When Hunter Weeks's mom was in the Peace Corps, she traveled Africa by thumb, hitching across the Sahara Desert with just a girlfriend and a map. That was the mid-'60s, a decade before her son -- and heir to her wanderlust -- was born in Scottsdale, Arizona.
"That was her crazy time. I grew up hearing stories about it," Weeks says. "She was a schoolteacher, so in the summer she was always taking us on trips. She'd drive deep into Mexico for a week or two, things like that. I learned early on that a big part of travel was getting to know people."
At 27, Weeks uses his camera, not his thumb, to see the world. In 2003, he and his two partners, Josh Caldwell and Patrick Armstrong, founded Spinning Blue, an "expedition-based" web, film and video production company, in Scottsdale. But Arizona's heat and lack of creative opportunities were stifling, so earlier this year the company moved its offices to Broomfield -- just down the road from Armstrong and his wife, who live in Boulder -- and got busy. The company's done work for the Howard Dean campaign and Rock the Vote. In the master plan, Weeks, Caldwell and Armstrong will travel the world, document what they see and get paid for it.
"I've been to 26 countries, and when I travel, I always sit in airports and wonder about people: 'What's their story? Where are they going?'" Weeks says. "Everybody's got a story. I like the idea of finding those stories, using travel as a variation on journalism."
So far, Spinning Blue's first major project is slow going. Really slow going.
This week, Caldwell, Armstrong and Weeks begin filming America at 10 mph, a documentary that chronicles a journey across America from the gyroscope-balanced platform of a Segway Human Transporter, a two-wheeled, upright scooter. The 4,300-mile journey -- the longest ever attempted on a Segway -- will take the crew from Seattle's Space Needle to Segway's headquarters in New Hampshire. If all goes according to schedule, they'll be in Bedford, New Hampshire, on October 20, after eighty days of traveling at golf-cart speed.
"You've got technology and all these things that help us go faster. It's nice to have a different perspective where you take some time enjoying what you're seeing," says Caldwell, who will be the Segway's sole pilot during the trip. "People get so caught up in the areas where they live, but a lot of this country is rural. This film is a way to show them some people and places that they don't know much about."
Caldwell hasn't done much in the way of training for the long journey ahead. Armed with an iPod and a lot of sunscreen, the 27-year-old will hug highway shoulders in Boise, traverse trails in Yellowstone National Park and saunter down sidewalks in Casper and Cheyenne before making a stop in Denver in early September. Then it's a long, hot stretch across the plains of Kansas and through the Midwest. To break up the monotony, Caldwell and his crewmates will interview locals about their definition of the American dream, adding a man-on-the-street (or the scooter) interaction to the molasses motion of the journey.
"I think asking that question will be an easy way to identify with people," Caldwell says. "This is something that we've always wanted to do -- the big dream of making the film is part of our American dream. So the idea of being able to ask people a question about their dream is pretty cool."
America at 10 mph is, by design, an exercise in tedium, born out of boredom. John Keough, a friend of Weeks and Caldwell's from Principia College in St. Louis, came up with the idea while living in New York City. He'd taken the requisite number of soul-sucking jobs, including working as a production assistant on indie films. "At the time I thought of the idea for America at 10 mph, I was temping in an office where I removed staples for eight hours a day. I had nothing to do but stand around and think," Keough says. "When you're working a job like that and you come up with an idea like that, no one's going to take you seriously. They'd say, 'That's so funny, that sounds so cool, but it's not going to happen -- it's impossible.'"
But Keough knew that Weeks and his partners wouldn't think it was impossible. Weeks was seeking a project for Spinning Blue, and he seized Keough's concept. They took a cue from the Howard Dean campaign and found sponsorship and fan support through the blog community and their own website, www.10mph.com. Supporters of the project have offered crash-pad space, cocktails and meals along the route.
"We just had to make the leap and go for it," Weeks says. "We've found so many people who are excited about it -- Segway people, film people. We had a conference call with engineers at Segway itself who were really supportive and interested in helping us. We've called local chambers of commerce, local governments everywhere we're going. It's the kind of thing that people want to support just because they think it's a cool idea."
Not everyone's crazy about the idea, however. On Segwaychat.com, a bulletin board for the small but fervent fraternity of the Segway-obsessed, news of the project has met both ambivalence and animosity. Some worry that the trip will reflect poorly on the Segway, which is designed for short distances, not cross-country excursions. Others feel the filmmakers should take an activist approach and use the journey to lobby for pro-Segway legislation. Currently, 39 states currently have specific laws regulating the use of Segway; some prohibit riders from traveling on sidewalks or on highways, and all prohibit the vehicle's use on interstates. Colorado does not have a Segway-specific law on the books, since the transporter is grouped in with scooters and bicycles.
Others question Spinning Blue's motives: "Not sure about the agenda," wrote one poster. "Is it political, are they followers of Sun Myung Moon, Jehova Witness, what?"
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Keough had never set foot on a Segway until this month, when he became part of the America at 10 mph production crew. With Weeks and Armstrong, he'll follow Caldwell along his route, hauling a trailer full of gear at ten miles an hour. For him, the Segway is just a tool to update the classic coast-to-coast quest so familiar from books, movies and a million road songs. "The idea of the cross-country journey has been an American theme since Lewis and Clark crossed the country," he says. "People just want to know what's out there, stretch the limits of what they know."
Weeks expects some bumps in the America at 10 mph road. There are logistical worries, like how to charge enough batteries to keep the Segway going -- and weather could be an issue. He's got the route mapped out, but the terrain is, ultimately, untested by the crew's vehicle of choice. Then there's the question of whether the machine itself, or its rider, will be able to withstand so many hours on the road. But Weeks looks forward to the flaws because they'll make for better cinema.
"Look at the success of reality TV. As the world becomes more of a cartoon, closer to the feature-film formula, people are drawn to real life," Weeks says. "Hollywood tries to make everything so perfect."
"But," Caldwell chimes in, "people seem to prefer the rough stuff."