Excerpt from the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Parsig
The road winds on and on… we stop for rests and lunch, exchange small talk, and settle down to the long ride. The beginning fatigue of afternoon balances the excitement of the first day and we move steadily, not fast, not slow.
We have picked up a southwest side wind, and the cycle cants into the gusts, seemingly by itself, to counter their effect. Lately there’s been a sense of something peculiar about this road, apprehension about something, as if we were being watched or followed. But there is not a car anywhere ahead, and in the mirror are only John and Sylvia way behind.
We are not in the Dakotas yet, but the broad fields show we are getting nearer. Some of them are blue with flax blossoms moving in long waves like the surface of the ocean. The sweep of the hills is greater than before and they now dominate everything else, except the sky, which seems wider. Farmhouses in the distance are so small we can hardly see them. The land is beginning to open up.
There is no one place or sharp line where the Central Plains end and the Great Plains begin. It’s a gradual change like this that catches you unawares, as if you were sailing out from a choppy coastal harbor, noticed that the waves had taken on a deep swell, and turned back to see that you were out of sight of land. There are fewer trees here and suddenly I am aware they are no longer native. They have been brought here and planted around houses and between fields in rows to break up the wind. But where they haven’t been planted there is no underbrush, no second-growth saplings—only grass, sometimes with wildflowers and weeds, but mostly grass. This is grassland now. We are on the prairie.
I have a feeling none of us fully understands what four days on this prairie in July will be like. Memories of car trips across them are always of flatness and great emptiness as far as you can see, extreme monotony and boredom as you drive for hour after hour, getting nowhere, wondering how long this is going to last without a turn in the road, without a change in the land going on and on to the horizon.
John was worried Sylvia would not be up to the discomfort of this and planned to have her fly to Billings, Montana, but Silvia and I both talked him out of it. I argued that physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much. And when thinking about Sylvia’s moods and feelings, I couldn’t see her complaining.
Also, to arrive in the Rocky Mountains by plane would be to see them in one kind of context, as pretty scenery. But to arrive after days of hard travel across the prairies would be to see them in another way, as a goal, a promised land. If John and I and Chris arrived with this feeling and Sylvia arrived seeing them as “nice” and “pretty,” there would be more disharmony among us than we would get from the heat and monotony of the Dakotas. Anyway, I like to talk to her and I’m thinking of myself too.
In my mind, when I look at these fields, I say to her, “See?… See?” and I think she does. I hope later she will see and feel a think about these prairies I have given up talking to others about; a thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent. She seems so depressed sometimes by the monotony and boredom of her city life, I thought maybe in this endless grass and wind she would see a thing that sometimes comes when monotony and boredom are accepted. It’s here, but I have no names for it.
Now on the horizon I see something else I don’t think the others see. Far off to the southwest—you can see it only from the top of this hill—the sky has a dark edge. Storm coming. That may be what has been bothering me. Deliberately shutting it out of mind, but knowing all along that with this humidity and wind it was more than likely. It’s too bad, on the first day, but as I said before, on a cycle you’re in the scene, not just watching it, and storms are definitely part of it.
If it’s just thunderheads or broken line squalls you can try to ride around them, but this one isn’t. That long dark streak without any preceding cirrus clouds is a cold front. Cold fronts are violent and when they are from the southwest, they are the most violent. Often they contain tornadoes. When they come it’s best to just hole up and let them pass over. They don’t last long and the cool air behind them makes good riding.
Warm fronts are the worst. They can last for days. I remember Chris and I were on a trip to Canada a few years ago, got about 130 miles and were caught in a warm front of which we had plenty of warning but which we didn’t understand. The whole experience was kind of dumb and sad.
We were on a little six-and-one-half-horsepower cycle, way overloaded with luggage and way under loaded with common sense. The machine could do only about forty-five miles per hour wide open against a moderate head wind. It was no touring bike. We reached a large lake in the North Woods the first night and tented amid rainstorms that lasted all night long. I forgot to dig a trench around the tent and at about two in the morning a stream of water came in and soaked both sleeping bags. The next morning we were soggy and depressed and hadn’t had much sleep, but I thought that if we just got riding the rain would let up after a while. No such luck. By ten o’clock the sky was so dark all the cars had their headlights on. And then it really came down.
We were wearing the ponchos which had served as a tent the night before. Now they spread out like sails and slowed our speed to thirty miles an hour wide open. The water on the road became two inches deep. Lightning bolts came crashing down all around us. I remember a woman’s face looking astonished at us from the window of a passing car, wondering what in earth we were doing on a motorcycle in this weather. I’m sure I couldn’t have told her.
