Words: Mary Walsh
Johnny O'Connor is a calculated force. His steady rise through the snowboarding's ranks has been typified by his smooth and technical abilities in the street and underlined by a methodical, pragmatic East Coast approach to dropping in. The latter is also an undercurrent of the native New Yorker's easy-going personality--the duality of a youth spent lapping the often icy trails of the Northeast, an ingrained endurance for the whims of winter weather, a patience for the moments when things align, and the desire to take advantage of such situations.
Two winters ago, while filming a standout part for Union's team movie, STRONGER, Johnny broke his leg. It was a season-ending injury that opens his segment in the film. He spent his birthday getting surgery and the next few months dedicated to rehabbing, so he could get back on his board. But as fall came around, and it was time to plan for winter, Johnny took stock of where his leg was at and knew he wasn't ready to rush back into filming a video part. "I wasn't healthy enough to uphold my standards for my potential to film a part. It was something that I was on the fence about, because I wanted to film. Someone told me, 'Just take that opportunity; just go film. If it's not your best part, it doesn't matter. Just go out and do it. It'll be good for you.' I just didn't want to do that. I know how strenuous it is to film a part, so I thought it was a better long-term decision to put together this project for the season."
It's hardly an easy decision to step away from filming for a movie, especially for Johnny, who seemingly never slows down. But, trusting his gut--and his leg--he decided to spend his season producing a video series highlighting the area that he calls home. Growing up in New York, before heading north to attend Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, Johnny has remained in the White Mountains since graduating, continuing to grow his stake in snowboarding while lapping the Loon Mountain gondola, furthering his roots in a place buried in snow and ice. Through this desire to pay homage to this place and populace, The Scenic Route was born, a season-long road trip up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Turn places that are too often forced to be pit stops during a season spent traveling and filming into the destinations, documenting the riders, resorts, and scenes that define these areas.
"I've kind of established myself as an East Coast rider," explains Johnny. "So I wanted to expand into something a little deeper that would give me an opportunity to connect with the entire East Coast on a more personal level, rather than just being from the area and maybe visiting a different resort once a year. I wanted to establish relationships with the resorts, the local rippers, the park guys. I wanted to connect myself to the area more because I plan on staying here."
Though Johnny describes the past season as slightly mellower that those previous, he took on the roles of director and producer in addition to strapping in for Scenic Route, steering the ship, a 1996 Chevy Express van, through New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and beyond in order to ride at different mountains and suss out new street spots. "Shooting for The Scenic Route forced us to explore areas we normally wouldn't, like Lewiston and Augusta, Maine, and parts of New York and Massachusetts," says Johnny. "It opened my eyes to exploring deeper in the Northeast. I was looking in areas I never wouldn't have otherwise, and we found stuff."
With Johnny at the nucleus, he gathered a group of riders, locals, and friends. Timmy Sullivan, Cole St. Martin, and Brendan Hart. Up and comers Jed Sky, Noah Guarriello, and River Richer. Savvy urban denizens Brandon Reis and Christian Sparks. They headed off the beaten path, stacking footage and photos in previously untapped zones. "Newburg, New York, was an area in my own state I hadn't explored, just over an hour from where I grew up. That inspired me to work my way down the Hudson River in the future to see what else it has to offer," says Johnny. "I know there's so much more along those cities down the river that are all on a hill."
Over the course of the winter, Johnny says it’s the moments that weren’t captured on video that made a lot of the season for him. Riding with a friend’s young son at Yawgoo who played hooky from school in order to meet up with the crew. Getting to spend time at Windham, where he grew up, and at Big Boulder, a Pennsylvania mountain with a tighknit shred scene. At every stop along the way he was able to highlight the riding of those like Jed and River following in the footsteps of the current barrage of East Coast pros-young guns who are coming into their own on the cold steeps of the Northeast. For Johnny, like many of the people he has come up with in snowboarding, the people and places from home are woven deeply into the fabric of snowboard culture, and he felt it was time he dedicated a season to focus on the intricate and this diehard community. So, he dropped in on the van, hired Ian Dreher to film, grabbed some friends and pointed it down Interstate 95. We asked Johnny why he chose each location on his journey.
