Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Part Three)

The main skill is to keep from getting lost. Since the roads are used only by local people who know them by sight nobody complains if the junctions aren’t posted. And often they aren’t. When they are it’s usually a small sign hiding unobtrusively in the weeds and that’s all. Country road-sign makers seldom tell you twice. If you miss that sign in the weeds that’s your problem, not theirs. – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Chapter One

I’d like to begin by commenting that my Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Essays are probably best appreciated by those who’ve read the book once or twice already. Clearly, some prior familiarity with the text will make my comments and observations more readily accessible But I am going to try to take an approach that will render the analysis of value or interest even if you haven’t or don’t intend to read the book. Or for that matter, even to those who may not actually be particularly interested in either zen or motorcycles.  Though I suspect relatively few people who may take time to listen to these ramblings will fit that description.

As you may have noticed, this episode is titled “Footnotes to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Part Three” and is part of an as-yet indeterminate series of explorations of this book. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to listen to the earlier parts, you may wish to go back before proceeding on to the things I have to say here. Backtracking like that isn’t in any way obligatory, but there may be some comments and insights from that earlier analysis that may be helpful in this ongoing study.

Otherwise, I hope you’ll stay with me for a ride into the ideas, values and aesthetics this book has to offer.

The first chapter of Robert Pirsig’s ZAMM is perhaps the most approachable in a book that can be a rather off-putting and alienating read. For that reason and also since I think its important to point-out how densely-packed the book is right from its beginning,  I’m going to take a slow ride through the first chapter. I’ll be exploring and considering the many insights and layered meanings or messages that may be found along the way.

What I’m going to do in this third part of the series is proceed from the narrator’s observation of the duck hunting sloughs that he and his riding companions are passing on their Motorcycles. I’ll continue for the next several pages of the first chapter. In my editions of the book, that’s roughly pages four through six of the white-covered Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition or pages twelve through fourteen of the green-covered edition. You may find photos of both editions on or simply follow-along in whatever version you happen to have.

I’m going to overlap my current reading with a segment that was discussed in the previous part of this series since I think this provides some valuable insight into the author’s style, particularly in the pacing used when shifting topics or perspectives from one paragraph to the next.

These paragraphs involved in this current reading contain several observations and passages that are very near and dear to the aesthetically-oriented hearts and imaginations of motorcycle riders.  In part two of this footnotes series, I commented that observations of temperature and weather play a significant role in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I also said that this was a particular consideration for motorcycle riders compared to car drivers and that even the worst or most extreme weather conditions are not directly experienced inside a protective climate controlled cabin. But a motorcycle rider always experiences weather and is therefore far more aware of and sensitive to it. I would be surprised if any motorcycle-riding fans of the book weren’t immediately reminded of the first paragraph:

“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. 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.”

I have driven just about every form of road-going vehicle that a person can drive: car, convertible, SUV, hatchback, sedan, pickup truck, van, cargo van, even 18-wheeler tractor trailer and yes, motorcycle. This observation, that sitting in the compartment of a car is comparable to watching TV is relatively true when compared to riding a motorcycle.

A car’s cabin is, primarily, a place of comfort, convenience and protection. The earliest road-going vehicles began as open carriages not very different from a horse-and-buggy carriage. As time past, a protective bubble grew around passengers -one that increasingly protected, comforted and separated them from the road. Currently that protective bubble has grown a vast and complicated array of technologies and systems that have done nothing other than to fulfill Pirsig’s claim. Not only do we have windscreens and roofs to keep weather out, heating and air-conditioning to control the temperature and cabin-air filters to keep the air we breathe free of the character of the air outside the vehicle….we also have seat belts, gps systems, cameras and sensors to help navigation; satellite and cellular telephone/communication systems to communicate around the planet, but most new vehicles now include small television screens which include significant entertainment…and self-driving vehicles. Now we don’t even need to watch the TV outside the car’s windscreen, we have one or more than one inside the car.

If a motorcycle is a metaphor for the self, the weather a metaphor for the events and times of or lives,  the road a metaphor for the way we choose to live and riding the act of living….riding in a protective bubble where we are isolated from the weather and mostly ignorant of the road may well be one of the most apt metaphors of all.  Just as our vehicles are becoming faster and more isolated….so, it sometimes seems, are our lives moving along faster and more isolated from living. Life seems to have become “just more TV.

Riding a motorcycle is never “just more TV”. 

