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The author skipping stones. Photo by Aaron Peterson

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All you need to know to start skipping stones like a pro

The author skipping stones. Photo by Aaron Peterson

by Julie Benda + BIO

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With the right attitude, stone skipping is a rebellious act that will leave you feeling like you have glitter in your veins

An earthly mistake has been made.

If you are reading this, then something in your playful spirit won today. Something in your body that is both old and young overrode the impulse to use your time more sensibly, and instead said to itself: ‘I will not write that email. No, rather, I will indulge in reading what looks like a very detailed account of throwing smallish flat rocks onto largish flat bodies of water, over and over again.’

As someone who became obsessed recently with the pastime of throwing geological debris across a clear liquidus state of hydrogen and oxygen, I applaud this override. The potential mistake I refer to is a small one; small being about the size that would fit in your hand. After all, I must concede that what I have to offer on the subject pales in comparison with the insight the rocks themselves might have. All of whom have been around a lot longer than I, and whose perspective I imagine being far more illuminating on the brazen endeavour of making heavy things – that should sink – float.

Julie skipping stones at The Tridge, Midland, Michigan. Video by Nabors Collective

That acknowledgement made, let me be clear about my intentions. I cannot teach you more than what I know, which is inevitably shrinking the more I learn. And because the stones themselves are not here to supervise my potentially biased opinion (for they have quite a busy schedule), I hope you can accept that this rudimentary tutorial is by no means definitive, but only my best account of ‘how to skip a stone’.

Let’s begin.

1. First, you go outside. Because, quite simply, there are no skipping stones inside. Actually, most rocks are outdoor rocks. They are social bodies that congregate in large groups together, and prefer having lots of space to do so. Additionally, it’s unlikely that you would find rocks for throwing at water indoors because, frankly, they don’t fit in with an agate collection or among a centrepiece of glass beads. Unless you know a few folks (ahem!) who hoard flat, wide, palm-shaped rocks, all the skipping stones are outside. What’s more, they are notoriously sedentary and stubborn. There is no delivery service for skipping stones. They don’t come to you. In the year 2023, you must still go to them.

You did not know yet the most essential truth of stone skipping: the best stones are never ‘perfect’

2. As you walk along the paths that seem desirable for finding stones to skip, you will notice that often these are picked over. Everyone wants to find good stones with minimal effort. Everyone at first believes that the object of their desire should be easily within reach. As it turns out, this is both unreasonable and uninteresting. Therefore, after you groom the path several times and let out a sigh, you stumble onto the uneven terrain in the pursuit of sedimentary greatness.

3. You pass hours and days and weeks collecting and tossing rocks at the water, your bucket going from full to empty, then full again. You’ve skipped 200, maybe 300 stones by now, and also ‘not skipped’ at least that many. You start to prefer less and less the ones that attracted your eye as a novice. The blue-green schist, so smooth and perfectly round, is now tedious and in the way. Just debris covering the five-sided, fragmented, slender yet husky shale and sandstone underneath. These beauties you would have never seen before. You did not know yet the most essential truth of stone skipping: the best stones are never ‘perfect’.

4. Then, at some point in late spring, you decide to take the afternoon to go skipping and searching. Because you think of yourself as a rebel but not a radical, you call this a mental health day. You convince a close playmate to join, and the two of you venture to the spot you know will turn a find. With your senses honed to that of ancestral forager, you take your trained eyes to the ground and within the hour you’ve found your treasure. You dig up a divine lump of feldspar and silica from under a large hunk of conglomerate and earth. Gosh, it’s thrilling. So flat and heavy, with a cute little bump for your index finger. You look over your shoulder at me, wondering if I saw what you just found. A flash of possessiveness crosses over you, but then we both giggle with approval. We look at each other’s booty and swap. Sharing is more fun and we both know it.

