In 1974 a famous book was published: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM). It is the story of a father and son, Robert and Chris, traveling by motorcycle from St. Paul (MN) to San Francisco (CA). The first week they were accompanied by two friends, John and Sylvia. During their journey the father learned more and more of his own troubled past. Years ago he became mad of thinking about quality. The book describes also a philosophy of non-dualism with the concept of Quality as keyword. This philosophy is step by step developed in the story of their trip.
Two times, in 2008 and 2014, I traveled along the same route from St. Paul to San Francisco. On this webpage I show the pictures of my 2014 trip, linked to the text of ZMM. This page is inspired by the impressive website of Henry Gurr:
The house of Robert Pirsig in St. Paul (MN).
“Up ahead the other riders, John Sutherland and his wife, Sylvia, have pulled into a roadside picnic area. It’s time to stretch. As I pull my machine beside them Sylvia is taking her helmet off and shaking her hair loose, while John puts his BMW up on the stand. Nothing is said. We have been on so many trips together we know from a glance how one another feels. Right now we are just quiet and looking around. The picnic benches are abandoned at this hour of the morning. We have the whole place to ourselves. John goes across the grass to a cast-iron pump and starts pumping water to drink.”
“All of a sudden John passes me, his palm down, signaling a stop. We slow down and look for a place to pull off on the gravelly shoulder. The edge of the concrete is sharp and the gravel is loose and I’m not a bit fond of this 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.”
The famous picknick bench from the picture of Robert and Chris on the back cover of many editions of ZMM.
” John says there is a motel at the other end of town, but I tell him there’s a better one if you turn right, at a row of cottonwoods a few blocks down.
We turn at the cottonwoods and travel a few blocks, and a small motel appears. Inside the office John looks around and says, “This is a good place. When were you here before?”
“There it is! Ellendale! A water tower, groves of trees and buildings among them in the morning sunlight.”
” So John and Sylvia and Chris sit and stay warm in the lobby of the hotel adjoining the restaurant, while I go out for a walk.
” We stop for gas at Hague and ask if there is any way to get across the Missouri between Bismarck and Mobridge. The attendant doesn’t know of any.”
There is no gas station in Hague anymore. Just a bar, a shop, a post office and a large mill.
“All of us go in a shop for coffe and rolls.”
” At Herreid John disappears for a drink while Sylvia and Chris and I find some shade in a park and try to rest. It isn’t restful. A change has taken place and I don’t know quite what it is.
” The streets of this town are broad, much broader than they need be, and there is a pallor of dust in the air. Empty lots here and there between the buildings have weeds growing in them. The sheet metal equipment sheds and water tower are like those of previous towns but more spread out. Everything is more run-down and mechanical-looking, and sort of randomly located. Gradually I see what it is. Nobody is concerned anymore about tidily conserving space. The land isn’t valuable anymore. We are in a Western town.”
“We have lunch of hamburgers and malteds at an A & W place in Mobridge”.
Later the A&W became a Yellow Sub (photo). Now (2014) the place is for sale.
“We drive down a county road from Lemmon, exhausted, for what seems a long, long time, but can’t be too long because the sun is still above the horizon. The campsite is deserted. Good. But there is less than a half-hour of sun and no energy left. This is the hardest now.”
“At Baker, where we stop, the thermometers are reading 108 degrees in the shade. When I take my gloves off, the metal of the gas tank is so hot I can’t touch it. The engine is making ominous knick-knicking sounds from overheating. Very bad. The rear tire has worn badly too, and I feel with my hand that it’s almost as hot as the gas tank. John and Sylvia don’t say much, and John finishes his Coke early and is off to a bar for a snort.”
“It’s about ten o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting alongside the machine on a cool, shady curbstone back of a hotel we have found in Miles City, Montana. “
Probably they did not stay in the Olive Hotel (see last picture) but in another hotel which was situated at this corner.
“This is a great town,” John says, “really great.” … “In the bar down the block this morning they just started talking to me like I’d lived here all my life.”