For a contemporary reader of Zen and the Art – that is to say, someone reading the book in this 2020’s, the narrator’s reference to the world moving by boringly in a frame has a special connotation which I’m not entirely certain was fully mature at the time of the book’s publication in 1974. Almost certainly, it was nowhere near as common as it is today.

While I think that I’ve made clear that I’m not an expert in anything at all, I think I have enough generalist ability to describe what framing is about. So here it goes. In the social sciences this idea of framing is a set of theories and perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies organize, perceive, and communicate about reality. It basically states that a frame can be put around a topic, issue or event which sets the context and guides the perceptions of a viewer. In other words, it is a tool of rhetoric. Well given Pirsig’s interest in rhetoric, the inclusion of that descriptive word in this particular observation is wonderfully meaningful. The fact that the narrator describes things going by boringly in a frame is, perhaps something we all need to consider more deeply. It is just possible that anything that goes by within a frame, however novel it may be at first, will ultimately be un-engaging and boring. It is also just possible that frames are, by nature of their design, contrary to everything that we actually need and aspire to.

This reference to frames may readily be reviewed, or meditated upon if you prefer that language, in context of Zen. Framing is a kind of dualism. Framing is necessarily oriented to a subject-object relationship among things. That orientation is, perhaps, fundamentally flawed and problematic. For my own part, I’ve done just that meditating or reflecting upon what I see as a problem that arises from rhetorical framing of things and found that framing separates me from my direct experience of things. In my experience, framing tends to be an arbitrary and external imposition of values – usually, but not always, someone else’s values based on their priorities. What I’m saying is that framing usually gets in the way of direct living and I usually object to it for that reason.

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A Motorcycle Frame: It’s almost wholly irrelevant to the points in this article, but I’m not above the pun.

The narrator features the issue of framing when he goes on in the subsequent paragraph. It is a paragraph that is so direct and complete that it is tempting to simply conclude that there isn’t anything more to be said. But I think it is necessary to point out how continuous, how much momentum or forward progress there is in the writing. Each paragraph picks up from it’s predecessor to take the reader further down the conceptual roads they travel.

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. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

The paragraph is almost as concrete as the concrete it mentions. The events of our lives seem always to be whizzing by.  In part two, I argued that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle begins in media res as a way to emphasize that we are always right there living in the middle of or lives. Usually, we’re so caught up in the thick of things that we don’t recognize this fact. But every now and then, it does catch up to us. All of the hustle and activity that led up to that moment and all of the hustle and activity that we are yet to experience is all around and we’ve been dropped into the middle of it.  Those moments aren’t really different or separate from the rest of our lives except for our recognition that we are always in the middle of things. Perhaps we may even find that living that present moment, living all of our present moments, rather than being caught up and swept away by the distraction of daily events, that this is what we need to focus on.  It seems to me the narrator is saying something similar when he says ,

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That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

Next in our selected passage we come upon some of the explanation of the motorcycle-journey in the first three sentences of the next paragraph. We’re told that…

Chris and I are travelling to Montana with some friends riding up ahead, and maybe headed farther than that. Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. We are just vacationing.

These sentences tell us where the riders are going and that there are some other companions along for a part of the ride. These sentences let us know that the ride is intended to be relaxed and care-free…there’s no definite schedule or itinerary. The riders are “just vacationing.”

This phrase, “just vacationing” is ironic.  Later in the book, the narrator recounts a person’s struggle to develop a definition for the word “quality”. You can find the passage I’m referring to in Chapter 19. The person struggled with the difference in meaning between “Quality is just what you like” and “Quality is what you like” concluding that inclusion of the word “just” is a pejorative. While we can leave exploration of the concerns to Chapter 19, I wanted to draw attention to the use of “just” in this early sentence. “We are just vacationing.”, in context of that later concern over the word “just”….is precisely the same. 

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For those of us who must recognize a differentiation of our time between when we are “vacationing” and when we are not, it seems to me that the vacationing time is more highly prized and valued. So using a pejorative “We are just vacationing.” Is completely wrong. We’re not making plans, we’re just vacationing….viewed from a certain angle, diminishes the importance of the time and of the approach. But it is important that he wrote it that way…if had a written “We are vacationing. Because we value our vacation time so much, we are avoiding detailed schedules and itineraries because that is the only way we can properly relax and live each moment…” it would have more directly explained the value. But the way it was phrased is, indeed often the way we view our vacations and relaxation…it’s unimportant time…time not demanded of others and therefore, shamefacedly describe our most valued commodities as something less than they are.

The paragraph then continues….