River Richer, Jed Sky, Noah G., Parker Szumowski, Nick Joy, Merrick Joyce, Kyle Cross, Ian Dreher, Brendan Hart, Cole St. Martin, Scott McCurdy.
Loon has been my home resort for the past six seasons, and ever since I started riding there, the entire park crew has been awesome and so helpful. They've been putting out one of the best parks on the East Coast for so many years. The Loon park staff has such a strong work ethic--they're just diehards. They've blown my mind several times by creating features I wouldn't think are even possible, allowing breakthrough tricks to go down. Loon is always two steps ahead.
“We were out on the Bunyan Room deck after a day of riding. Parker [Szumowski], Nick Doucette, Ian Dreher, and I were just bullshitting about building snow up to this rock. I sent [Brian] Norton a text. “Is there any chance you’d be able to push up some snow?” Literally ten minutes later, Norton sent me a photo of a quarter pipe perfectly set up.”
Tyler L'Heureux, Marcus Rand, Dr. B., Cam Danchak, Ian Dreher
Yawgoo is a staple East Coast destination because of what the Yawgoons have created, showing East Coast snowboarding in a way that has been impactful to so many around the world. When I was initially thinking of people I wanted to have involved in Scenic Route, the Yawgoons were probably the first people that came to mind, not only because they kill it in everything they do, but also because we're all good friends. I think a lot of people would go to Yawgoo and be like, "This is it? Wait a minute." It's all DIY. Everything that is filmed there is set up in the morning and taken down the end of the day. To finally get to go there and see what's been created from absolutely the most minimal terrain is just unbelievable. I had been meaning to go down there for years, and this project helped me to finally do that. We stayed at Dr. B's house and filmed for a Yawgoons episode that I got a couple clips in.
Christian Sparks, Jasper Kahn, Ian Dreher, Matty Sorano, Colton Boehlke, Chuckie Branciforte, Christian Batthany, Jameson Lecomte.
Hunter Mountain is fifteen minutes from where I grew up. You can see Hunter from the top of Windham. Hunter Mountain is where the Ice Coast Kills Shit crew is rooted. Every time we ride there, we see some of those guys around, holding it down. They're just a great group of people who ride every day then go back to their house a few miles down the road. They have a backyard setup there, which is insane.
Jasper Kahn, Christian Sparks, Marcus Rand, Scott McCurdy, Brandon Reis, Ian Dreher, Jon Koch, Amanda Maccaro.
I grew up on the same street as Windham. It's where I learned to snowboard, and so I've been riding there for nineteen or twenty years. It had potential for so long, and they've done a good job in the past, but when Kieth Kreischer came in, he turned that place around more than anyone has in the history of Windham Mountain Parks. He's done so much for that place in the three years he's been there, from graphic design to welding and handwork. At this point, it gets better every year. He's built nearly a hundred different features for the mountain, and on top of that, he's had two kids within the past two years and is working up on the mountain year-round. He does it all; he's a one-man show. Windham has world-class mountain biking, so they have crews clear branches and brush in the trees. If you have five inches of snow, you can pretty much ride anywhere in the woods. You don’t need a base and then another foot just to get off the trail. They have the cleanest woods I’ve ever seen. This place is undiscovered. It’s a gem.
“Having the opportunity to work with Johnny for our annual Nightmare Before Christmas event is always a trip. His strong work either and drive spills into any scenery, whether that’s a 2 am park venue build or a 1 pm street setup. When the time grew closer to host JOC, Marcus [Rand], and Ian [Dreher] for The Scenic Route, my crew and I really wanted to make their return to Windham special. We had just dealt with a horrible, yet typical East Coast warm-up that decimated our parks the week before. We always strive at Windham to put out the best product for everyone, but this was JOC’s first mid-season homecoming in years. With all six parks open, it was a tremendous opportunity to show him how much our parks program has grown. When the van rolled up and the boys suited up to head up A-lift, the stoke factor was at a crack level high for me and the park crew. We started lapping everything and anything we could find. From dirt patches and hidden logs, to snow whales and true tables the fun didn’t stop. Nobody wanted it to end. The stress of endless hours of park building slowly began to fade. Finally getting to ride with those talented bros really showed me how much fun the entire mountain is and how I consider it to be a top-to-bottom park everywhere I turn.” – Keith Kreischner
Spencer Davis, Tyler Watson, Lilly Calabrese, Ashley Rosemeyer, Kaleah Opal, Gabe Mekker, Nick Doucette, Noah Guarriello, Jackson Krushenick, Christian Sparks, Ian Dreher
The park crew was so accommodating; they were constantly switching up their features. I was blown away by how much work is put into their park. The average ability of the riders at Sugarbush is crazy. There were some pretty firm days out here, and everyone was making it to the end of the rail and doing a sick trick. And that's just one of those things, if you build the features correctly, the ability level will rise so much. The park crew has supplied every type of feature you could imagine to progress in any way possible.
