by Steven K. Roberts
July 4, 1986
A nation takes a day off from its countless private prisons—its careers, its roles, its lives of quiet desperation—and celebrates liberty. Liberty! Red, white, and boom! Company picnics, family gatherings, bratwurst in the park. Fireworks. Tall ships, the Lady, and 40,000 shells bursting over New York Harbor.
One year ago in San Carlos, California, my bike parked in a friend’s livingroom, I stood on her condo balcony and fired an out-of-date flare in a small-scale celebration of freedom. The report echoed from dark buildings, and we uttered the obligatory “aaahhs” as the sizzling fireball arced 45 degrees over the parking lot and began its descent…
The year before that, I pedaled sweaty into Abilene, Texas after an 85-mile day—straight to the heart of wholesome Americana, a Fourth-of-July community picnic. The dunking booth, the backward softball throw, the rousing speeches, the egg toss… they were all there. Liberty. Freedom. A 3-day weekend.
Now, as I prepare once again to hit the Road, I find myself thinking about freedom a lot—especially as distant fireworks touch the sky outside my apartment window with intermittent pastels and punctuate Mendelssohn with muffled booms. In 43 days I’ll turn my back on this otherwise colorless suburbia, trading my temporary home in physical space for a life of endless adventure in Dataspace.
I’ll trade what I can’t keep for something I can’t lose.
In the first chapter, I told you the second one would be about the business structure that keeps this all this afloat. Well, I don’t feel much like talking about that right now—it seems a bit dry next to the larger questions of freedom, adventure, growth, learning, and life’s true bottom line (FUN). We’ll get to it eventually—soon you’ll know all about the data communications links between the Winnebiko and my base offices, methods of handling mail and money, and how all this bicycle-borne gizmology (5 computers now) adds up to a smooth and efficient office-on-wheels.
But before I tell you how, I think I should tell you why.
What, short of insanity, could compel a reasonably successful freelance writer/consultant to give up the sporadic bliss of midwestern Yuppiedom and wander endlessly on a bicycle?
A fancy getaway? That’s the most obvious one—escape, on every level. Is the road the Other Woman, a sweet piece of asphalt to whom I can always run when I need to sidestep the myriad horrors of commitment? Maybe. I always have been fascinated by the energy associated with beginnings, and the nomadic life assures a steady supply.
Or is the whole thing a PR gambit—a clever marketing ploy designed to bolster my chances in the brutally ephemeral publishing business? Possibly. This is a scary way to make a living, you know: pushing a bunch of buttons in what you hope is the right order in the fervent belief that some editor will be impressed enough to send a check. A news angle helps.
Or… is the Winnebiko my non-threatening door-opener, my ego-boost, my drawing card—an eccentric alternative to having a hot face from the silver screen and a pocket lined with cold cash? Hmm. It does tend to elicit the groupie effect…
Or could it be that I’m just pedaling the planet looking for home, never quite sure whether it’s out there or inside me but convinced that I’ll know it when I see it?
Ah, how about this one: the journey is a way to get paid for playing—a plot to cheat the reaper and live countless lifetimes of love and delight while everyone else plods along toward the distant golden promise of retirement. That one doesn’t sound bad at all. Why the hell should I grow up? It never did my friends any good.
I’ve been accused of all of these at one time or another—by cynics, parents, or envious observers—more often than not with some justification. But when you look a little deeper, two unifying motives emerge:
- I want to spend my life learning.
- I want both freedom and security.
The first one is obvious enough. The bicycle is a learning machine; travel opens doors. In my high-tech regalia I attract people of all descriptions, then filter through them to find the witty, bizarre, brilliant, and aware. Movement versus stasis, insight versus oversight, energy versus ennui, adrenaline versus booze. Yes, learning is very much the essence of this, and I change a little with every mile.
But the second one is a little more subtle.
Freedom and security… the contrapuntal components of the human dance. A brutal trade-off, it is: if you want more of one, you pay dearly with the other. Wanna run around? Fine, risk your marriage. Want a steady paycheck? Forget the flexibility of freelancing. It’s like gain-vs-bandwidth to an engineer or comfort-vs-weight to a backpacker—having both requires inventing new rules, new technologies.
Freedom and security. Hit control-S and think about it. What do you do when your main objective in life is to have your cake and eat it too?
For a while, as I pedaled the first 10,000 miles, I had myself pretty well convinced that beating the trade-off consisted of doing business on the road—writing with a portable computer while having enough adventures to fuel the process. Neat stuff, my little electronic cottage on wheels… I fine-tuned it endlessly and wrote rhapsodic articles about how things would never be the same.
Then I concocted a theory that the real key to beating the trade-off was online society—made possible by the fact that “place” is no longer a purely physical notion. This is a major change in the life of Man, for suddenly one’s address is no more an issue than one’s birthday or alma mater: interesting, surely, but not in the critical path to a relationship. As the months on the road wore on, my home became Dataspace, never more than a phone call away. I lived online and wrote more rhapsodic articles about how things would never be the same.