The cycle slowed down to twenty-five, then twenty. Then it started missing, coughing and popping and sputtering until, barely moving at five or six miles an hour, we found an old run-down filling station by some cutover timberland and pulled in.
At the time, like John, I hadn’t bothered to learn much about motorcycle maintenance. I remember holding my poncho over my head to keep the rain from the tank and rocking the cycle between my legs. Gas seemed to be sloshing around inside. I looked at the plugs, and looked at the points, and looked at the carburetor, and pumped the kick starter until I was exhausted.
We went into the filling station, which was also a combination beer joint and restaurant, and had a meal of burned-up steak. Then I went back out and tried it again. Chris kept asking questions that started to anger me because he didn’t see how serious it was. Finally I saw it was no use, gave it up, and my anger at him disappeared. I explained to him as carefully as I could that it was all over. We weren’t going anywhere by cycle on this vacation. Chris suggested things to do like check the gas, which I had done, and find a mechanic. But there weren’t any mechanics. Just cutover pine trees and brush and rain.
I sat in the grass with him at the shoulder of the road, defeated, staring into the trees and underbrush. I answered all of Chris’s questions patiently and in time they became fewer and fewer. And then Chris finally understood that our cycle trip was really over and began to cry. He was eight then, I think.
We hitchhiked back to our own city and rented a trailer and put it on our car and came up and got the cycle, and hauled it back to our own city and then started out all over again by car. But it wasn’t the same. And we didn’t really enjoy ourselves much.
Two weeks after the vacation was over, one evening after work, I removed the carburetor to see what was wrong but still couldn’t find anything. To clean off the grease before replacing it, I turned the stopcock on the tank for a little gas. Nothing came out. The tank was out of gas. I couldn’t believe it. I can still hardly believe it.
I have kicked myself mentally a hundred times for that stupidity and don’t think I’ll ever really, finally get over it. Evidently what I saw sloshing around was gas in the reserve tank which I had never turned on. I didn’t check it carefully because I assumed the rain had caused the engine failure. I didn’t understand then how foolish quick assumptions like that are. Now we are on a twenty-eight-horse machine and I take the maintenance of it very seriously.
All of a sudden John passes me, his palm down, signaling a stop. We slow down and look for a place to pull off the gravelly shoulder. The edge of the concrete is sharp and the gravel is loose and I’m not a bit fond of his maneuver.
Chris asks, “What are we stopping for?”
“I think we missed our turn back there,” John says.
I look back and see nothing. “I didn’t see any sign,” I say.
John shakes his head. “Big as a barn door.”
He and Sylvia both nod.
He leans over, studies my map and points to where the turn was and then to a freeway overpass beyond it. “We’ve already crossed this freeway,” he says. I see he is right. Embarrassing. “Go back or go ahead?” I ask.
He thinks about it. “Well, I guess there’s really no reason to go back. All right. Let’s just go ahead. We’ll get there one way or another.”
And now tagging along behind them I think, Why should I do a thing like that? I hardly noticed the freeway. And just now I forgot to tell them about the storm. Things are getting a little unsettling.
The storm cloud bank is larger now but it is not moving in as fast as I thought it would. That’s not so good. When they come in fast they leave fast. When they come in slow like this you can get stuck for quite a time.
I remove a glove with my teeth, reach down and feel the aluminum side cove of the engine. The temperature is fine. Too warm to leave my hand there, not so hot I get a burn. Nothing wrong there.
On an air-cooled engine like this, extreme overheating can cause a “seizure.” This machine has had one… in fact, three of them. I check it from time to time the same way I would check a patient who has had a heart attack, even though it seems cured.
In a seizure, the pistons expand from too much heat, become too big for the walls of the cylinders, seize them, melt to them sometimes, and lock the engine and rear wheel and start the whole cycle into a skid. The first time this one seized, my head was pitched over the front wheel and my passenger was almost on top of me. At about thirty it freed up again and started to run but I pulled off the road and stopped to see what was wrong. All my passenger could think to say was “What did you do that for?”
I shrugged and was as puzzled as he was, and stood there with the cars whizzing by, just staring. The engine was so hot the air around it shimmered and we could feel the heat radiate. When I put a wet finger on it, it sizzled like a hot iron and we rode home, slowly, with a new sound, a slap that meant the pistons no longer fit and an overhaul was needed.
I took this machine into a shop because I thought it wasn’t important enough to justify getting into myself, having to learn all the complicated details and maybe having to order parts and special tools and all that time-dragging stuff when I could get someone else to do it in less time—sort of John’s attitude.
