MIKE KELLEY Enlarge
SARASOTA, Fla. - The little white helmet looked like an oversized poached egg strapped loosely to the top of my head, but my appearance was the least of my concerns as I wheeled my Segway Human Transporter toward a parking lot for my mini-lesson.
Slightly higher on my list of worries was the knowledge that I would soon be trying to navigate this Jetsons-like contraption through the streets of Sarasota, where all manner of motorized vehicle would have a clear shot at me, creating the distinct possibility that I could wind up a large smudge on the pavement, helmet or not.
At the very least, I fully expected to tip the machine over and go flying, as President Bush infamously did during his attempt to tame a Segway last summer.
Tom Jacobson, who with his wife Janey operates a new tour company here called Florida Ever-Glides, assured me that none of his customers had been injured during a Segway tour - but then he'd only been in business since December.
"And when Bush fell, he must not have been in 'balance' mode," Jacobson added.
For those who are unfamiliar with them, a Segway is a two-wheeled, battery-powered scooter filled with computer chips and gyroscopes. It's controlled solely by the movements of the rider, who grips a set of handlebars and stands on a small platform that's eight inches off the ground and bracketed by oversized silica tires on each side.
Lean forward - gently - and the Segway rolls silently forward, stand up straight and it stops (there are no brakes), lean backward and it rolls backward. To turn, there's a little throttle-like controller on the left handlebar, and if you're standing still, you can literally turn on a dime.
While a rider is making his various small movements aboard the Segway, the device's intricate computer guidance system is making hundreds of calculations and adjustments to keep both rider and machine upright.
A display in the middle of the handlebars shows a little green happy face when the machine is properly balanced, and a red unhappy face when it's not.
"You don't even have to balance yourself," Jacobson said. "The Segway does it for you."
Segways have been around for a couple of years, and though companies in several cities rent the scooters, the Jacobsons claim that theirs is the first Segway guided tour operation in the United States.
They couldn't have picked a better place to launch their enterprise than Sarasota, a small, active city on Florida's Gulf Coast with all kinds of quaint little neighborhoods packed with shops, galleries, cafes, and historic attractions.
Plus, the weather is pleasant year-round and, just as important, the terrain is mostly flat.
Morning and afternoon tours are available, and the cost for either is $59.
Following a brief training video that warned us not to ride over curbs, potholes, or power cables - good advice whether you're on a Segway or not -
Tom and Janey took our small group out to the parking lot behind their office for some hands-on instruction. Normally the Jacobsons take six riders at a time on tour - any more would be hard to keep track of, Tom explained - but on this weekday afternoon, there were only four of us: Carolyn Moorhead, of Palm Harbor, Fla., her friend Jan Hitchings, of Indiana, Pa.; my daughter Alison, and me.
After a few false starts, all of us were mounting and dismounting our machines without incident, starting and stopping on command, and negotiating our way smoothly though a series of orange cones. When the Jacobsons were satisfied that we were relatively stable, Tom had us fall in behind him, and we were off on a 2 1/2-hour tour of Sarasota.
We started by rolling along the shady sidewalks of the nearby Towles Court Artist Colony, where dozens of artisans live, work, and sell their creations in brightly colored bungalows. We made a note to stop back on foot after our tour.
We cruised through a few neighborhoods of "cracker houses" - small, pastel-colored clapboard homes with tin roofs and wraparound porches built in the early 1900s. Tom, our guide, asked us how much we thought one of the run-down homes might fetch on the market.
"Maybe $50,000?" somebody ventured.
"There's not a house anywhere in these neighborhoods that would sell for less than $300,000," he said. Buyers are as likely as not to demolish the houses after purchasing them to make room for mini-mansions on the sites, he added.
Much of the ride was along sidewalks or lightly traveled one-way streets, and we got pretty good at negotiating small curbs and driveway edges, and even weaving slowly among pedestrians.
As we followed Tom through town in single file like a row of ducklings, we learned that we were as much of an attraction as the scenery. Motorists slowed down to stare at us, and some of them honked or waved.
During one stretch of the tour, while traveling down a busy sidewalk, we passed by a tavern just as a patron was leaving. He squinted at us in the bright sunshine as we glided silently by.
"Whoa, hovercraft!" he exclaimed.
After standing on a Segway platform for an extended period, leg muscles can get tired, and sometimes calves can cramp up. To minimize this, Tom suggested alternately raising and lowering the heel of each foot every so often.
We rolled along one of the outer paths at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, a tropical oasis near downtown Sarasota famous for its spectacular orchid collection. We didn't see many orchids during our drive-by, but we did enjoy a cooling mist from the gardens' sprinkler system.
About halfway through our tour, we stopped in a park on the waterfront for a snack and a bottle of water that Tom had tucked into a little pouch mounted on each Segway's handlebars.
At that point he decided we were ready to crank things up a notch, so he replaced the keys in our machines with different ones that would allow them to go faster - 8 mph, as opposed to the 6 mph we had been limited to. (A third key would have let us gun our Segways at a blistering 12 1/2 mph pace, but Tom said he never gives anybody that key.)
On the way back to the Ever-Glides office, Tom continued his running commentary about some of the sights we were seeing. Near the back of the line, I couldn't hear much of what he was saying, but it didn't matter - just rolling along through this beautiful city on a nifty little scooter was plenty good enough for me.
Once in a while, though, Tom would stop and gather us around to share something he thought was of particular note. One such stop was at the appropriately named intersection of Links and Golf avenues. It was on a spot near here that John Gillespie, a Scottish aristocrat, lawyer, and member of the Queen's Guard, is said to have built America's first golf course around 1900.
"Some people up north don't recognize it, because it was only nine holes," Tom said, "but we know better."
Despite my earlier misgivings, only once during the tour did I get myself into trouble. As Tom led us across a wide, busy intersection, the "Walk" light was suddenly replaced by a blinking "Don't Walk" light.
Having just started across, I must have panicked a little, and in my haste to vacate the area, I leaned forward more to pick up some speed, which was the right thing to do. But I also instinctively twisted the dial on my handlebar sharply, like a motorcycle's throttle - definitely the wrong thing to do.
My Segway lurched to the right, and if I hadn't quickly stepped off its platform with one leg to support myself, I would have pulled a George Bush right there in the intersection.
I dragged my 85-lb. Segway back to the curb and waited for another "Walk" light, so Tom could come back and rescue me. While waiting, I noticed that my handlebar display showed a red unhappy face. It looked kind of like Tom's face at the moment.
By the time we returned to the Florida Ever-Glides office, we were all comfortable enough on our Segways - even me - that we cruised right into the building and down the hallway, wheeling to a smooth and silent stop in front of the office door.
Contact Mike Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6131.27.33888 -82.53963