Across America, low and slow

Josh Caldwell finishes a three-month cross-country trek on a Segway when he rolls into Boston on Tuesday.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
5 min read
Dean Kamen designed his Segway transporter to serve as a cheap, clean and flexible form of urban transit, not as a platform for traversing national parks and encountering wildlife.

But that hasn't stopped former vacuum cleaner salesman Josh Caldwell, 27, who has put the Segway to perhaps its most grueling test yet by piloting the scooter across the length of the United States.

His journey concluded in Boston on Tuesday, a little more than three months after he and a small support crew started out from Seattle with a single Segway scooter, more than a dozen spare batteries, one loyal dog and a Jeep Cherokee filled with filmmaking gear to document the trip.

The "America at 10mph" project, hatched by Caldwell and buddy Hunter Weeks, began as something between a joke and a dare but quickly turned into a serious expedition to see America in a new way. Caldwell and Weeks plan to produce a documentary film from footage shot during the trip, showing what small-town America looks like from 6 inches off the ground.

Caldwell spoke with CNET News.com about the journey during a break last week in New York.

What gave you the idea to do this?
Hunter and I had been working for a big software company in Arizona, and we had always had some kind of business on the side. We had a production company, and we decided we needed to get out and pursue that full-time to really make it go. So we quit our jobs and moved to Denver to join up with our third business partner.

We're changing a battery every hour or so when we're on the road.

After that, we had a buddy in Brooklyn we were chatting with about what our next project should be. He came up with all sorts of crazy ideas. He wanted to make a meat-based protein drink, called Au Jus, to cash in on the Atkins diet--bizarre stuff like that. And he said, "Nobody has ever ridden a Segway across the country. You should do that."

We laughed about it at first, but then we thought that this could be a real cool direction to take some of the ideas we had for filmmaking--to go out and really see areas of the country and get interesting stories from the people you meet on the way. So we merged the two ideas--to make a documentary about America and the process of riding a Segway across the country.

Had you ever been on a Segway before that point?
No, we'd never ridden a Segway at that point. We just started developing a plan, covering the logistics. And about a month before we took off, we went to Brookstone to try a Segway at the mall. Two weeks later, we ordered one and got ready to hit the road.

And your initial thought wasn't, "Gee, maybe this isn't meant to be a transcontinental vehicle?"
We had some concerns about how it would fare going over mountain passes and things like that. We ended up talking to some of the technical people at Segway, and they gave us a lot of reassurance that it was a very resilient machine and would be able to make a journey like this.

It seems like one of the practical difficulties is that you've got a range of what, 10 miles per battery charge?
Exactly. That adds a whole logistical element to it. We're changing a battery every hour or so when we're on the road. And we need to have a place to charge 15 batteries every night...We've got a Jeep Cherokee that follows me with all our film gear and Segway gear.

How'd you choose your somewhat serpentine route?
We spent some serious hours going over the maps and finding a

There are definitely some times when you're out there late, and it's getting cold and you'd just like to hop off the thing and walk for a little bit.
feasible route across the country. We considered doing more of a southern route at first, but because of the threshold of the machine at higher temperatures, it seemed smarter to go up north a bit...We came up with a route we thought would allow us to capture a lot of diversity in the film.

Did you plan the route to avoid steep grades?
No, you can't really eliminate those. It was a concern early on, but we went over the mountain passes with no problem. We went up 10 percent grades crossing the Rockies; we went through Mount Rainier National Park, and the Segway handled everything. It goes the same speed up or down the hill or on flat ground.

What's an average day for you?
Over the course of the expedition, I'd say we averaged 60 miles a day. Our longest day was 105 miles. It depends on how many miles we need to make to get to the next recharging stop and whether we've got a cool story we want to film.

And during that whole time, you've got to be standing pretty much ramrod-straight on the Segway, right?
You definitely find all the different positions you can put your feet in. There's not a lot of space in that 2-by-2-foot square, but you find ways to make it a little more comfortable. There are definitely some times when you're out there late, and it's getting cold, and you'd just like to hop off the thing and walk for a little bit.

So what have you discovered about America?
We discovered a lot of interesting things. People naturally build up a lot of stereotypes about certain areas--that some parts of the country are going to be really boring or backward--and that's not true. We discovered that there's a lot of humanity everywhere in the country.

People are very kind and open. We heard a lot of great stories, and we learned a lot about opportunity. I think there's a lot of truth to the idea that America is the land of opportunity, but you've got to work hard and be willing to take risks.

Did the people you encounter know what a Segway is? Or were there a lot of "Gol-ly!" moments?
There was some of both. When the Segway came out, there was a lot of hype, so people, for the most part, have heard of it. But we definitely got to some places where people were saying, "What the heck is that? Did you make that thing?"

What are you looking forward to when the trip is over?
It'll be cool to sit down and start editing film. We've got a lot of footage, and it's going to be a lot of fun to see how we can piece it together into a story.

Are you going to keep the Segway, or have you had enough?
I'm not sure what we're going to do with it. I'm not sick of it by any means. But I'm not heading right back out there and going the other direction. It'll be good to do something else.