The shop was a different scene from the ones I remembered. The mechanics, who had once all seemed like ancient veterans, now looked like children. A radio was going full blast and they were clowning around and talking and seemed not to notice me. When one of them finally came over he barely listened to the piston slap before saying, “Oh yeah. Tappets.”
Tappets? I should have known then what was coming.
Two weeks later I paid their bill for 140 dollars, rode the cycle carefully at varying low speeds to wear it in and then after one thousand miles opened it up. At about seventy-five it seized again and freed at thirty, the same as before. When I brought it back they accused me of not breaking it in properly, but after much argument agreed to look into it. They overhauled it again and this time took it out themselves for a high-speed road test.
It seized on them this time.
After the third overhaul two months later they replaced the cylinders, put in oversize main carburetor jets, retarded the timing to make it run as coolly as possible and told me, “Don’t run it fast.”
It was covered with grease and did not start. I found the plugs were disconnected, connect them and started it, and now there really was a tappet noise. They hadn’t adjusted them. I pointed this out and the kid came with an open-end adjustable wrench, set wrong, and swiftly rounded both of the sheet-aluminum tappet covers, ruining both of them.
“I hope we’ve got some more of those in stock,” he said.
He brought out a hammer and cold chisel and started to pound them loose. The chisel punched through the aluminum cover and I could see he was pounding the chisel right into the engine head. On the next blow he missed the chisel completely and struck the head with the hammer, breaking off a portion of two of the cooling fins.
“Just stop,” I said politely, feeling this was a bad dream. “Just give me some new covers and I’ll take it the way it is.”
I got out of there as fast as possible, noisy tappets, shot tappet covers, greasy machine, down the road, and then felt a bad vibration and speeds over twenty. At the curb I discovered two of the four engine-mounting bolts were missing and a nut was missing from the third. The whole engine was hanging on by only one bolt. The overhead-cam chain-tensioner bolt was also missing, meaning it would have been hopeless to try to adjust the tappets anyway. Nightmare.
The thought of John putting his BMW into the hands of one of those people is something I have never brought up with him. Maybe I should.
I found the cause of the seizures a few weeks later, waiting to happen again. It was a little twenty-five-cent pin in the internal oil-delivery system that had been sheared and was preventing oil from reaching the head at high speeds.
The question why comes back again and again and has become a major reason for wanting to deliver this Chautauqua. Why did they butcher it so? These were not people running away from technology, like John and Sylvia. These were the technologists themselves. They sat down to do a job and they performed it like chimpanzees. Nothing personal in it. There was no obvious reason for it. And I tried to think back into that shop, that nightmare place, to try to remember anything that could have been the cause.
The radio was a clue. You can’t really think hard about what you’re doing and listen to the radio at the same time. Maybe they didn’t see their job as having anything to do with hard thought, just wrench twiddling. If you can twiddle wrenches while listening to the radio that’s more enjoyable.
Their speed was another clue. They were really slopping things around in a hurry and not looking where they slopped them. More money that way—if you don’t stop to think that it usually takes longer or comes out worse.
But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easygoing—and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, “I am a mechanic.” At 5 P.M. or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. In their own way they were achieving the same thing John and Sylvia were, living with technology without really having anything to do with it. Or rather, they had something to do with it, but their own selves were outside of it, detached, removed. They were involved in it but not in such a way as to care.
Not only did these mechanics not find that sheared pin, but it was clearly a mechanic who had sheared it in the first place, by assembling the side cover plate improperly. I remembered the previous owner had said a mechanic had told him the plate was hard to get on. That was why. The shop manual had warned about this, but like the others he was probably in too much of a hurry or he didn’t care.
While at work I was thinking about this same lack of care in the digital computer manuals I was editing. Writing and editing technical manuals is what I do for a living the other eleven months of the year and I knew they were full of error, ambiguities, omissions and information so completely screwed up you had to read them six times to make any sense out of them. But what struck me for the first time was the agreement of these manuals with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the idea that “Here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it, other than to turn certain switches, maintain voltage levels, check for error condition…” and so on. That’s it. The mechanics in their attitude toward the machine were really taking no different attitude from the manual’s toward the machine, or from the attitude I had when I brought it in there. We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.
On this trip I think we should notice it, explore it a little, to see if in that strange separation of what man is from what man does we may have some clues as to what the hell has gone wrong in this twentieth century. I don’t want to hurry it. That itself is a poisonous twentieth-century attitude. When you want to hurry something ,that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things. I just want to get at it slowly, but carefully and thoroughly, with the same attitude I remember was present just before I found that sheared pin. It was that attitude that found it, nothing else.
I suddenly notice the land here has flattened into a Euclidean plane. Not a hill, not a bump anywhere. This means we have entered the Red River Valley. We will soon be into the Dakotas.