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