Segway

A curious girl’s ethnographic quest for stimulation, knowledge and the least common denominator…
(originally published on Austinist.com)

According to Jung, there are certain primordial images that are part of the collective unconscious. These archetypes are universally recognizable and tend to elicit consistent emotional responses in humans regardless of culture, class or education. Archetypes can be people, like the common trickster character, or they can be images, like the phallus. Each of these acts a symbol, and each elicits a consistent response.

For example, if you looked under your desk right now and saw a poisonous snake coiled up at your feet, you would most likely let out a blood-curdling scream. And, if you were stopped at a red light and saw a helmeted adult cruising the sidewalk on a Segway, you would most likely point and laugh at the rider.

And though we cannot change our initial unconscious impulses, we can learn to overpower them.

For instance, I, too, once laughed and pointed at helmeted Segway-riding adults. But that was the old me. I’m different now. You might be asking yourself, How did she find such the strength?

My answer is simple: Riding a Segway is, well… fun. In fact, it’s damn fun. I, Wendy, took a Segway tour of Austin, and it was <>em>damn fun. There. I said it.

Let me explain.

So I’m not exactly sure what type of people I was expecting to find at Segway headquarters, but when I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. The guy behind the counter, my fellow tourists, and even Our Tour Guide all looked…normal. No duct-taped glasses, no headgear, no Segway Or The Highway t-shirts.
But then, as if to intentionally shatter my delusion, the guy behind the counter announced, “You can go ahead and pick out your helmets.”

Oh yeah. Helmets.
While we were choosing our badges of dorkdom, Our Tour Guide poked her head in from outside.

“I almost forgot to ask,” she said, smiling. “Does anyone want to ride the hot pink Segway or the one with flames painted on it?”

We shook our well-protected heads: No thanks.

My three travel companions introduced themselves, and they seemed like a fun bunch. The group consisted of a dad in his late 30’s, his eighth-grader son, and a friend of the family whom both myself and Our Tour Guide would eventually come to call The Smart Ass.

These guys were all very Texan, but not of the Austin persuasion. The Dad and The Eighth-Grader had both ridden Segways before, and they kept making skiing allusions. And skateboarding. And rollerblading. This made me a bit anxious.

See, I’m a coordinated person. I can shoot a mean basket. I can set a fine volleyball. I can kick any boy’s ass at dodge ball (yes, there is residual anger in that statement, and yes, that is a challenge). But activities that require balance and zen-like calm are not my strong-suit. Basically, I hate things with wheels. And things that are slippery. Things like skis and skateboards and roller-blades

My heart rate was elevating.

Then the guy behind the counter started up the instructional video.

“So you’re gonna see a lot of stick figures flying around and getting run over and so forth,” he warned us. “But I promise, if you follow our instructions, it won’t happen to you.”

The video was kind of technical, in a Happy Fun Ball sort of way:
Do not call Segway PT names. Do not feed Segway PT. If Segway PT growls, please wet collection manifold with the tears of a firstborn child. Segway PT’s manufacturer is not responsible for occurrences of gangrene infection or transmission of blood-born illnesses. Do not say words containing the following letters while riding the Segway PT…

And so on.

Alrighty, then. Hands-on training time!

“The Segway operates using foot sensors that register your weight one hundred times per second,” OTG told us. “If you shift to the left, it moves to the left. If you lean forward, it moves forward. Pretty simple.”

Easy enough.

“Standing still is actually the hardest part of riding a Segway, so you might feel more comfortable rocking back and forth.”
Wait. Standing still is hard?
“Now, let’s say you’re cruising along and suddenly an infant steps out in front of you and you need to slam on the brakes. Where are the Segway’s emergency brakes?”
The Eighth-Grader answered, “There aren’t any.”
“Right. There aren’t any. You have to lean back. We like to say: When in doubt, stick your butt out.
Gotcha.
“And remember: If anything happens, the safest place to be is on the Segway… Because if you get off, what can happen?”
The Eighth Grader kindly answered again, “It’ll run you over.”
“That’s right!” OTG smiled, “It can run you over.”
It was right about then that the nice man behind the counter handed out the waivers.
Then it was time for individual training. The Smart Ass volunteered to go first. OTG coached him on mounting the Segway.
“You’ve gotta be quick about it. Get both feet up there. Look straight ahead, and don’t turn the handlebars. If you do, it’ll start turning around, and then you’ll have to chase it.”
He looked like a natural. It only took two tries before he got on. Then OTG set up two tiny orange cones on the floor, and I watched the grown man in a helmet weave his way around them.
He did great. We all clapped. Then OTG pointed at me.
“Wendy! Come up and give it a try!”
I approached the Segway with great caution. I stood behind it, held its handlebars, looked straight ahead.
“Now, step up,” OTG instructed. “Look straight ahead, and don’t turn the handlebars.”

