From Issue #187
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is book I read in my 20s. Looking back, the thing I most liked about it was how it made me feel not alone. At the time, I was too young to really understand author Robert Pirsig’s battle with schizophrenia, marriage and fatherhood, but his search for the meaning of quality was and is something I hold dear to my heart.
Now older, a father and divorced, but not a schizophrenic (thankfully, on all counts), I was at the library with my kids and realized I should grab a few things for myself for some upcoming travels. For someone who used to devour books, I’ve found that being on a plane is one of the few occasions I make the time to really dig deep into a book. Having lost my copy of Pirsig’s first novel long ago, it seemed time to read it again. Instead, the card catalog brought up “Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, a 275-page story of a middle-aged guy chasing ghosts down the same roads Pirsig and his son traveled decades ago.
I’m oddly attracted to this type of story, even if they always seem to be transparent attempts to ride the coattails of someone else’s fame. But “Zen and Now”, and the similar “Gironimo!: Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy”, are honest books, or at least are well written enough to convince me of such. “Gironimo!” came across my desk as an advance copy months ago, but only recently did I start reading it.
Written by British author Tim Moore, he traces the route of the insane-sounding 1914 Tour of Italy, on all period-correct gear, although there is no attempt to repeat the times set by the original racers. The average daily distance was almost 250 miles, all on bikes with sew-up tires, wooden rims, cork brake shoes and a pair of cogs, one on each side of the rear hub.
As Moore struggles to piece together a working bike from various Internet purchases, I can see he is looking for quality in his endeavor. Yes, it is tilting at windmills, and I’m sure he was the butt of more than one joke in the local language as he creaked and groaned his way around Italy. But there was a vision there that was clear and honest, the same with “Zen and Now.”
While figuring out how to put together the narrative on the One Bike Challenge in Issue #187, I was having a hard time excusing myself for quitting my bikepacking trip early. But I’ve decided to cut myself some slack. Bikepacking should be enjoyable, and if the joy isn’t there, am I really going to find any quality in the trip, or in the writing I do about it afterward?
In hindsight, pulling the plug and spending time with an old friend, including a relaxing morning catching up on our lives, was a solid reminder to seek out the things and people we find to be quality, even if the true meaning of that word is elusive. I also came to the realization that solo trips have been a source of solace, enlightenment and discovery, but after a few decades of mostly solo travels, I realize I’ve dug as much stuff out of myself as I am likely to find. It is time to do a better job planning and inviting people to travel along. Post-ride beers taste better with someone with whom you shared an experience.
That’s what I’m after here: quality. We spend a lot of time trying to quantify the quality of things, and people and places. As tacky as it sounds, I think everything has a narrative, and finding it is the best way for us to communicate to our readers effectively about the quality of the topic, or sometimes the lack thereof. So even though I know the One Bike Challenge and other similar narrative devices might be slightly cheesy, I am firmly convinced they are an effective and entertaining tool to mine descriptions of that elusive quality at the root of our favorite products and people and places.
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