My Hero, Rico Thunder

I got the idea for the West Chester Guerilla Drive-In from an article Kate showed me in ReadyMade Magazine in, maybe, 2001. The story was about a bunch of crazy anarchists in Santa Cruz that were trying to take back corporate brownfield space by showing movies in it, making community happen in it.. you know, doing people stuff in it, rather than just allowing it to be fenced off and barricaded away.

The Santa Cruz group are anarchists in the best sense of the word — they’re thoughtful, sincere, and not afraid to be blunt. My Guerilla Drive-In group is more of an “adventure movie club”, but they’ve got more of a confrontational Abbie Hoffman vibe — Rico Thunder, one of the group’s organizers, has a “Fuck the MPAA” tattoo that he’s not afraid to show (and will be featured in the CBS Evening News story about the Guerilla Drive-In movement, if they ever get around to airing it.

Rico (whose real name is Wes Modes) and I became e-mail friends after I sent them a mash note about how great their group was, and I started my own GDI. We get mentioned in the same newspaper articles, and when new GDI groups start to organize, Rico and I usually provide a spectrum of views for the new projectionists to select from:

  • John: “If you want to be perfectly legal and above-board, here’s how you go about purchasing a non-theatrical license.”
  • Rico: “Licenses? Fuck that shit!”

I’m not being sarcastic, here: between my “Render unto Caesar” .com vibe and Rico’s “Don’t suffer bad laws to stand” .org vibe, I think we’ve got both shoulders covered, providing balance.

But I’m not writing this to talk about the Guerilla Drive-In, I am writing to talk about what an UTTER BADASS Rico and his friends are. Each year for (about four?) years, now, they have made a Punk Rafting trip, which consists of traveling to a campsite, building rafts out of truck tubes and found objects, and then FLOATING THAT SHIT DOWN THE RIVER for two weeks. It’s the Mad Max version of boating. It’s unbelievably awesome. Rico is my hero.

Punk Rafting 2009

For the past few weeks, I’ve been following Rico’s sporadic updates posted from his mobile phone to Twitter: “Raft hit a snag, we almost died”, etc.

Punk Rafting 2009

I love how the rafts look like Conestoga wagons from the outsides when they have all theiir sun shades up. And from the inside, too! Here’s Rico perched on the couch on his raft. I think his raft was one of four or five on the trip:

Punk Rafting 2009

On the photoset (click any picture to go to this year’s pictures), you can see them putting holes in the plywood with a brace and bit, in order to lash the rafts together. This is FANTASTIC stuff.

Punk Rafting 2009

I just finished reading The Road to Woodstock, written by Michael Lang. His book drove home that the festival was made up of .01% True Countercultural Icons, like Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm folks, and 99.99% Fellow Travelers; nice suburban kids that had come out for the show. This is not a bad thing, of course; if everyone was a Hog Farmer or an Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, all of us would be in Big Trouble.

But I feel like I know a True Countercultural Icon in Rico Thunder, and I’m immeasurably impressed by what he’s got going on, out there in Santa Cruz. Rico, congratulations on surviving another raft trip! I’m glad that you take this stuff seriously, and I’m quite sure that one day, I will tell my grandchildren: “Rico Thunder? Hell, yeah, I knew that guy back in the day!”

My Hero, Rico Thunder

Coworkout at Lanchester Landfill

Coworkout is like the Guerilla Drive-In, except with cubicles. We pack our laptops and an EvDO-to-WiFi repeater, put a catenary shade tarp in the sidecar, and go do our programming work at interesting locations outdoors around Philadelphia, like Fort Mifflin and Shofuso.

Last Friday, we held Coworkout at the Lanchester Scenic Overlook, which is a beautiful, grassy hill eleven hundred feet above the Conestoga and Brandywine valleys. The breezes blow, the hawks soar past at eye level and the windmill above our heads spins, generating the electricity that we used to power our computers:

Coworkout at Lanchester Scenic Overlook

Photo: Chris Young

Ahh, what a beautiful spot! What a pastoral idyll! Did I mention that sheep gambol across the grass, cropping it neatly? That birds sing in the undergrowth? That on the other hill, giant machines frolic, pushing hills of waste into position, then crushing those hills mercilessly underneath inexorable spiked steel wheels?

The Hill Across the Way

Photo: Chris Young

No Smoking Near the Methane WellThe Scenic Overlook is a finished landfill. Below the grass is six feet of soil, which covers an impermeable clay cap. Below that is years of solid waste, decomposing deep underneath the ground as anaerobic bacteria works on it. Every few hundred feet, perforated pipes are driven deep into the hill, through the cap, and methane gas is collected and sent down the hill. There, some of the gas is used to fuel an enormous natural-gas generator and turned into electricity, which is then pushed into the grid.

Some of the gas is sold directly to factories, who use it for power. For instance, when we were there, we saw on a display screen exactly how many BTUs of methane gas were currently being piped to the generator at a plant that makes Taco Bell cheese.

