Riding in the tracks of Pirsig’s Zen

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer, and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” ~ Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

There’s this book that’s had more of an impact on me than anything else I’ve read in the last ten years. It’s not the Bible or the Book of Mormon or the Quran. It’s a little book that starts by telling what appears to be a simple story, but then morphs into an introspective philosophical study that became something of a touchstone for a generation. I’ve read it cover-to-cover a couple times, and every now and then I pull it off the shelf and open it randomly just to read a few pages. I almost always find something useful or at least worth thinking about.

Image: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values isn’t about fixing motorcycles, but that’s in it. His accounts of motorcycle riding are the most accurate and descriptive I’ve found, but that’s not what it’s about. The book has several themes. On a simple level, it’s a travel narrative about a motorcycle trip the author takes with his son across the western United States. On another level, it’s a dense philosophical look into the conflict between romantic and classical thinking. Along the way the author explains his search for and belief in quality as a unifying force. He uses the trip and the characters in the book as metaphors to discuss philosophy. The little pink book was rejected by publishers 121 times before it was finally publish and became the most widely read book on philosophy ever.

Zen had a profound effect on me. Before reading it, I used to get impatient with the unfamiliar processes of fixing things around the house. Replacing a damaged window screen or fixing a leaky faucet used to make me crazy. This would happen because I viewed every repair in terms of what I didn’t know rather than what I could learn. That usually set up self-fulfilling prophecies in which mistakes multiplied to the point where I just didn’t want to attempt to fix things around the house. “I’ll screw it up even worse. Just call a repairman,” became my response to problems.

But then I read Zen and my outlook completely changed. Pirsig taught me that no repairman will ever care as much about a repair as I will; therefore I should be the one to do the repair. He also taught me that experience builds upon itself. For example, fixing that window screen last year means that I know how to replace the door screen today. Most importantly, Pirsig taught me about the deep comfort you achieve when you know something is done with quality. The book helped me realize that I own the creation and maintenance of quality in my life.

Occasionally, I slip back into being that frustrated, impatient homeowner when I’m looking at an instruction manual and realizing the complexity of a repair I’m about to attempt. It’s at those dark moments when my wife gently says, “Go to your Zen place.” It works on me every time. I calm down and slowly read the instructions while gathering tools. Then I’m able to carefully step my way through the repair. So, in my mind there is a fairly meaningful connection between Robert Pirsig and my wife, Kristi.

I’m doing many things to get ready for The Ride. At this point I’m doing a lot of practical list-making and reading. Part of my reading includes books about similar journeys. Zen is on my list of required reading, but today I’m reading Mark Richardson’s Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s about the author’s retracing of the original Zen route from Minneapolis to San Francisco. Like other ‘Pirsig Pilgrims’, Richardson is interested in how things have changed since Pirsig’s ride.

Image: Map of the Zen ride

Pirsig’s route across the western United States

Richardson’s writing is less philosophical. He describes in detail the people he meets and the things and places he experiences along the way. This morning I was reading about the towns that both he and Pirsig rode through in northern South Dakota, and that’s when I made a personally profound discovery. Richardson helped me realize that Pirsig passed right through my wife’s hometown during the Zen ride. Richardson even stopped at the gas station my Father-in-Law’s once managed during his “Zen and Now” ride. Richardson writes…

“It’s as hot as it’s ever been, just over 100 degrees on the gas station thermometer here in McLaughlin… Inside the gas station the conversation’s about the heat.

The air-conditioning is welcome, and the Gatorade is cooling me when another motorcyclist walks in. He is the only other person I’ve seen in days who’s wearing a jacket. His BMW is parked outside, and he wants ice cream. He’s an older guy, and we greet each other like old friends.”

McLaughlin, South Dakota is a tiny speck of a town. It sits in the middle of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and it had a population of 663 during the 2010 census. The town grew up at the intersection of US Route 12 and Highway 63, and that is where the gas station is located.

Image: McLaughlin, S.D.

Main Street in McLaughlin S.D.

My wife’s parents moved to McLaughlin in 1968. They located there because the state forgave the student debt of college graduates who were willing to teach in public schools in rural South Dakota towns. So, Jim Hannigan moved his young family into an old farm house on the edge of town about a quarter mile from the intersection of US Route 12 and Highway 63. His oldest daughter, Kristi was one-year-old.

At the same time, Robert Pirsig was rolling west through South Dakota along US Route 12. This is what he said about the landscape between Mobridge and Lemmon.

“We climb a long, long hill (up from the Missouri River) into another country. The fences are really all gone now. No brush, no trees… There’s no friendly motorcycle mechanic on the other side of those rocks and I’m wondering if we’re ready for this. If anything goes wrong now we’re in real trouble.”

In my mind, a moment exists in which the young Hannigan family is taking a walk. They want to escape the heat of the house and maybe meet some of the people of their new town. They leave their front porch and walk down the gentle slope into the north end of town. The husband, wife and baby are about to cross the highway to purchase sodas at the gas station (the same gas station Jim Hannigan would eventually run once he was through with teaching, the same gas station Mark Richardson would drink Gatorade in a few years later). That’s when they hear the Honda Superhawk’s engine. It sounds out of place in the farm country of 1968.

Chris and Robert Pirsig

Chris and Robert Pirsig on their Honda Superhawk during the Zen ride.

Pirsig slows and shifts down as he approaches the crossroad. A young family is standing at the intersection. He stops and waits for them to cross, and that’s when the baby does what all kids do when they cross paths with a motorcycle. She looks up to see the loud, shiny thing. Older kids almost always smile broadly and wave at motorcyclists. Boys lucky enough to be on their bicycles usually flash a casual thumbs-up of two-wheel brotherhood. Babies just stare, and so does this one. She makes eye-contact with the man astride the noisy thing. The rider and the baby watch each other as the young mother quickens her pace to get off the road.

With the family now safely in the gas station parking lot, Pirsig begins letting go of the clutch. He feels the bike begin to move, and his feet come up onto the pegs. He an Chris still have considerable ground to cover between here and Lemmon, where they’ll camp for the night.

Now, that probably didn’t happen, but there is a chance that it or some variation of it did. The possibility that Kristi and Pirsig may have crossed paths during the Zen ride is kind of profound for me.

On one hand, it reminds me of how connected we all can be. I’m not talking about being Internet connected. I’m talking about a deep, mostly unseen, unknown connection that we usually aren’t aware of, but it’s always there — stitching our world together with invisible thread.

Or maybe something else is happening.  Maybe we search for things to connect to. Maybe our desperate need to make sense of a horribly random existence causes our subconscious to reach into the raw material of chaos and grasp the things it needs to assemble the illusion of order.

I feel one, maybe both, of these forces at work as the realization hits me that I’ll also become a ‘Pirsig Pilgrim’ during The Ride. Either by accident or by fate, I’ll begin following Pirsig’s tire-tracks as I cross from Oregon into northern California. I’ll follow his path down the coast to where the Zen trip ended in San Francisco. Once I get there, I’ll look for a place to stop and contemplate Persig’s ride. It might even happen while I watch a young family that’s waiting to cross the road.

Image: Kawasaki Concours

My ride sits on the side of the highway near Duvall, Wash.

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One Response to Riding in the tracks of Pirsig’s Zen

  1. Pingback: Crazy for the moon over Crescent City | MotorcycleBlog

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