“On the way out we pass a city park which I noticed last night, and which produced a memory concurrence. Just a vision of looking up into some trees. He had slept on that park bench one night on his way through to Bozeman. That’s why I didn’t recognize that forest yesterday. He’d come through at night, on his way to the college at Bozeman. “
Laurel: This could be the motel where Robert slept (Gary Wegner), but more likely they slept in the hotel on next picture (Henry Gurr).
“We’re in a beautiful old wooden room of a hotel. The sun is shining on the dark wood through the window shade, but even with the shade drawn I can sense that we’re near mountains.”
“Soon, beyond a railroad underpass, we are on a twisting blacktop through fields toward the mountains up ahead. This is a road Phædrus used all the time, and flashes of his memory coincide everywhere.”
“At Red Lodge the road’s almost joined to the base of the mountain. The dark ominous mass beyond dominates even the roofs of the buildings on either side of the main street. We park the cycles and unpack them to remove warm clothing. We walk past ski shops into a restaurant where we see on the walls huge photographs of the route we will take up.”
“The asphalt of the road is much wider and safer than it occurred in memory. On a cycle you have all sorts of extra room.”
“I look over my shoulder for one last view of the gorge. Like looking down at the bottom of the ocean. People spend their entire lives at those lower altitudes without any awareness that this high country exists.”
“The snowfields become heavy and show steep banks where snowplows have been. The banks become four feet high, then six feet, then twelve feet high. We move through twin walls, almost a tunnel of snow.”
“At Cooke City John and Sylvia look and sound happier than I have seen them in years, and we whack into our hot beef sandwiches with great whacks.”
“Phædrus despised this park without knowing exactly why (…) It seemed an enormous museum with exhibits carefully manicured to give the illusion of reality (…)”
Yellowstone Park “This is the oldest entrance to the park. It was used before there were any automobiles. “
Gardiner: “The town is on high banks on either side of a bridge over a river which rushes over smooth and clean boulders”. “We decide to stay here for the night.”
“Across the bridge they’ve already turned the lights on at the motel where we check in, but even in the artificial light coming from the windows I can see each cabin has been carefully surrounded by planted flowers, and so I step carefully to avoid them.”
“I notice things about the cabin too, which I point out to Chris. The windows are all double-hung and sash-weighted. The doors click shut without looseness. All the moldings are perfectly mitered. There’s nothing arty about all this, it’s just well done and, something tells me, is all done by one person.”
Bozeman. “The main street of the town seems vaguely familiar but there’s a feeling of being a tourist now and I see the shop signs are for me, the tourist, and not for people who live here. This isn’t really a small town. People are moving too fast and too independently of one another.”
“The avenues provide many small surprises of recognition. Heavy recall. He’s walked through these streets many times. Lectures. He prepared his lectures in the peripatetic manner, using these streets as his academy.” Robert Pirsig probably lived in a house like this.
In the local museum I found this old picture of Montana Hall. It was build in 1896.
“Huge and strange gables over old dark-brown brick. A beautiful building, really. The only one that really seems to belong here.”
“Old stone stairway up to the doors. Stairs cupped by wear from millions of footsteps.”
“I open the great heavy outside door and enter. Inside are more stairs, worn and wooden.”
The stairs to “Sarah’s office. Sarah! (…) she said, “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.” (…) That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal.”
Phaedrus asked a student to write an essay on the front of the Opera House. From a Hamburger stand across the street she wrote about the first brick, then about the second brick and by the third brick she couldn’t stop writing. The hamburger stad was probably in this building.
“Chris and I have had a good night’s sleep and this morning have packed the backpacks carefully, and now have been going up the mountainside for about an hour.” Their trail started here.
“We’re down quite a way from the summit now, and the mixed pines and leafy underbrush are much higher here and more closed in than they were at this altitude on the other side of the canyon.”
“We cross the creek using a rope, which we leave behind, then on the road beyond find some other campers who give us a ride into town.” It was this creek, but not exactly here.
