by Steven K. Roberts
Microship Status Report #123
Nomadic Research Labs
Camano Island, Washington
March 7, 1998

“The large print giveth and the small print taketh away.”

Tom Waits

As you probably know, the entire Microship development project was shoved forcibly to the back burner a few months ago as our Silicon Valley lease, originally sponsored by Apple, drew to a close. Our focus since has been upon finding a building where we can unpack hundreds of boxes from storage and get back to work on nomadness (now there’s an oxymoron of sorts: seeking a stable place from which to leave).

Well, oxymoronic or not, I am delighted to report that the quest is at an end!

We felt it the moment we stepped onto the Camano Island property — that foot-tingling breathless sensation of ineffable rightness. Lisa and I kept looking furtively at each other and giggling, trying not to appear TOO excited in front of the realtor but doubtless utterly transparent in our effusive glee. Mike Nestor is, after all, a professional, and knows well the signs which bubble irrepressibly, like new love, from eager buyers who like what they see. Having observed our responses and learned something about us from the afternoon’s conversation, he casually convened a party that evening that immersed us in the island’s unique culture of artists and entrepreneurs. Steaming wine-lubed in the hot tub amidst playful compatriots and future co-conspirators, how could we not begin thinking of this as home?

Camano Island is an 18-mile-long dongle, ranging from 1 to 7 miles wide, hanging between Whidbey Island and the northwest Washington mainland. It is linked to the latter by a bridge to Stanwood at the north end, rendering it a strange blend of relaxed island mentality and drive-on convenience. Camano is a rural throwback of sorts, refreshingly free of fast-food franchises and commercial strips, far enough from Seattle to avoid the city’s frenzy yet close enough that resources are readily available. And it’s about an hour south of Bellingham, the delightful college town where we’ve spent the past two months writing articles, starting our cartoon series, going out for Boundary Bay’s hearty “Scotch Ale” microbrew, and delicately turning the complex system of confounding cranks associated with finding and acquiring real estate.

The property itself is stunning… a 6-acre skinny rectangle a quarter-mile long, oriented east-west, mostly forested and surrounded by more of the same. We’re on the west side of the island, close enough to the shore that we can see across Saratoga Passage from the house and walk our boatlets up the road about a mile to a public launch. The westernmost acre or so is open meadow with curving drive and rustic workshed with woodstove; back in the woods at the building site, you can see only sprawling hills of second-growth conifers and hardwoods in all directions — the spaces between trees carpeted with ferns and moss-covered deadwood, a spring-fed creek meandering diagonally across the east end.

The house at the forest’s edge is unusual — a small (20×56 feet) but delicious structure designed by an architectural firm and featuring a translucent-roofed “sunspace” with a retractable window wall that admits afternoon sun and opens onto the meadow. This open solar room distributes heat to the rest of the house through thermostatically controlled fans and ducts near the ceiling. The interior has the warm feel of wood, open beam ceiling, insulated and sealed red-oxide tinted concrete slab floor, galley-style kitchen with a glass wall to the sunspace, beautiful Danish woodstove with pizza oven, propane-fired radiant heat backup system, Japanese soaking tub, stainless hardware throughout, full suite of appliances… and it’s only 5 years old. It has won design awards and been featured in Fine Homebuilding (Issue #94) and Sunset (Oct ’95). Design awards weren’t among our stated objectives, obviously, but it’s an interesting twist… we’re getting a place with a lot more character than we expected to find within our budget.

The whole point of this exercise, however, is to establish decent workspace… so we have a construction crew arriving mid-March to begin erecting the pole building: a 40X56 foot, two-story monster about 600 feet back in the woods. On the ground floor, this will have an open-bay fab shop with two roll-up doors for the Microships, electronics lab, machine shop, fiberglass/goo closet, and a reception area. Both inside and outside stairways (the latter to a balcony wrapping around the southeast corner) offer access to the second floor, with an office for me, a media lab (for art, publications, and video production), and a huge work/play area. We’ll heat mostly with wood, given the profusion of local alder and a couple of woodstoves, but there will also be a suitably-scaled gas heater in each space.

The structure itself is a well-insulated classic metal “pole building,” with posts on 12′ centers emanating from a concrete pad. The Pacific Northwet being what it is, we’re paying attention to light in the hopes of minimizing Seasonal Affective Disorder — lots of good-sized windows and if it fits in our budget, a generous balcony overlooking a garden and hot-tub area to the south. Needless to say, we’re facing a profusion of interesting learning curves, starting next week at the most primitive grunt level: site preparation, gravel spreading, and trenching for utilities.

We chose this construction technique because it’s fast and cheap, and found a wonderful and relaxed contractor whose sense of quality echoes our own (Pioneer Pole Buildings in Ferndale, WA).  [a serious problem emerged later.]

The whole purpose here is to get back to work on the boats as soon as possible, not fritter away the years refining our nest. Assuming we stay on schedule, we’ll set up the lab in May, and hopefully lure our fiberglass guru back from Canada to labsit and build the second boat while we’re looping around the US on BEHEMOTH’s Last Tour.

I must say, this has been an adventure. We are anything but deep-pockets, which makes a real-estate quest feel like playing “grown-ups” with Monopoly money. But all along, we’ve found an amazing level of help and flexibility from the people we’ve chosen to work with. Heartfelt thanks go to:

  • Saint Edward Roberts, my father, for making this purchase possible
  • Mike Nestor, Camano Island Realty, for humor and finesse rare in the field
  • Jack Ramsey, Lynnwood Mortgage, for the beach house and creative finance

I’m sure, by the time we’re all moved in and back to work, there will be many more!

