I’m steadily cruising along a 160-foot slackline in Eugene, Oregon’s Amazon Park on a brilliant day, when two kids decide to use the line as a net for their badminton game. “Are you serious?” I steady myself as one of them lunges for the birdie and smacks his racket into the webbing. But still I topple face-first, eight feet to the ground. It’s a freaky fall, but I’m fine. At least I wasn’t also ticketed.
Beyond unsupervised children messing with us, the slacklining community has encountered some problems assimilating into society. Now a familiar site in most mountain towns and at huge at events like the GoPro Games and Wanderlust, the balancing sport—it’s like tight rope walking on webbing —is often misunderstood elsewhere. It’s common to get harassed by city officials and the police. The biggest obstacle slackliners face, though, is an ordinance in many Western municipal codes that prohibits attaching ropes and other strapping to trees. When enforced, it’s hard to talk your way out. But in this case, the letter of the law is an anachronism: The original ordinances were enacted to keep cowboys from tying their horses to town greenery.
Still, on July 22, a University of Colorado University student was fined $250 for slacklining in Boulder’s Martin Park, a penalty that sparked the local slackline community to push for the sport’s legalization in city parks. Sporadic enforcement of archeological ordinances makes it hard to know from park-to-park or city-to-city whether slackers will be chastised, ticketed, or benignly ignored.
In Golden, Colorado, slackliners are trusted to use their best judgment. Police only intervene when they get complaints. “You can’t be stupid about it,” says Keagan French, a Golden-based Slackline Industries pro. “If you try to rig a 500-foot line in a crowded park on a Saturday, there’s going to be a problem.”
To fend off such complaints, Jackson, Wyoming’s Parks and Recreation department installed dedicated slacklining posts as a workaround of the Cowboy Law. Slacklining is legal in Bend, Oregon, but it’s regulated—no lines more than 80 feet long or 30 inches high. The legalization is nice, but the height and length restrictions—and an odd rule that outlaws all types of webbing besides nylon—suggest only novices were part of the discussion.
Jerry Miszewski has leveraged his role as a slacklining pro and the founder of Balance Community—an online retailer of slacklining gear—to lobby for the sport. Miszewski has established pilot programs in a slew of California communities by showing up at Parks and Rec meetings and simply presenting the sport, vouching for its legitimacy, and emphasizing its legality. “I’d then present guidelines that slackliners would have to adhere to,” explains Miszewski, adding that the guidelines often stipulate where folks can slackline and on which specific trees.
Miszewski’s model largely works because, aside from the cowboy laws, most problems with slacklining are arbitrary. I’ve seen rangers and officers cite danger to the slackliner, danger to other park users, danger to trees. It’s contentious whether or not slacklining actually does damage mature trees. Some parks, like Yosemite, advise padding and protecting the anchor trees. Other land managers don’t require it. Although noting that independent research is still needed, Miszewski points to his pilot program in San Luis Obispo’s Meadow Park as proof that slacklining doesn’t harm trees. There, slacklining has been limited to 12 trees for the past five years with no damage. Varying and wrapping trees, as well as being wary of trampoline-esque tricklining, however, probably offer still more protection.
Back in Eugene, the badminton kids who sent me flying mumble apologies and continue their game away from the line. I cordially express my displeasure, gather myself, and keep slacklining. Cop cars roll by but don’t stop. The sun keeps shining. Coexistence ain’t always pretty, but it usually works itself out. —Matt McDonald | photo by Andrea Rose