“In Bozeman it’s dark and late. Rather than wake up the DeWeeses and ask them to drive in, we check in at the main downtown hotel.”
We bought this postcard of the main local hotel: Hotel Baxter
“East of Butte we go up a long hard grade, cross the Continental Divide, (…) “. On the Continental Divide A statue Our Lady of the Rockies sits atop the Continental Divide. It is from the eighties. Robert and Chris could not have seen it.
“Later we pass the great stack of the Anaconda smelter …”
“We go up a long grade that leads to a lake surrounded by pine forests and past some fishermen who push a small boat into the water.”
“We find a churchyard by the side of the road and stop.”
“Chris taps me and points to a high hill with a large painted M on it. “
“At Lolo Pass we see a restaurant, and pull up in front of it beside an old Harley high-miler.”
“After five or ten miles we see some logging road turnoffs and head up.”
“Soon a second sign saying CABINS with an arrow under it points off to the left. We slow down, turn and follow a dirt road until it reaches some varnished log cabins under some trees.”
“We continue down the canyon, past folds in the steep slopes where wide streams enter. We notice the river grows rapidly now as streams enlarge it. Turns in the road are less sharp here and straight stretches are longer. I move into the highest gear.”
“A display describes a fire burn that took place here years ago.”
The text on the display
“Highway 13 follows another branch of our river but now it goes upstream past old sawmill towns and sleepy scenery. Sometimes when you switch from a federal to a state highway it seems like you drop back like this in time.”
“We’re really accustomed to making mileage. Stretches that would have seemed long back in the Dakotas now seem short and easy. Being on the machine seems more natural than being off it. We’re nowhere that I’m familiar with, in country that I’ve never seen before, yet I don’t feel a stranger in it.”
“Back in the heat again and not far from Grangeville we see that the dry plateau that looked almost like prairie when we were out on it suddenly breaks away into an enormous canyon. I see our road will go down and down through what must be a hundred hairpin turns into a desert of broken land and crags. I tap Chris’s knee and point and as we round a turn where we see it all I hear him holler, “Wow!” “
Like Robert, we took the old road, but there is a new one, without steep twists and turns.
“The road has twisted and rolled over desert hills …”
“(…) into a little, narrow thread of green surrounding the town of White Bird (…)”
“(…) then proceeded on to a big fast river, the Salmon (…)”
“The walls of the canyon here are completely vertical now. In many places room for the road had to be blasted out of it. No alternate routes here. Just whichever way the river goes.”
“When I shut the motor off and we unpack I can hear a small stream nearby. Except for that and the chirping of some little bird there’s no sound.”
“I spread out the sleeping bags, and put his on top of the picnic table.”
“Soon we’re on the road again, which twists and turns.”
“Farther on we cross a dam …”
“… and leave the canyon …”
“The road winds through a landscape that reminds me of northern Rajasthan, in India, where it’s not quite desert, much piñon, junipers and grass, but not agricultural either, except where a draw or valley provides a little extra water.”
“The map before me says the town of Baker is soon ahead. I see we’re in better agricultural land now.”
“From Baker the cycle has taken us up through forests. The forest road takes us through a pass and down through more forests on the other side.”
“As we move again down the side of the mountain we see the trees thin out even more until we are in desert again.”
“We fill up at a town called Unity …”
“At Prairie City we’re out of the mountain forests again and into a dry-land town with a wide main street that looks right down through the center of the town and onto the prairie beyond it.”
“We’re pulling into Dayville and my rear end feels like it’s turned to concrete.””Big trees that almost completely cover the road. Odd, in this desertlike country.”
“Dayville has huge shading trees by the filling station where we wait for the attendant to appear.” “The attendant doesn’t show, but his competitor at the filling station across the narrow intersection is watching this, and soon comes over to fill the tank” … “We always help each other out like this.”
“I ask him if there’s a place to rest and he says, “You can use my front lawn.” He points across the main road to his house behind some cottonwood trees that must be three to four feet in diameter.” Was this John’s house? It is deserted now.
“We arrive at Prineville Junction with only a few hours of daylight left.”