Matty Bistro, Joey B., Jasper Kahn, Marcus Rand, Jayell White, Jason Anderson, Travis Henderson, Ian Dreher
I'll start off by saying that Pat Morgan, the park director, is the boss. Big Boulder has big features that allow you to learn tricks. They're creating features for people to progress to snowboarding's highest potential. I'm sure you could get a triple cork around on their jumps if you wanted to. There are a lot of other places on the East Coast that have more terrain, but they just don't create the features that allow you to do specific, progressive tricks these days. For the amount of space Boulder has to work with, they utilize it to its maximum potential. Big Boulder has one of my favorite local crews out of all the resorts on the East Coast. They're all just homies, none of them are too cliquey. They're not snowboarding because they're trying to fulfill expectations or because people want them to, they're doing it because they love it. I appreciate their camaraderie and their crew so much. They all work together so well.
The entire weekend, The Scenic Route van was windows-up in the parking lot, right outside the main lodge. I had to hide the keys on everyone at one point because they were in there for too long.
CARINTHIA AT MOUNT SNOW
Marcus Rand, Jasper Kahn, Steve Lauder, Pat Ryan, Timmy Sullivan, Ian Dreher
Carinthia at Mount Snow has one of the best parks on the East Coast. I've ridden there for at least ten years, and it is one of the places that has helped me progress. Mount Snow was one of the first resorts that I went to outside of New York that had a proper setup, and you have always been able to learn so much because of the variety. They've always had a really good local crew, and over the past few years have produced some of the best content from the East Coast. We got to Mount Snow and just happened to hit it at a bad time, when it was below zero degrees, just bulletproof all day. It’s hilarious in some aspects because I was trying to go snowboard, and everyone, even the locals, were like, “I’m going in to have a beer.” It was so cold.
Ian Dreher, Mike Callaghan
We went to go pick up the Thule racks for the van from Mike Callaghan in Connecticut. Mike's been one of my friend for a long time. He was actually the first person I ever filmed street spots with. He brought us to a resort that is close to the Thule headquarters called Mount Southington. Mount Southington has a great park and a park manager who is dedicated and inspired to make that place the best it can be. We showed up kind of unexpectedly. You aren't supposed to ride the park without helmets there, but we were like, "It's just nighttime boarding right now; we aren't going to go get helmets. So we started riding, and we got chased down the mountain by someone and we're like, "Oh great." We get on the lift and the operator stops it. We're sitting on the chair with our feet still on the ground, and the guy comes up to us, definitely getting ready to yell at us, and he stops and is like, "Wait a minute, aren't you Johnny O'Connor?" And he looks at Ian. "Aren't you that filmer? You guys are doing The Scenic Route, right?" He was the park manager for the resort and heard about The Scenic Route through my own personal posts. He's nineteen years old--a young, inspired kid who wants to make Southington's park the best it can be and do whatever he can at his mountain.
Sean Callaghan, Matty Sorano, Colton Boehlke, Jasper Kahn, Joey B., Jameson Lecomte, Christian Batthany, Zur Handlesman, Dylan Longton
Pretty much every day and night the ICKS park is getting worked on. There were points of the winter where there was three feet of snow in the backyard and others where there was just a few inches. Regardless, you would still see the work ethic of everyone there keeping it alive. After a full day of digging parks on-hill, the crew would come back home and continue shoveling and working into night. Often the shoveling was for other people, not even for themselves to ride--they just love building. Their backyard was the most insane set up I've ever seen. When you pull up to the house, there would be a few people boarding down the hill, another couple people further down in the woods shoveling and building features, and then one guy operating the winch with the walkie talkie, which was like the towrope set up. You never had to unstrap. And of course, Joey B. was always cookin' up hot dogs, doing his thing. It's non-stop, weekend-style snowboarding, filming, and partying. It's awesome.
