Since moving to Chattanooga from my native Pennsylvania for this job three months ago, I've been thrown to the dogs when it comes to information overload. Learning the history and quirks of my new city and co-workers, which routes to use to avoid construction on my way to and from interviews, and where I can find free parking, all whilst searching for shaded reading spots and the best Thai food in town, has been soul-crushingly overwhelming.
So my boss signed me up for a local Segway tour. I mean, what could possibly be a more perfect way to digest information than while standing upright on a machine that maxes out at 12.5 mph — donning a helmet and cape — at 10 a.m. on a Monday? My younger brother Matthew was lucky enough to visit me that week and was also handed a helmet and cape, though at 19 he refused to wear a cape, and I ditched mine when we realized I'm a bit too short for it and it could've been a hazard. (If you're going with other child-sized humans, don't worry, there are smaller capes, just not in the green I insisted on.)
After we signed away our lives on a double-sided safety waiver we absolutely read, Kevin Shurmer, the general manager of Chattanooga Segway and Bike Tours, geared up our Segways as we watched a short safety video on how to steer and operate the machine.
Shurmer, who is vibrant and more than delightful with his manicured handlebar mustache, donned his signature red cape for the tour. At 56, he said he wanted an adventure, so he moved to Chattanooga from Nashville about three years ago and became a part-time Segway tour guide. He has since moved up to manager, providing both a historical Southside and a scenic river tour every day.
If you go
Chattanooga Segway and Bike Tours also specializes in walking tours and team building, in addition to the offerings implied by its name.
Segway Downtown Historic Tours (2 hours) leave at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily and cost $70 per person. Segway North Shore Tours (1.5 hours) leave at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. and cost $60 per person. Reservations are recommended. Guests must weigh between 100 and 280 pounds and not be pregnant.
Visit chattanoogasegwaytours.com or call 423-708-5051 for more information.
Shurmer was kind enough to blend the two for us, sharing tidbits of downtown as well as taking us along the North Shore. But before we could speed through the streets, he guided us individually up and down the sidewalk to ensure we understood the mechanics for operation. Segways auto-balance and move with your weight distribution. To go forward, you lean forward in a "Smooth Criminal" fashion. To stop or slow down, you lean back on your heels, but only ever so slightly. Shurmer must have been lying when he said I was a natural. I never did get the hang of stopping completely, but that didn't deter us.
We weaved along the sidewalks downtown, rolled up and down hills and crossed the Market Street and Walnut Street bridges, stopping every few blocks for our history lessons. The regular Southside tour usually lasts about two hours and the scenic river tour 90 minutes. Our special 90-minute tour covered the highlights from both.
Did you know that residents used the Fireman's Memorial Fountain as a public bath in the early 1900s, so the city fenced off the area and added live alligators to ward off trespassers? Or that when seen from above, the BlueCross BlueShield building is in the shape of its signature logo?
My lack of coordination meant that whenever we paused to take in the scene, say under the "Urban Chandelier" art installation on Cherry Street, I ended up rocking back and forth, and since movement is dictated by your weight, I felt the strain in my feet and calves after a bit. But there was a certain thrill to flying down the streets, feeling the cool air on my face. We were able to sneak into corners of the city I haven't seen and discover public art I didn't know existed. I was struck by the similarities to Pittsburgh, another historical blue-collar town where the old remnants of a dirty downtown have been rejuvenated with public art and become a destination.
We've all made fun of those tourists rolling through town on Segways, wearing helmets and capes and listening to the history of a city we wake up and work in. Right? (Even I have.) How silly that they're spending money on that, we'd say.
That's how I felt before I toured the city with Shurmer. But in the words of my teenage brother, "When you told me about this I thought it was gonna be mad-boring, but it was actually pretty cool."