The marvelous drawing above is by Chris Browne, cartoonist of Hagar the Horrible, who hosted us for a couple of days in Sarasota. Another of his illustrations is down the page. In this story, the Computing Across America book is at last published, and we make the transition from bikes to converted school bus… wildly disruptive and exciting. 

Launching the Computing Across America Bus Adventure

by Steven K. Roberts
Key West, Florida
February 28, 1988

We’re still alive… still on the road… still nomads… but everything is different!

The miles pass quickly now, with gasoline disappearing into the great hungry maw of the mighty Winnebuso at the rate of a quart every two and a half minutes. The bikes live in the back, the attic is an old camper shell, and the lifestyle is a melange of trade shows, talk shows, hamfests, highways, and construction projects. I own cabinets, power tools, and a toaster. And camping, once a chancy escapade of billowing fabrics and makeshift cooking facilities, is now a daily routine of converting my plywood desk into a cozy 45 square-foot bed and collapsing. (That’s a lot of bunk.)

Yup, the Computing Across America book is at last a reality, and the media tour is underway.

As a first step in bringing this long-overdue story up-to-date, here are some notes written over a month ago… behind Bob Fischer’s used-car lot in Titusville:

January 11, 1988. The smells of fresh-cut fir-ply and musty carpeting fill the air. Music: classic King Crimson, melancholy and deeply familiar (whether from hours of electric 70’s synesthesia or from some taproot of common humanity I can but speculate). Other sounds: Florida rain on a steel roof, Highway 1 rumbling through the interstices of rock-medieval syncopation, Maggie having a go at drilling sheet steel, a refrigerator compressor clunking at odd moments as the desk light flickers.

Maggie doing interior painting in the school bus

Yes, this is a change of pace alright: life in a forgotten used car lot. Our world is a blend of funky old schoolbus under renovation and an abandoned garage that could use a good dose of same. Laying about are piles of old floor mats, dead batteries, broken antennas, curious entubated components of once-humming Detroit engines, and my own dusty plywood leavings.

Engines. Oh no… I own one now. A 350, they tell me, which will haul this old boat at 7-8 miles per gallon, clanking in places, slipping its clutch, and running a bit hot. An engine? Moi? But… but…

The days have been a blur of spending sprees in Titusville’s hardware and RV stores: like a junior homeowner I browse the aisles, watching for deals on bullet lights and saber saw blades. Today at the locally infamous Frontenac Flea Market (a sort of plebeian mall), I made off with a pack load of heavy crap I would have passed without a glance three weeks ago. Yes, change is in the air — and it carries a complex fragrance of melancholy and excitement. For even as I fill notebooks and spreadsheets with plans and schemes, I struggle to hold onto the past like one who has been awakened too quickly from a deeply erotic dream. It slips away subtly, the dream becoming fantasy, the fantasy becoming desperate rational recall that wilts any trace of hypnopompic pleasure. You finally give up with a subvocal growl and watch the whole experience evaporate, leaving a scum of frustrated regret tinged by day-long irritation at whoever the hell had the gall to wake you up at that perfect moment.

It’s that way with the schoolbus. It fits, it’s fun, it’s a ticket to book marketing and trade shows and all sorts of new, twisted pleasures. It makes good business sense. But I stare out these rain-streaked windows that remind me of weekday mornings in my pimply textbook-toting teens… and there in the dark grime of an abandoned used-car detailing shop is the dusty Winnebiko, still on the verge of asking in its plaintive Votrax voice: “are you going to ride me now, Steve?” I cling to vaporous memories of country roads and tailwinds while my bike, for so long the very image of high-tech independence, acquires its own hank of black rubber tie-downs.

The changes this time are sweeping: basic changes in the nature of my changes. Meta-changes are, for those accustomed to changes, every bit as terrifying as are mere changes to those who once knew only changelessness. Switching to a bus, if I remember my calculus right, is thus the second differential of stasis.

Local coverage in Titusville – click image for a well-written story about the bikes and bus

So. That was in mid-January, over a month ago. Titusville days passed in a sort of panic: 717 pounds of books arrived as I was building the desk; distant trade-show gigs became locked irrevocably into the calendar before I even had the drivetrain checked over by a mechanic. Days of greasy bus work alternated with days of domestics, days of autograph-and-ship marathons, days of hours passing like minutes that left in their wake only Casio-beeps.

