OAKLAND -- Warning: Segway Off Road tours through Redwood Regional Park may result in writer's block.

"Just say it's the coolest thing, mom.

Those words, from a 14-year old to his journalist mother, could be the best kid-to-parent advice ever.

Why? Because, after an insane bout of wanderlust swept this writer from a rock-solid position at a keyboard onto an off-road Segway zooming 12 mph over redwood mulch near the East Bay's Skyline Trail, that's what pops up: "It's the coolest thing."

Of course, my approach had been cerebral and full of professional questions. Was it safe? Could anyone do it, as advertised? Doesn't it hurt the environment? Won't being on a machine prevent me from communing with nature? And who's this tour guide, claiming Segways do less damage to trails than hiking boots and whose neighbors either growl or gyrate admiringly at his endeavors?

Drew Foster is a living monument to odd, unbelievable adventures. Cut out of a friend's car after a horrific accident as a young adult, he spent six months in rehab. After that, it was cliff jumping, despite ongoing back pain. Eventually, depressed and out of shape, he discovered Segways, the two-wheeled, self-balancing mobility devices invented by Dean Kamen in 2001.

A street model provided the physical freedom he craved; a wipeout stirred his inner tinkerer. Applying a background in product development and instinctive engineering chops, Foster and Steve Steinberg designed the first off-road Segways.

"We added kickstands, wheel guards, stuff like that," Foster tells my son, three other braver-than-me participants on the tour and me.


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Allen Hayes, age 67, and longtime partner Jenn Varno, age 45, are from Palo Alto. They work separately, but both are in the marketing/branding/design industry.

"We like to try anything we can think of," Hayes says. "If you're alive, why wouldn't you want to try everything on the horizon?

And Varno has. She's muscled through annual swims from Alcatraz and fly fishing in Mammoth Lake. Even her reasons for signing up are sturdy.

"I've seen a guy in our neighborhood doing it, and he looks too serious. Riding in the dirt seems more natural.

With David Luu, a 30-year old software tester at Shutterfly, we represent a six-decade span of years and a hodgepodge of body types.

"Anyone can do this," Foster insists, addressing the first of my questions.

After watching a 15-minute safety video showing Segway errors with such clear, graphic simplicity we want to rename it "the anxiety increaser," we sign accident-waiver forms.

Outside, Foster gives slow, explicit, private instruction. For the first time, I start to feel comfortable. We're not in the hands of a bungee-loving lunatic: We are students of a master teacher.

Within 30 minutes, we've moved from barely able-to-get-on novices to a lean, (and leaning, for that is how the gyroscopic genius embedded under our feet determines acceleration, braking and balance) mean, rolling team. But we're not mean, we're wearing Foster's "Segway smiles" and cheerily hollering, "car!" and "pothole!" and "rocks!" to keep our single-file line safe from oncoming hazards.

Remarkably, the thrill isn't limited to how wonderful it is to cruise dexterously under 150-foot redwoods. There are sweeping views of San Francisco Bay, where one can see beyond the Golden Gate Bridge to the Farallon Islands or south to San Jose. And there's Foster's running diatribe about the Oakland hills cultural and environmental history, delivered with obvious eco-worshiping attitude.

"Do you know what this is? It's a fairy ring," he says, sweeping his arm full-circle to indicate a bare spot amid a grove of redwoods. "These trees have balance, with the smallest pine cone resulting in the largest trees. I also say they're conscious and have memories.

Foster said trees don't vote, but if they did, they'd vote for preservation of California's state parks. He said Segways, with their 10-cents-for-19-miles electrical charge capacity, are "naturally landscape friendly. If there's one law he'd like to change, it's Segway's current restriction to motorized routes.

"They do less damage than a bike," he protests.

An off-road Segway is pricey: about $7,000. And a custom Segway he built for a paraplegic client is likely more, but seems dirt-cheap after he describes the man's expression when it was complete.

"It's the first time he ever 'walked' on Stinson Beach under his own power. The look on his face was like a sunrise," Foster recalls.

Hayes says he'll return to the park again. Varno makes dinner reservations at the Montclair restaurant where the team refreshed and the Segway's recharged. Luu is silent, but smiling.

Me?

I'm with my son, sharing a redwood memory and thinking, "It's the coolest thing ever."

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