The Little Burning Man that Couldn't

Thursday night I got to Amtrak (320 Central Ave.) about an hour early for my pilgrimage to Burning Man. Earlier in the day, I had to use a Zipcar to get my farm share from Mud Creek Farm (McMahon Rd., Victor), and to take Ali to pick up her car from getting brake repairs. Little did I know this was a mere warning shot of things to come.

I had packed into two Rubbermaid totes, a large suitcase, a smaller bag, and a backpack. I made a custom cart to carry the totes along with the additional luggage tied on: the totes contained my to-be-filled water bottles, and the cart was to make it easier to navigate around Burning Man, particularly to get to a place to get a ride when I left. I was quite impressed as I ordinarily required the bulk of a car to carry everything I needed.

Two totes, a suitcase, a smaller bag, and a backpack

Everything I need for Burning Man 2011

Anyway, I figured I could check the large suitcase and two totes, and carry the backpack and smaller bag onto the train. I was told I couldn't check totes (a.k.a. harbinger number two) so I did some quick thinking and swapped the contents of the smaller bag with the equivalent volume from one of the totes. I checked the smaller bag and the large suitcase instead. (In the future I'll make canvas boxes for the totes with zippers and hide them inside, giving the illusion of "real" luggage.)

While waiting for the train (which was an hour and a half late from Albany no less — that's three) I met a guy who was trying to get to Cleveland. He didn't have much (if any) money but he was going to try and sweet-talk his way onto the train. I was quite sure it wouldn't work, at least not on such a busy route — if it had been quieter, he would have been able to board without a ticket beforehand then at least made it to Buffalo before being kicked off. I looked into just paying for his ticket but it was too expensive so I just gave him a few bucks to see if he could make it to Buffalo or beyond. He went to the ticket counter then disappeared. Then when I was boarding, he reappeared and tried to be my "porter". Alas, he was indeed denied entry to the train.

I finally boarded the westbound Amtrak Lakeshore Limited at 12:30 a.m. By 9 a.m. we were partway through Ohio.

view from the Amtrak window just west of Bryan, Ohio

Just west of Bryan, Ohio from the Amtrak window

We arrived in Chicago a little late around 11:30 a.m. when I was confronted with this:

2:00P California Zephyr to Emeryville: CANCELED. * NO ALTERNATE TRANSPORTATION, SEE AGENT *

The moment I knew Burning Man was not-to-be this year.

My jaw dropped and my heart sank as I read — as if a personal message to me about my whole trip — "Cancelled. No alternative transportation". That was when I really surrendered. Momentum allowed me to continue to the long line at the ticket counter as there was a possibility of leaving a day later — perhaps an engine had failed and needed to be moved. Alas the worst: the eastbound California Zephyr struck a piece of construction equipment and derailed, injuring 22 people. Service was not expected to resume for several days at the earliest.

I was to meet some friends for a ride on Sunday to arrive on Monday when Burning Man started, so although I might have been able to figure out how to wait 24 hours, several days was out of the question (service was still disrupted as I write this, so at the earliest, I'd have left Sunday, arrived in Reno on Wednesday, then have to beg for a ride). Not to mention I couldn't afford to stay at a Chicago hotel for that amount of time, and it would disrupt my whole experience significantly. Cost prevented me from getting a rental car as well, and flying was not an option because of the amount of stuff I had with me. The mandatory American experience of taking a bus across the country will have to wait [for another lifetime].

So I exchanged my existing tickets and bought one to return to Rochester at 9:30 p.m. I also ran into two burners in the station (which I deduced from their fire-enhanced hula-hoops and fur-covered bikes). I didn't get their names, but asked what they were going to do. They opted to take the train to Portland, San Fransisco, and east to Reno, arriving a day and a half later. I probably could have done that, but like I said, I was getting a lot of signs to quit. I gave them my Burning Man ticket, and hopefully they could get it to someone who could use it (it might even help them get a ride).

I got a little into Chicago but had to tote the cart of totes around so I didn't get far. I went to Beggar's Pizza (310 S. Clinton St., Chicago, IL) which was excellent. The Chicago style was so good that if it wasn't textbook-perfect, they should rewrite the textbook.

For the remainder of the evening I hung around the station. I met a woman who came from Indiana to go to her brother's childhood friend's funeral in Iowa but she had to turn back too. And on "commiseration corner" of the fountain we also met a guy who went to boot camp for the Navy only to be rejected on a medical discharge and had to absorb the bittersweet experience of watching his campmates graduate in full dress uniform.

And even on the way home, things got complicated: Amtrak stopped service at Albany because of Hurricane Irene. Thankfully this didn't affect me because I only needed to get as far east as Rochester. As things had gone, I fully expected them to suddenly stop service at Buffalo, though.


Thankfully I was only going to Rochester!

Obviously I'm really bummed. This was apparently the year of too-little, too-late. Earlier I had failed to get the Tadpole Trike finished on time. Then I hustled to get everything done to go by alternate means, but bigger and bigger roadblocks kept appearing. In both cases, I refer to a phenomenon I call "tractor-pull mode". In a modern tractor pull, a sled is used with weights over wheels that are slid forward causing the front to drag, so as Wikipedia puts it, "as the tractor travels the course, the weights are pushed forward of the sled's axles, pushing the front of the sled into the ground, synthetically creating a gain in weight until the tractor is no longer able to overcome the force of friction." Hence, the further I got, the more resistance I experienced.

