Edited and Written by Larry Benedict
Greg, a pioneering self-starter, endured weather and the frustrations of untested computer hook-ups, as he struggled to prove that connectivity was now possible across this surprisingly vast continent. At times the wind and rain were so extreme a U-Haul had to be rented to ferry him and his bike to the next drivable territory. For this, his father came to the rescue.
At other times, while his equipment worked flawlessly, the phone lines were hard-wired into the wall and could not be accessed for his live broadcasts over the internet. Nevertheless, the journey was a resounding success and ended with a party fit for a Champion when the cast of The Spot, (one of the World Wide Webís most successful entertainment sites) showed up at a party held in his honor. Appropriately enough, the party was at the World Cafe, in Santa Monica, California.
The World Cafe is a ďcyber cafeĒ with a round Kiosk of computer terminals where patrons come to eat, drink and, especially, surf the Web in a social atmosphere. Cyber cafes are the latest rage around the world and the World Cafe in Santa Monica is a hip example, attracting Hollywoodís newest movers and shakers.
GREG ELIN: A typical day was today. I woke up at Barstow, California at 6 a.m. and thatís actually sleeping a little late, then spent the next couple of hours trying to make my journal entry from yesterday; deciding what pictures to put up, getting everything in the right format, reading my E-main and posting yesterdayís journal to the Website. My father, who started traveling with me in the truck, starts getting nervous saying, ďWe need to leave now, we need to get there!Ē and Iím always trying to put this one link in, trying to just make this little change.
It was beautiful weather today -- got on the bike and rode from Barstow which is about a hundred and thirteen miles to Pasadena, met with John Frug, from Interactive Age Magazine, had lunch with him, went over and saw his home-office. It was really great Ďcause thatís the kind of thing I wanted to see everywhere. I left Pasedena about 90 minutes before I got here. (Redondo Beach, California and the offices of Motorcycle Online, one of Gregís Sponsors and his West Coast Connection).
(Everyone of us, standing there waiting for Greg, had been a little dismayed to see Greg fly right by the offices on his bike, but relieved when he returned moments later explaining that he just couldnít get this close to the ocean without actually seeing it after all those miles from New York).
GREG ELIN: I kept wanting to stop somewhere on the LA freeway system to take some pictures. I would really like to go around with a high-end camera so I could photograph all these freeway interchanges, theyíre incredible, I mean the two, three and even five layers of traffic arteries all interwoven one above the other.
T/A: Youíve still got a little stretch to go, is this what you envisioned when you started out?
GREG ELIN: I thought that the network was there more completely; that the kind of things that I was doing at home or from work, I could actually do on the road. The trip was not about the technology, but about showing the people, and the places where the internet developed, revealing that it had come far enough for me to take a camera and go around and document this. I thought I might see a few places that werenít connected yet but what I realized was this stuff is not as far along as that.
T/A: On your Website, you describe the mission of the journey and your intention to demonstrate the decentralization made possible by the Internet; the fact that any individual can be both plugged in and free.
GREG ELIN: I thought this would be about the connectivity of America, but I found out it was more about the connectivity of Greg. This stuff has come very far for home use but as soon as I put it on the bike there were problems. Remember, I wanted to use off-the- shelf equipment and say, ďlook if Iím doing this, you can do this. If I can do this on a bike, you can do this in your home.Ē
I found out from the first day, when I stopped at this MacDonalds in the Bronx, the technology is not actually in everybodyís hands. People are aware of it, but itís not readily available to them. It turns out Iím speaking a different language about the stuff than most people are. I didnít realize that the gap was still that large.
I kept stopping at these truckersí restaurants with phones at the booths and I thought ďIím saved, I can do some of the stuff I had planned now,Ē but the phones were clamped onto the wall, and we couldnít pop the phone off to get to the line jack so I could connect.
T/A: Did you consider when you were making your plans, an acoustic coupler device?
GREG ELIN: Yes, but there had been a lot to do and the thought was they are unbelievably slow, somewhat unreliable and probably would be unnecessary. Back then I thought ďOnce Iím on the road, Iíve got phone, Iíve got Internet, Iíll just call if I need somethingĒ and then what happened; it took much longer to post information than I thought.
T/A: And you were had a deadline to connect every night.
GREG ELIN: Right, and I work better in the morning which is why we eventually flipped the postings to the morning because the first couple of hours of the day are the best time for my own writing. So mornings were taken up reading the E-mail posting, trying to communicate back with people for Email, and doing the pictures too - formatting them, deciding which ones, then doing some things with some of the movies. It was also because we started a little bit behind schedule meaning I had to drive late at night so things had to get flipped around.
T/A: What you are doing is a little like pioneering so thereís going to be a gap between what you expect and what youíre going to get.