We learned all this from Lanchester’s executive director Bob Watts, who took us in his big, black hybrid SUV all around the operation. During the VIP tour, we learned all sorts of amazing things, like:

    Natural Gas Generator

  • The twenty-foot tall fences surrounding the active landfill that look like electrified zombie-incursion barriers are actually to catch plastic shopping bags before they can blow away down to the farms below. The fences are made from commercial fishing nets strung on tall poles.
  • Regulations require that the active bit of the landfill (where the trash is actually dumped each day) must be covered every night. A big part of a landfill director’s job is finding stuff to cover the area. Soil is too precious and expensive. Chemical foam doesn’t last. Giant, bulldozer-deployed tarps are often used. However, if you happen to have ten thousand tons of kiln ash or even (get this!) a hill of shredded cars, that’s like catnip to landfill operators. They love finding that stuff to spread on their hills.
  • Everything is money to a landfill. Trucks pay tipping fees to drop off their trash — we saw a big compression truck dumping a load, for which they’d pay maybe six hundred dollars. Then the landfill is capped and used to generate electritity. Shipping pallets are shredded, dyed, and sold as hardwood mulch. Everything that comes in to the landfill is turned into (at least a little bit) of money
  • Many counties pay to operate their landfill, but Lanchester actually pays the county. Bob wanted me to be sure to mention that they just wrote a check for half a million dollars to Chester County!

DumpingDuring the tour of the active hill, a garbage truck backed up, lifted its tail, revved its hydraulics, and started pushing out its load. The driver rolled down the window, leaned out, and threw his Dunkin Donuts bag directly on the ground. “Hey!” we all looked at each other for a moment: “That dude is totally litter-… oh.”

My favorite part of the day was when Chris Young brought and hooked up his Commodore 64 — not an emulator, an actual, by-God Commodore 64 that’s been in his mom’s closet for years and years — to the windmill power supply and fired it up, loading Summer Games from the 1541 floppy-disk drive. IT WORKED!

Chris Young on the C64

Back in the eighties, before becoming a producer, Chris played Bryce Lynch, the teenage-nerd inventor of Max Headroom, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the most important seminal cyberpunk roles out there. So having Bryce Lynch up there, hacking on his antique computer and CRT, USING METHANE POWER, OUTDOORS, in something that’s arguably close to an APOCALYPTIC WASTELAND? That’s about as close as it’s possible to get to cyberpunk in real life. Sheesh! I’m amazed we didn’t all come home with spiky mohawks, laser goggles, and motorcycle-tire epaulets.

I’m grateful to Bob Watts for the tour. Lanchester is an interesting and amazing place, and if you want to learn about the waste chain, which is pretty damn short (your trash bag -> a truck -> the top of a hill in Honeybrook), and you want to see all sorts of amazing ways that Lanchester is trying to extract value from their waste, then by all means give them a call!

Coworkout at Lanchester Landfill

Iron Hill followup: IT’S A BARLEY PARTY

This morning, as we were getting coffee on Market street before going to the office, Kate and I noticed that the door was open at the Iron Hill brewery, steam was rising off the giant copper kettle, and something was being poured from a spout in the ceiling. So we stuck our head in.

Now, a friendly local microbrewery doesn’t mind if you wander through the open door with your morning coffee and ask "Hey, what are you guys doing today?"

A REALLY friendly local microbrewery lets you climb up on the ladder, stand on the platform, and look down into the hot kettle.

An AWESOME local microbrewery lets you stir the mash and make a pirate face, then takes a picture of you doing it with your own iPhone:

Stirring the grog! ARRR!


StirringI’m standing on a stainless-steel platform about five feet up, stirring barley as it’s poured into the brew kettle using a long auger that brings the ground grains from the grinder all the way in the back of the building (those augers usually move chickenfeed!)

I know there’s a correct name for what’s in the kettle: "Mash?" "Kibble?" "Proto-beer?"

Anyway, it looks and smells like oatmeal. Which is, I guess, because that’s exactly what it is (except with barley instead of oats!)

Larry Horwitz, Iron Hill’s friendly brewer pictured in my last blog post, says they’re making about 300 gallons of Hefeweizen in this tank.

It’s really cool seeing this beer being made. The kettle is huge, of course, but inside, it’s just, you know… food! There’s a really normal kitchen vibe — “Oh, yeah, that’s just barley! I’d eat that!” Kate and I are going to have to come back and try the beer sampler again.

Barley sack! While we were in the back looking at the barley grinder on our impromptu tour, Kate spotted a bunch of big woven-plastic sacks. “Oh yeah!” said Larry. “We go through about 100 of those a month. Do you want to take one with you?”

I can’t wait to see what Kate sews up with this graphically bold German sack.

Look out fellows, we’re all gonna be ETSY MILLIONAIRES! 🙂

Iron Hill followup: IT’S A BARLEY PARTY