In 1968, a technical writer from Minnesota left Minneapolis on his 1966 Honda CB77F Super Hawk with his 11-year-old son Chris as pillion. The two had a pair of Harley-Davidson beetle bags and a mountain of gear strapped to their 305cc, 28 hp motorcycle. This was the start of a long roadtrip to California and back.
Riding with him were the Sutherlands, a husband and wife on a BMW R75. From Minnesota, they crossed the Dakotas and Montana before turning south in Idaho toward the California coast. It was a trip that brought the writer, Robert Pirsig, back to the mountains that he loved. He was one of us, a motorcycle traveler:
“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 M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
When Pirsig came home, he set about writing a book. The novel was not just about the ride. Pirsig was a deep thinker and he used the trip and motorcycle maintenance to discuss deep philosophical ideas about quality. He wrote about his past mental health issues and the fractured relationship with his son, too. It was, to put it lightly, heavy. His manuscript was rejected dozens of times before finally being accepted.
The ‘60s and ‘70s were an era when The Beatles sought deeper meaning in India, Alan Watts filled lecture halls with Zen-curious students, and yoga and the martial arts were rising in popularity. It was as if a whole generation was looking at the trajectory of their lives and Western society and asking, “Is that all there is, Mrs. Robinson?” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance swam into this introspective, countercultural current and struck a nerve. Upon publication in 1974, the book became an out-of-the-left-field hit and made Pirsig an unlikely celebrity.
Over the years, it has landed on many motorcyclists’ bookshelves. It resonated deeply with some—my friend Alan says it changed his life. With others looking for an epic motorcycle adventure journal in the spirit of Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels, not so much. Still, to this day it lays claim to being the most popular philosophy book ever—and possibly the most popular motorcycle-themed book as well.
21st Century Zen
But that was then. This is now. The other day I saw a package of trail mix named Zen Party. What makes it Zen—the rice crackers, sesame sticks, fried green peas, or wasabi peas? There’s also ZenWTR, or more prosaically, Zen Water. There are Zen shoe insoles, Zen supplements, Zen bathtubs... Does Zen have a meaning anymore or has it jumped the shark?
I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my younger days, around the same time I started riding motorcycles but before I began writing about them. Parts of it struck a chord, but I charged through the deep, philosophical parts like a highway slog. With the 50th anniversary of the book coming up in 2024 and more (literal and figurative) miles under my belt,
I thought that it would be fun to retrace Pirsig’s route from Minneapolis to San Francisco across parts of the country that I had not explored before. It would also be a time to unplug from the slog of the daily grind, to think about Pirsig’s words anew, and to think about Zen.
So, over 50 years after Pirsig’s historic trip, I am in Minneapolis. I am alone on a Honda CBR650R, as sporting today as Pirsig’s CB77F Super Hawk was back then. The performance gap between the two is huge—305cc parallel twin vs. 650cc inline-four, 350 pounds vs. 456 lbs, ~28 hp vs. 95 hp. Plus, the technology of the CBR is a half century away from the old Super Hawk. The CBR is fuel injected, the tires are radial, and the brakes are significantly stronger ABS units. The CBR runs circles around the old Super Hawk, even though some might say that it’s underpowered in our modern era.
This CBR650R is fully loaded for the journey, with saddlebags, duffle, a tankbag, and the suspension’s preload cranked all the way up. I have a backpack filled with cameras, action cameras, a drone, and a phone filled with maps and music. I stop at the Sutherlands’ old home for a couple of photos. Then, it’s kickstand up and onto the backroads and into the wilds of Minnesota. It’s time for some ZenMoto.
“Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on ‘good’ rather than ‘time’ and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes.”