by Steven K. Roberts — East Lansing, Michigan
September 20, 1991
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 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 camped by the manure spreader and spent my days fixing things and making notes. One day the bike was in the sun, the CD stereo system issuing Artie Shaw into the Iowa afternoon. Hogs grunted, cattle lowed, insects chittered. Somewhere a tractor growled over a field beneath a brown puff of dust. Time passed. I fired up the Qualcomm satellite terminal to send a message, and within the radome 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 comms. Big John motored over on his 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 to San Diego. John sat bemused on the big Honda; 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.”
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.
East Lansing, Michigan (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 Welsh-Italian woman in that carefree stage of life characterized by intellectual alacrity, insatiable curiosity, career uncertainty, playfulness, and vast resources of untamed youthful passion. We had never met… but something in the Discover article (July 1991) induced her to track me down. The 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.
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, 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.
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 jalapeño 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: we had one group convinced I was just the technoid pack mule for a rich heiress traveling the world.
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 my friends Joe & Pam, 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 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!!!