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Sunday, September 22, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rockies Adventure Captures The `Spirit Of The Internet'

Watching Traveling Software founder Mark Eppley, clad only in a bath towel, transmit files from the Gateway, Colo., Trading Post would have given even the most hardened Luddite renewed faith in the World Wide Web.

We were more than halfway along a 206-mile, mountain-bike odyssey from Telluride, Colo., to Moab, Utah, when torrential rains, sleet and hail laid over our band of five two-wheelers in this former uranium boomtown - now home to 100 people and the annual Gateway Dynamite Shoot.

Eppley, a gregarious redhead, had set up a miniature portable Web site while our mud-caked, sweat-stiffened clothes went through a backroom laundry. As a parade of townsfolk and passers-through craned their necks over the counter for a glimpse of the freckled geek in the pink towel, Eppley uploaded text and photos to linked Web sites chronicling our escapade on the Internet.

Our intent going into this mad venture, besides having fun on bikes, was to prove how wireless communications had advanced to the point where, deep in a forest or high on a remote plateau, we could still go online to the world at large.

For most techies, that would be enough. The ability to do something cool is often an end in itself, providing a springboard for new products, technological innovation or a different way of seeing things.

Technology, ingenuity at work

To a certain extent, our ability to transmit files to the Web from 11,000 feet elevation in the Rockies, from scrub-brush clearings on the Uncompaghre Plateau and from woodsy meadows in the Manti-La Sal National Forest fulfilled the goal of our mission. We developed an almost pathological fascination with the issue of cell signal strength miles from nowhere.

Deprived of electricity, we were surprisingly able to generate our own juice. We recharged cellphone batteries with solar panels attached to the bike's rear rack, and with a front-wheel alternator that pumped plenty of voltage on long downhills.

We should have been able to recharge our notebook computer's batteries, too, but incompatible voltage specifications made it impractical. It was our one fatal glitch and, after five days of dispatches, shut us down when the last of our 10 laptop batteries died.

You will find a lot of virtual adventuring on the Web these days. I know of no other expedition carrying a portable Web site on its back while generating its own power sources.

A typical techhead would be happy with these small accomplishments. But Eppley, although a consummate tinkerer and wirehead, had more humanistic ambitions. The man's affection for his fellow species makes Will Rogers look like a troglodyte; Eppley wanted each and every person we encountered to be part of the Web experience.

"It's the spirit of the Internet," he explained, referring to the many-to-many mode that makes the Web unique among communications technologies. This is not TV, not telephone, not even a mass medium in the conventional sense of the term.

Involving anyone, everyone

Eppley, a PC pioneer who early on pushed portable computing as a means of bringing people together, seized every opportunity to involve folks we encountered in our Web adventure.

There was Tim Tipton, the Arkansas bow hunter who helped me find my way back to camp; Tam Graham, the world-class cattle rancher who gave us and our bikes a lift through six-inch-deep mud from Big Creek to the Unaweep canyon; Crystal Casto, the Trading Post's proprietor; and Elaine Harris, the Gateway restaurant cook who with her daughter Lisa gave us a lift on a washed-out dirt road closed by the county.

Everyone we ran into was a potential Web star. Eppley took a picture of Elaine's son to upload to the Web. The boy's school was scheduled the following week to put together its own Web site.

"You'll be able to show them your picture on the Web; they'll think you're famous!" Eppley told the boy.

It was never long after meeting someone that Eppley would pull out his digital camera and, with an irresistible grin, ask, "Hey, would you mind if I took your picture for our Web site?" He got some surprised looks, some bemused grins and some downright skeptical rolls of the eyes, but never a refusal.

Yes, it was cool being able to upload files without wires or electricity. It was cooler being able to connect people together on the Web who otherwise would have no way of knowing, meeting or contacting one another. As another member of our team, North Face sales rep Annabel Spencer, put it, it was the people who made the ride.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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