Particle physics art

Rock jumping is a lost art. Kurt Steiner wants the world to find him.


Kurt struggled with the duality of his mental life throughout his teenage years, going from hyperfocus to apathy. His classmates crowded around to watch him on a pinball machine, where he could spend hours without losing a marble. He was good at chess, could take a radio apart and put it back together, and amassed a Asteroids score so crazy he guesses he broke any known record. “He was seeing the coding background rather than the on-screen graphics,” Victor “Chip” Susol, one of Kurt’s oldest friends, told me.

But the thought of dating filled him with dread, so instead he indulged in wild sexual fantasies and wrote cryptic poetry in shorthand that only he could read. He was a skilled linebacker in football but would not learn the plays. He loved the “pure contest” of wrestling, but during one fight an opponent threw him on the collarbone and Kurt took a year off from the sport. In 1985, when he enrolled as an English major at Penn State Behrend in Erie, he says he was more interested in the “me versus me” stuff: cycling, weight training, canoeing. Hiking has become an obsession.

At first, Kurt took established trails near his home. Then he connected sections of abandoned railroad tracks, ATV trails, and trails, sleeping wherever it worked. Before long, he was bushwhacking for weeks across central Pennsylvania with a compass and a 75-pound pack, fasting for days and testing the limits of his body’s endurance. Fellow travelers were good for a quick chat here and there; then they were gone, just the way Kurt liked him. The walk gave him the time and distance to replenish his mental reserves before heading back to town.

Each time he discovered a body of water during these stays, he jumped off the rocks. It was natural, as if by clutching a stone he was anchored to the planet, able to “Hold infinity in the palm of your handin the words of William Blake. Sauter was “safe from development and capitalism, and under control,” he told me, at odds with a society that seemed “determined to detach from the natural world.”

He was excellent at this too, able to exert enough rotation on the rock to stabilize it after each jump, maintaining the same gyroscopic effect that keeps a spinning top in place. When Kurt came back to Erie, jumping rope became something of a sideshow. His friends would hand him a random piece of something and he would skip it. “He threw a cinder block,” Susol said, “and he actually jumped.”

After graduating from Behrend, Kurt earned money by delivering flowers to his mother and putting up bitumen roofs. But he couldn’t cope with a steady job, and eventually he registered as unemployed. Doctors refused to prescribe talk therapy, and for the general feeling of depression that would later be refined into diagnoses of schizoaffective disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, he was given only the antidepressant Zoloft, which he sometimes supplemented with recreational psychoactive drugs. For a week in 1994, he was unable to get his prescription filled and had an argument at a store implicating the police.

Shaken, Kurt left Erie and embarked on a 300-mile hike from Mount Greylock, in northwestern Massachusetts, to the Canada-Vermont border, in search of Thoreau’s “wilderness tonic.” Upon his return, he moved into a motel in Reynoldsville, two hours southeast of Erie, and enrolled in a welding program at a local vocational college. In December 1995, he meets a woman named Paula, who clears her locker while taking a course. After almost a year of exchanging letters, they met in person. A year later, they got married and moved into Paula’s elderly mother’s house in Kane, an hour north of Reynoldsville.

The couple enjoyed hiking together – Paula dubbed them Pair o’ Pathetics, a pun on “peripatetician” – and hoped to have a honeymoon away from Pennsylvania. But Paula’s mother was housebound, and neither of them was fit to work. They lived on welfare and rarely went out with friends.

“There were always three people in our marriage,” Kurt told me on the fourth day of my trip, as we passed Kane on the three-hour drive from Erie to his cabin. “We really had all the cards against us.”

In September 2013, Steiner threw a rock that jumped so many times it defied science. This year he hopes to break records on both sides of the Atlantic, giving him a platform to preach about a sport he sees as “a legitimate pathway to essential inner balance”, he says.

Twenty-five years later, Kurt still doesn’t fit in with Kane or other parts of “Pennsyltucky,” Pennsylvania’s interior Appalachia. That’s partly because of his half-hick, half-Talmudic prophet appearance: he looks like a figure who’s descended from the stained glass window of a local prayer house to score big gulps and jerky. It’s also an outgrowth of his politics: In a region dominated by Let’s Go Brandon flags, he donates to Bernie Sanders, fears climate change and despises evangelists. He fears cashiers will judge him for using food stamps, and he recoiled in embarrassment as we stocked up on supplies at Costco.

In 1997, feeling trapped in Kane, Kurt looked for a place where he and Paula could escape. He unfolded a map of Pennsylvania and focused on the green areas. Then it triangulated a location as far away from crowded areas as possible, landing in a corner of the Elk State Forest, about 15 miles from the lightbulb-making town of Emporium.

There he found 16 acres of land backing onto a creek and facing south. The moment he saw it, he felt time stand still. It was a “heaviness”, he told me. “The weight of silence, like a deep cave.”

With the help of Kurt’s father, the couple bought the land and they spent the next two years driving between Kane and Kane, sometimes camping under starry skies. Kurt leveled the ground and dug the foundation using nothing more than a shovel and a wheelbarrow. He scavenged wood wherever he saw it and marked scraps from local construction sites, but by 2000 he still hadn’t finished the core of what became a two-story house, so he and Paula camped in sleeping bags.

In the fall of 2000, Kurt was reading local classified ads when he came across an advertisement for an amateur rock-jumping contest being held 100 miles west of Franklin. It would be the city’s first and a stint for the July 4 tournament on Mackinac Island. Kurt still had a pretty average pitch and Paula encouraged him to sign up. “My marriage played into my jump,” he told me. “Ironically.”

In September, Kurt lined up on the shore at Franklin’s Riverfront Park, ready to put his throwing years to the test. Next to him was a local guy named Russ Byars, who had an imposing physique and a mop of blond hair. The two were neck and neck before the final pitch, but Kurt pulled through and won the event, qualifying for the Mackinac Pro Tournament the following year.

Byars won at Franklin the following year, earning his golden ticket to Mackinac. Kurt struggled on his debut on the choppy waters of the island. This meant that in 2001 the two men would meet in Michigan. It was the start of a landmark rivalry.