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Notes from the Bikelab


Issue #12 -- 9/20/91

by Steven K. Roberts


Copyright (C) 2000 by Steven K. Roberts. All Rights Reserved.


IN THIS ISSUE:

The Rhythms of the Road



NOTE: It's been a long time since my last update... I haven't published a
word since leaving Silicon Valley in July for this new journey. This tangled
retrospective is an attempt to catch up and report on the highlights.


1. The view from Menomenee, Michigan (9/8/91)

The rhythm of the road is once again the backdrop of my life. After three
years of building and planning -- a time characterized by simple measured
tempos of rising urgency -- the roadsound is now complex and impassioned:
sensual undercurrents laced with technoid syncopation and sizzling cadenzas of
childlike play. It's a music without idiom, evolving from moment to moment as
whim and chance dictate -- one day somber, the next frenetic. It's wild and
free, the ultimate melody, primal yet civilized... and I can't get it out of
my head.

Nor do I want to. It will change form again, of course, but being
essentially formless that's hardly a problem. (Noticing that I gravitate
always to water, largely for the lack of traffic and hills, I'm having mad
thoughts of human-powered watercraft...). But today it's the Road Host Motel
in Menomenee, just into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan after weeks in
Wisconsin, and it's long past time for an online update.

Life aboard BEHEMOTH is filled with change and adventure on so many different
scales that it almost defies characterization. On one level, there's the
endless tedium of packing and unpacking entirely too much stuff (580 pounds
total). There are hills, slow sweaty ordeals that can turn into sudden
disasters -- like in Paddock Lake when I lost traction halfway up a gravel
grade, locked my brakes and put my feet down to ponder the problem, and had
the Disk Brake from Hell suddenly unscrew and send me rolling out of control
downhill until the trailer jacknifed and dropped the whole rig onto my leg. I
remained trapped in mild agony until a passing motorcyclist stopped,
quizzically, to rescue me.

Yes, it can be a pain. Two days ago outside Oconto, my friend Susan and I
stopped for a lakeside walk and the trailer hitch broke off (.080 wall 4130
CrMo 1-inch tubing broke clear through... we're talking STRESS). But with pain
comes pleasure: the failure occurred in an undocumented county park with
perfect campsites... and we frolicked the day away while using ham radio to
coordinate the next morning's rescue by Amore's towing service and Dan the
welder. Warm, clear night, stars alive above the whisper of Green Bay...
campfire warm and crackling, bodies energetic and healthy from hundreds of
pedaling miles, Kahlua and soy milk warming within, a lunch of fresh perch
sizzled in garlic and butter... Frame fracture? Equipment failure? So what?

That's much of the appeal, you know. When it doesn't matter where you are,
delays mean nothing and roadside repairs are just another twist in the
adventure. Eventually, these wheels will turn south to track the fall colors,
but the general attitude right now is one of ambling hand- in-hand down a
country lane.

Speaking of country lanes, Wisconsin has to take the prize for excellent
roads. There is a whole network of "letter roads" here, with names like Y and
BB, and for the most part they are smooth and free of traffic. Aided by the
DeLorme Atlas of the state, we've been meandering up along Lake Michigan with
hardly any moments of panic except in towns big enough to be painted in orange
on the map (indicating places where people are stressed and in a hurry).

This all calls to mind another musical metaphor that struck me on the first
trip... Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." If you're familiar with
this, you know what I mean; if not, check it out. A "promenade" theme recurs
throughout the work, interspersed with musical sketches suggestive of browsing
an art museum. Life on the road is like that... the undercurrent of pedaling
merely the thread that binds a diverse succession of experiences ranging from
hot romance to high science.

All of which makes a retrospective of a few hundred miles almost impossible.
I did this, then that. Susan read about me in the late lamented DISCOVER
magazine, joined me, and we did this for a while. Now we're doing that, and
soon she'll leave and I'll do something else. Throughout, BEHEMOTH lumbers
along, catapulting me in its recumbersome way from one mad interlude to the
next. The experiences seem framed by place and time, linked only by wheels
and chance.

There are images, though. I recall an afternoon on John Sawhill's farm in
Winterset, Iowa... after a broken hub on the first night out aborted my
participation in RAGBRAI (the driving event that launched me from Silicon
Valley on deadline). John, an active ham (WA0O) and repeater owner, had
hosted a party for all the RAGBRAI radio-folk, and when they moved on, Maggie
and I stayed for a week to repair the systems and get to know the hogs and
cats, dogs and cattle.

