook you up if you want. You're in good hands with me; I'm an expert." And I remember feeling that kind of excitement, like this is something I shouldn't be doing, but I'm kind of excited about it. I don't want to go off the deep end, but I don't see the harm in trying it one time.
Meth, maybe once.
So we get to Sparks, Nevada, and he's like, "Swing in there. It's a storage unit complex, and he goes by one of the storage units, where apparently the homeless guys are selling meth out of. Go figure. But dude has shut down shop for the day, and he sees him biking off. We catch up to the dude, and all these signs are probably telling me this is fucking stupid. So then we go over to his buddy's house, who's a freaking 300-pound meth dealer. Long story short, I try meth with this guy. We smoke meth. And I felt amazing for twenty minutes, one of the strongest senses of euphoria I've ever had.
“Then I'm lying on the bed, feeling like fucking dying, still puking all over the place, going from such a euphoric feeling to the shittiest I've ever felt. I know something's wrong.”
How would you describe that high compared to other stimulants?
More uplifting, I guess. I felt like I was God or something. I'm like, "I guess I kind of get why people throw their whole lives away for this shit." Then I start getting really sick. I felt so nervous, and weird, and wrong. I'd already come to grips with the idea that this was a one-time deal. In my head, I was okay with it, but something with my mind and body weren't on the same page. I'm like, "We need to get a hotel room." We're just driving around in my truck in Sparks, Nevada. We go to a casino, and I use the bathroom. I look in the mirror, and I'm sweating profusely, and it's winter. He keeps telling me I didn't do enough, that I need to do more. And I'm like, "I don't think that's what it is."
So I'm on the toilet, puking, shitting, puking, shitting. Then I'm lying on the bed, feeling like fucking dying, still puking all over the place, going from such a euphoric feeling to the shittiest I've ever felt. I know something's wrong. I'm super high still, and there will be these moments where I feel these waves of chills and tingles—maybe what you're supposed to be feeling. But I was struggling to breathe. Then I notice my heart, dude. It wasn't just beating fast; it was super irregular and strong. Finally, he's like, "Dude, I think we need to take you to a hospital."
I barely remember driving there, but I pull up and walk right into the ER and tell them what happened. They rush me in and do this blood test, and they were super alarmed. So I pretty much had a severe allergic reaction to it. There's this substance that your body produces when you suffer cardiac damage, called troponin. I had a high level in my system, and the levels were still rising. Essentially, I had a mini heart attack. They call it a vasospasm. They had never seen anything like this in a first-time user, so I stayed the night there. I felt like such a jackass.
Right. "I did this to myself."
Yeah. They checked me out the next morning and were just like, "This is not the drug for you." It fucked with my head a lot. It made me think I had to quit snowboarding because I thought without these crazy rushes and highs that I get from it, I wouldn't be chasing that feeling outside of snowboarding. It really put a lot into question for me. "What am I doing with my life? This isn't sustainable." I wasn't going to be able to do it anymore. I was afraid to do it.
So how did things pan out after that?
I didn't have health insurance, and the bill was like 30 grand. But if you pay within two weeks, it's 80 percent off, and I had that money. It was the money I was going to film the rest of the season with, and I ended up just paying it. I wanted it to be a powerful lesson. Then we went to Idaho, and I was on the fence about filming anymore. I was like I'm not balancing it with the rest of my life very well. Manuel [Diaz] was kind of feeling like it was too much for him too. And we had this talk and decided we were both onboard to keep going with it. So we went to Idaho and build this crazy kicker, planning to hit it the next day, and I come inside from having a smoke, and Justin [Hostynek] is like, "I fly out at eight tomorrow morning; I'm going to Haines." So we all fly up to Haines and get totally skunked. We blow like three grand just flying around. They left, and I decided to stay. I met a girl there the year before. I totally fell in love with her; I just wasn't ready to be in a relationship. But I needed some sort of consistency and stability in my life. So they left, and I just stuck around and worked things out with her and stayed up there for a couple months, did some shredding. That May, in 2016, I left Haines with her and her daughter.
And I know this past season was a bit of a bummer for you.
So I went out to the Olympic Peninsula with good intentions. I felt like trying something new instead of basing in Montana, so I took the trailer house out there with my girlfriend and her daughter. The idea was that I'd be close to Mervin and film with those guys and spend more time in the Northwest, maybe get some surf in the meanwhile.
