Art without engineering is dreaming;
Engineering without art is calculating.

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Blood in the Spokes

The accident described in this story had lifelong implications; it is funny how often something occurs that we don’t recognize at the time as significant. Three decades later, as I add this to the archives, I squirm in pain that is directly traceable to this grisly tale. There was some coverage in the local paper about the accident, but the story below is much more excruciating and detailed…

by Steven K. Roberts
Whiteville, North Carolina — 14,634 miles.
November 22, 1987

It always happens fast. On a crisp Friday morning in Whiteville, North Carolina, I strapped on my helmet, booted up the bicycle control processor, and reset the Cat-Eye. The bike arpeggiated two octaves of major thirds and queried in a voice mechanical but eager: “Are you going to ride me now, Steve?” You bet, loony machine. All systems are go… I clanged the handlebar bell, hailed Maggie on 145.52 simplex, and waved good-bye to Clarabel — the 70-year-old cyclist who had been our charming hostess for two days. On the road… bound for the coast.

7/100 of a mile later it happened. What had been the smooth brown bulk of an irrelevant pickup truck parked to my right suddenly erupted into a swinging door. Where there had been open space, there was now hard steel. Where once was the peaceful dawn of a sunny riding day was now pain, blood, fractured aluminum, pretzeled wheels, cops, sirens, photographers, crowds, gauze-wrapped thighs, stretchers, and a once-poetic electronic megacycle sprawled clumsy on the pavement with macabre bits of my flesh clinging to exposed corners.

This is what we used to call a bummer, back in the Early Days

The old man in the truck stared down at me in slow alarm. I made a gentle sarcastic comment about the purpose of rear-view mirrors while watching the white furrows in my thighs fill with blood. In morbid fascination, I pulled hairy pieces of myself from the aluminum console mounts and tried to understand what had happened. Then I noticed the rear wheel: within the constraints of frame geometry, it had become a close approximation of a Pringles newfangled potato chip.

The truck door had apparently swung open as I passed, grazing my arm and connecting with the bike at the rear derailleur — forcing it into the spokes. This formed a highly effective one-shot braking device, destroying both derailleur and wheel in the process as I skidded forward, slamming into the door with my Equinox trailer. It now sported a badly bent tongue, torn fabric, and a fractured frame — and as I struggled to my feet I realized that my body wasn’t doing so well, either: lower back pain kept me from standing up all the way.

People began to arrive. A news photographer scurried about, documenting the whole grisly affair for Monday’s paper. Clarabel hurried over, aghast that this had happened in her town. Herman, the old driver, stood around looking unhappy, and a little kid gaped and gawked and oohed and ahhed about the bike. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” a policeman asked sternly.

“I got s’pended fer fih’tin,” he said. “What’r all them radios for?”

An ambulance pulled up. People poured from houses, stopped their cars, formed a circle around the grim carnage and pointed at various doodads of alien gizmology. Medics dressed in orange began dabbing thick brown Betadine on my quads <wince> and wrapping them in gauze. But the bandages slipped down every time I moved, so a couple of the EMT’s kept following me around trying to fix them. I groped in the trailer and produced my cane, snapping it to its full length as somebody exclaimed: “Well I’ll be! He has his own walkin’ stick!” And before long Maggie and some bystanders were half-carrying the crippled Winnebiko back to Clarabel’s house as I was being helped into the ambulance — wherein I had the unusual experience of hearing my vital signs read over the radio.

Marketing takes many forms. Flat on my back on a gurney I explained the bike, the book, the banged-up back. Maggie handed flyers to hospital personnel as they poked, prodded, squirted my arm full of tetanus vaccine, and tried to understand how a bicycle going less than 10 mph could cause this odd combination of injuries. I lay around in the hallway for awhile, waiting for painkillers to kick in while fending off the advances of an old malodorous broken-footed drunk who kept slurring a barely comprehensible request for a ride home. “Bicycle!” I finally said, moving my arms like my bloody legs once had. “I’m on a bicycle!” He frowned, almost fell over, drooled, rolled yellow eyes, exuded rank breath, looked down at the gurney under me, shook his head in dizzy confusion and said, “Bahsel? Thain’t no bahhsel…”

X-rays showed the skeleton to be OK… so with friendly farewells to all the staff and a not-too-encouraging nod to the drunk we rolled away in the cop car, reminded of last year’s wreck in Healdsburg and wondering how long it would take to recover THIS time.


I write now from Clarabel’s house. She’s an unusual lady: how many 70-year-olds do you know who easily do hundred-mile bicycle trips, work out on a rowing machine in front of the TV, and sponsor an annual “homemade ice-cream ride” for local cyclists? As luck would have it, she happened to have two unoccupied apartments upstairs, so another CAA field office has been born — the latest in a recent blur of marathon writing sessions intended to deliver on all those impromptu commitments made over the last few months. And besides, there’s bike-and-body repair to be done: Our RAAM-riding friends from the Raleigh area, Jim and Kathie Mulligan, motored down to build a new wheel, and Fed-X should show up with new trailer parts any day now.