But it takes more than technology to solve the problem, as sweetly alluring as she may be. Adding new tools to our armamentarium of information-handling devices does not in itself erase the habitual lifelong traps that limit our options and make us drop anchor, intellectually speaking, long before we learn to sail. It takes something else to change the rules of the game and create new freedoms.
It takes a genuine passion—for life, change, growth, and experience. It takes pulse-quickening excitement at everything from a new switched-capacitor filter chip to seeing what’s over the next hill, from understanding the life cycle of that little flagellated protozoan bastard named Giardia Lamblia to questing after the transcendence of the well-turned phrase. Passion. A rebirth of wonder.
And from this, surprisingly enough, comes the ability to avoid the trade-off entirely: if you’re not enslaved to a single specialty, you can move freely and conjure a home anywhere at all. You don’t need to be a writer or information professional—just curious and ALIVE. That sounds like a pretty good definition of having both freedom and security at once.
So that’s it. Roll all those motives together and you’ll see why I’m doing this. I get asked that a lot, as you can imagine—the question is almost as common as “what are the solar panels for?” They stand there beside the road, Americans of all descriptions, studying my bicycle as if somewhere in the tangle of eccentric machinery lies the answer. Their curiosity is obsessive, for they see something of themselves—something they feel deep inside and struggle to recognize. Freedom, growth, learning, adventure, hope, joie de vivre…
But many miss the point, and ask: What are you selling? Do you have a sponsor? Is this that bicycle race across America? Are you trying to set a record? You testing this here new kinda rig? Is this something medical? What are you trying to prove? Where are you going? Are you crazy?
It’s hard to explain on the street, this need to wander endlessly with body, mind, and heart. Sometimes I fumble with the real explanation; sometimes I just smile and say, “Well, I got tired of the 3-bedroom ranch in suburbia and this is the next logical step.” That’s true, but a bit abstract.
No, this is really about mines—intellectual goldmines.
Every professional specialty, every sophisticated technology, every instance of superhuman dedication represents yet another mine shaft dug deep into a great mountain of potential human knowledge, a mountain riddled with glittering mineral veins and awesome riches. Into the mines go the specialists, and from their pick-clinking wizardry emerges goodies of all descriptions: microprocessors, designer genes, carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers, geosynchronous communication satellites, flute sonatas, macro zoom lenses, predicate calculus, sheer-when-wet bikini fabric, Tae Kwan Do, aerodynamic derailleurs, bold new life insurance plans, supermarket psychology, science fiction, and Post-it notes. There’s a lot of magic in that mountain, probably an infinite amount, and it is the skill and persistence of the knowledge miners that makes it available to the rest of us.
I know. I used to be one. I spent years conjuring custom microprocessor-based control systems and writing the software to make them dance. It was… rewarding.
But something was always missing. One by one, I watched my passions die: every hobby became a business, every plaything a professional tool. Computers, lasers, precision measurement equipment, logic design, photography, communications gear—each one lost the glitter of “new toy” and took on that worn, dusty look of “business equipment.” Jaded, dulled, I turned to freelance writing… a license to be a generalist, the perfect profession for one versed in the art of BS.
But it wasn’t enough. I still worked in a mine—I was just free to visit others occasionally, sometimes taking the miners out to lunch and quizzing them about their work. It was much more interesting than staying in the same mine all the time, but still, I was chained to a desk.
I just happened to own it.
So on a hunch, I dumped the desk and moved to a bicycle. The theory was simple enough: since this mine of mine yields words, and words have no mass, I should be able to carry it wherever I go, right? And if I travel far enough, slowly enough, I’ll not only provide myself with an endless source of literary stimulation, but also have a helluva good time in the process. Right? Right. I could visit every damn mine in the country, if I wanted to—never again trapped in a single one, growing endlessly without having to drop anchor and specialize.
And my timing was perfect. A few years ago, this crazy idea would have required far more discipline and dedication than I could have mustered. Maintaining a mobile writing business before the era of portable computers and data communication networks would have involved heavy machines, tape transcription, mail drops, a hundred pounds of paper, huge phone bills, and no small measure of frustration. But now… well, this adventure IS called Computing Across America. Computers aren’t the point of the trip by any means, but they are at least as important as my bicycle wheels.
Yes, without this magic electronic window into the lives of friends, readers, publishers, and business associates, my high-tech adventure never would have made it past the trauma of departure. My office is electronic; my neighborhood exists in Dataspace… and if I work in any mine at all it is my private one of sweat and ecstasy, adventure and fantasy, new friends and discoveries galore. There’s the freedom and security. Is there a better way to spend a life?
And so it all fits. I’m not a bum; I’m a nomadic entrepreneur. And now that you know where I’m coming from, neighbor, the stories that follow will make a lot more sense.
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