For five hours, Scott was mic’d up in a chair, just hanging out, and he had to make conversation with this chick while he had five camera guys recording everything. I can just picture Scott out on the front deck like, “How the hell did I end up here?”
MTV AT HUNTER
Ian Dreher, Scott McCurdy, Brandon Reis
I have an insane story from Hunter that we weren't able to document because of certain legalities. The producers of Jersey Shore filmed a show about snowboarders there last winter, and we were full-on actors on that show. They came to my house. I was brought in to do like skits and shit. It was insane. I show up to Hunter Mountain with Ian and Scott McCurdy, and I see Brandon Reis, who was also a special guest, and I'm like, "What the fuck?!" We get mic'd up, and we're riding with the cast members all day. I've known about the show for years because they've been planning it for a long time, contacting my parents' business and whatnot. Right before we met up, Scott had dislocated his shoulder in my backyard, so he was in a sling. One of the cast members was in a sling, too. The first day, we went riding with the cast, and Scott is in the lodge with the other injured cast member, and the producers are loving it. For five hours, Scott was mic'd up in a chair, just hanging out, and he had to make conversation with this chick while he had five camera guys recording everything. I can just picture Scott out on the front deck like, "How the hell did I end up here?"
Joey B., Christian Sparks, Kaleah Opal. Gabe Mekker, Tyler Watson, Erich Stefanzick, John Haynes
Whiteface is Joey B.'s home area. He had been trying to get us to go up there all season, and we ended up catching one of the last weekends of the year. Joey B. showed us a great time. We got to ride with a bunch of locals who were just sending it, spring break-style. It was warm, and the park was getting melted out, but everyone was still sending harder than ever--like double frontflips--it was just madness. We were laughing all day, everyone just letting loose. The people there are snowboarding for all the right reasons. They have good freeriding terrain, a good park set up, good maintenance, and a gondola that has a mile-long run through three different parks. The terrain that the locals ride daily turns them into savage snowboarders.
Back at the Wheel
By the end of the winter, The Scenic Route van had logged thousands of miles, and the posse had collected hours of footage. Part of the nature of growing up in the low altitude alpine of the East is a humble acceptance of the storm patterns, the quickly changing freeze and melt, and the unpredictability of Mother Nature's whims that directly impact how long and far you can go in a given season. Generally, you're left wanting more by the time spring rolls around, which is true across the board for snowboarding anywhere but extra palpable in places like the Northeast where warmups are all too typical--followed generally by subzero temps that make for concrete conditions. These patterns make the good days even better though, and while The Scenic Route had its share of inclement weather, on the days the crew scored, they really scored. "We were chasing snow until mid-April," says Johnny. "There are places I wish we had gotten to, like Vermont to ride powder and New Hampshire to do some hiking and snowmobiling. But maybe another year. I'll continue the project and touch down at more places."
And that's just the thing. Community isn't built in day, a month, or even a season. Johnny, Ian, Dr. B, Jed, River, Jasper, Brandon, Ashley, Joey B., Dom, Norton, Marcus, Parker, Tyler, Merrick, Lily, Cole, Keith, Steve, Pat, and the rest of the individuals who were part of The Scenic Route's winter are products of a rough-hewn, well-worn legacy of East Coast snowboarding, steadfast in the face of low elevation and low temperature and strikingly loyal to the place they're are from. This staunch devotion is innate to the powder-underdog status of the Northeast. But regardless of the region in which you grow up, this sense of commonality is wide-reaching, translated from fall line to fall line, wherever your board is pointed downhill. And that's the point. It's the fundamental, shared sense of camaraderie that connects individuals. This season, while Johnny's trading in rest stops for layovers, he remains in the driver's seat, not only when he's home, lapping Loon, or back where it began at Windham, but each time he sets up in a new city, locking his sights on a new spot and dropping in, an influential member of snowboarding's community regardless of location.