Wheelbuilding’s a bit of a wonder, if you’ve never witnessed the Art. After we settled on one of a dozen or so possible lacing patterns (cross-4 symmetrical), Jim began weaving the 48 spokes into a complex web of balanced tensions, spending hours making progressively more subtle adjustments until the structure was flawlessly tuned. At 3 AM, he seemed almost maniacal — coffee-wired and obsessed — straddling the truing stand and peering through his glasses into submillimeter gaps, the spoke wrench tinking softly, his breath coming in measured little gasps synchronized with the precise indexing of the wheel and the metallic whisper of the calipers.

Now that I think about it, it is not unlike the subtle interplay of adjustments that can elevate a good piece of writing into a balanced work of art — or, just as easily, shatter the whole thing by pulling certain ideas too tight, overstressing words that should be in balance. I guess I am out spokin’ at times… rolling from a wheel-truing deal to true wheeling-dealing, toiling at truth while reeling from the raw deal of a rear wheel’s real ruin…

Of course, there have been all sorts of other events since the last update — there always are. Perhaps the most colorful is our visit to Fayetteville.

It was a day that started perfectly. We had spent the weekend with Jim & Kathie, putting up a horizontal loop antenna, taking a code test (I’m a General now: salut!), rebuilding the bike’s headset bearing, and otherwise sharing in that technical camaraderie that comes from common passions. It was only natural that they should join us for the ride south from Raleigh, and they climbed aboard their 2-meter equipped Santana tandem for the trek to Erwin.

All went well. The first cotton field of the journey surrounded us like an infinite vat of chocolate-marshmallow ice cream, puffy sunlit tufts blazing white in a background of uniform dead brown. Toying with repeaters, teasing, tossing jokes to and fro, we pedaled the miles away.

But the moment came, as come it must. They turned back north to resume their lives; we continued south to resume ours. The interlude of new friendship lingered like a recent movie, and as the growing distance between us began to touch familiar voices with static we began looking ahead. What next?

Actually, it seemed no mystery, for another ham was awaiting our arrival down the road. A few nights before I had logged via a pair of NET/ROMs onto the Fayetteville packet BBS, and within the hour Bruce Parkes, an Air Force flight nurse, called and invited us to stay. Now the only problem was to get to his house — and it was to be a 71-mile ride.

But it wasn’t the mileage that turned a day of warm play into a night of cold hell, it was Fayetteville. Not our delightful hosts… but the town itself. We quickly understood why everyone had warned us against going there.

Bruce met us at the border on his motorcycle, with two beautiful little girls perched pink and perky in the sidecar, watching shyly as we made our introductions and got ready to run the downtown gauntlet. A 15-mile night ride through a macho-tough Army town lay ahead, and the escort service may well have saved our lives.

Lurkers in the shadows. Strip joints. Glass. Violent traffic, with unkempt mufflers and aggressive bumper stickers proving that in this macho subculture, might makes right. One sticker declared: “Don’t like my driving? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT” (What kind of person would post such a sentiment on his car for everyone to read? Would you want to meet him?)

It got worse. As the highway narrowed into a shoulderless two-lane deathtrap, the horns and shouts began. “Get the hell off the road, you stupid asshole!” shouted someone, his voice lost in his own explosive honking. Fingers sprouted from rumbling Mustangs and GTOs; a beer can sailed from a pickup. For over an hour we endured this abuse, realizing that we should have approached the city from a different side entirely. Through it all, Bruce and the girls bravely followed us — holding back an angry queue of bile-sodden rednecks choking on their own exhaust, trigger fingers doubtless itching as delicious M-16 fantasies filled their mini-brains…

Whenever possible, I would pull into a driveway — trying to ease the tension by letting people pass. But they only saw it as a chance to Have Their Say, and roared by us with shouted insults and floored accelerators. How could I have made them understand that it was not my fault, that they should complain instead to a local government that allows a busy shoulderless high-speed commute route like Cliffdale Road to exist?

But then, Fayetteville is weird. Our new friends were a pleasure — the kids cute and shy, the dog playful and cuddly, the adults an entertaining blend of Air Force culture, active hobbies, unaggressive religion, and warm hospitality. But Fayetteville itself, well… we took my bike to a meeting of the local ham radio club.

Normally, this is a predictable sort of experience. People stand around talking about radios, discuss upcoming events, sit through a technical presentation, drink coffee, and have a drawing for a few unexceptional door prizes. But this meeting had a different flavor.

