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Thursday, November 4, 2010
Updated: November 5, 5:34 PM ET
The Yellow Banana


It took some work, but we finally got the old man to smile.

With no response from the intercom next to the shop's locked double doors, I flipped my hood over and ventured out from the front eave. Just past a waist level rock wall off the side of the building lay remnants of what I had driven down to Pucon, Chile to find: a pile of yellow plastic, hole-ridden and splattered with mud from a torrent of stiff, winter rain -- the bottom halves of snowboarding's first pro model, the Sims "Lonnie Toft."

Toft was a professional skateboarder for Sims in the '70s, most remembered as the father of the eight-wheeled skateboard. The Lonnie Toft snowboard was released in 1977 and marketed as a "skiboard." It's Toft's pro-model skateboard deck screwed to the raised outer rails of a crudely-molded plastic yellow base, with a singular rubber stretch cord running from the tip to tail of the skate deck for "bindings."

One man's trash is another man's story. You could probably sell each of those on eBay for $50 a piece.

The shop owner appeared from another building and began a rigid walk towards us through the rain. Our Chilean friend Cuye tried to break the ice by offering him a beer.

"He says that he is closed, man. He wants us to leave," Cuye translated.

In broken Spanish I told the man that I had traveled to write a story on his collection of antique snowboards.

"He thinks you make a fool of him, man." Cuye waved his beer while translating the man's response. "He doesn't want people to see the old junk at his shop."

Signaling to the discarded boards, I smiled widely and took out my camera, putting a leg over the wall. I made it to the straddle position before the man strong-armed me back into the parking lot and tried waving us away. I knew there must be a few still-assembled boards inside the shop, so we continued to beg for entrance. Our back and forth translations, hand gestures -- or possibly the blonde locks of my girlfriend -- finally won out. The old man grudgingly opened the front doors.

Twenty or so boards lay against a wall inside, stacked next to fluorescent one-pieces. We started scouring through the collection for boards in good condition, laughing at our good fortune in having gained access. Some of the boards' bases had been patched with sheet aluminum, some had the plastic bottom completely removed, with the skate deck instead attached to children's skis. All the wooden skate decks were water-warped, the grip tape peeling off, and all but one was missing the green triangular Lonnie Toft pro-model sticker.

If I hadn't stacked on my head about 10 times before this photo was taken, I would have utilized my goggles for sure. Gloves are overrated, though.

The man fired off rapid Spanish towards Cuye, accented by a universal feel of extreme annoyance. "Pick one out, man. He is getting mad. He thinks you are laughing at him."

"Tell him we are laughing because we are excited," I replied. "Tell him he owns a piece of history!"

We kept the conversation going through Cuye, during which the bulbous old fellow finally warmed up, even letting out a laugh here and there. He told us he bought the boards in the early '80s from Valle Nevado Ski Resort, just outside of Santiago. He thought at the time it would be a good investment for his shop, but now he just viewed them as broken down junk -- an embarrassment. A never-used Lonnie Toft will sell on eBay for $3,500 or more, but all of his boards were barely hanging on.

The old man agreed to let me take some of the boards outside to photograph, but he was becoming visibly impatient, and when I momentarily let my lens drop, he began to try to shuffle the relics back inside. I told him I wanted to buy a couple of the Tofts and he gave me a price much higher than I had anticipated. Even though they were beat, he knew I would pay. I submitted and handed over most of my wallet's stuffing. Satisfied, he finally accepted a beer from Cuye and posed for a couple of pictures in front of the snowboards. He even smiled.

Back in our rental truck with the antiques, we continued up the road to Pucon Ski Resort. We knew operations were closed due to heavy snowfall and fog, but no lift was nescessary. We hiked and rode a ditch off the side of the parking lot. It felt more snowsurfer than snowboard, and my hi-top skate shoes allowed for far superior turns than I would have gotten from my snowboard boots. Leaning forward into the knee-deep heavy snow buckled the soft plastic nose immediately, and upon my return to the States I learned that Toft had combated this by running a single child's ski from the nose to tail of the plastic bottom, attached under the skate deck. When the falling snow turned into something similar to rain, the heavily scratched plastic bottoms ceased to move, and we retreated back to the rental truck.

Looks like August, right? Jenell and Cuye, maiden run at Pucon Ski Resort on their new Lonnie Tofts.

If you ever make it to Pucon, look to your left after crossing the only bridge on the way to the mountain. The chances that you will ever see this board for rent, sale, or in a snowboard museum lessen every year, and I imagine the old man will soon have them all stripped apart and thrown into a pile out back. If you forego mentioning me, or this story, I am sure you will get a better deal.