I pitched camp by the old manure spreader out back and spent my days fixing
things and making notes. One day the bike was in the sun, the CD stereo
system issuing fine clear Artie Shaw into the Iowa afternoon. Hogs grunted,
cattle lowed, insects chirred and chittered. Somewhere a tractor growled over
a field beneath a brown puff of dust. Time passed slowly. I fired up the
Qualcomm satellite terminal to send a message to San Diego, and within the
little white dome a feedhorn swept azimuthally and locked on on the GTE GSTAR
bird 25,000 miles away. I sat surrounded by 3 keyboards, the Private Eye
display buzzing in my helmet, a Poqet PC displaying notes, the console Mac
running a comm package. Big John motored over on his Honda 4-wheeler, and
70-ish Jessie, his mom, strolled out from the house followed by five head o'
cat.

It was a contrast of technologies and cultures. Jessie started dancing
around the bike to the big-band jazz, the clarinet articulate and playful.
The satellite antenna quivered nervously, passing spread- spectrum data. John
sat bemused on the big 4 wheeler; ham antennas raked the sky; storybook clouds
puffed along; cats rubbed against my legs; hogs snuffled and snorted. It was
one of those moments, a tableau forever etched into my brain as a sort of
freeze-frame fantasy image.

There have been others. More than ever before, BEHEMOTH is a techno-
door-opener... I rolled onto the 6800-acre grounds of Fermilabs, home of the
massive proton accelerator and playground of physicists from the world over.
Armed with one contact there and the bike, I ended up spending two days...
giving an informal colloquium, doing a video, and best of all... getting a
grand tour from an insider's perspective and spending a couple of nights in
the Rutgers house with visiting physicists. What a playground: gizmology on
a massive scale, with all the best features of industry and academia. Of
course, on my way out of the labs, I was pulled over by an officious security
cop who demanded my license, fished around in his head looking for a charge to
bust me on, and finally said, "Uh, we prohibit vehicles of the racing
wheelchair variety from all areas other than bike paths, due to their slow
speed. I have decided to allow you to proceed this time, however, due to the
fact that you are headed offsite. But if you intend to return, I suggest you
register this vehicle with the security office to prevent further difficulty."


Yeah, right.

At this writing, just through with Wisconsin and beginning the Upper
Peninsula of Michigan, I can report with a sort of subdued glee that despite
all sorts of frustrations and unfinished bike projects the nomadic life is
working. Details to follow... but it's time to play.


2. East Lansing, MI (9/18/91)

Yikes. It happened again. I lugged a file around for ten days as it
gradually cooled, becoming stale and dated. OK, here's the latest, and this
time I'm going to get this finished and uploaded before hitting the road south
-- cold weather or no.

First, I must explain the overload. We're all familiar with this -- I don't
believe I've met more than a dozen productive people in my life who are not
beset by constant stress over all the things they're not getting done. My
chosen lifestyle merely intensifies this, as it does everything. I just
transferred my internet mail spool file today from the SPARCstation in my lab
at Sun to a friend's computer here at MSU in East Lansing. 617K of unread
incoming mail! This is more than a little embarrassing, folks, and if some of
it is from you please accept my apologies.

One work-in-progress item that should get the mail flowing more smoothly is
the software for the Qualcomm satellite link. A couple of resident wizards at
the company have written some custom code to link the terminal to the bike's
Mac, and another package will handle the gateway between the satellite hub and
internet via a Sun workstation. This is a major design goal of the bike, and
all key links are tested and ready to integrate: more-or-less real-time mail,
24 hours a day, via the bird. I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, please
keep mail to me to an absolute minimum -- it's just piling up pending the
occasional ftp to a friendly system (I can dial up and rlogin, of course, but
let's see... 617K at 2400 baud, long distance...)

The bike mechanics are stressed by the weight, but are more or less holding
together. My next actual bikelab report will be a collection of short product
reviews from the field, but in general the weak points seem to be, not
surprisingly, the components made for normal bicycles. I have broken one
chain and one freewheel, cursed fluently at my brakes, and blown one front
tire. I'm gradually weeding out most of the weaknesses, but gravity is still
gravity. On steep hills, in the 7.9-inch granny gear, I creak along at 1 mph
or so, depending on the landing gear and component integrity to prevent a
recurrence of the Paddock Lake wreck. Cruising speed on level ground seems to
average 9 mph, and downhill is an adrenalin-pumping thrill as always,
intensified by horrific images of what would happen in a high-speed wreck.