GREG ELIN: There was actually a big gap in certain areas. I knew things like satellite up-links existed but I really thought enough was in place at the normal consumer level. It didnít capture my imagination quite as much to turn around and say okay, if I spend 10 or 15 thousand dollars I can make it happen. Not everybody has that, and using what everybody has was part of the idea.
T/A: The high-end gear is not readily available to the individual, but laptops and hundred dollar cameras are out there everywhere.
GREG ELIN: Exactly, and the stuff really does work great at home, and itís great that you can do this stuff. You can do bad videoconferencing with someone from Asia without paying a long distance phone call. Itís not great looking, but people, when they see the little image, even though itís a little black and white movie image on their computer screen coming from this little round camera, they get very excited about that, whether they have technical skills or not, they know that this is special.
In fact, what I wrote yesterday in my journal was why a lot of us wanted the trip to happen now -- because weíre at the cusp, everything has come out of the lab, its available now. Weíre you doing TravelAssist two years ago?
GREG ELIN: So all these things are here, the Web has arrived and things are going to get faster better and cheaper from here on.
T/A: This technology will just be applied in a purer and purer form, thereíll be another big jump somewhere in the future but for now, cell phones will get better and connections will get more stable and cameras will get better.
GREG ELIN: And the wireless networks will improve, but the fact is that all these pieces could be assembled now and tried out, so nowís the time to make this trip. I think that was the motivation. But, I say this to everybody, I donít know what the Net is going to be like next summer, and the spirit and the moment just seemed to be right, today.
T/A: Is it feasible for just an ordinary traveler to connect in hotels across the country?
GREG ELIN: Yes, absolutely, thatís what I was doing most of the time. And you use the word ordinary.
T/A: Ordinary ďwiredĒ traveler with a laptop.
GREG ELIN: Right. I was able to dial from my computer, enter my credit card number and everything like that, so I could connect at night and do my posting or business or whatever. I had hoped to find my way across the country using places like your Website and maps from websites. I thought once I got on the road Iíd be able to get on Yahoo or Lycos and search these sites out, but again, I had too much to do keeping up with the journal and keeping up with the schedule. I didnít have the time. I had even brought a portable printer. I figured Iíd get to a city, Iíd print out the map for the city, and Iíd have the map right there. Iíd get my map and my hotel reservations from the roadside but once a few things started happening, there was no time to set it up.
T/A: Were you ever able to book hotel reservations from the Website?
GREG ELIN: I have to admit no, although we did through you. I got a lot of invitations to stay places via Email. I stayed with a lot of people that I knew, but because of the schedule and because of the weather, I didnít know where I would be the next night so I just had to keep riding till I couldnít ride anymore then just pull into whatever Motel Six. I hope in the future that if I make this trip again or other people do, those things (like reservation services) will be in place.
T/A: And given the fact that weíre talking about them now, perhaps theyíll become more operational. Tell us about the motorcycle. If youíd had a beat-up Chevrolet, convertible if youíd had a motorhome. . .
GREG ELIN: If Iíd had a beat up Chevrolet, I would certainly have given it careful thought, but actually, I wanted to take a motorcycle trip. I think everyone is very clear how little space you have on a motorcycle, so everyone will be able to see that I could bring all this stuff onto the motorcycle. I think it speaks more about the compactness of the gear this way. I think that its a little bit more exposed, its a little bit more romantic than surfing the information highway in a Wagoneer. Also, I had really hoped to get onto the backroads on a motorcycle; riding the back roads is just wonderful. The bed and breakfasts that exist there are great; to just go from Bed and Breakfast to Bed and Breakfast is spectacular. Its like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
T/A: Speaking of maintenance What about the real world aspects like laundry and maintenance?
GREG ELIN: On the BMW I found little maintenance was necessary.
T/A: By the way what is your bike and the specs. . .
GREG ELIN: Itís a BMW K75 750 cc, a 1990, I bought it used, and right now it has 25,000 miles on it. When I bought it a year ago it had 15,000 on it.
T/A: How did you deal with just human things like eating and your health and the real world stuff of traveling? Did you find that your rhythms were broken?
GREG ELIN: I did, unfortunately, break my own personal rhythm. I had to make this trip, and it helped to have excellent support from Total New York. Also my family got involved and that was helpful so I believed this was going to be a possible schedule.
T/A: But even though you were able to keep the schedule up, it really was an impossible one.
GREG ELIN: Right. I really didnít get to stop, except in Kansas. I wanted to explore all these different places across the midwest but what happened is a lot of things that should have kept me going werenít available. I had to service the bike at one point because I had run over a screw, on the first night on the way to Boston.
I had seen some people pushing a car by the side of the road and I thought this would be a great way to start the adventure. Iíve got my cell phone and helping them out would make a great little story, but they were just pushing it to get some gas. They didnít need any help and I ran over a screw on the shoulder. It tore a dangerous slash in my front tire, so I had to replace the tire the next day.