And then it began. Trembling with excitement, we rumbled away from the staging area, the bikes swaying dangerously in back, Maggie scurrying about the bus to catch falling objects and track down rattles. First stop: a weekend at the Frontenac flea market, a chance to test the whole goofy setup without having to get too embarrassed about clumsiness.

Titusville days became Frontenac nights. In the flea-market subculture, we were an anomaly — fitting awkwardly between the hawkers of cheap new merchandise and those who haul in truckloads of junk every weekend to help pay the rent. Some holler hoarsely at shoppers: Socks a dollar! Duct tape! Axe handles! Reading glasses! Others sit glumly behind a cigar box containing their jingling hopes for the next week’s meals, waiting for someone to buy the old toaster or maybe make an offer on that busted chainsaw. In between, there are leather-skinned regulars hustling imported tools, old ladies selling new lace, tax-evaders running a little cash business on the side, shifty-eyed purveyors of hot consumer goods, shysters pushing “CD-ready” stereo speakers with grating spiels of poorly simulated technical expertise, a pretty girl selling counterfeit Casio-clone watches, and hundreds of tables of junk, stuff, clutter, garbage, leftovers, must-haves, cast-offs, and so on. All that, and some good stuff too — deals better than anywhere else in town.

Amidst it all, that weird weekend in January, you would have found a couple of high-tech nomads with a table of fresh-smelling books and a pair of high-tech bicycles. The crowd swirling by had three statistical peaks: one skewed dramatically to the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum, another about midrange for Space Coast yuppie culture, the third best characterized as elderly northern tourists out slumming. Questions, therefore, ranged from displays of appalling ignorance (“Where the hell ya sit on that thing?”) to the keenly aware (“how do you dissipate solar heat gain under the Lexan bubble?”). We sold a few books and learned how to set up an effective display, all the while marveling at what is apparently a well-established nomadic subculture of flea-market vendors — wandering among the tarped-over tables and dark RV’s after closing time to swap tips and tales.

Frontenac was just a teaser, a look at the ragged end of the marketing spectrum (and proof that if things get really grim, we can always fall back on any of the thousands of flea markets listed in “the bible” — Clark’s flea market directory). Since then, we have gone on the hamfest circuit, appeared at the Gear Down bicycle rally, done a show-n-tell at the PC Forum in Naples, and lined up a whole string of gigs stretching from Key West to Dayton. A few vignettes…

Camping on the Dade County Fairgrounds, the bike on display at the Tropical Hamboree. Hustler, our newest sponsor, setting us up with a thicket of mobile antennas; 73 Magazine, my latest publisher, taking us out for a dinner meeting at the notorious Crawdaddy’s restaurant. Hints of Miami society, throbbing strong at midnight. Our camping neighbor, tied permanently to an oxygen tank, turning out to be a brilliant artist and poet on a last joyful fling around the country before fading health forces a sedentary lifestyle. And books, books, everywhere books: stepping over mountains of them, selling them, shipping them, staring at them in a wondering haze and picking one up, now and then, to marvel at the reality. Three years of working and waiting… tangible at last!

Back north to Titusville, hanging out with ham/skydiving friends Bruce and Dawn. Another marathon project: building an attic for the already-overloaded bus, installing a camper shell on top. This is mad, bizarre, but it works — with him playing hooky from the Cape, we labored into the night, swatting mosquitoes, swilling coffee, slipping across a dewy bus-top ablaze with work lights and a-glitter with tools, drilling and bolting, painting and hammering. We became a fixture in their lives… to the point that 4-year-old Brett announced to his pre-school class: “There’s a big bus in our backyard. The people don’t live anywhere, but they have talking bicycles and they travel all over the universe!” And so we have joined another family… and with a lump in my throat I watched Maggie and 7-year-old Tracy — veterans of many a giggling tickle-fight — hug each other close in tearful good-bye.

