Pretty much every day, three times a day, a group of people pass by the Carolina Bed & Breakfast riding on Segways. We wave at Wes, the tour operator, and say to each other that someday we will have to try the Segway tour of Asheville. Well, that someday was this past Wednesday.
But first, as always, a little history! The Segway was unveiled by inventor Dean Kamen in December of 2001. According to Wired Magazine Kamen is a bit of a mad scientist with more than 400 patents in his name ranging from the invention of the portable insulin pump to a compressed air machine designed to throw members of SWAT teams to rooftops of inaccessible buildings. He is probably most famous for the human transporter known as the Segway. Kamen’s vision was for people to use the Segway as an intermediate step between cars and walking in places where distances are long and cars may not be practical: the “Mall Cop” being one of the better known examples of this. The Segway never really took off with the mass market, possibly because of its high cost. (A new one today will run you around $7,000 on Amazon) but it has become popular as a means of giving guided tours of cities and other locations along with its use by police.
The history of the Segway is checkered like that of its owner. After some initial success, it ran into problems when cities and lawmakers found them too big for sidewalks while users felt them too small to compete with cars on the road. A further blow was given to the company when Jim Heselden, owner of the company that makes and markets Segways, fell to his death in 2010 when he apparently backed his Segway off a cliff while making way for a dog-walker on the narrow path. And then there was the incident when, BBC News reports, President George W. Bush fell off his Segway on his first attempt to ride it. In spite of all this, the Segway is a safe and easy mode of transportation! (It’s the people, not the machine!)
On to our tour. We presented ourselves at the Asheville Visitors Center at 5PM where we finally met Wes in person. He is an easy-going and entertaining man who is pretty much an Asheville native having been born and raised in nearby Waynesville. He is also a HUGE Segway fan and clearly loves his job. He has been running Moving Sidewalk Tours for about eight years now. After outfitting us with helmets, he had us all up and on our
Segways in a very short time. The Segway uses gryoscopes to translate small body movements of the hips and feet into forward and backward motion. Move your hips forward and the machine goes forward, move backward and it goes backward. Stand still and it will stop. It really is just that easy. The interesting thing is that, while to the observer you seem to be going at a leisurely pace, you feel like you are clocking along. Which you really are, since few of us run at 8-12 miles/hour for any length of time!
First stop was the Carolina Bed & Breakfast, our Asheville inn and, wouldn’t you know it, even though we had a full house of guests and it was the hour of our evening reception, there was no one on the porch for us to wave to! So we stopped anyway and had Wes take a group photo. Then on we went to Riverside Cemetery, where Wes taught me something I didn’t know. Apparently, during WWI there was a German POW camp in Hot Springs, NC. Eighteen of the prisoners died there during a typhoid epidemic and there is a monument to them in the cemetery.
Then, further down the road, at the very end of Pearson Drive, Wes showed us the Bountiful Cities Project Garden. The mission of Bountiful Cities is “To create, on urban land, beautiful community spaces that produce food in abundance and foster a learning environment for social justice and sustainability.” I’m not sure what the chickens and turkey were doing for social justice but I have since learned that the produce grown at the garden is sold at our nearby tailgate market.
Best of all, was the Silhouette Church. In the 1850’s the “Disciples of Christ” made plans to build a church on 22 Church Street. Unfortunately they ran out of money in the 1880’s and sold the partially completed building to Cosler & Willis Model Steam Laundry. Additions and remodels engulfed the structure and it was lost from sight until the demolition of what had become the Swannanoa Cleaners unveiled its silhouette like a ghost on the wall of the adjacent building.
It was fun to find out these tidbits of Asheville history but mostly it was just really fun to zip around town on a Segway. People waved, and ohhed and ahhed, and Wes seems to know just about everybody in town. Two hours flew by and I was sad to give up my new toy at the end of our time. I really can’t recommend it enough for an unusual and educational tour of our town!
Moving Sidewalk Tours: http://www.movingsidewalktours.com/