T/A: In youíre journal you talk about realizing the width of the country. You begin to get the sense of the size of the continent your trying to cross.
GREG ELIN: This is really a big country. I think thatís the other reason I wanted to do this trip and why people find it interesting. There is a tangible difference in places. The flatness in Illinois is different than the flatness in Oklahoma. I was in two different states and I took a picture to say ďHow could this flatness be different from this flatness but here it is.Ē And Texas was different too. Itís amazing; you cross from Texas into New Mexico and itís immediately different. Texas is cows and farmland. Santa Fe New Mexico is shrubs.
Iím back in Kansas, at Silicon Prairie and they have a small office in a modest part of Kansas City. In one way, this place is like any other part of America but in another, itís different. Even when you go inside thereís still something about the people thatís slightly different.
The internet hasnít gotten there yet, itís not like walking down Silicon Alley. Even so, on the street, I hear someone at a pay phone talking about work stations; talking about computers. Everywhere you go theyíre talking about computers. Stop in a small convenience store in Texas and there are a couple of people at the counter talking about computers, making jokes about computers, just talking, you know, complaining how some computer had screwed something up.
T/A: What was a high point and a low point on the trip.
GREG ELIN: There are different ones. I think the high point of the trip was -- I mean, this just happened but this is very pretty. This is a high point -- seeing the Pacific Ocean! I thought it would be cool, but it was great. Iím still fascinated that we live in a time when you can travel from one coast to another coast. I did it on a motorcycle but you can do it in six hours and thatís unsettling, that you can do that, that fast. But seeing the ocean, that was a high point.
The low point has been the technical problems; not getting a live broadcast to work. The high point of that was when it worked in Kansas. After it worked, my father called my girlfriend and my Mom on the phone and they had actually seen the live broadcast. I was very excited that it worked. I was really upset that it only worked that one day.
T/A: Was this on a cell phone?
GREG ELIN: This was over a cell phone, I was just doing J-PEG up-dates.
T/A: And this worked because you got a good solid cell connection?
GREG ELIN: We got a good solid connection and it was working. The rest of the time we ran into a variety of things, sometimes the cell connection, sometimes the script on the other side, always something on a different day. But after it worked in Kansas, I was feeling great, Iím out on the road, the sun is going down, Iím riding on new asphalt pavement, smooth as glass, and I thought the trip would be like that 60 % of the time. That moment was a real high point.
Later on Iím going past these historical markers and that was another real high point. You realize all these different people have gone past, making history, and now youíre going past. I mean youíre just here for a certain period of time, passing through, but leaving these big landmarks. We stole fire from the gods and now weíre stealing communication.
You think about all these people that came here in covered wagons. Theyíre all dead but they came here. I mean all these things have happened. But they killed off Native Americans. Thatís why I donít like to compare the net to the Wild West. We stopped at the Dalton Gang museum. The Daltons were criminals and they were caught after two years.
T/A: Its tough. Those people living out there on those plains. Now youíre someone who knows what itís like to be out there in the middle of no-where, in the middle of nothing, with nothing around you.
GREG ELIN: What it must have felt like for them to keep going and going. In our way, weíre mucking with the same forces, and sensing that was also a kind of high point. What is important, is trying to capture what we think is important about the internet right now. Time will tell, what is truly important. It will be interesting to find out 20 years from now how right, or how wrong, we were.
T/A: Three or four years ago people were trying to guess what the next ďkiller appĒ would be. No-one mentioned the World Wide Web or Mosaic. The next big thing could be internet tools that automatically translate.
GREG ELIN: Thatís what Java wants to be. Sun really got interested because they had a background in network computing. The way that Java works is this. If you were doing network programming you would first program in Java. All the different computers would have an interpreter for Java so for your computer you can write Java. Thatís why they want to get involved in this, because you can do cross platform application development. Today HTML works everywhere. Java will be like that. Thatís why a lot of people are very excited about it.
T/A: In your journal you wrote that a waitress taught you some things about writing.
GREG ELIN: Iíd forgotten about that! It was dark and rainy so I pulled off the road and up to this bright shiny diner. Inside, when I was writing on my computer at the booth, she started looking over my shoulder and making suggestions about what I should write and not write. The fact that she took such an interest was kind of exciting.
T/A: What about meals, anything exciting about food on the road? Does truck-stop food all seem to be the same?
GREG ELIN: Yeah the truck stop food all gets to be pretty similar. I did have one food experience. A motorcyclist by the name of Steve hooked up with me in Washington DC, he gave me this herbal medicinal tea, when we stopped at his house one morning. It was amazing. It had eucalyptus in it. After drinking it I felt, yes, Iím going to be healthy the rest of the trip.