 Secondary roads are preferred. Paved country roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are 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. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer.  Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding.

When the narrator emphasizes that the riders’ focus is on good, rather than time…we immediately recognize the vacation mindset where one is focussed on enjoyment and satisfaction of the miles that they’re travelling rather than in racking up large numbers of miles.

Of course, these comments should also be taken as a statement of intent relative to reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – a book whose subtitle is An Inquiry into Values. The emphasis of the book should be one exploring the good rather than the plot that unfolds.  It can be taken as a kind of statement that you shouldn’t be entering ZAMM for the story. Honestly, there isn’t all that much story to keep track of.

The depiction of the types of roads is a symbolic expression of the different paths in life that a person may choose to take.  What is a billboard – it is the intrusion of some other entity’s priorities into the landscape of one’s life.

What is a porch – well the stoics take their name from a painted porch but that is probably a fortunate, though not meaningless coincidence. Porches are areas where people rest and for most people, probably come closest to a state of meditation. It is a place where people just sit.

The passage that follows establishes a relationship to the kind of road, both metaphorical and literal…..

It was some years ago that my wife and I and our friends first began to catch on to these roads. We took them once in a while for variety or for a shortcut to another main highway, and each time the scenery was grand and we left the road with a feeling of relaxation and enjoyment. We did this time after time before realizing what should have been obvious, these roads are truly different from the main ones. The whole pace of life and personality of the people who live along them are different. They’re not going anywhere. They’re not too busy to be courteous. The hereness and nowness of things is something they know all about. It’s the others, the ones who moved to the cities years ago and their lost offspring, who have all but forgotten it. The discovery was a real find.

This passage contains a sentence that contributes to the sense of irony or amusement that some modern readers approach the book…”The hereness and nowness of things is something they all know al about.”.  Expressed as it is, the sentence does seem like something from the groovy seventies. Clearly the sentence could have been written differently….such as “The immediacy of things is something they know all about.” Or “The immediacy of things is something they fully understand.”   While such a rendering may strike a contemporary reader as more serious….it also doesn’t separate and identity the time and space elements. When you try, it’s not all that easy to put the sentiments a different way without losing something.

It also contains a very difficult sentence being “. It’s the others, the ones who moved to the cities years ago and their lost offspring, who have all but forgotten it.”  It should be understood that the narrator can only include himself and his family as being part of the ones who moved to the cities…after all, they only discovered these alternatives and explore them as tourists. So his own children are among the “lost offspring.” This reference, as close as it is t the limited narrative of the book shouldn’t be overlooked as the narrator (and Pirsig) seems to be saying something about the character of Chris in the book but more broadly about anyone born into contemporary society. In a sense anyone growing up in contemporary urban settings – the ways of life that are available – are lost children.

What is a “lost child”…well so far Pirsig has only stated that lost children have all but forgotten the hereness and nowness of things.

It is a big statement and as such, should be recognized as a kind of sign-post which requires the reader to look around and see what is coming.

I’ve wondered why it took us so long to catch on. We saw it and yet we didn’t see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Conned, perhaps into thinking that the real action was metropolitan and all this was just boring hinterland. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.

The narrator demonstrates what being a lost child means. It means not catching on…not seeing things…being trained not to see things….being trained to believe the metropolitan (in our own age, the digital) is the real thing and reality is a boring hinterland.

And Pirsig provides one of his most often repeated observations and one that many readers have great affection for, “The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth.” And so it goes away.

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These observations seem to be more and more true with the advent and proliferation of digital technologies on the one hand and biological technologies on the other which seem to be “real action”….while the reality of living in the actual moment, of sitting on the porch, are boring hinterland.

In the next passage, Pirsig emphasizes that he and his family visit the better part of life..when they can…and for most of us this is reality. We visit alternate paths on a part time basis. As non-experts…because that’s what we can do…or all that we are willing to do. On the Zensylvania podcast, I’ve said that I’m a non-expert….I’ve never really found it in myself to be a specialist..putting all my time into motorcycles, philosophy, zen, meditation, tai chi or what have you. I go to these things as often as I can, though…

But once we caught on, of course, nothing could keep us off these roads, weekends, evenings, vacations. We have become real secondary-road motorcycle buffs and found there are things you learn as you go.

We have learned how to spot the good ones on a map, for example. If the line wiggles, that’s good. That means hills. If it appears to be the main route from a town to a city, that’s bad. The best ones always connect nowhere with nowhere and have an alternate that gets you there quicker. If you are going northeast from a large town you never go straight out of town for any long distance. You go out and then start jogging north, then east, then north again, and soon you are on a secondary route that only the local people use.