Side-note to Step 4: this amusement feels strange and a bit like having glitter in your veins. ‘What is this feeling?’ you wonder. It is at about this point you realise something profound, which is that you are not the person you thought you were. Or, better said, you realise you are actually the person you forgot you were. The stones have seen enough to know this truth but, to you, it comes as a surprise. A part of you that had been dormant since the day you stopped wearing stirrup pants is awakened inside. You become aware that you’ve been missing this youthful self for some time.
* addendum to side-note to Step 4: believe it or not, this previous step is crucial to good stone throwing. I’ve seen plenty of great tosses, but if we’re talking about rebellion, which if you haven’t noticed, we are, then culturally, one must preserve a flamboyant playfulness in one’s practice. If you are buying a moisture-wicking 3/4 zip-up the price of my monthly paycheck in order to skip a stone further, we are doomed. That being said, if it were a David Bowie leotard with matching vest and rhinestones, that would be within the scope of stone-skipping professionalism.

Getting to know each stone personally really delights the little crags. They finally feel seen!

5. Now, where were we? Oh yes, while you were collecting stones and discussing David Bowie, you started getting picky and selecting only the most superb stones to put in your bucket. It is not uncommon to attempt to maximise one’s advantage through discerning selection, however it has its drawbacks, and in this case it results in a limited haul. Thirty stones in an hour? You will use them all up practising in a third of that time. The truth is before your eyes. You must expand your search. You remind yourself there is no perfect stone.

6. With this in mind, you try tossing some chunkers and some clunkers. Ones that are twice the size of your palm and the ones that crumble as soon as they hit the water. As the afternoon passes, you note that some of your best throws are with stones that you previously dismissed, and you decide to skip everything and anything you can. (Well, OK – not everything, you have morals. You would never skip a beetle or toss garbage into the lake.) As it turns out, the world of rocks becomes more interesting as you pay attention to each uniquely cemented deposition of sand in your hand. Moreover, getting to know each stone personally really delights the little crags. They finally feel seen! Appreciated as individuals! And, as you throw more and more, you start to wonder if maybe, in the right hands, every stone is a skipping stone.

7. By now you’ve mastered a compelling style and begin to expect a little greatness. ‘Will it be today?’ you wonder, ‘that I throw a stone that never stops?’ You show up undeterred and spritely in hopes of the ‘next best skip’. You believe that you can do better, and you’re hungry to see yourself improve. Improvement, after all, is intoxicating, and we humans spend a lot of time measuring things. Unfortunately, there comes a day, a whole week even, that your tosses are off. Lacklustre, total bombs (the technical term is ‘Kerplunker’). You tank it, over and over and over again, worrying: ‘Oh no, have I lost it?’

Frustrated, your muscles tense. A berating voice in your head grows louder, and soon you notice that your youthful self has altogether stopped coming with you. They stopped coming because they are child-like and smart and aware that you got very drunk on measuring things; that critical voice made you very unpleasant to be around.

8. Thankfully, you’ve read an article about this. You close your eyes and breathe in deep. You go through the steps and soften. You apologise to that part of yourself that fell in love with this game in the first place. This takes a couple of moments because they are unsure of your motives and a little mad at your hunger for achievement ruining their fun. In order to regain trust, you go back to your bucket of stones and touch them all gently, focusing on their texture. You ask which one wants to be thrown next and how hard. You flick one from an upside-down position, after a cartwheel, and then between the legs. You keep skipping but stop counting. You laugh at yourself. You laugh with yourself.

And this is how you throw a stone. Over and over again without much seriousness. Even as professionals, which you and I are now, we know throwing rocks at water should never be taken seriously. Thankfully, the other people who throw rocks at water have been good examples of this. We especially look up to our septuagenarian ‘opponent’ Mike ‘Airtight Alibi’ Williamson. He once threw a rock across the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. You notice that there is something subversive in this type of play and not taking yourself too seriously. I told you once that this was an act of rebellion, and you start to agree.

Surrounded by people and stones young and old, one midsummer day, you throw a rock at the water and receive some exciting attention for it. It is a good toss at a right time and, wow, in the world of rock throwing, it is special. When asked how you did it, you pause and ponder why the common retort of ‘hard work’ no longer makes sense. The you that knows how to skip a stone whispers that it might be ‘gentle play’ that got you here.

Gentle play, as it turns out, can be tiring. So, after a long day of throwing rocks at the water, you rest. The stones that are yet to be thrown are sitting next to you, as they do, basking in the sun. They don’t say anything, because they can’t, but they tell you all the same: the only mistake would be missing this moment.

And then you go back the next day, bucket in tow, a little lighter than the day before.

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31 May 2023