Q&A: Clay Shank, the Filmmaker Who Skated From SF to Mexico
The activist skated 700 miles from San Francisco to Mexico to learn how to make the world a better place
In 2014 filmmaker and lifelong skater Clay Shank set out on a 700-mile mission from his hometown of San Francisco to Mexico. With a backpack and a skateboard, he made his way through the ever-changing California landscape entirely under the power of his own two legs, bagging Mount. Whitney and Half Dome, and logging some 210 miles on the John Muir trail in the process.
As a born storyteller with a degree in English, a novel, and a handful of short films and screenplays under his belt, Shank was interested most in telling a story with his time on the road and trail. So he brought along a videocamera. The end result is 700 Miles, an hour and half documentary slash visual collage of trip footage and interviews with the many characters he met along the way.
Shank and his obscure achievement garnered some media after the release of 700 Miles, but the intention was never to gain attention for himself. 700 Miles was created to give the unheard people of California a voice—from small town locals and transplants to the down and out and everyday citizens working hard under the radar—and to ask directly and indirectly the big questions in life. How do we make the world a better place? What makes people happy?
Yes, the film is lengthy, and the goal is ambitious, but if you’re curious and have some time to kill it’s absolutely worth the time. As the film progresses it moves linearly along Shank’s foot-fed mission from San Francisco—an increasingly polarized city either destroyed or defined by the tech boom, depending on who you ask—and moves towards Yosemite and John Muir country, and eventually down ascross the border. For us the film gets its true rhythm after Shank leaves the city, trading urban disgruntlement for nature and more abstract life advice and observations from those he meets (the John Muir interviews starting 54:00 in particular). But it’s all good, because it’s all real. It’s quirky and deep and low-fi and opinionated and insightful.
Inspired to learn more about the man, his adventure, and who he met along the way, we recently got Shank on the phone to talk about the power of nature, learning lessons from strangers, and bombing hills through traffic.
What drives you to take long trips and make short films?
Well, I guess I should first clarify that Journey to Skate Boulder and Coastal Native are fictional films. A lot of people get the impression that [Coastal Natives] was a legit skate trip from Utah to LA in the winter, without gloves or a backpack or anything. But I never really intended that to look real, but even to this day a lot of people think that video is actually the 700 mile trip.
[700 miles] came from my love of the California landscape and knowledge of how transforming long journeys can be, I wanted to do a big trip through CA without any car and to actually be totally authentic and make a nonfiction video. I like to get out and do these long trips because I feel like once you’re out of the car and exposed, you can’t help but meet the people along the way that you’re supposed to meet. You really learn the land and come to feel and experience a place in a deeper way than I’ve experienced in a car.
"The less you need, the lighter you can skip along the road."
With 700 Miles I wanted to go out and interview people I wouldn’t meet otherwise, to provide a platform for people that don’t always have a voice, and to present maybe a more realistic portrait of what life is like out in America for people these days. And since it was independent, I didn’t really have to please any market, and that gave me a great deal of freedom to show what I really thought.
You know, there’s a lot of fun to be had in this world, but there’s a lot of people suffering and a lot of hardship out there too.
Before a trip it’s easy to envision nothing but sunshine and butterflies, but reality is often much different. Did you experience this thought process?
Well, certainly I appreciate how you can’t really escape your discomfort when you’re on a trip like [700 Miles]. You’ve committed to do something, so you just realize that since you can’t escape your situation, you may as well accept it. And if it sucks, then it gives you a better chance to come to terms with that discomfort, and deal with it, and accept it and live your life to the fullest in that uncomfortable moment. [Without the commitment] you might just bail.
A big part of that trip was about the commitment factor. At the time it was very important to me to say, you know what, this is gonna be a lesson in commitment and followthrough. And once I started, it was like, I can’t stop now. Just having the clear goal that I would either succeed at or fail at was a big part of the process for me.
How different was the final end product of 700 Miles than what you had envisioned when you came up with the concept?
Oh man, pretty different. Every project has an original vision, you know, but every time you have to just roll with what comes up. Like, deal with the good footage you got, and forget about the things that went bad. So it was greatly different in a lot of ways.
I thought that I was gonna reach bigger conclusions about social dynamics. On one hand I did kind of reach to the core and everybody said what needs to be said about living in a better world, which is ultimately about compassion and caring for each other, and sharing. But I didn’t get any kind of revolutionary fire, didn’t feel I got the ultimate solution to society’s problems.
Beyond that, I expected to film a lot more skateboarding—film myself skating, and some more skateboarders. So it was fairly different, but I did expect to make a full length film and I did do that.