“Could we all stand for the prayuh?” The hubbub of 25 men ceased instantly and chairs were shoved back for the spiritual CQ DX. Heads bowed. “Ouwah fawthuh, we reco’nize that you are th’ supreme architect of th’ univuhse, and we ask thy blessin’ as we meet heah tonah’t… etcetera.” There was a bass rumble of amens, then we all turned to face the American flag, clasped our hands over hearts swollen with patriotic fervor, and intoned the Pledge.

“This sure ain’t California,” I whispered to Maggie as the meeting was called to orduh. Discussion for the first 15 minutes centered around a fellow who had been invited to dinner by the club, then left without paying. Apparently, picking up the tab hadn’t been part of the deal, and in the poor fellow’s absence he was lambasted like a criminal. One old man finally spoke: “Now perhaps the gentleman was laboring under the misapprehension that the invitation included the cost of the meal. I move that we reimburse the club member who covered the bill out of his own pocket, including whatever expenses he may have incurred in his efforts to collect, and get on with it.”

Everybody seemed friendly enough, of course, warmly welcoming us to Fayetteville and wishing us luck on the road. But it was a startling culture shock: a ham radio club meeting that barely mentioned ham radio. Our current travel is a window into a widespread segment of mainstream American culture that’s quite different from “TV normal.” This is all highly subjective, of course — a few hours ago, a robust black mechanic named Jimmie looked up from the vice-destruction of my old Phil Wood hub and asked, “You have quite an accent. Where are you from?”

Yep, it’s the South. Every home we visit has a few Bibles, and almost everyone on the street seems a visitor from the black and white video of the 50’s. Speech is filled with folk references and surprising twists (“You gotta root, pig, or die,” noted Clarabel, indicating that we should help ourselves in the kitchen). And easy flirtation, lifestyle experimentation, and liberal attitudes are about as rare as tie-dyed shirts out here in the wilds of the Great Southeast. I suspect we’d be westbound in a hurry if it wasn’t so dad-burned friendly: with the exception of Fayetteville, every North Carolina town on our route has exuded a sort of conservative American warmth. It’s relaxing after New York and DC… and the midwest could take a few lessons from this as well.

Let’s see. There are a few technical events of note, but I’m tired — they can wait. A quick teaser, though: the bike now has its own on-board BBS, with a beacon identifying my activity and current location to the packet radio community. I can now emerge from a restaurant to find electronic mail waiting for me right there in the console. There’ll doubtless be more on that in some future high-tech rhapsody.

In the meantime, I’m waiting for my traumatized quads to pump painlessly again — and watching for the arrival of a few components still required to restore the Winnebiko’s autonomy. And then… deeper into the South we’ll go… with the fantasy beaches of Florida a sort of holy grail in the distance. Cheers from the East Ward!

Highly Suspicious Pay Phone Activity

One more glimpse of Whiteville…

As I was uploading this chapter, hunkered down on the sidewalk over the HP computer with a cable going into the phone booth at the intersection of Lee and Calhoun, a police car pulled up. The door slammed, and I recognized the cop who had declared at the accident that I had no business being on the road with a rig like that and was therefore at fault. I nodded in greeting. He didn’t smile.

“What’s going on here?” he demanded.

“I’m sending out a story and getting my mail via satellite. See?” I held up the computer.

Carefully maintaining a sour Dirty-Harry squint, he peered at the machine and followed the wire into the phone booth. “Hey, what’s this!”

“It’s an acoustic coupler. Turns my words into sound and transmits them over the phone… and vice versa. I do this all the time…”

“We’ve had three calls this mornin’ about you bein’ out here messin’ with this pay phone. I wanna know exactly what’s going on.”

“I told you: I get my mail this way. This is what lets me run a company while traveling by bicycle.”

He looked skeptical. It was clear he was mentally reviewing the town ordinances, hoping to find a charge to book me on. It must have been a frustrating task, for he asked a third time what I was doing. About then my upload ended, so I hit BREAK and *S, causing GEmail to tell me the item was sent and issue a new prompt. I typed the DISPLAY command and showed him the screen.

“See, this next piece of mail is from Vancouver, Washington.” I typed LIST 1. “Here it comes — right through those phone lines and into the memory of this machine!”

The cop scowled. “How long you planning to be out here?”

“I’m almost done. If anyone wants to use the phone, I’ll be happy to log off…”

“Who pays for this?”

“Whoever uses it. You pay an hourly connect rate, plus any applicable line charges.”

He stared at me long and hard. I stared back. “Alright,” he finally said, and turned without a smile.

You just can’t be too careful when a bearded nomad from the north shows up in town riding some kinda crazy thingamajig with computers on it. We gotta protect our citizens!

Going online in Bandon, Oregon, back in 1986