NOW AND ZEN
Back in the fall of 1968, having amassed the princely sum of $160 from my summertime job as lifeguard, I set off toward Mexico astride my black and silver Honda 305 Super Hawk. About the same time, Robert Pirsig was setting off on his vision quest, also astride a Honda 305—although his was a model CB77, configured for pavement, and mine was a model CL77, which was equally at home on pavement or dirt.
During the first leg of my journey, my wheels never touched asphalt. I made my way through Buckhorn Draw, across the San Rafael Swell, and down unpaved highway 95 to the Fry Canyon trading post, where I bought a bag of chips and a can of Vienna sausages—which was to be my supper for the night. However, when suppertime rolled around, I discovered that the chips and sausages had bounced out of my rucksack, and so went to bed hungry—and also cold, because all I had in the way of camp gear was a J.C. Higgins sleeping bag stuffed with something called kapok. Weight without warmth. In the middle of the night I was awakened by a thunderstorm. Hurriedly, I repacked my gear and pressed on to Mexican Hat, steering the bike with one hand and wiping raindrops off my plexiglass visor with the other.
For some unfathomable reason I recently decided to retrace the ride, even though I’m now fifty years older and supposedly somewhat wiser. My goal was to see if, at the age of 72, I still have it in me.
This time around, though, I wouldn’t be sleeping on the ground. And my current bike, a BMW GS 1200, is far better suited for long-distance travel. Its engine is four times the size of my old CL77 engine and the gas tank holds sufficient fuel that I won’t be packing two jerry cans as before. Also, this time around I’d be eating at restaurants instead of rummaging through my pack in search of canned sausages formed of various animal by-products.
As before, I would be traveling alone. It’s a habit I formed long ago, not long after seeing the movie “Shane.” What could be more romantic than riding into the valley, a solitary stranger with no particular goal in mind except to vanquish all the bad guys, steal the heart of Maid Marion, and make a lasting impression on some young kid who otherwise might grow up to be just another unimaginative sod buster?
Then there was the leather jacket my mother bought me when I was a kid. I loved it! Wearing it turned me into a rebel of sorts, even though another ten years would pass before I finally got my first motorbike: a 50cc Honda Cub on which I spent countless happy hours exploring back country trails and blue highways—the bluer the better. And along the way I would see so much more than one can see from a car.
“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other,” writes Pirsig in ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE. “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. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.”
One thing you’re always conscious of on a motorcycle is the weather, which is why, about a hundred miles downrange, I decided to abandon my plan to exactly follow the course I took in 1968. A cold wind was blowing, and I could see that snow was falling on the mountaintops. So I decided to stay in the low country. I’d take U.S. 89 south until I neared the Arizona border, at which time I’d recalculate.
89 is a lovely road. In Utah, it’s called the Heritage Highway because it runs through the heart of rural Mormonia. Settlements along the way are small and spaced about twenty miles apart—wherever there is a stream emerging from a canyon that can be tapped for irrigation purposes. It was part of Brigham Young’s plan to colonize the West, and in large part it succeeded, although nowadays it’s very hard for communities such as Circleville, Axtell, Joseph, Gunnison, Marysvale and Orderville, to hold onto their young people. Soon as a kid in Elsinore gets his driver’s license, he’s off to the big city, leaving behind the tractor, the alfalfa field, the rope swing, the trampoline and the Frostee Freez—now shuttered, along with the movie house—because there are insufficient teenagers and a depressing surplus of oldsters content to just sit home and watch television. “Passive observers of whatever is moving boringly by them in a frame.”
250 miles down the road, I decide to put in for the night at Panguitch. At the motel desk, I reach for my AARP card, but there’s no need. The desk clerk has already determined that I’m a senior citizen and gives me the requisite discount. She assigns me a room in a far corner of the motel, with a parking space that is already occupied by two Harley Davidsons. Their owners, Mike and Mike from Coeur d’Alene, are sitting in lawn chairs next to their bikes, drinking beer and smoking cigars. If this were a movie, a scuffle would automatically ensue; however, that doesn’t happen because we are all adults capable of getting along even though Harleys and Beemers have very little in common.
“Different spokes for different folks,” is how my libertarian biker neighbor puts it. Which still doesn’t explain why his biker buddies in Sturgis all dress and act exactly the same.
The two Mikes offer me a beer and we chat. They are out to visit five national parks in five days. We compare machines, and Mike #1 admits that he would consider buying a BMW GS were it not for the fact he has a short inseam. “When I sit on the saddle, my feet don’t touch the ground,” he explains.
I make a mental note to wait until the two Mikes have departed before mounting my Bavarian steed in the morning—with a running jump ala Lash LaRue. Mike’s inseam is 32 inches. Mine is 29. Or, as they say in Germany, 736.6 millimeters.