So pretty much the plan was to travel around with my truck and camper, and I crashed my truck in December. I was pissed at myself, but it wasn't going to be that much to fix it. They told me it'd be two weeks to fix it, which turned into two more weeks, then two more. In the end, I didn't get my truck back until April. I'd take my lady's car to go on some short snowboard trips, but whenever I'd leave, she'd be stranded in a barnyard, twenty minutes to town, with a dog and a three-year-old, so I got stuck there a bunch too. And my mental state was dropping more and more.
So we were on edge; we were fighting a lot. We're all just cooped up going crazy, just grinding on each other. I had some fun days, really good pow days, but I never really built that momentum. I couldn't even imagine doing some of the stuff I'd done in the past.
“I think it's a consistent trend with my life and career, that out of these negative times comes a push to new heights and new experiences. I don't regret any of it.”
It's like what we talked about earlier. When you're in it, it all makes sense, and you're like, "Yeah, I could ride down that." But then from a static perspective, it's hard to imagine.
Yeah, I never found that groove. And I love that feeling of being in that zone. So I was daydreaming a ton, thinking of all these trips that I'd love to go on. I was as stuck as I let myself be; I could've figured something out. It was awesome going on that trip with you to Montana, as short of a trip as it was. But I was really losing confidence, like I should be out there shredding; I was bummed, my sponsors are going to get bummed too. My sanity was projecting myself into these unique experiences and snowboarding cool new places and riding these sick lines. That's when the gears started turning about what I want to do this season. I think it's a consistent trend with my life and career, that out of these negative times comes a push to new heights and new experiences. I don't regret any of it. At the time, there were miserable moments, but everything has its moments.
Do you think you've dealt with depression?
Would someone have diagnosed you as depressed at points?
You know, I've thought about that a lot, and it's hard to know. I've never been suicidal, to that level, but I've definitely been in a bad place. And I'd rationalize it. So there's been like a month, maybe a few months even, where I maybe would've been technically depressed, but not to the extreme that some people have dealt with. I've always found something to pull me out of it. It's normally starting some new adventure, which is maybe not always the healthiest way; you're still kind of just escaping it, or pushing it off. I've never gone to see someone who would diagnose me, but especially those couple summers after Aaron died, those were bad.
I can't imagine.
When we went to Chile and finished Manifest. That was an unreal experience. Down there it all felt like a fairytale, like I'm this warrior avenging my brother's death. We had this purpose. And then I came home from that trip, and it all started to sink in when his return flight would've been. I sunk pretty deep. Then wintertime would come around, and I'd have this objective—something to focus on and put my energy into and work on. It was his biggest passion, snowboarding, so it was this way to kind of connect with him and all the people I snowboard with have a connection with Aaron and a respect for him at least, so it was a way to kind of tap into his energy. So I'd just go as hard as I could all winter, and then winter would end, and it was back to reality. Like, "Well, my brother's actually dead."
But lately your summers have been spent with more positive outlets—these jobs you've taken. What was the first job you had after living entirely off snowboard checks?
In 2016, I took a job for the Forest Service as the station manager out at the most remote Forest Service work station in the lower 48. Big Prairie, Montana. I got the job through a snowboard buddy. When I got Snowboarder Mag's Big Mountain Rider of the Year, the local paper did an interview on me. They asked me what I was doing moving forward, and I was working every day trying to finish my trailer and converting my truck. My homie who I grew up snowboarding with, Guy Zoellner, he was the ranger at Big Prairie, and he read the article, and they kind of embellished my carpentry and handyman skills. They made it sound like I was top-notch with that stuff, and he was like, "I'm looking for a station manager."
But you weren't seeking this type of thing out as a source of extra income?
No, financially, this was at a high point in my career. There was a lot of hesitation with taking this job and being out in the woods for three months. "How is it going to affect my snowboard career? I got a pretty good thing going. It might have some repercussions."
But I took this job because I wanted the experience. And it was that and then some. Mind blown. No regrets there, but while I was in the woods… I told my TMs and stuff, basically, "Here's what I'm doing. If it's an emergency or you really need to get a hold of me, here's my address; you can write me a letter." So I get out of the woods, and I'm trying to catch up on 100 days worth of stuff. I had a pretty good deal with this headphone company going on, and when I got out I found out they just dissolved my contract. And then I found out my goggle and helmet sponsor wasn't going to renew my contract. And I don't know if it played into it or not, but if I had been out at Hood doing all the events and stuff, I'm sure they would've been more inclined to re-sign me. So I made money, but ultimately it may have cost me more than I made. But the experience was priceless.
