Friday, May 13, 2011


Power steering? That’s just one more that can go wrong.
Dad, 1963

WHILE AWAITING MY CHILIBURGER at the Coyoteville Café, I decided to capture a few notes on the morning’s ride up through the Yuba region. A patron, who was about to exit, stopped by my spot at the counter. “I can’t help but notice,” he began. “What is that you’re working on?” It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked.

Three decades ago, when I taught 7th grade in Durham, California, Bud, one of my most perceptive students, could not manipulate a pencil no matter how hard he tried. His written work was, in a word, horrible, many times masking the beauty of this thought. That young man was never far from my thinking. (Obviously, he still hasn’t gone far.)

About a dozen years back, before a computer for every kid was all the rage in education, I went searching for a tool that could be used by students with special needs. Specifically, if a child lacked the fine motor coordination to manipulate a pencil, some alternative means of written communication needed to be made available.

The computer folks said, “Just get ‘em a lap-top.” But laptops, in those days, ticketed at just under two grand, and even before the assault on public education became the vogue, that kind of dough was unreasonable even though it is unconscionable to place a price tag on someone’s ability to write.

A little research brought me to the AlphaSmart 3000. It is simply a keyboard with a little memory. It cannot be connected to the Internet. It cannot do e-mail. It cannot calculate math problems without a supplemental doohickey. It can’t do anything but receive typed input and save it. Using a USB cable (provided) whatever the student types can be downloaded into a word program on a computer – Mac or PC. The teacher, then can correct, edit and print out the student’s work. The document can also be saved in the student’s electronic portfolio.

Wow, I thought. If only I’d had one of these for Bud.

At $225.00 a crack (with the rechargeable battery) I bought three. Then seven more. Then a class set of twenty. Then another.

THEN I BOUGHT ONE MORE. I’d seen these little devices dropped, left on, turned off without “save,” stepped on, argued over and dropped some more. And they never failed. I’d also seen my own handwriting.

Now I carry mine in the panniers of my motorcycle and have for over ten years. Through miles of travel on interstates, back roads, dirt roads, mud holes and spills, my “made in the USA” AlphaSmart 3000 has never failed. On my trip to Wyoming in 2010, the AlphaSmart held and saved eight documents ranging up to twenty pages in length. Back in 2006, after a visit to the emergency room where my clavicle was declared “busted” by the doc up in Truckee, I made notes on the adventure on my AlphaSmart, which had survived the crash unscathed. I have replaced the battery once.

Every once in a while, my head is turned by those mini-lap tops with the 10.5-inch screens. Built by Toshiba, HP, Sanyo and just about everyone else, boasting connectivity and supported by Bill Gates and gang, these new mini-marvels are priced only a few quid more than the current generation of AlphaSmart. Yet, the more things these things can do, the more things these things can fail to do.

For taking notes on the road, for enduring the bumps and tosses of the bike’s stiff suspension, for lasting longer than and being more durable than just about anything else I own, I’ll continue to pack my AlphaSmart and gladly answer questions from the curious who see it.


NOTE: The AlphaSmart 3000 has been replaced by the Neo ($169) and the Dana ($350). For more information contact: or

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. In the interest of full disclosure: The above post was composed on May 13th. On May 15th, my wife presented me with a generation 1 I-pad. It most certainly is a cool tool. Still, I don't think I'll want to strap it on the back of the GSA when I go traipsing off into the wild unknown.

  2. I have been given the gift of a "generation 1" I-pad for use on the motorcycle and while out and about. It may or may not replace my trusty AlphaSmart for note taking while on adventure. It obviously has many more programs and applications than the primitive and simple keyboard that I've been toting around for nearly ten years.

    My biggest concerns rest with durability - will it withstand a moderate crash or a drop in an icy stream - and battery life. I get about 200 hours out of the charge on my AlphaSmart. I'm told to expect nine or ten on the Apple product. Beyond those, I need to learn how to download documents from the mini-Apple to the desktop unit. I will try saving this document and then attaching it to an e-mail to myself.

    This thing will likely be a lot of fun, but I suspect it has a lot more capability than I'm going to use right off the bat. I know I'm gonna love it.

  3. KS: A note: your alphasmart wont survive being dropped into an icy river.