Every year, a small number of people in biking leathers get on their motorcycles in Minnesota and set off on back roads toward the Dakotas. From Montana, they swerve briefly into Idaho and Wyoming, before riding across Oregon and down the final stretch to San Francisco.
They’re known as Pirsig’s Pilgrims — bikers who faithfully follow the route that Robert Pirsig took in 1968, as chronicled in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
San Francisco is not the destination, but merely where the journey ends. It’s a pilgrimage, sure — but the whole journey is the destination for these dedicated riders.
Still, the question is — Why? Why do they do this?
I’m not a fan of biking (despite being married to an enthusiast) and traveling 1700 miles in this fashion seems…well. Uncomfortable at best, downright dangerous at worst, is my view of bikes. But perhaps there’s more to this journey than the automotive experience for these people?
Pirsig’s account of the journey is interspersed with philosophical musings, meanderings, and revelations that make light bulbs flash bright in the reader’s head.
Could his Pilgrims, in fact, be searching for an epiphany?
Many cultures demand a period of time in solitude in which to grow spiritually. Australian Aborigine adolescents, for example, would live in the outback for many months, tracing the paths of their ancestors and, one assumes, learning deeply from the experience.
Today, the nearest equivalent we have in the western world is a few years at college, and while you can argue that the experience transforms, it’s not exactly spiritual. (Not that kind of spirit, anyway.) However, many young people choose to take a gap year, remove themselves from their everyday world, and backpack their way through Asia or Australia.
Could it be that this yearning to travel to nowhere in particular, where the journey itself is the point of the exercise, is part of our make up, a necessary part of everyone’s growth?
And what if we missed out on the experience in our own youth? Backpacking isn’t for the faint-hearted, or for the achy knees that come with a certain age.
Road trips. That’s what happens.
We all know that living abroad as an expat is life-changing, but even expats want to travel within the confines of their new location. Our first vacation while living in the US was a road trip. Armed with a minivan, a preschooler, a four-month-old baby, and all the paraphernalia small children accumulate, we set off from Connecticut toward Maine, Montreal, Toronto, Niagara, and back home through upstate New York. (Readers of last week’s Libby’s Life might find some of this itinerary familiar; I hasten to add that Libby and I have only the itinerary in common.) It was a good trip, even accounting for children’s travel sickness.
Was it life changing, though? Not really — the most memorable moment of the trip was upon checking into a hotel room in Montreal, to discover that Princess Diana had been involved in a car accident in Paris. I didn’t need to be on a road trip to be affected by that.
But one day, in a few years’ time, we will take another road trip, minus toddler and small baby, and drive across America, coast to coast. Maybe we will ditch the car for a motorcycle in Montana, and by that time I’ll be brave enough to view the Big Sky state without the encumbrance of a windshield. And maybe I’ll have that epiphany.
Or — here’s a thought. Perhaps it’s already waiting, within me. To quote Pirsig:
“The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”
Question: Have you ever taken a road trip, and if so, was it the best or worst thing you ever did? And did it change your life?
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The John Steinbeck Encyclopaedia of Road Trips
Announcing September’s theme: Zen and the Art of Road Trips
Having immersed myself in John Steinbeck over the weekend, I am starting to think that road trips separate the men from the boys, so to speak.
Like most American college kids, I took a version of a road trip — only I didn’t go across country. I was on a semester abroad in London, so got a one-month InterRail pass to travel across Europe. There were no major epiphanies apart from finding out I could travel on my own and live to tell the story. (I was a pretty sheltered kid!)
The only other time I came close to doing anything akin to a road trip was during my days as an expat in Tokyo, when I started riding my bike around the city on weekends. I felt so much closer to the street life from the seat of my housewife’s bike (a 3-speeder, with front basket) than I had as a subway traveler (which is pretty much how everyone gets around Tokyo). Not much of an epiphany, though!
As far as mid life goes, it hadn’t crossed my mind to consider a major road trip until we started exploring this theme on TDN. To my surprise, I’m beginning to find the idea attractive. Were I to do a road trip, though, I think I’d be more of the Steinbeck than the Pirsig school — going across America to find out how people live and think (and using it as excuse to get up on my soapbox). But who knows? Perhaps the journey would yield moments of self-contemplation leading to enlightenment…and I’d have to eat my driving cap!
I really would like to drive (or more likely, be driven) across America, coast to coast – I have heard that you can do this for people who want to transport their cars? Not sure. The only thing is, if this is true, you’d be at the mercy of whichever car they own. It would be nice is they had an E-type convertible or similar, but I don’t suppose that happens too often…
Goodness, being driven across America rather than driving oneself — can that be a proper road-trip experience? (Or are you just speculating on the likelihood, given that you’re married to a petrol head?)
Having at long last gotten my American driver’s license reinstated (word of advice to all U.S. expats out there: don’t let your license lapse, like I did!), I would definitely like to be in the driver’s seat, at least part of the time.
And are you serious about the E-type Jaguar convertible? Yes, I suppose you are, and it does sound rather nice. Only, what about maintenance? Aren’t the parts expensive and hard to come by? Even the macho John Steinbeck had a Grapes-of-Wrath moment when he had a flat tire on a remote road in Oregon, thinking they’d never come up with the right one to replace it with…
Well, see, that’s why driving someone else’s car seems attractive. They would pay for the maintenance, right?!
Being driven on road trip…yes, very likely that I would be in the passenger seat, especially if the car was an E Type. Besides, GPS boxes are not infallible, and although I say it myself, I am one mean map-reader. If the car in question were a Porsche 356 however, I’d be in the driving seat, at least some of the time. No question.
I have done a few road trips around Europe but probably my most memorable “road” trip has been walking the Way to St James in Northern Spain and YES it has changed my life. I didn’t know what to expect from what seemed a little trip. I took the decision rather quickly and embarked on this adventure with a good friend of mine, we walked 220 miles (350km) in 12 days across the beautiful Spanish countryside. I had read Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage but didn’t make the connection until I started the journey. Apart from a physical challenge, it has been a very spiritual journey (not in the religious sense) but a journey of self discovery, hardship and learnings. Even though we reached St James, I still feel that I am missing a part of my journey and in a way my various expatriations are my way of never wanting the journey to stop…
Sabine, great to hear your story and have my theory of self-discovery-by-road-trip proved correct by one person, at least! Although yours was a walking trip; perhaps the amount of self-discovery is directly proportional to the hardship of the journey. I wonder…
I’m curious now. In what way did you find it life changing?
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