“… sit on the yellow-painted cement curb with my feet in the gravel …”. Was it here?
The gas station is now a tack, wash and repair shop.
Or was it at the other side of the road?
Robert and Chris slept near Bend on ‘ridiculous little lots. Some developer’s scheme apparently’. I looked for it in a part of town which was build in the late sixties. It could have been here.
” The piney road goes upward, and there’s not so much traffic this morning. The rocks among the pines are dark and volcanic.”
“At La Pine we stop. I tell Chris to order me ham and eggs for breakfast while I stay outside to change the oil.”
“At a filling station next to the restaurant I pick up a quart of oil, and in a gravelly lot back of the restaurant remove the drain plug, let the oil drain, replace the plug, add the new oil, and when I’m done the new oil on the dipstick shines in the sunlight almost as clear and colorless as water.”
“This is how it was before the white man came…beautiful lava flows, and scrawny trees, and not a beer can anywhere…but now that the white man is here, it looks fake. Maybe the National Park Service should set just one pile of beer cans in the middle of all that lava and then it would come to life. The absence of beer cans is distracting.”
“You point to something as having Quality and the Quality tends to go away. Quality is what you see out of the corner of your eye, and so I look at the lake below but feel the peculiar quality from the chill, almost frigid sunlight behind me, and the almost motionless wind.”
“We travel down the eastern shore of Klamath Lake on a three-lane highway that contains a lot of nineteen- twenties feeling. ” It became a four laner now.
“Grants Pass looks like a big enough town to have a motorcycle place open the next morning and when we arrive I look for a motel. We haven’t seen a bed since Bozeman, Montana. We find one with color TV, heated swimming pool, a coffee maker for the next morning, soap, white towels, a shower all tiled and clean beds.” Probably not this one.
“We’re packed and out of the motel at just about check-out time and are soon into the coastal redwood forest, across out of Oregon into California. “
“The grey rainy skies and sign-strewn road descend to Crescent City, California, grey and cold and wet, and Chris and I look and see the water, the ocean, in the distance beyond piers and grey buildings. “
“Farther on at Leggett we see a tourist duck pond and we buy Cracker Jacks and throw them to the ducks and he does this in the most unhappy way I have ever seen.”
“The room is a remnant of the bleakness of the thirties, sordid, homemade by a person who didn’t know carpentry, but it’s dry and has a heater and beds and that’s all we want. ” Above the only thirties motel Henry Gurr could find. I think Rio Dell is a more likely place. There is a motel, but not an old one from the thirties.
“In the morning I am stopped by the appearence of a green slug slug on the ground.”
“When the fog lifts we can see the ocean from a high cliff …”
“I see Chris go very close to the edge of the cliff. It’s at least one hundred feet to the rocks below. Way too close!”
“In the distance is an old weathered and grey farmhouse.”
“A long time later we come to a town …” Was it Fort Bragg?
The road leads out to the ocean again where it climbs to a high point that apparently juts out into the ocean but now is surrounded by banks of fog. For a moment I see a distant break in the fog where some people rest in the sand, but soon the fog rolls in and the people are obscured.” When this photo was taken the weather was much better.
“The fog opens for a moment, revealing the cliff we are on, then closes again, and a sense of inevitability about what is happening comes over me.” … “After a long time I give him a rag to wipe his face with. We gather up our stuff and pack it on the motorcycle. Now the fog suddenly lifts and I see the sun on his face makes his expression open in a way I’ve never seen it before. He puts on his helmet, tightens the strap, then looks up.
‘Were you really insane?’
Why should he ask that? ‘No!’ Astonishment hits. But Chris’s eyes sparkle. ‘I knew it,’ he says.”
The Zen Center where Robert Pirsig’s son Chris lived.
The corner of Octavia Blvd and Height St in San Francisco. In the afterword of ZMM Pirsig wrote about the death of his son who was stabbed by two men: “After a time he staggered across the street to a lamp at the corner of Haight and Octavia.” There he died, 22 years old.