Art hits the road in Northern California’s annual Kinetic Sculpture Race

It’s the Friday before Memorial Day weekend in Arcata, California. The great Kinetic Sculpture Race begins the next morning, and the Arcata Kinetic Sculpture Lab is buzzing.

The small warehouse is a mad workshop of strange dreams. Giant, dusty shells of creatures, including a dragon and a white rhino, hang from the ceiling. Teams of workers sing along with a straining boom box. Dominating all is a 30-foot-long, 8-foot-wide, frill-necked lizard, perched on a four-man pedaling machine.

Tagged “the triathlon of the art world,” the three-day, 42-mile Kinetic Sculpture Race has been held every Memorial Day weekend since the early 1970s.

It sends men and women and their homemade, human-powered land/water vehicles bouncing, bobbing, and lurching along the far North Coast of California from Arcata to Ferndale, illuminating the creative, funky spirit of this corner of the West like nothing else.

I’m joining race legend and local artist Ken “Beetle” Beidleman on the team of the frill-necked lizard, the “Frillseekers,” on the ride of my life.

Day 1: Arcata to Eureka

At noon on Saturday, Arcata’s town square is packed with racers and spectators. The town siren signals the start. But in the spirit of Beidleman’s kick-back strategy (“I’ve won every damned thing you can win in this,” he says, celebrating his 20th year of racing; “I want to take it easy this year”), we take it slow. Our team of four pilots and three support crew (who’ll be on bikes) strolls over to the lizard, dons lizard-head helmets, and sets out.

In Beetle’s chromoly steel wonder―articulated in front and back, with 588 gear combinations―we speed along country roads, travel up dunes, and roll with the surf. We pass competing sculptures, including a giant tomcat piloted by Beetle’s longtime partner, June Moxon, and her feline support team.

One of the greatest challenges, though, lies ahead: Dead Man’s Drop, where spectators watch sculptures plummet down a tall, scarily steep dune and, if still upright, negotiate a narrow path between brush and trees.

Shouting war whoops, we shoot down the Drop. We bounce and swing hard right, out of control. We correct left, the lizard’s tail snaps back and forth in true reptilian fashion, and we shoot through the gap and onto the trail as the crowd roars its approval. 

Day 2: Humboldt Bay to Loleta Beach

“Now that’s what we want to see,” says Beetle the next morning, looking out across Humboldt Bay at the smoke drifting from the stacks of the pulp-mill plant in nearby Samoa. It’s rising straight up. “We don’t want to fight the wind when we head out to the point of the bay,” he explains.

We outfit the lizard with four inflatable pontoons underneath its carriage, and four sets of ingenious paddleboat-style fins and inner tube-like “doughnuts” that attach to each wheel. It’s a new setup for Beetle, but he’s pretty confident we’ll be all right.

As we roll down the boat ramp, spectators urge us to go for broke, but we take it slow. We settle into the bay … and float. Not only that, we scoot, our feet pedaling comfortably above the water.

Of all the sculptures we pass along the way, Beetle takes the greatest satisfaction in passing “Extreme Makeover,” Duane Flatmo’s giant Picasso-like head on wheels. The longtime veterans have a friendly rivalry, fueled by Flatmo’s status as media darling of Humboldt County. The artist, famed for his many murals around Eureka, had recently been a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he was lauded as “California’s most interesting resident.”

Beidleman opts to pass Flatmo on the inside, effectively cutting him off from the view of spectators along the waterfront.

The last thrill of the day before hitting the beach for a campout is the hill above the hamlet of Loleta. After a long, long pedal up, we’re offered cold water and iced strawberries. Then we rocket down a winding county road, sitting on an open carriage of metal bars underneath a giant frill-necked lizard buffeted by a crosswind. And I learn there’s a very fine line between giddiness and panic. 

Day 3: Ferndale―and glory

Heading out from the beach the next morning, the lizard catches a tailwind and we sail like no giant frill-necked lizard has sailed before. After three days and 42 miles of pedaling, we charge into downtown to the adulation of a townful of spectators.

Working the crowd, Beetle steers us into several tight celebratory 360s, but the stress is too much for one of the battered lizard claws, which falls to the street. “Somebody give that guy a hand―or at least a claw!” shouts the announcer. A member of the support crew hands it back to Beidleman, who holds it aloft as we continue to whir in circles. The crowd cheers even louder. We pump our fists in the air.

Glory. And then we go grab a beer. “Thanks for being heroes to kids who now think that this is a way of life,” lauds the race’s cofounder, Ferndale artist Hobart Brown, at the awards ceremony. “You’ve shown them that growing old can be fun,” he adds.

And what does the event do for adults? At a raucous post-race dinner at Eureka’s Lost Coast Brewery, Moxon explains why she had to build not only a giant tomcat but a giant tomcat that purrs and lifts its tail and sprays. “You have to trap them in the magic,” she says of the onlookers along the way.

For three days, we’ve all been trapped in the magic―in a big, cosmic, silly, peace-and-love-filled bubble that bounced across Humboldt County, enveloping spectators who have to stop whatever everyday activity they’re involved in and laugh and smile and wave. And for cheering on our crazy quest, every one of them is granted a gift: For a few moments, at least, they’re young again.

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