Thursday, October 16, 2008

Day 75: Cool bike!

I was heading into the city of Brandon. My mapbook had at least two things to say about Brandon. First, that it is the second largest city in Manitoba. Second, that it has a population of 42,000 people.

I thought it must be like my hometown of St Peters, Missouri, which boasted a population of 42,747 when I was growing up there. St Peters is a suburb of St Louis, with probably a forty-five minute drive downtown on average. But downtown St Louis is mostly dead, so most people don't have to get that far. They commute about half an hour into town where their jobs are.

St Peters is subdivisions and subdivisions of boxy houses, with the population spanning from the dizzy depths of the lower middle class to the giddy heights of the upper middle.

I had an epiphany during my last visit there for my sister's wedding. Mentally overlaying the St Peters city map onto Calgary, I realized that even the longest drive in St Peters was only a middling bike ride in Calgary. When I was offered a ride to the church service the day after the wedding, I said no, I'll bike.

There is a clumsy asphalt trail that stretches most of the distance from my parents' house to their church. It probably takes a third of the distance and a quarter of the traffic lights as the driving route. Still, by St Peters standards this simple bike ride qualified as a major creative act.

Bounding over the cracks in the asphalt with my shirt whipping around me, I wondered how many drivers might see me and be inspired to go without their wheeled cages for a day or two. It was such a freeing experience to realize that St Peters life does not require a car, and besides that it was a beautiful, warm spring day.

In church I think the sermon was titled "God's view of the environment". The pastor said this would be the first in a series on political topics so people would be ready for the November vote.

I do not remember anything about reducing waste or energy usage, conserving habitats or species. I do remember a video parody of a famous computer advertisement. Intelligent Design was a cool guy in a black t-shirt. Evolution was shorter, and took a ribbing from Intelligent Design for being so fat. The sermon concluded with a call to send money to a certain organization; just $25 would help the children in Africa.

Maybe it wasn't the Environment sermon, and that was the next week.

After the sermon a group of people did notice me unfolding the bike, so I gave a full demonstration of how quick it was to open and close.

"Yeah! Now just add a motor, heater and air conditioning and I'm there!" one of them chortled, and the entire group broke into laughter.

So much for my attempts at evangelism.

I parked my canoe at a public boat launch in Brandon, and biked into town. My first order of business would be to get myself looking respectable. I found a route into downtown, and I was surprised there was a downtown, with actual people in it, and that the street was wide and one-way.

Wow! I found an actual public transit booth and helped myself to a free map of the city which was an actual city and not just an adjunct to some other city. A couple of guys sitting on the sidewalk saw my bike.

"Hey, how'd you get such a tall seatpost!" one said.

I explained that it was a custom part, because this was a folding bicycle.

"So you can fit it behind your carseat?"

"Actually, my canoe. I'm canoeing so this was the only bike that would fold down small enough to fit."

I took my dirty laundry bag off the back and demonstrated how quickly I could fold it down to a small size.

"Cool," he said, "you can fit it behind your carseat!"

I unfolded the bike and asked him if there was some place nearby I could get a shower, because he looked like he would know. He pointed out a public health services building just a block away. I signed up for a shower there and asked if I could leave my bike somewhere, because I did not have a lock. The woman on-duty said I couldn't leave it inside, but she could lock it up until I was done. I told her it was a folding bike, that I had dropped out of a PhD program in math to canoe down the river.

I was sure she did not believe me.

I took a ridiculously long shower and shaved my beard. They had a computer in the building, and although they blocked email I was able to write down all the addresses I thought I would need. A different, younger woman was on-duty when I needed to retrieve my bicycle. She said she was told that it was strange sort of bike. I said yes, and when it was unlocked I gave her the demonstration. She asked me about my trip and flashed a healthy smile as she went back to her job.

There was a sports store nearby, so I thought I should pick up my own bike lock, to have more flexible options for leaving my bike around town. When I found out they were as much of a bike shop as anything else, I asked if they had any 16 x 1 3/8 inner tubes. The tubes I had brought with me on the trip were 16 x 1 3/4, which could be stretched to fit, but was probably one reason I had so much trouble fixing the tire back at Echo Lake. This is a very strange size of tube, and the tubes they gave me were nearly collectable due to age. The clerk asked me all about my bike and my trip, and came out to see it.

Zip, zip, I folded and unfolded it all over again for the clerk. An insurance agent, Russ, had seen the bike from across the street and came over to talk to me about it and my trip. When he heard I was canoeing, he invited me over to his office. He called up his friend Murray who had canoed Brandon to Winnipeg before.

We talked for awhile and it sounded like he made a good living for himself, largely dealing with farmers, he opened his office only by appointment and so kept whatever hours he liked.

Murray came in, and we talked shop while Russ checked his phone messages. He had canoed to Winnipeg in the spring, and said it only took 6 days. I was expecting to take three weeks in the fall, and he found that difficult to believe. Murray was disappointed I dropped out of my PhD program, but he himself had left a professorship to try to save a group working on fair trade goods. He had convinced Russ to join the boar of directors.

Murray did not have time to talk long, and headed out. Russ and I talked about getting together for lunch, but unfortunately, this never happened.

I went to a local laundromat and washed my clothes, and then headed back to the canoe. The main street was now full of people milling about checking out souped up cars, so I was forced to walk my bike through the crowd. Suddenly, I heard some boy shout out "Cool bike!" and found myself surrounded by people demanding to see it,

I gave my folding and unfolding demonstration for the last time that day.

As I rode back to the canoe I thought how different Brandon was from what I had expected. My first day I saw a real, live downtown area, and talked to everyone from loafers and service workers to insurance agents and professors. I was happy, it wasn't raining, I was in love with the city.

Day 75 ended: 49*51.246N, 099*58.663W


John said...

I'm reading a book of interviews with startup founders. Brewster Kahle said "Go someplace where your ideas aren't weird" which is great general advice, not just startup advice.

There are a couple of problems though:

1) until you travel, you don't know that this is possible
2) if your ideas keep becoming weird, then you have to keep moving

Kevin Saff said...

Brandon ended up being my favorite town on the Canadian leg. But I am sure many of my ideas would still be considered weird there.

John said...

You know what I mean, though. There's "weird, but interesting, keep talking, I want to see where this goes". And "weird, I don't know why anybody would think that, I don't know where to go with this".

Next time you call, ask me about the library maneuvers.

John said...

In completely unrelated matters, did I miss a post where you were talking about what you were doing after this trip? If the answer is "yes, I missed a post", don't worry I'll go looking for it. If the answer is, "No, you didn't miss it, and I don't know," we should have a chat after you're out of the thick of things, but before you finish.

Kevin Saff said...


I haven't mentioned any ideas about after the trip yet. My current ideas are along the lines of finding a job in New Orleans for a couple of months to "relax", seeing if I have any publishable stories, and then buying a sailboat and going up the east coast to Washington, DC to spend some time at the Smithsonian.

Some of that may actually be possible, even.

John said...

The reason why I'm asking is that I've noticed in these posts:

1) you can plan big, long activities and stick to them, even when things are pretty rough, as long as you think they'll be interesting

2) You don't have much overhead, you can get by with little money, and from what you've said before, you actually prefer it that way, not letting some funding get in the way of an adventure. Furthermore, you'd rather make your money quickly, and then get on with more adventuring.

3) You can read people and get along with them, becoming the big personality person everybody likes

4) You can cut code

In other words, you seem to have all the basic skills to be a cofounder of a software startup...

Just throwing that out there

LBA said...

Brandon is the best town in Manitoba. I have been all over that province. Brandon is a champion.