What were you doing out there?
I was the station manager, so the trail crew does ten days on, four days off. And the crew that works out there is clearing trails. My role is to help run the facility. The trail crew leaves, but I would mostly stay cause they need someone there to hold it down. One of the funnest parts of the job is wrangling the stock. You saddle your horse up and you ride out to go find the other 15 to bring back to the corral. You're trotting and galloping through the fucking wilderness, weaving through trees, jumping fallen logs, crossing rivers. You're on a bluff looking out for these horses and mules. The packer comes in and you help him unload, so I learned all about packing as well.
“At this point, whatever I do this winter is funded by packing mules.”
What did you do this last summer?
This last summer I worked for the National Parks Service as a mule packer in Yosemite, packing gear, tools, and whatever they need out of the backcountry on horses and mules. A lot of it is for these high camps that are actually run by the concessionaire. In the contract, the Parks Service supplies all drinking water and wastewater management. A big part of it was doing water tests so they could open up the camp. So my role is pretty much transportation. There are no roads in these remote backcountry locations, so the only way to bring stuff out there would be helicopter or mule. You have five mules to fit it all on. You saddle 'em and load them. There's a pretty specific way to do it. You're riding a horse with the mules behind you.
So you were a government employee?
Yep. I had to do a full background check, which took like two months, and I didn't know. I'd worked for the Forest Service, and they do a background check, but nothing like this. This is done through the Department of the Interior. So I had some sort of security clearance level.
So you finished that job in the fall, and going into this season you're no longer getting paid to snowboard.
After the last couple years, which were pretty slow, my contracts were up and I had some concerns that I at least wouldn't get the sort of support I'd had before. So I was pretty set on having some sort of job. It's a decent paying job, and your expenses are low, so I was able to save quite a bit of money. I went into it with the goal of saving money to fund this next winter or at least supplement it. But as the summer went on, when all my contracts were up, none of them were available to resign so I currently don't have any snowboard contracts or income. At this point, whatever I do this winter is funded by packing mules.
It seems like these summer jobs are a bit grounding.
I've definitely felt that. If you're going all winter long and during the summer you don't have a plan, you're just still draining, you're just drawing from the tank and you're never really putting it back in, so to speak. It's a good time to reflect on when everything was moving faster and embrace the slow pace of things and find your groove in that. Then you're completing the circle. You drain the tank, you fill it, and you go back out.
Now that you've been dealt a blow on the support side, how does that affect your goals within snowboarding?
My original goal going into this season is going to be scaled back a bit because I don't have quite the financial support to pull it off how I pictured it, but I pretty much have all the money I saved this summer, and I'm as fired up on snowboarding as I've ever been. So regardless, I've got a few trips in mind, locations I want to go to. I'm excited to explore these new mountains and continue to push my riding and get on some heavy lines with some likeminded riders out there with me, pushing each other, and doing it relatively safe, and knowing how to handle it. That really could be more critical where I'm trying to go, cause it's not like the BC backcountry where a helicopter could come rescue you. Might be in some village in Iran. The US Embassy isn't going to bail you out of a backcountry scenario. I've had some ups and downs, and I've lost sight of some of my goals in snowboarding at times. But it's all coming around; I'm so fired up to snowboard this winter, and I'm excited about the challenge. When you're going out with a film crew, you've got this set thing, and you just show up and snowboard. I want to be challenged on-snow, but also in managing the logistics. I want to engage my creative side and write stories about these travels, find a cool way to document them video-wise, and work with a filmer to direct some sort of the story.
What would you say, through all these ups and downs, that you've learned?
I mean, a big part of what I've learned is that no matter what's happening, however fast everything is moving, I still need to find some sort of time and space for myself. I've needed to develop positive habits for self-care. I've found ways to slow it down and stay tuned in with myself, otherwise I wind up completely lost in it all. There are times through the madness where I've felt calm and clear, but there are also times where it has just been a total whirlwind. If I have the discipline to keep things in check and take care of myself, then I'm capable of anything. I've pictured my goals as destinations and thought that once I reached them I'd remain there, but in reality they're more of a feeling or a moment. So I've learned to appreciate that moment while I'm in it. Sometimes, we're in the driver's seat, controlling every little turn in life, and sometimes we're along for the ride. We're all thrown situations that are out of our control. I try to embrace them and adapt to the challenge, or, as Aaron would say, just continue to "smash life."