The function-to-weight ratio is still far short of potential -- my departure
deadline served the necessary purpose of getting my ass out the door, but left
many things undone. Next on the agenda is a layover of about 6 months (after
continuing down through Ohio to Louisville) to bring the system to an
acceptable level of completion that will make open-ended travel here and
abroad effective and satisfying. Obviously, the communication links and
mobile computing capability are of highest priority. Power systems, lights,
stereo, and ham radio are already working very well. (One note on the stereo,
by the way -- CDs can be trashed by extreme temperature cycling. The disks
carried most often in the map case up on the sun-drenched console are
beginning to fail.)

Business: It's as complex and crazy as ever. As a career, this is both
successful and haphazard -- cash flow a random mix of consulting, freelancing,
publishing, trade-show gigs, speaking engagements, product sales, and
happenstance. There's always something afoot -- recent filmings with NHK,
NBC's Earth Journal, and First Look leading to another round of exposure
during the next month or so. More than ever, this whole gambit is a three-way
symbiosis between bike, sponsors, and media... with my role an amusing blend
of work and play, love and sweat, pedaling and hacking.

Then there's the social side of all this, perhaps the infusion of energy that
really holds it all together (would I do this for long in monastic isolation?
I doubt it...). The thrill of beginnings, the exuberance of romance, the
unexpected discoveries... these still drive me down the road as they have
since 1983. The down side of the human issue, however, is the sheer
impossibility of explaining this thing on the street. Back in the old days, a
few comments could summarize the Winnebiko to anyone's satisfaction. Now, it
takes at least an hour to do BEHEMOTH justice, so more and more I seem to be
giving people a polite brush-off unless I really want to talk to them. "Hey,
what IS all this?" someone asks. "Just a computerized bicycle," I reply,
quickly fastening my helmet and pushing off. "The solar panels run everything
but the wheels. Seeya!"

Maggie and I parted company, a condition which may or may not be permanent
but which restored much-needed perspective to both of us (despite the agony of
tearful parting hugs that rainy day in Illinois). After 5 years of shared
adventure, our paths diverged in Joliet -- she headed southeast to Marion,
Ohio on her bike (carrying the cat); I headed north through the western
suburbs of Chicago, visiting companies and at last finding the Fox River bike
trail that can perhaps be credited with getting me out of that zoo alive. I'd
forgotten the general hostility of city traffic... the occasional passing bozo
(usually in an American-made pickup/camper, most often red) who zooms by with
only inches to spare, yelling out the window for me to "get the f*** off the
road!" I never seem to have time to explain that the real problem is with
lousy highway designs that funnel cars and bikes into the same narrow concrete
trough, bounded by square curbs and trimmed with broken glass and potholes.
"I would if I could!" I want to shout, but he wouldn't understand anyway.

On the trail, life improved. Impromptu meetings yielded new friendships,
evenings of dining and story-telling, hints of intrigue. I camped in Paddock
Lake, just into Wisconsin (after getting trapped under the bicycle, a most
embarrassing situation), and mingled with the campground culture. "When you
first came in here, dude, I thought you were a robot!" a little girl told me,
going on to lament: "I wish I had a bike like that so I'd be popular." An
8-year-old boy named Steven hung around all evening, reminding me so much of
myself at that age that I didn't even mind. The next morning, he rode out
with me on his BMX bike, riding alongside and pushing me up the hills, quietly
asking questions, and dreaming of a life beyond the limits. He turned back
reluctantly, with a long sad look, and the impression lasted with both of us.

Racine... a visit to Master Appliance, maker of the wondrous butane
Ultratorch (the only decent soldering iron and heat shrinker for the road...
and it's even self-igniting). A swirl of media and walks on the Lake Michigan
shore; hot tub evenings and smiles with a new friend who found herself sparked
and amused by the life-changing implications of a career founded on passion.
On, reluctantly, to Milwaukee... a week in a hotel for the human-powered
vehicle races and an NBC filming, the city providing another lifesaving bike
route (76) and not at all as hostile and dangerous as all this recent Jeffrey
Daumer publicity would have you believe (though it is still a big city, not
the kind of place I like to ride).