T/A: Anything about your equipment you would now change?
GREG ELIN: Iím thinking very hard about the satellite up-link, because there is something about getting the images out and getting high quality. The other thing is to address the power issue, to find a better way to power equipment; powering it directly from the bike. There were a number of options like very large batteries, long lasting but a couple of types have problems leaking acid and didnít want to take that chance on the bike.
I had thought I could stop, eat lunch and recharge, but you always seem lose power right when you need the battery most no matter what. Even if you stop and switch batteries that means rebooting the whole computer.
So the two important ones are addressing the power question and a satellite up-link. Other than that, I would love to take along some of the high-end professional digital still cameras.
T/A: The Apple Quick Take 150 we have is a loner. I took it to Palm Springs to illustrate an article. Chinon which is based here in Orange county is sending me their ES3000 Digicam.
GREG ELIN: How much does it cost?
T/A: Itís the same price, a thousand dollars, but it takes a PCM ICA card and it holds like 80 or 90 shots then you can also go lossy and then you have the option to go low end.
GREG ELIN: Nikon is $12,000. On the other hand, the little ones, the little single chip cameras are becoming impressive. Thinking of other equipment, the big thing that we needed to solve was connectivity, We got better than 60% but you canít really do CU-seeme and that was a big disappointment, but we were able to get some connectivity and the hotels were no problem.
T/A: What kind of cell phone are you using?
GREG ELIN: Its a Motorola cell flip-phone with a 3 watt booster kit.
T/A: And a Macintosh?
GREG ELIN: I actually had two computers, I had a 540 and 5300. The 540 only supports a 500 megabyte harddrive and they donít make any others for that model. The output of the camera, when youíre doing good quality audio is a little under 6 megabytes a minute so thatís 600 megabytes for an hour. I thought Iíd be able to do it, then off-load it to a Jazz drive but theyíre not out yet.
The powerbook that we got as a loaner from Apple only has a 300 megabyte hard drive in it so I ended up getting a 5300 to take along because it has a different type of internal scuzzy. It also has an expansion bay so I have a 750 hard drive as well.
Still we didnít really solve the off-line storage. Thereís a big factor of convenience. If you have to make a decision about a 100 megabyte this or that, you just donít do the things you otherwise would do. If I had big hard drive and I could off-load while I was driving it would have been really easy to make an hour of video while I was driving, then make another hour after that. It didnít work out because it means unpacking the bike and I didnít have a good place to unpack.
I probably should have done a better job planning. Thereís a whole group of Techno-Nomads, Iíll give you the address, has been touring around using the internet for a couple of years, but I put a lot of faith in wanting to do this for the public network. If Iíd really rigged my bike, people would say ďyeah it looks really cool, but then heís a real tech, heís a real specialist.Ē I could have rigged up my bike a little bit more but I wanted to throw this whole thing in a bag. In fact Iíve got all this stuff on the bike and a lot of it I havenít used.
T/A: What did you bring that you didnít use?
GREG ELIN: I didnít get to use the printer. I keep being optimistic, though. I think Iíll get all the other things caught up then Iíll finally be able to print out my map of LA. I guess not, but I think I will print out my map of San Francisco!
T/A: What did you use the most?
GREG ELIN: Oh I used the computer and the cell phone.
T/A: How your sponsors feel about it now that itís happening, did you interact with them on the road?
GREG ELIN: I did not really interact with them on the road. I think that the sponsors were really interesting in publicizing the history of the Internet. There were 2 possible trips in a way; one is a kind of Jack Kerouak on the road, and the other is a big publicity junket, which I thought would take up three months by just traveling around telling people about the Internet. Then I realized I gotta do the trip without getting complicated, Iíll just run across the country so at least it happens. Then total New York got involved and was incredibly helpful. They made this site much richer than I could have. And they got these sponsors, so it kind of became the other trip.
T/A: But you still didnít lose the Kerouak part of it.
GREG ELIN: Oh, I donít know.
T/A: Email arrived from around the world, I guess?
GREG ELIN: Most people are just really excited about the trip. We kind of hoped it would spark peopleís imagination and it did. We got good feedback from people like you, people from the places that we wanted to visit. I think it would have snowballed even more if we didnít have the weather, and we got to go to all the different places that we planned.
T/A: It takes a while for people to learn about a cool site on the net. Did you think about taking more time to promote the site before you left New York?
GREG ELIN: We could have waited, and done more planning. But as soon as anyone thought about waiting, for next summer. . .
T/A: (Interupting Greg midsentence.) NO!!
GREG ELIN: See! Thatís the reaction from people! Everyone says ďNo.Ē No-one thinks it should have waited. The time to do this was now and it happened!
Advetures like Greg are spreading a new era of internet awareness across America for the benefit of all who travel.