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Road Tripping

[whitespace] Cyberbuss
Roaming Charges: Techies embark on a digital Kool-Aid Acid Test.

You're either on the bus or off the bus

By Dara Colwell

I'm getting on the bus. On the bus in that Ken Kesey-Electric-Kool-Aid-let's-get-freaky sort of way. It's still San Francisco, only 35 years later, but, man, when that door opens, Time takes a running flight.

The Cyberbuss is parked down in Bayview/Hunters Point under cloudy skies, as dark as the industrial park looming in the hills nearby. The street is lined with dull, cream-coated buildings with corrugated steel-gray doors, old Pontiacs and dusty Ford pickups. One driver is hunched awkwardly over the wheel, asleep. Candlestick Park lies just over the horizon like a mountain of sleek metal, alien almost in its immensity. When the bus pulls up--a silvery sardine reincarnation that once functioned as a school bus--it fits into the landscape immediately.

It was CyberSam's idea to start the bus. One of those incredibly sweet cocktail-tinged moments of inspiration. The idea seemed to materialize within seconds; the reality, of course, took a bit longer--but no one gave up on it, which was exhilarating. Maybe it was just meant to be, born from the smoke-laden air of the Minna Street Gallery, yet another great tribute to art.

Like the hundreds of people the bus seems to attract, CyberSam just stumbled upon it. He answered a classified ad back in 1996 and felt like he'd hit home. The bus had been driven to the Burning Man festival in Black Rock Desert, where it had run out of oil, killing the engine. It sold for five bucks. It was dragged back and had its engine rebuilt, and then CyberSam was there, buying it in Hunters Point, with his friend Captain Carnival Kurt--the Swiss party-goer who had arrived in San Francisco asking, "What's next?" What was next was the journey.

They outfitted the bus with a sink, sofa and bed, built shelves from abandoned pieces of wood, installed 10 golf-cart batteries in the back to power computers and lights. This was going to be a cyber bus--The Cyberbuss--and they were going to Burning Man to party, but they were also going to plug into the Net. They were going to take their pranks into cyberspace and let everyone, including those corporate types who couldn't--or wouldn't--leave their desks, enjoy the trip.

When I got on the bus, I was directed to the green leather co-pilot's seat, nestled in between the sink and a sprawling futon bed. CyberSam, dressed in candy-striped pants, mustard-yellow glasses and a worn leather cap, looked exactly as I had expected: a kind of nerdy-chic, Valencia thrift-store hopper. But what surprised me was his speech. Soft-spoken, pensive and somewhat bemused, he was a serious techie type, a web designer who does online research for a living. Although he found the comparison to Kesey flattering, CyberSam is Digital. He's not into Dropping Out. Instead, he's Clicking On and expanding his options via cyberspace.

"People from all over, from all different worlds, seem to find the bus," Sam says. There have been high schoolers, homeless wanderers, hitchhiking freaks, artists and even journalists, he explains. This silver-flaked curiosity somehow seems to tempt those wanting to put their fingers on "What's next?" and grasp it, if only for a few moments.

CyberSam read Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and he lived in a VW bus traveling across the country to California. But the Cyberbuss isn't about Kesey's vision, gulping acid to escape a dull, screwed-down life. "This is not about changing the world, it's about adapting," he says, growing wide-eyed and animated. "It's about being able to connect from anywhere--even the desert. It's about the possibility of being somewhere else, not within the same four walls." Harnessing technology to communicate--with other freaks, the boss or eager Net surfers--this is the Cyberbuss Quest.

There's something about San Francisco that breeds people who want to make something happen. Today the frontier phenomenon, that activity of revolutionary change, is technology.

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How is the Cyberbuss any different from a guy hooking up a laptop in his car?

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"You can't talk about the bus without talking about cyberculture," CyberSam says, his eyes even, thoughtful. "Connecting people with events is essentially what culture is. Technology has changed fashion, speech, the way people realize and plan their experience." We're now climbing out the back of the bus onto the wooden platform built on the roof. Standing on this enormous platform nearly 12 feet up, a stage graced at one time or another by silver-sleek naked bodies and bamboo tiki-torches, I am now--literally--on the bus, and I'm wondering out loud how technoculture fits in with all this. "Well, sit in front of a computer and press a button," CyberSam continues, "and suddenly you're communicating with 500 people. You're in a virtual community. What we're doing is mixing reality with virtual reality, having fun and then getting it out there to people online." That's how the Cyberbuss works. Press a button and get on. "And use your imagination to fill in the blanks," CyberSam says, raising an eyebrow.

The wind is picking up and the sun is getting ready to set, so we climb down. CyberSam suggests taking a walk so I can see the postindustrial backyard that supplied the Cyberbuss with its innards. Past the warehouses there's a rough dirt road--a dirt road in San Francisco!--strewn with urban junk. "Welcome to the end of the Wild West!" Sam says dramatically, pointing to the landscape.

Looking off into the distance, CyberSam muses over how lucky we are in America to roam freely, to go as far as we can. Like a frontiersman of the past, breathing the fresh air heavily as his thoughts roam past the horizon, CyberSam has got his feet on the edge. "Conformity is usually rewarded by the norm," he says, looking over at Candlestick Park, "but in San Francisco, the individual is." And as the Internet continues to allow individuals to reach out creatively, CyberSam--and this newest frontier--is in exactly the right place.

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From the March 15, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.




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