I stepped up with one foot. The Segway moved around to the left. I started to chase it, but OTG caught it for me.
“So you have to look straight ahead,” she said. “Don’t turn the handlebars.”
I stepped up with one foot again. The Segway again moved around to the left, and I again started to chase it. But OTG caught it. Again.
“It takes a little while to get the hang of it,” she encouraged. “The brain learns really quickly.”
I tried again. Um…
“Why don’t you try looking directly at me. In the face. Maybe that will help.”
Eventually, I made it.
“So now just relax and let your weight settle evenly,” she told me.
I immediately began to wobble back and forth. It wasn’t a graceful wobble, either. It was actually more like lurching. Quickly lurching back and forth.
“Don’t forget to breathe,” OTG said. “The more you breathe, the easier it will be. You’re tensing up.”
Of course I am. This is what I do.

In between lurches, I slowly drifted aimlessly from one side of the room to the other. OTG was super-encouraging. She followed me around, trying to bring things under control.
“So are you ready to try the cones?” she asked.
Seriously? Do I look ready? I thought to myself.

“Sure I am!” I said aloud. No need to sound like a wimp.
She told me to do figure-eights around the cones. And I did. Very slowly. Picture a sloth. I wanted to look up at the guys sitting there waiting for me, but I was afraid I’d fall over.
Then, she asked me to do a 360 degree turn. I did (slowly). And that was all for training, except for getting off of the thing. But that was just like getting on. It went equally well.
Before I knew it, it was time to venture out into the real world.

Our Segways were already lined up in a row outside. OTG helped me on mine, and I had slightly less trouble. Then we took off down the sidewalk, just like that. There I was in the back of the line trying to remember to breathe, and minding every little crack in the sidewalk.
We crossed traffic like a row of really dorky-looking geese. Or like the worst Abbey Road cover iteration imaginable. We headed toward the convention center and got there in a flash. OTG gave us the signal to gather round.

“As we were riding here, did you notice the stars on the sidewalk?” she asked us.


Sure. I’d been too frightened to look down, but The Eighth-Grader was reading them out loud to me.


“Carol Bur… Burnett?” he’d said. “O. Henry?”

Apparently Austin has its own star-studded sidewalk commemorating famous Texans. I’d never noticed it before.

As we stood in front of the Convention Center, OTG pointed out more things I’d always overlooked. For instance, I’d never noticed that one whole side of the building is covered in solar panels, and that the Convention Center is the size of six city blocks.

“Now we’re going to do what I like to call The Segway Slalom,” OTG said, pointing to series of columns supporting a balcony. “These guys are fun to ride around. Let’s take a few minutes to have some fun!”

She turned around too look at me. “You still look freaked out,” she said.

“No! I’m fine,” I lied.
“That must just be your regular face, then,” OTG said with a smile.
We cruised down to that old out-of-place tower on Cesar Chavez, making a few little stops on the way. OTG told us yet another fact I’d never known: The tower was built as a fire department training facility. They’d light it on fire and practice rescuing people from the top. Of course that was before the lake was dammed and the area around it became prime real estate.
Believe it or not, by the time we got to City Hall, I getting really comfortable on the Segway. In fact, I got on and off by myself when we took a quick break. It was like I was becoming one with the Segway. I’d think right, and it would go right. Cool.

We rode all the way to the capital, making some interesting stops on the way. By then, I was zooming up that gigantic hill, weaving in and out of people, leaving them in my Segway dust. I wished we could go back to The Segway Slalom. I was ready for it now.
During our ride back to headquarters, I thought about all of the tour-type facts I’d learned. There really were too many to mention, but here are a few:

  • The new Austonian building is the tallest residence in Texas.
  • The Littlefield building used to have seven stories, but two more were added later so it could remain the tallest building in Austin after the Scarborough building was erected.
  • City Hall was designed to look like an abstract armadillo.
  • The City Hall building actually generates more energy than it uses.

Another important thing I learned is that motorcyclists seem to hate Segways with a vengeance. Every single time a motorcycle passed us, the rider would rev its engine as if to say, Hey, look at me! I have two wheels, too, but I’m actually cool!

But whatever.
Ironically, Duck Tour buses treat Segways with a similar disrespect. We passed two different Duck Tours, and each time the driver stopped the bus and instructed the passengers to quack at us with their stupid duck mouth things. As if that is any cooler than riding a Segway.

 

Each time we were taunted, my companions and I stood tall, in solidarity. Sure, we were wearing helmets, and sure, we looked pretty stupid. But we knew better than those silly people stuck in their cars, or stuck on their bikes, or stuck on their feet. We should have been pointing and laughing at them. They had no idea what they were missing.

STATS

Gender:
3 male, 2 female (including Our Tour Guide)

Who gave me my tour, and how much did my tour guide rock (out of 10)?
SegCity Segway Tours & Sales, 11

Favorite Segway Accessory:
Invisibility Cloak

Likelihood I will Segwayagain (out of 10):
After obtaining my Favorite Segway Accessory, 10