Zen and Now : On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Part travelogue, part meditation on an author and his work, Zen and Now is a tribute to a beloved American book and the landscape that inspired it.
Since it was first published in 1974, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has become a modern classic, a beautifully constructed blend of travel narrative and philosophical inquiry that has moved generations of readers. One of those readers was journalistMarkRichardson, who after rediscovering the book at middle age, decided to retrace Pirsig's journey. Fromthe back of his own motorcycle, Richardson investigates what happened to the reclusive Pirsig, his family, and the people described in the book in the years after its surprising success.
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September 08, 2009
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Excerpt from Zen and Now by Mark Richardson
Minnesota I can tell from the sign by the bank, without turning my head from the road, that it’s nine thirty in the morning. The sign flashes to show it’s 80 degrees, and the heat’s already coming through my jacket. It’s going to be hot today. That’s okay—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 inter- state and you don’t need to stop till 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 ever 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 sometime 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 thruway 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 traveled 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 the book. 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 the book. It still draws cool water. The spout is opposite the pump, so I have to