Have Steam, Will Travel 

Engineers, tinkerers, and DIY dreamers prepare for the alt-fuels road rally known as Escape from Berkeley.

A garden hose hooked to a pressure washer drips into a rivulet of oily water that's making its way to the street. At Berkeley's Shipyard Labs, Mike Thielvoldt is peering over the shoulders of Shannon O'Hare and Bill Smythe as they clean a contraption that looks like a cross between an 1800s buggy and a Victorian steam car. In fact, that's exactly what it is: O'Hare and a team of fellow engineers and tinkerers have lovingly built the vehicle they call Kristie's Flyer to run on steam.

In two and a half weeks, Thielvoldt, O'Hare, and Smyth will compete in Escape from Berkeley, an interstate road rally for vehicles burning alternative fuels — anything but fossil fuel. But right now, on Saturday September 23, they're partners in crime, discussing the innards of a steam engine.

The Shipyard is Willy Wonka's factory with motor oil and rust instead of chocolate and sugar. On a concrete- and asphalt-covered yard about the size of two standard Berkeley lots, a metal industrial building is obscured by a three-sided square of shipping containers. On top and in front of these containers, each of which serves as a workshop for someone, every imaginable industrial material is stored in piles and drifts: pipes and tubes, chains, ladders, dollies and hoists, lumber, scrap metal, and old windows. They're joined by dolls, masks, toys, an 1890s bicycle, an antique coal heater, and a mirrored disco ball. And then there are the sculptures, most of them welded from scrap iron. They rise up in a jumble on top of the container that fronts the street: a scrap metal skeleton in chains, a spider, and a spinning weathervane of eyeballs looming over Murray Street like the guardians of Hades.

Inside the main building are the types of heavy and dangerous tools you need to shape such rough and tough objects. Packed into the yard are more of the results: a green metal vehicle about eight feet high and twelve feet long that you might think was a pickle-mobile if it weren't for the circular appendages on top. There's definitely a Shipyard Look: brawny, raw, playful, cartoonish, and rugged.

Established in 2001, when Jim Mason plopped some metal shipping containers in a vacant lot, the Shipyard houses studios and workshops for Burning Man artists and, increasingly, people fooling around with alternative fuels. Mason wants the Shipyard to help spearhead a shift away from making large-scale sculptures for Burning Man. Instead, why not apply all that ingenuity and creativity to solving a huge environmental problem?

In a manifesto on the Shipyard web site, Mason wrote, "I think energy is going to become, or at least has the potential to become, a creative idiom of pleasurable hacking, creativity and self-expression."

Escape from Berkeley — full name, Escape from Berkeley (by any non-petroleum means necessary) is his most ambitious demonstration of that idiom to date.

Steam Bohemians

The Neverwas Haul crew is an exception to the Shipyard aesthetic. O'Hare, Kimric Smythe, Peter Luka, and Matt Snyder like to play with Victorian imagery, and they also like Victorian technology.

From the back, Kristie's Flyer looks much the same as it did a hundred years ago: an antique wooden carriage with a brass oil lantern hanging from the rear. From the front, it looks like a cross between a motorcycle and a child's steam train. There's a single metal-spoked wheel, an engine bristling with gauges and valves, and a smokestack made out of black pipe topped off with a brass spittoon.

The steam-powered carriage will burn vegetable oil to boil water. As the water turns to steam, it expands and creates pressure. The pressure feeds into a piston steam engine, driving the piston up and down. The piston drives a flywheel mounted on one side. The flywheel stores energy and also turns the front wheel via a direct-drive chain. Kimric and the crew built the steam engine from scrounged parts, using schematics and directions from their library of hundreds of books found in flea markets and thrift stores.

The crew bought the carriage at an antique store, then O'Hare modified the body, making it wider, stronger, and prettier. Its new, four-foot diameter wooden wheels, with a thin, solid rubber tire, were made for the Amish, a religious group that doesn't use motors or electricity. When asked how far the vehicle can travel, O'Hare responded, "It's never exactly 'traveled.'" Kristie's Flyer, named after the love of Kimric's life who died unexpectedly, has been trucked to fairs and events, but has covered only a couple of miles under its own power.

Kimric's father, Bill, is cleaning engine oil off the machinery parts. "Everything has to be ornate," he said. Bill is not an official part of the race team, but he tends to show up with miscellaneous loot he's scrounged from various places, including his yard. Today, he's brought a pile of brass gewgaws bought cheap at the thrift store in Scotts Valley, where he lives. Before long, the base of a candle holder becomes a decorative top for a steam tube.

His son is tinkering with the steam engine. "I'm just fucking panicked about getting this done," Kimric says as he methodically tightens a pipe. When asked what still needs to be accomplished, he begins to steam himself. "Talking about what needs to be done would just add to the stress level. I do one thing and then remember the next thing I have to do. I'm designing it as I go."

Kimric is a tall man with silver hair and Nordic eyes. He repairs accordions for a living, and learned his way around fireworks by rigging the Burning Man sculpture, beginning in the early days when the party first moved to the desert. He's known for dangerously exciting performances, like the time he donned a fire-retardant suit covered with fireworks and became a walking pinwheel display.

He and O'Hare, both denizens of Oakland, got together when Kimric needed a carpenter for a wooden clock tower he and the rest of the crew were building for Burning Man 2005. O'Hare, who has traveled the country building castles for Renaissance Faires, worked with a company that did casino environments, and now works as a carpenter and landscaper, building things like intricate doors and gates. The next year, they built the Neverwas Haul, a fantasy vehicle for Burning Man. The three-story Victorian house on a travel trailer base is clad in gingerbread, with a turret, a library, and lace curtains blowing out of the sash windows.

Their admiration for 1900s-era steam engines and ornate detail puts these guys in the category of steampunk, a science fiction and cultural genre that extrapolates from the Victorian era. "I always loved the aesthetics of the Victorian inventions, especially the ones that didn't exist, like Jules Verne's submarines and flying machines," O'Hare said. But he eschews the steampunk moniker. "I consider myself a steam bohemian," he said. "I'm more anarchistic, classier, and more artistically inclined." He looks like a Victorian mad scientist, with tufts of curly hair escaping from under his baseball cap, and a billy-goat beard showing gray.


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