The rope is purple. It stretches long and low between two palm trees, two of many that line the grassy portion of La Jolla Shores. It is attached to said trees — their trunks carefully padded — via a series of cables and caribiners (oval-shaped metal rings that open and snap closed), and sways peacefully in the breeze.
Not far away, Frankie Nagara sits cross-legged, his back to one of the trees. He’s a lightly mustached 23-year-old, a sharp-ended plug adorning each earlobe. Soft-spoken and relaxed, he is clearly about to say something, but before he can construct his forthcoming sentence, an older woman stops on the sidewalk and balks.
“What’s this rope for?” she asks, her voice strident, as though she expects she will not be able to hear the answer.
“Slacklining,” Frankie replies, not missing a beat.
“Slacklining?” The woman echoes, hitting a new octave entirely. “What is that?”
“This piece of rope right here,” Frankie patiently explains. “You walk on it.”
The woman’s face lights up.
“Kind of like tightrope,” she says.
“It’s kind of like tightrope, yeah,” Frankie concedes, “but it’s a lot looser. You should give it a shot.”
The woman smiles politely by way of declining, pausing a moment longer before continuing on down the sidewalk. Frankie shrugs as if to say, her loss.
The rope sways.
Slacklining, a practice generally known as “slacking,” looks deceptively easy. Those who are good at it walk across the rope with the grace of gymnasts; those who are great at it can jump and flip, landing back on the line, or balancing themselves in yoga-like poses, faces drawn in concentration.
Beginning, however, takes considerable determination. The line wobbles uncontrollably, as though one’s body has a constant and powerful tremor. Walking it with the aid of another person, who acts as a helpful counter-balance, feels not unlike what traveling across a large rubber band might; the line is at once springy and taut, reacting to any change in weight distribution.
This, done successfully or unsuccessfully, is called “walking the line.”
It’s damned difficult.
Frankie, however, is a master. Step by step, he balances in the middle of the rope, which is one inch in width and relatively flat, and then proceeds to curl himself into a pretzel shape, bringing his hands into a prayer-like position, palms together.
This is called the Garland Pose.
Frankie, who is the founder of sandiegoslacklining.com, and the San Diego Slackline Meetup on the popular in-person social networking site meetup.com, has been slacklining for nine months. He started when his fiancée, Megan, who balances on a second line they have set up, began to encourage him.
“She kind of shot the bug out,” he recalls. “[I said], ‘Hey, I want to try this,’ and [she said], ‘Definitely do it! I want to do it, too!’ Then, seeing pictures of friends and other people doing it, made me want to do it more.”
Megan smiles and says softly, “I did it with a couple of friends, some climbing friends, a few years ago.”
While the particulars of slacklining’s origins are hazy, what slackline practitioners (often called simply “slackers”) agree on is that the practice began in Yosemite, California, in the ’70s and ’80s and was born from the widespread rock-climbing community there. Climbers, many slackliners say, started unofficially slacklining while waiting at the base of rock faces or back at their camps, stringing up yards of webbing and working on their balance. Most slacklining gear is (or was) intended for rock climbing and has since been appropriated.
As far as sports go, slacklining is inexpensive. Unlike surfing, where one must shell out anywhere from $400 to $1000 for a board, the webbing used for slacklines is cheap, cheap, cheap. At popular outdoor retailer REI, the one-inch tubular variety starts at .36 cents a foot. Caribiners are anywhere from $9 to $24.
Slackline-specific gear is a bit more costly. Slackline Brothers in Los Angeles sells what’s called a “slackline starter kit,” which includes 75 feet of tubular webbing, and the “Slackline Brothers Tightening System,” for $230. Gibbon Slacklines, a company operating out of Germany (more on them in a moment), sells their ratchet-system slacklines starting at $79.99. But this pre-packaged gear is by no means necessary; slacklining started as a do-it-yourself sport and the tradition continues.
And it’s catching on. There are talks of competitions, one of which was already held in Slovenia, and, Frankie says, groups worldwide are discussing rules and regulations for official slackline games.
In San Diego, it’s mostly done for fun.
“With our actual group, San Diego Slacklining, we stand at about 50 members,” says Frankie. “But there’s definitely a lot more people that slackline in San Diego that just haven’t signed up for our site or for our group. [There are] probably upwards of 100, 200 people.”
The San Diego Slacklining group, which Frankie started in April of this year, typically draws a crowd anytime they get together and slack.
For the two days following the La Jolla Shores set-up — Fourth of July weekend, no less — Frankie, Megan, and company meet at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, along with a team of guys from Gibbon Slacklines, the aforementioned German company. The Gibbon crew is in the midst of a two-month American tour, and San Diego happens to be a stop on the way; having hooked up with Frankie, they are privy to some of the best slacking spots in the city.
Moonlight Beach is packed. Brightly colored umbrellas create a psychedelic landscape, and a band plays upbeat cover songs under a Belly Up Tavern banner to a large crowd of swaying children and adults. Bare skin abounds, tattoos flashing as people flit past dragging boogie boards and toddlers behind them.
The assembled group of slackers, a motley crew of men and women, Germans and Americans, begin to set up their lines. Instead of being tethered to trees, the lines are attached to “A-frames,” two-by-four-and-plywood constructions that resemble a large “A,” with metal rings on each. One of the A-frames, for extra stability, is tethered to a fencepost, while the other serves as a middle point for a second line strung to a concrete picnic bench. Between the two lines, the A-frame is effectively pulled in two directions, rendering it stable.