Rolling again, off to Mount Dora and the Gear Down bicycle rally — an upscale gathering of 230 bikies from all over. I spoke twice, displayed the bike, sold dozens of books, and even managed to ride once: touring the Lake Country with Maggie and Chuck, the potential producer of the Computing Across America movie (director of Incredible Hulk, MacGyver, and many more). He flew out from Hollywood for the occasion — yet another of those wondrous human links first formed in the vapors of Dataspace and quickly solidifying into stable friendship. More on that as it develops…

Moving on, moving on. The schedule is demanding: we can’t afford to linger. Back to Titusville again for final touch-ups, then west to Sarasota and another hamfest. This one was unspectacular (my talk was at 9:00 on a rainy Sunday morning: “can you all hear me in the back?” I asked the sleepy audience of five). But elsewhere in Sarasota is Christoper Browne, one of the creators, with his father Dik, of Hagar the Horrible. Creativity-based relationships know no stylistic boundaries; within minutes we were swapping insights and inspirations, peppering our conversation with references to film and funnies while petting cats, watching Howard the Duck, and stealing glances at miniskirted Maggie dozing prettily on the couch.

South. This is fast, compared to the bikes: an hour’s motor travel is equivalent to an average day of pedaling. It took only a morning to make it to Naples, where we stumbled blinking and handshaking into the PC Forum… one of those top-level industry summits blazing with talent and breezy with the exchange of business cards. Only the heaviest of end users were here — this was primarily a gathering of designers, executives, and media. Needless to say, we made rapid progress toward the new improved Winnebiko III… whilst hustling books at The Registry’s “swamp party” and noshing on gristly alligator, bony rattlesnake, deviled quail eggs, and various unnamable bits of unfortunate fauna captured and killed for our civilized pleasure. In what has become something of a pattern, we rumbled off boozy into the night and bedded down with another GEnie subscriber… this time Jack Sterling, a photographer and like spirit who sees life as something to play and talk about — not work at. This makes him look at least a decade younger than his 60+ years, yet one more reminder that the course of adventure is the healthiest option of all.

I write now from Stock Island, in “America’s southernmost campground.” Key West is a few minutes downwind by bicycle, and indeed, this shall be a week of re-tasting something of the flavor that spawned two erotic, exotic chapters in my book. Four years ago, I pedaled through and stayed three weeks… leaving with reluctance via sailboat to struggle once again with the realities of the mainland. This is a place of diverse tastes, exotic and delicious when you look past the frenzy and over development.

But getting here had its grim moments: a stuck carburetor float (a carburetor? Me?) in a Marathon traffic jam. In the oppressive heat of four lanes and contraction, I sprinted between driver’s seat and engine, whacking the offending gas-soaked hardware with a small ball peen hammer and trying again. Just as the battery cranked its last, the engine started and we were rolling… uneasy at this reminder of our total dependence upon mysterious fuel-processing equipment.

But that was nothing compared to Big Pine Key. Mindful of the fact that this is tourist season, we elected to stop short of Key West, camp anywhere for a night, then find a more ideal spot before noon the next day. We pulled into the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge … maneuvering our way into the gravel lot under the watchful eyes of elderly shuffleboard hustlers. Maggie breezed into the lobby to check it out.

“They have a few sites without electricity left,” she said, returning with a green map. “$15.26 a night.” I shrugged and slipped on my sandals, preparing to go for a walk and pick a spot.

But a middle-aged woman with colorless hair and hot pink jogging suit strode purposefully toward my window. “We don’t allow buses,” she said brusquely.

“What? What’s the difference between a bus and an RV?”

“Well, we just don’t allow them. We don’t want that bussy look.”

“That’s ridiculous!” I said, remembering Crescent City’s Camp Gestapo and an evil woman in Sebastian who, years before, had refused me a motel room because she had seen my helmet and thought I was a biker.

“We’ve had problems with bus people before. WE JUST DON’T ALLOW THEM.” She said this with a sort of haughty sneer, unsmiling, then turned and walked back to the office.

“You’ll read about yourself!” I called after her. She ignored the comment, and I bit my lip to prevent the flow of appropriate obscenity that she deserved.

Fuming, angry, we drove away — wishing there were some appropriate gesture that could leave its mark on this insulting creature. But she wouldn’t have cared… she just watched safely from the doorway until she was certain that us low-class undesirables without a brand-name RV had indeed moved along.

Events like this impose two simultaneous feelings: violent anger at ignorant people (otherwise known as bigots) who judge others on the basis of primitive fears, and deep empathy for those who have to put up with such treatment daily. It took me 30 miles to relax, during which time I concocted a smear campaign and fantasized about all sorts of retribution that will probably never happen. Do you ever wonder why there are riots in South Africa? Put yourself on the receiving end of attitudes like those at the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge and it will become very clear that race has nothing to do with the essential problem.