And then Newburg -- the Wellspring hostel. This was unexpected, another of
those delightful experiences that would merit its own article had I been
keeping up with these reports as planned instead of trying to cram two active
months into a hurried 21K retrospective. Wellspring is a hostel, but is
primarily an "intentional community," one of a growing number of homes created
by people, not otherwise related, who want to live as a productive family. I
stayed a week, wiring antenna monitoring and audio processing equipment in the
bike's ham shack (the J-Com Magic Notch audio filter is AWESOME!), helping a
bit in the garden, reading and writing by the pool, and meeting Susan. This
was our rendezvous point: she drove from Dayton to East Lansing, bussed to
Newburg, biked with me to Escanaba (stopping in Manitowoc to boat and
jet-ski), then trucked back to Lansing in order to drive to Cincinnati and
start walking to school. A tour-de-force of transportation alternatives...
punctuated by the magic of like-spirited humans at play.

Off we went, eyeing each other curiously across a few feet of asphalt. Susan
is 20, a lively young Welsh-Italian woman in that carefree stage of life
characterized by intellectual alacrity, insatiable curiosity, career
uncertainty, general playfulness, and vast untapped resources of untamed
youthful passion. We had never met before... but something in the Discover
article (July 1991) touched her and induced her to track me down. The nervous
anticipation had been building for a couple of months, though we carefully
avoided any expectation of romance. So here we were at last, pedaling into an
adventure of unknown proportions: a beautiful black-haired theatre student
and a seasoned high-tech nomad old enough to be her father. <pang>

The trip took on a dreamlike quality. Electronics drifted into the
background (except for the all-important CD stereo system, power management
hardware, and the 2-meter console rig that yielded trailer frame repair, the
jet-ski day, a house of our own in Escanaba, and the usual plethora of new
contacts). It was the timeless dance of the sexes, spiced with dramatic age
difference and the constantly-changing texture of the road: we traveled north
along the lakeshore, camping, exploring, learning. The energy of beginnings
is always potent, but when intensified by a rapidly nearing ending it is
almost nuclear... a fusion reaction fed by fission chips roasted over an open
fire.

Dirty dancing in a Green Bay nightclub after conning our way past the ID
checker. Midnight frolicking on playground equipment, a couple of kids drunk
with silliness. Serious campfire discussion of nomadic business
possibilities. Chocolate, Rachmananov, and jalapeno peppers. Bowling, photos
in a stadium field, swimming, boating, and oh yes, cycling. Slipping in
darkness through a forest, ferns to our waists, circumnavigating a group of
houses just for the hell of it. Teasing people with our curious relationship:
I toggled between daddy, brother, lover, and technoid pack mule for a rich
heiress traveling the world.

Hey, don't frown disapprovingly; this is my job! As the pendulum swings
abruptly back to a brain-dead morality of neo-Christian mythos, erosion of
personal freedoms, and well-founded but excessive AIDS paranoia, those of us
who still celebrate LIFE must do what we can to remind people of their true
nature... and if it takes the exuberant example of a playful existence, well,
it's a lousy job but someone's gotta do it.

Ahem. Don't get me started. It's just that more and more, I see the fear:
a sort of wide-eyed envy tinged with horror, people cocooning in safety and
frightened of the unknown. There's a widening gulf between them what do and
them what don't... couples frozen into de facto marriages; more people
retreating into religion; chance encounters friendly but guarded; an
increasing sense of being an alien on the road. In a twisted sense, this
adventure is becoming a sacred responsibility -- anyone capable of spreading
wild notions of freedom is obligated to do so... before it's too late and we
plunge into the kind of intellectual dark ages that would delight the current
political administration.

Gee, this isn't just a bike trip, is it? Maybe I'm promoting a cause after
all, even though I always deny it.

Anyway, the three weeks passed too quickly, a time that in retrospect seems
somewhere on the order of 3-4 months. Funny thing about time perception on
the road: it's so rich with experiences great and small that the past seems
vast and the present flies by... the precise opposite of the way we see it
when sleepily turning 9-to-5 cranks. Before I could grapple with the shock,
she was gone -- back to Ohio and the beginning of a school year.

Which brings me to the present. I'm staying with Joe & Pam Tyner, owners of
StarPath Systems, makers of a remarkable multitasking environment for DOS
systems called VMOS. Ahead lies the university at Ann Arbor and a jaunt
through Ohio to visit everyone, and then on to Louisville to see my parents
for the first time in almost 3 years. And then... back to Silicon Valley
again to bring the function-to-weight ratio up to a level that will make this
even more fun, if that's possible. As I said, I'm having thoughts of
watercraft, but BEHEMOTH has to pay his dues first... there are miles to go
yet...

Cheers from the road!!!


-- Steven K. Roberts