The Kinetic Sculpture Race

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It was the shark gouting flame from its dorsal fin that really put things into perspective for me.  It wove down the plaza strip, its hinge jaw snapping, papier-mâché frame painted rust and steel. The crowd was going absolute bananas. If it was the last gathering of The Police and Sting had just ripped off his leather pants to perform Roxanne nude from the waist down I doubt the Kinetic Sculpture Race would have yelled any louder. I imagine they had never seen a kinetic sculpture of such beastly magnificence, Sting or shark. The shark looked and acted animatronic. But it was man-powered, self-powered, just like every other vehicle populating the Arcata plaza last Saturday. Keys to Freeze had, once again, rolled into town for a watershed day.

Arcata is seven miles north of Eureka. We were staying with our hosts Wendy and Mike. They were Warmshowers folk who accommodated our desire to take a day off from the road. They had let us crash on the futons and windowsills of their mountain loft and suggested we take the day to head into town for this Kinetic Sculpture thing we’d seen signs for while biking into town. The event sounded cool – all vehicles move from their operators acting upon gears and levers to drive locomotion over road, sand, water, and mud … all the while competing for glamour and glitz in the ultimate beauty pageant of the northern Californian coast.

We were tired though. The road had been tough. I realized over our four days into town that cyclists go north to south because of the horrific prevailing winds. Riding south to north is like sticking your face in front of a hair dryer for ten hours a day. It sucks.

Wendy and Mike insisted we go, though, so we went. That’s when I saw the shark. It was, in my opinion, the sculpture made with the most craftsmanship. Elegant, bold, desirous. The envy of the lot. I wanted a ride within its shell. Inside there were benches, pedals, and cranks. You sat down and started pedaling. That got the shark going.  Then through a series of ropes and pulleys you swung the shark’s head side to side, the motion unhinging its jaw so that it might snap at the gushing crowd. Ropes by the shark’s tail swung its back fin. A gas pipe ran straight up that, when pulled, spouted fire twenty feet high. It was a beautiful creation.

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So were other sculptures. Others not so much. My second favorite were the Sirens, a bunch of bodiced women sporting gothic inclinations. They flirted with the crowd and smoked lots of cigarettes.  Award for name went to the Flaming Farmer, a tractor bike that too involved fire, this sculpture rocketing fire from its faux exhaust. The name, though made me laugh, considering the Farmer was certainly not a flamer.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6P1ufxUlMxo&w=560&h=315]

Then there were some boring sculptures, some less cool ones, and such. They paraded around the plaza for thirty minutes as a brass band played all the Blues Brothers hits. People were smoking pot and climbing trees and lounging on the grass. It was a family affair for the most part, but the sneaks and freaks were out too. Call it a community event. I was all about it. A homage to bicycles, a pageantry, an absurdist event that brings populations together. Experiencing the Kinetic Sculpture reminded me of two things.

One, the world is huge and full of people. And that some of these people commit their lives to silly things like the Kinetic Sculpture Race or following the Jimmy Buffet tour or making garden sculptures out of saved toenail clippings.

People are crazy! Out of their minds! Kinetic Sculpture is a ridiculous event! It makes no sense to love it but I loved it anyways.

Sometimes it’s good to not take yourself so seriously, to instead commit 400 hours to taking a bike carriage and welding pedals and cranks together and buying motorcycle tires and attaching the system to a tandem bike and then gluing Styrofoam blocks to the sides and then sewing together a big fat black rat with buck yellow teeth and putting that sucker on top of the vehicle and calling it Rocket Rodent. Yeah. Sometimes it’s good to remember these things, to experience local traditions because they put life back in perspective, put me back in the moment. They remind me that the moment is good, and real, and right.

So pedal on.

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