And so, welcome to the Keys. We’re in Boyd’s Campground now, a friendly place, $24 a night ($3 more if you want the windy waterfront), and all around is something rare in the typical RV park: youth. This is the party end of Florida — a tanned and overcrowded tropical paradise, a place of frangipani and sunset celebration. My memories of the place are idyllic, and it is with trepidation that I begin to overlay new experience upon something that lies perfect in my past. Maybe we’ll even have a day or two of nice weather, something that hasn’t yet happened in our two-month visit to the “Sunshine State.”

Here goes…

We wake in sunlight, stretch, kiss carefully without exhalation, nibble shoulders, giggle. Overhead, a jet roars; around us, the campground wakes, putters, prepares for another play day. I squint outside… a withered hand appears in the RV window next door, fumbles with the shade through a thicket of dried flowers, lifts it to reveal lacy curtains. A couple in front of us unloads a matched pair of Honda Helix scooters from a Newell-drawn trailer, preparing to make their own two-wheeled assault on the island. Three young guys with healthy workout muscles emerge from their tent and catch Maggie’s eye by applying the day’s first coat of suntan oil. And best of all… a wad of cash lies beside me, for we sold 23 books on the streets of Key West yesterday!

It was a good cruise. At every corner we were besieged: “Hey, did you really ride from Ohio on that? Does that need a license? What’s all this stuff do? Are you crazy? Solar panels? How fast does it go? Weren’t you here a few years ago? Didn’t I see you on TV?” Then would begin the whole explanation, the radio-controlled speech synthesizer demonstrations, the surprise coincidences… and then $10 bills would start fluttering in Key West breezes and I would get out the pen, sign some books. “To Mike, with cheers from Dataspace.” “To Chris and Kathy, from another refugee of Buckeye country.” This, as I’m sure you can imagine, is very encouraging to the author of a new, untested book.

Another Key West morning. Yesterday, the sweet memories of my first visit were enhanced and flavored by more romance, more exotica, more world-class soft-core voyeurism on the playground of Smathers beach. Breathtakingly cheeky bikinis, a woman hanging topless and grinning from a passing van, oily flesh soft and tan, row upon row of beautiful bodies splayed in delicious exposure to the tropical sun. Volleyball in the sand, the men muscled and brown, the women bouncing in soft hypnotic splendor. Couples cozy, cheeks rosy, Maggie dozing pink and breezy as I relax and take it easy. We’re here with the vanguard of the annual spring break beach assault, and it’s all quite dizzying after our months in retirement heaven.

We chuckled frequently at the contrasts between this and Titusville… sort of like comparing a Mac II with a dusty old Friden Flex-o-writer. The energy here is mad, decadent, relentlessly erotic. After sunset last night, after the crowd drifted away from Mallory Pier to begin the evening rituals of intoxication and seduction, we rolled slowly back to Duval Street. Past “Shoehorn,” the tap-dancing lyrical saxophone man, past the rowdiness of Sloppy Joe’s and the older tourists scurrying to the safety of their hotels. In front of Rick’s we parked on the sidewalk, and for two hours answered progressively more drunken questions and hustled books. A grinning local named Dave with twinkling eyes and rough denim biker garb appeared beside us with two full pitchers of beer. “Here!” he said, handing us each one. “Welcome to Key West!”

By the time those were drained, the evening had become a blur of ponytailed tattooed locals, Virginia/Ohio/Michigan students, eyecatching miniskirts, certifiable loonies, and nonstop traffic. Weaving through the latter and stopping once to stumble giggling through moonlit sand, we found our way back to Stock Island and the reassuring bus — which has become an unexpected source of security in the perpetual madness of the road.

So. It’s another idyllic morning — our 4th or 5th here. I lose track. It’s hard to leave, but… what the hell’s the hurry? We’re living/reliving the magic of island life, and the various business fires that have to be put out seem but colorful dancing specks on the mainland horizon: abstract and kind of pretty. This is the Mañana Republic… and the notion of urgency is as alien here as a three-piece suit in bikini-land.

So I think I’ll just ease on over to the pay phone and upload this, then take a nice snooze in the sand. Cheers!

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