At least I can look forward to the things I would have missed in Rochester. And I can look forward to FrostBurn and put some effort behind it. In any case, next year I will be much more committed. Or else I'll need to be committed.

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Evening Wear at Burning Man

As you all know, I quit working on the tricycle I was planning to ride to Burning Man this year. Doing that meant my time was more-or-less free in the last two weeks, so I thought I'd dig into another project I wanted to do for a while now. A friend of mine gave me a fake-fur purple coat that just barely fits (thank goodness I've lost a few pounds!) My original plan included a heart-shaped light around where my heart is that would flash to my heartbeat, and then animate light tubes outward from there to cover the whole coat. I since switched to colored LED's which were more readily available and more reliable. I didn't bother trying to get the heart monitor working either (at least not yet), so it's all done with variable timing to give the illusion.

So first it was getting a way to make 50 color LED's light up like I wanted, then to make them show different colors, and finally, to animate them into patterns. Without too many disasters along the way, I got it all working.

Here's a link to a YouTube video that demonstrates what it can do. See you all soon!

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Excuses, Excuses …

Wow: it's been quite a while — not since The Big Dig in July.

Anyway, the reason I've been away is this:

The Tadpole Trike, partially completed frame

What would have been the way to get to Burning Man this year ...

Sometime in early 2010, I hatched a plan to build a vehicle that I would transport to Winnemucca, Nevada then pedal 100 miles to Burning Man. I knew time was too short to make it for that year, so I slated it for 2011. Well, I spent hundreds of hours on design toward the beginning of the year, a dollar amount I'm afraid to calculate on custom-designed parts as well as off-the-shelf parts, and another hundreds-of-hours on building. By Sunday, August 7, I did not yet have a pedal-able vehicle, and I had 11 days before I would need to ship it, so I put it off for another year.

The more precise plan was to ship the trike to Winnemucca by UPS Ground. I have designed it so it folds up and can be shipped in a relatively small crate (which doubles as a trailer for extra gear). I would take the train to Winnemucca and it would hopefully be waiting at the hotel — probably Scott Shady Court Motel (400 1st St., Winnemucca, NV) which I stayed at and liked a lot before. Sunday, the day before Burning Man starts (on Monday), I'd get my water jugs filled, get packed up, and head for Jungo Road (a.k.a. Nevada SR 49). From there I'd pedal the 85 miles to 40° 46' 02.07" N, 119° 07' 12.26"W where there is a microwave antenna access road that crosses the railroad tracks. I would hope to pass the active mine at Sulphur before nightfall as there's a bit of traffic supporting it (not so much on Sunday, but on the way back). I'd take a right and cross the tracks then head due west across the Black Rock Desert, north of the Burning Man event, until I reach the barely-marked West Playa Highway which I'd take south to the main gate. After the event, I'd just reverse the trip. I estimate about 100 miles each way which could take anywhere from 10 to 24 hours depending on how fast I could go — and since I haven't tested anything yet, I really have no idea what is practical.

The vehicle itself is called a "tadpole trike" because it has three wheels and kind of looks like a tadpole with 2 wheels in front for steering and one rear wheel for propulsion. The picture shows the frame as far as I had completed it, and nearest the photographer is the mount for the pedals. I used parts from the 1994 Honda Civic I had taken off the road 2 years ago, parts from go-kart companies, bicycle parts, lots of scrap metal (mostly from bed frames), and the final drive is to use motorcycle chain for extra strength. I estimate that including the tires, it will weigh in slightly less than 200 pounds, so it's definitely not meant to win any hill-climbs.

But I did design it with a broad gearing range: a 2-speed custom shifter doubles the range of a continuous-variable Fallbrook NuVinci 360 internal hub shifter from a stump-pulling 0.2-to-1 to a mountain-bike-high-gear 3.5-to-1. In terms of gear-inches (which, if you imagine a pennyfarthing big-front-wheel bike, it's the effective diameter of that wheel) it has a range of 5.2 gear-inches to 18.2 gear-inches in low and 22.9 to 80.0 gear-inches in high. So with a pedaling speed range of 15 rpm to 150 rpm, that translates, overall, to 0.23 mph to 35 mph. And assuming I can put a maximum of 300 pounds of force on the pedal at a standstill, the lowest gearing will yield a massive 800 pounds of forward-force at the drive wheel.

I figure my goal is to just attempt it.  If I have to stop and go back, or haul the beast back broken, then so be it.  The road itself is generally pretty obvious, but I do have USGS topographic maps of the whole area along with a compass and a GPS for good measure.  I set up JayceLand to be able to accept picture-message posts like I did for the Big Dig … Verizon's map shows the last point of "coverage" to be around 40° 53' 21.534" N, 118° 26' 15.342" W which is little more than halfway, and not quite to Sulphur.

But alas, the whole idea seems to be quite distant now. Funny how a week ago I was picturing it actually happening, and now I don't even know if I'll try it in 2012 — or ever for that matter. I think I will desire it again in the future. After all, part of the beauty of it is that I can potentially be someplace where it's more than 20 miles to the nearest person. The whole trike and its testing is a separately interesting matter, but I can get that accomplished with some camping trips around here, or even just using it as a main vehicle.

We shall see!

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