Finally, a few more words about Camano Island itself. One of the hardest parts of this whole process has been finding the right combination of physical environment, proximity to water, affordability, ineffable “flavor,” ambient culture, and tolerable weather. We were initially convinced that Bellingham offered the right balance (that’s why we landed there), but nothing affordable was even remotely close to water — a problem that plagued us in many other areas as well. Whidbey Island, while close to Camano and similar in many ways, is home to a Naval Air Station; although upscale and pleasant compared to most military installations, this renders much of the island a bit less laid-back. Some islands, like the San Juans, are stunningly beautiful but too remote to be practical; other places, like Bainbridge Island and Port Townsend, have long since been “discovered” and cost way too much. And we had no trouble finding areas that are affordable, but are either too far from water or lack that energizing feeling that we require to enjoy doing what we do.

But Camano Island is playful and relaxed, imbued with a feeling of community and located in the “banana belt” imposed by the Olympic Mountains’ rain shadow. The year-round population is about 10,000, climbing during the summer from the effect of seasonal residences. But you know what is striking me most strangely… a weird sense that the goings-on of government, Chamber of Commerce, and planning boards actually make a difference. I have always lived in places so big and impersonal that there seemed no point in reading the paper or voting; what was going to happen was going to happen and wasn’t relevant anyway (or I was just passing through and didn’t care). Oddly, I feel different here… I read the weekly paper in its entirety and actually want to know where our water comes from, how the population will grow, what’s going to happen to the NOAH animal shelter, and whether or not the tiny yacht club builds a dock…

So I guess this feels like home. We’re still going to leave it as soon as the Microships are ready to sail, of course… but at last there’s a place to which we can return to build new versions, take a break, or launch a whole new technomadic venture.

Homeowner And Husband… Moi?

While we’re undergoing major change, by the way, we find ourselves on a roll. My Gen-X Brit, Lisa, is about to become Lisa Roberts… on March 23, one year from that fateful day we met via email. She found me on the web while researching “modern-day nomads” for a video project, and wrote:

Hi Steve, I’m researching people who walk, move, rotate, spin, but anyhow keep on going… I’m doing this because through exploration of mystics and sages of our times I’ve found that most of them go walkabout and some don’t stop. As a friend of mine said, every step is a stroke of the heart, and I am very interested in how people feel when they go onwards. My plan is to go with people who can tell me about their philosophies and practices, to document this while they’re on the move.

So… what are you up to in the future?

Her fiendishly clever plan worked, apparently; we struck up a correspondence that escalated within days to something significant. The Net is an amazing thing… in a very abstract sense, the Geek Within perceives the ensuing 7 weeks of giddy email romance as the keyboard entry of a long, complex code that caused a lovely woman to appear in the airport, smile at me, and nestle contentedly into my life. Strange, very strange…

Media Update And News Bits

I mentioned earlier in this update that we spent two months in Bellingham — renting a house with Adam of Skagit Brewery (Steelie Brown Ale… yum), Jason of Cellophane Square (good deals on used CDs), and Courtney of Colt Construction (soccer and hockey player). I commandeered the wonderful little heated shop in the back of the garage, and holed up there with my Mac to write a couple of articles to distract me from stressing over the home-buying and contracting process <shudder>. Writing articles shouldn’t be big news, since I am, supposedly, a writer, but it has been a while.

Anyway, if you want to see a technical overview with pix and diagrams of the Microship design with emphasis on communications, watch for the April cover story in CQ VHF, a ham radio magazine focused on the world above 50 MHz (gee, it just struck me that I used to think of 50 MHz as radio in which “circuit layout is critical,” but now it’s the low end of the personal computer clock speed spectrum… weird…). I also understand that the photographer who did the cover shot (Larry Mulvehill) sold a photo of me with BEHEMOTH for the CQ Magazine calendar… I’m Mr. January, apparently. Haven’t seen it yet, but it is an amusing thought <strut, pose, flex, oops… suck in that gut…>

I’ve also just finished a more detailed technical piece focused on the four levels of on-board networking (crossbars, multidrop, Packnet, and graphic front-end), for Dr. Dobbs Journal.

We had a wonderful interview a couple weeks ago with Jean-Francois Hardy, writing for Outpost, a very cool travel magazine published in Canada. I like his other work and the mag itself, so this should be good; he’s also done a smaller piece about us for the “Dispatches” section of Outside. There’s an interview coming in Capital, which is an Italian magazine from Milan comparable to Forbes. And I recently had a telephone interview about the technomadic life on Australian Broadcasting’s Late Night Loud radio show, sharing the spotlight with Adam Sebire, a young Sydney film maker who recently produced a video on the subject.

(I’m looking forward to getting back into full-time travel so the stories can move beyond BEHEMOTH retrospectives, abstract boatbuilding and network architectures, handwaving about travel plans, and the amusing but ultimately irrelevant details of building a new lab!)

Finally, Bruce Balan has published the fifth book in his delightful Cyber.kdz series… six novels for Net-literate teen readers. This one is called In Pursuit of Picasso in which I’m pedaling BEHEMOTH around Europe and get involved with the cyber.kdz via satellite Net connection in cracking an art theft.

Cheers from the Island!