J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY The Zen and now
Mark Richardson follows the trail of a 1960s motorcycle classic
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