Mark Richardson fol­lows the trail of a 1960s mo­tor­cy­cle clas­sic

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

T its heart, the 1968 clas­sic

is a sim­ple tale that praises ba­sic val­ues and de­cries ugly tech­nol­ogy. Au­thor Robert Pir­sig tells his story while rid­ing the secondary roads across the Dako­tas to the moun­tains, touch­ing Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park be­fore a pause in Boze­man, Mon­tana. From there, he crosses into Idaho and over to Ore­gon be­fore dip­ping down into Cal­i­for­nia and reach­ing the Pa­cific coast and San Fran­cisco. Pretty good trip, re­ally. I CAN tell from the sign by the bank, without turn­ing my head from the road, that it’s 9.30am. The sign flashes to show it’s 80F (27C), and the heat’s al­ready com­ing through my jacket. It’s go­ing to be hot to­day. That’s OK on a mo­tor­cy­cle; heat is al­ways wel­come.

The small town passes, and I’m back among the fields. The bike’s run­ning well this morn­ing, and both of us are stretch­ing out a lit­tle, start­ing to re­lax on the road now that this trip’s fi­nally un­der way. You’ll have to ex­cuse me if I think of her some­times as if she’s a per­son. It’s just me now, me and my old bike.

I’m on High­way 55, the orig­i­nal road that runs up from Min­neapo­lis to­ward Min­nesota’s north­west. This is an old road, made from con­crete with flat­tened stones in the mix for hard­ness and ridges ev­ery few dozen feet that set up a click­ety-clack sound like a lo­co­mo­tive on its tracks.

There aren’t many cars on this stretch of high­way be­cause any­body who’s re­ally try­ing to get some­where is on the in­ter­state that runs along­side a cou­ple of miles away. Sit on the in­ter­state and you don’t need to stop un­til you run out of gas. In fact, on the in­ter­state, if you didn’t have to pull over ev­ery few hours and pay at the pump, there’d be no rea­son to slow down or even speak to any­one. Truck­ers do it all the time. Stay awake for long enough and you’ll be at the coast by Wed­nes­day.

Not on this road, though. Trucks stay off this road. Click­ety-clack. There’s been a track here for cen­turies, paved some time in the 1920s or 30s to bet­ter link farm­ers with their mar­kets, Bi­ble sales­men with their cus­tomers, chil­dren with their schools. This is the kind of road on which life hap­pens, con­nect­ing other roads and streets and drive­ways and com­mu­ni­ties, not a through­way that picks you up here and throws you off there.

It me­an­ders around prop­er­ties and makes way for the marshes that breed the ducks and red-winged black­birds that take flight as I ride past. Click­ety-clack.

The only way to truly ex­pe­ri­ence a road like this is to be out in the open, not shut up in a car but rid­ing along on top of it on a mo­tor­cy­cle. It’s tough to ex­plain to some­one who’s only ever trav­elled be­hind a wind­shield, sealed in with the com­fort­ing thunk of a clos­ing door. On a bike there’s no com­fort­ing thunk. The road is right there be­low you, blur­ring past your feet, ready to scuff your sole should you pull your boot from the peg and let it touch the ground.

The wind is all around you and through you while the sun warms your cloth­ing and your face. Take your left hand from the han­dle­bar and place it in the breeze, and it rises and falls with the slip­stream as if it were a bird’s wing. Breathe in and smell the new-mown grass. Laugh out loud and your voice gets car­ried away on the wind.

At least that’s how it is on a warm, sunny day like this Mon­day morn­ing. Some rain a cou­ple of days ago was a strug­gle, but I won’t think about that now. There’ll be plenty of time for that later.

Click­ety-clack. Some­where be­side the road near here should be a rest area with an iron wa­ter pump. Nearly four decades ago a cou­ple of mo­tor­cy­cles stopped here, and their rid­ers took a cool drink from the pump. Should be com­ing up on the left, and here it is. Just like in

This road re­ally hasn’t changed much at all. There’s a place to park the bike near some pic­nic ta­bles un­der a shel­ter, and the grass drops down to a stream be­hind the trees.

To one side is the iron hand pump that’s men­tioned in Pir­sig’s book. It still draws cool wa­ter. The spout is op­po­site the pump, so I have to dash around with my hands cupped to catch the gush­ing wa­ter. I cap­ture just a trickle — I have no proper cup. The Zen rid­ers would have brought a cup. Be­sides, there were four of them — enough for one to pump and an­other to drink. I’m own to­day.

Those Zen rid­ers — they’re why I’m here. Robert Pir­sig and his 11-year-old son, Chris, on Pir­sig’s old 28-horse­power, 305cc Honda Su­perhawk CB77, and Pir­sig’s friends John and Sylvia Suther­land on their new BMW R60/2. They were mak­ing a long sum­mer ride back in 1968, and then Pir­sig went and wrote about it and his book be­came a best­seller.

is still in book­stores and of the five mil­lion copies sold two are in my sad­dle­bags. One is an early edi­tion, lib­er­ated from the book­shelf in my aunt’s liv­ing room years ago be­cause it had a pic­ture of a mo­tor­cy­cle on its pink cover; the other is the 25th an­niver­sary edi­tion, larger and a lit­tle re­vised.

And now here, at the first stop men­tioned in the book, it’s the pink edi­tion I pull out and read awhile, ly­ing back on the grass. BE­YOND the rest area the road is straight and pre­dictable, ris­ing and dip­ping through fields and swamps, bor­dered by blue and yel­low wild flow­ers in the un­cut verge. Ev­ery small pool I pass seems to have a heron at one end, eye­ing the fish or the frogs and wait­ing to see which of them can stay more still, and ducks at the

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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