Connect nowhere to nowhere is a valuable repetition of his earlier “a kind of nowhere famous for nothing at all..” which we examined in part two of this series; it’s a recommendation of conceptual hinterlands as the valuable areas.

Secondary routes that only the local people use can be considered to be the esoteric practices of particular communities of thought and doctrine…maybe it’s a particular kind of rite or methodology….it’s a particular way of living and navigating certain kinds of life.

The next passage is an explanation that if a person follows some ideological, philosophical roads, they do in fact lead to empty fields with nothing and nobody in them….but contains an important idea for the book….

The main skill is to keep from getting lost. Since the roads are used only by local people who know them by sight nobody complains if the junctions aren’t posted. And often they aren’t. When they are it’s usually a small sign hiding unobtrusively in the weeds and that’s all. Country road-sign makers seldom tell you twice. If you miss that sign in the weeds that’s your problem, not theirs. Moreover, you discover that the highway maps are often inaccurate about country roads. And from time to time you find your “country road’ takes you onto a two-rutter and then a single rutter and then into a pasture and stops, or else it take you into some farmer’s backyard.

The narrator’s comment that county-road sign makers seldom tell you twice should be taken as a caution about reading the book. Pirsig is the country-road signmaker. He isn’t often going to tell you twice when to look for a crossing in the road. You, the reader, need to be paying attention unless you’re already familiar with the territory. Pirsig is telling you that if you don’t “get it”, that’s you’re problem and not his.

Whether it’s Zen, rhetoric, his metaphysics of quality or what have you…it’s up to you to navigate.

Highway maps are often inaccurate…harkens to the author’s note where Pirsig talks about the book providing little in the way of motorcycle maintenance and not being authoritative about Zen either….it’s a bit of fun. An extension of the koan….the book is inaccurate and in some places may lead to a pasture…..where there is famously little to be found other than cow manure.

So we navigate mostly by dead reckoning and deduction from what clues we find. I keep a compass in one pocket for overcast days when the sun doesn’t show directions and have the map mounted in a special carrier on top of the gas tank where I can keep track of miles from the last junction and know what to look for. With those tools and a lack of pressure to “get somewhere” it works out fine and we just about have America all to ourselves.

  1. Dead reckoning is an interesting thing…it’s “the process of calculating one’s position, especially at sea, by estimating the direction and distance traveled rather than by using landmarks, astronomical observations, or electronic navigation methods.

It’s the ability to know where you are and where things are based on that and that alone….some people do not have any dead reckoning at all.

A compass…is a powerful metaphor but doesn’t actually get used in the book…

Having America to ourselves is a statement of freedom…….it’s a sentiment whose value can be readily felt during the pandemic lockdown of 2020 and 2021…there are times and places when the sentiment was very much absent.

As a person…do you feel that you have autonomy to go into the world and be who you want to be…to know where you are and have the freedom to get there from here?

The final passage is a a contrast from dead reckoning your way into life and what most people do…they are stuck on the highway and unable to proceeed…

In the final passage that we’re going to look at, the narrator talks about long weekends…a time when lots of people get on the highway with a focus on time rather than good…they want to get away (and back) but ultimately they can’t. They’re stuck not enjoying the here and now because they aren’t willing to get off the main ideological roads….and spend time in the nowhere. They want to be somewhere.

On Labour Day and Memorial Day weekends we travel for miles on these roads without seeing another vehicle, then cross a federal highway and look at cars strung bumper to bumper to the horizon. Scowling faces inside. Kids crying in the back seat. I keep wishing there were some way to tell them something but they scowl and appear to be in a hurry, and there isn’t….

There isn’t because the people in the cars are “lost children” who are stuck on a highspeed highway that isn’t going anywhere….and that is an incredibly powerful metaphor and explanation.

It’s not a particularly hopeful way to end this Zensylvania exploration but it may be an important one…because the answers to some questions might be deeply, fundamentally important to what you do next.

  1. Is much of your life…just more tv?
  2. Are there significant portions of your life where the frame is gone?
  3. Are you focused on good or are you focused on the time?
  4. Do you tell truth to go away when it knocks on the door?
  5. Is the course of contemporary society producing lost children?
  6. Do you think you are a lost child?
  7. Do you have the ability and the courage to dead reckon a way forward?
Image Courtesy of – if you haven’t read Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you may want to.

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