I think it’s a very honest depiction of how it feels to skate 700 miles. A lot of people—the most common complaint about the film is it’s too long. And well, if you want to know how it feels to skate 700 miles, you’re gonna have to be a little bit patient and get used to the idea that it’s gonna take a little bit of time and commitment. Even watching the video is an endurance test for a lot of people.
Can you talk a bit more about why you wanted to survey people during your solo journey?
Everybody’s got this feeling, like, I just gotta get away from people, I’ve gotta get out and have the quiet space for myself to think. But if you ever do get the chance to go out and be alone in the wilderness, you realize pretty quick how important community is. And I think people so often don’t really get the chance to experience that.
I was raised in San Francisco and it’s a city full of people just trying to find their own headspace and their own quiet. It feels like most everybody there is suffocating. It’s so busy, crowded—people are claustrophobic. And it creates a city that lacks community, that lacks compassion for other people because everybody’s just dying for their own space, their own mental space.
You have to embrace the social aspects. You can’t just escape people forever. And that’s a theme that keeps coming up more and more, even as I’m making skateboard videos. Really the things that are important are people, and helping those who need help, and reaching out and sharing and being generous. Those are the things that keep coming up and it’s more true than ever.
So many people think they can’t get outside and explore because they don’t own the right technical equipment. How do you feel about that?
Well, I guess the first thing to realize is that it takes quite a lot to die. It’s really a matter of just managing your discomforts and the more you can fine tune your needs, the more you can understand what it is that you’re actually gonna need [for any given trip].
I’ve been going outdoors and going on adventures since I was a little kid. And when I used to go do things, even as a teenager and in my early 20s, I would overpack gear. I think most people overpack gear. You have to ask yourself all those questions like, do I really need this, do I really need that?
The less you need, the lighter you can skip along the road. It’s not some gimmick that I wear Vans the whole time. That’s just what suits me, you know. And if you’re comfortable in your Vans, and you go to REI and you don’t really get it why you think you should buy boots, maybe you don’t need ‘em.
Why do people need to get out of the cities and into the outdoors, even if it’s only for an afternoon?
I think nature’s super healing. You’re gonna just have to take my word on that. I don’t know if I can express it much better, but I think that humans need to recognize themselves as a part of something bigger than the human web. Nature for that reason alone is very healthy.
Too many people neglect to acknowledge that the human race is part of a much larger ecological system. And however the healing works, it works. If you’re out in the woods for a week, you’re gonna feel a hell of a lot better physically and mentally when you get back.
Beyond that, it’s good to break up your routine. It’s good to challenge yourself, and to take the time to think about what is really important. It’s good to go out on a long backpacking trip because you realize the importance of everything you’re carrying with you in your life. If you bring something that you don’t really need, by the time you’re done with your trip, you’ll realize that.
So you skated, walked, and hiked 700 miles in Vans?
I went through three pairs of Vans on that trip, yeah.
I wore one pair from San Francisco to Yosemite, then the john Muir Trail. I had been in contact with Vans—kind of hounding them through the whole trip—and they sent me a pair of Vans in Lone Pines for the final leg. So yeah, three pairs of Vans.
As far as the actual skating, did you take any particular gnarly slams over the 700 miles?
Not on that trip.
Man, I slam all the time. I’m always dealing with some kind of injury. It seems like one injury won’t heal until I’ve acquired another one. But on that trip, I actually didn’t slam. I was just pushing along. I had a couple skatepark slams, but you know how that goes—that’s just the way things happen.
Any close calls?
As far as bombing hills, man, whoooo! Yeah, a lot of scary moments. Especially down in San Diego, coming in toward Mission Valley, I think, in rush hour traffic with my backpack on, bombing hills there, that was some really scary stuff. Definitely some of the fastest hills I’ve ever ridden. But on that trip, I was lucky. I didn’t slam out on that one. But I do. I definitely do slam.
What does the future hold for Clay Shank?
I’m driving to South Dakota to help Chief Black Fox with the Dakota tribe make videos. It’s kind of an open ended project, kind of a big project that’s still trying to find its focus, but I’m making a film representing Natives amongst each other, and hopefully bringing back some wisdoms to our white brothers. So that’s what I’m up to now.
And beyond that, I want to thank you, the people who take the time to watch the videos, a special thanks to anybody who shares them with their friends. And I really appreciate anybody who goes into them thinking that there might be something there to learn because I do put a lot of thought into them and I hope people get some kind of inspiration or insight or some kind of new feeling from the videos I make.