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 Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I am always moved by this photograph. It has powerful nostalgic overtones for me. The clothes, the haircuts, and the bike all strongly suggest that the time period is the early 1970s or thereabouts. That is the era of my childhood. I had uncles and grandparents that looked like Robert does here. Some of them had motorcycles that looked like the Super Hawk (although none were *quite* that cool!). My brothers and cousins and I looked a lot like Chris.
The photograph at the top was taken during the trip that would serve as the narrative framework for Pirsig’s massively popular book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Father and son made a two-week trek along the back roads from Minneapolis to San Francisco. Years later, Chris moved to San Francisco. He was killed there (stabbed in the street), almost exactly ten years after the photo above was taken. No doubt my knowledge of this alters how I perceive this happy summer snapshot of father and son.
Me on my dad's 1971 Honda CB350 in Derby Green
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a good, but not great, book. The book is now more than forty years old, so first and foremost what it provides the modern reader is a time capsule. It is a period piece, set on the roadways of the northern Great Plains of 1970s America. If you are of a certain age, from a certain region, and wish to visit (or re-visit) that period, ZAMM will take you there. Also, as promised on the cover, Pirsig does share some thoughts on the intersection of philosophy and motorcycle maintenance. This does not take the form of a how-to with respect to specific wrenching techiniques. There is almost nothing in ZAMM that would appear in a shop manual (although I do recall a small bit of actual detail on how to inspect and replace the ignition points). Rather, Pirsig uses the mindset of an amateur motorcycle mechanic (rational, practical, ordered, etc.) as a recurring motif from which to explore several other ideas, especially the Romantic worldview vs. the Rationalist worldview and the cultural stresses of both modernity in general and technology in specific. Pirsig is a good story-teller. I enjoyed his companionship and guidance throughout the journey. What’s less great about ZAMM is Pirsig’s estimation of the book’s purpose. One senses that he believes he is altering the course of Western philosophy through the revelations in ZAMM. Personally, I wasn’t especially impressed by Pirsig the philosopher, or even Pirsig the father. I did enjoy the journey and the story and Pirsig’s observations of how the world was evolving around him in 1970.