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

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Computing Across Humboldt County

by Steven K. Roberts
Eureka, California — December 15, 1986

We have just spent three weeks in Humboldt County with old friends—old friends whom we first met three weeks ago. Such is the time distortion of the traveling life. We’re living as a family of four, and the time before our arrival seems vague and distant. Oh yeah… I remember… aren’t we on some kinda bicycle trip?

But these three weeks have been a therapeutic dose of home, something that we need now and then to temper our rootless nomadics with the illusion of stability. Sometimes Dataspace isn’t quite enough—especially when childhood memories of Christmas begin to season the festivities of others with little wistful pangs.

Christmas persists in being a strange time to travel. On my first journey (solo for 500 days or so), I endured two of them. Both were warm, yet somehow sad—for even with no religious interest in the holiday I have been deeply inculturated along with everyone else. The Christmas trees of others all seem deficient in contrast with that perfect prototype fantasy tree imprinted 30 years ago; the traditional music is somehow evocative, the non- traditional music grating. The season is a confusion of love and tackiness, beauty and clutter, generosity and guilt. I try not to participate, but still feel the pull of behavioral quicksand, the well-intentioned brainwashing of a culture in transition. Christmas is mostly a habit now, a hysterical celebration of mass obligation… and how can a present you should buy convey anything other than emotional self-defense?

(And besides, I don’t have room on my bicycle for new toys.)

But no matter how philosophical I try to be about this yearly commercial bonanza, I am still drawn in, still affected. I look at my friends’ tree and get wistful for the bubble lights of my childhood; I walk downtown and feel the credit cards itch. “Oh, wouldn’t Duane love this?” “Honey, do you think Ian would like some dinosaur mugs?” What are we going to do for all of our friends back in Ohio, out in Dataspace, and in every other place touched by my wheels or my hands or my words or my heart?

And so we have been torn all week. Stay or go? Stay or go?

Lists of pros and cons, lists of things to do. Aw, let’s wait—they say it’s gonna rain; I have to do the Popular Science proposal and install Maggie’s new drum brake… and Duane and Micki invited us to go caroling on our bicycles. But we’ve been here too long, and it really is a pretty day and I’m restless and damn it, if we don’t get our asses south we’re going to be stuck up here till April. No… until May. That’s when they have the Kinetic Sculpture Race. Isn’t there some way to do it all?

Understanding why I stop reveals even more about why I go, doesn’t it?

What’s intriguing about all this is that from the perspective of movement, standing still is high adventure. The little events of daily life—going to parties, renting movies for the VCR, cooking a fresh seafood dinner with friends—are all cast into sharp relief by the exquisite transience of passing through. Savor this… it won’t last long!

One such tableaux of modern Americana occurred last night. We found ourselves at a Christmas party hosted by an atypically colorful accountant and his flawless fashion-model bride—in a home obsessively gardened and passionately maintained. I kept seeing myself as if in a commercial, one of those soft-focus testimonials to an ideal lifestyle (dependent upon a certain brand of wine or coffee). Everything was perfect, from the thematic and color-coordinated 10-foot tree to the roaring fire to the dizzying spread of roasts and exotic drinks. Fortified by the latter, we poured into the night and climbed aboard a chartered trolley car for a caroling excursion.

I hung crazily off the side, playing my flute in occasional harmony with Duane’s guitar as we clanged our way along Eurekan streets. 30-odd mouths vented synchronized steam; we laughed in wholesome self-mockery; familiar Christmas melodies, slightly raucous, echoed from Victorian buildings. Cheery waves, jingle bells, shouting kids, heavy-laden shoppers, full-moonlight on white lazy plumes of distant mill smoke. At a sleazy bar known locally as the VD, we dismounted and wove our way through the pool tables, playing and singing Jingle Bells while eyed sullenly by drunken denizens. (The kids waited outside for this one, and we seemed to step a bit more quickly than we had back in the Ritz.)

“Lifestyle sampler,” I whispered into a fragrant Maggie-ear, and she smiled—remembering one of the motives behind all this. We clattered on, exhausting our repertoire of first verses, arriving again at the dream house to overdose on hot buttered rum and increasingly incoherent conversation as jingle bells echoed in our heads and the night grew fuzzy…

Three weeks. Like Bainbridge, Humboldt has held us, teased us, mocked our plans to move on. To the database of potential homes I add Humboldt—for the friends, the ambience, the undercurrent of looniness that touches daily events with a sense of play. Though we’re broke and living a hand-to-mouth existence based on advance book sales, life seems rich here, full of those non-financial components in the success formula: the four F’s of fun, food, friendship, and passion.

But we’re moving on; it’s time. Maggie’s fine-tuning her new 48-spoke wheel; I’m poring over the maps and lists of contacts with obsessive concentration, eschewing offers of still more parties in lieu of loose-end tying. Christmas or not, we’re getting back on the road this week—fully prepared for the legendary winding grades of Leggett hill and the convoluted Highway 1 to follow.

Special Bonus Recipe Section

As we travel, we are exposed at least once a week to something tasty. Maggie’s compiling a collection of recipes for a possible book (Eating Across America?), complete with food-related anecdotes and quotes (“I never eat anything that once had a face,” said a vegetarian friend here.)

But this is the Christmas season, and I’d like to pass on a hot buttered rum recipe that will have you swilling helplessly until you run out of ingredients or consciousness. This stuff is exceptional:

Create the batter by mixing a pound of brown sugar, a half-pound of butter, and a teaspoon each of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Add a little rum to give it a mousse-like consistency.

To conjure a mug of hot buttered rum, start with a generous gob of batter, adding an equally generous dollop of rum and enough boiling water to reach the top. Drink. Make murmuring sounds of ecstasy. Repeat until discretion dictates otherwise, and drive nothing but a bicycle till the next day.

Enjoy…