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Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance By Robert M Pirsig

Chapter 5


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The flatness of the prairie disappears and a deep undulation of the earth begins. Fences are rarer, and the greenness has become paler -- all signs that we approach the High Plains.

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. It is hot now, and John and Sylvia go somewhere to get their long underwear off. The motorcycle gets a change of oil and chain lubrication. Chris watches everything I do but with some impatience. Not a good sign.

"My eyes hurt," he says.

"From what?"

"From the wind."

"We'll look for some goggles."

All of us go in a shop for coffee and rolls. Everything is different except one another, so we look around rather than talk, catching fragments of conversation among people who seem to know each other and are glancing at us because we're new. Afterward, down the street, I find a thermometer for storage in the saddlebags and some plastic goggles for Chris.

The hardware man doesn't know any short route across the Missouri either. John and I study the map. I had hoped we might find an unofficial ferryboat crossing or footbridge or something in the ninety-mile stretch, but evidently there isn't any because there's not much to get to on the other side. It's all Indian reservation. We decide to head south to Mobridge and cross there.

The road south is awful. Choppy, narrow, bumpy concrete with a bad head wind, going into the sun and big semis going the other way. These roller-coaster hills speed them up on the down side and slow them up on the up side and prevent our seeing very far ahead, making passing nervewracking. The first one gave me a scare because I wasn't ready for it. Now I hold tight and brace for them. No danger. Just a shock wave that hits you. It is hotter and dryer.

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, cruise down a heavily trafficked main street and then there it is, at the bottom of the hill, the Missouri. All that moving water is strange, banked by grass hills that hardly get any water at all. I turn around and glance at Chris but he doesn't seem to be particularly interested in it.

We coast down the hill, clunk onto the bridge and across we go, watching the river through the girders moving by rhythmically, and then we are on the other side.

We climb a long, long hill into another kind of country.

The fences are really all gone now. No brush, no trees. The sweep of the hills is so great John's motorcycle looks like an ant up ahead moving through the green slopes. Above the slopes outcroppings of rocks stand out overhead at the tops of the bluffs.

It all has a natural tidiness. If it were abandoned land there would be a chewed-up, scruffy look, with chunks of old foundation concrete, scraps of painted sheet metal and wire, weeds that had gotten in where the sod was broken up for whatever little enterprise was attempted. None of that here. Not kept up, just never messed up in the first place. It's just the way it always must have been. Reservation land.

There's no friendly motorcycle mechanic on the other side of those rocks and I'm wondering if we're ready for this. If anything goes wrong now we're in real trouble.

I check the engine temperature with my hand. It's reassuringly cool. I put in the clutch and let it coast for a second in order to hear it idling. Something sounds funny and I do it again. It takes a while to figure out that it's not the engine at all. There's an echo from the bluff ahead that lingers after the throttle is closed. Funny. I do this two or three times. Chris wonders what's wrong and I have him listen to the echo. No comment from him.

This old engine has a nickels-and-dimes sound to it. As if there were a lot of loose change flying around inside. Sounds awful, but it's just normal valve clatter. Once you get used to that sound and learn to expect it, you automatically hear any difference. If you don't hear any, that's good.

I tried to get John interested in that sound once but it was hopeless. All he heard was noise and all he saw was the machine and me with greasy tools in my hands, nothing else. That didn't work.

He didn't really see what was going on and was not interested enough to find out. He isn't so interested in what things mean as in what they are. That's quite important, that he sees things this way. It took me a long time to see this difference and it's important for the Chautauqua that I make this difference clear.

I was so baffled by his refusal even to think about any mechanical subject I kept searching for ways to clue him to the whole thing but didn't know where to start.

I thought I would wait until something went wrong with his machine and then I would help him fix it and that way get him into it, but I goofed that one myself because I didn't understand this difference in the way he looked at things.

His handlebars had started slipping. Not badly, he said, just a little when you shoved hard on them. I warned him not to use his adjustable wrench on the tightening nuts. It was likely to damage the chrome and start small rust spots. He agreed to use my metric sockets and box-ends.

When he brought his motorcycle over I got my wrenches out but then noticed that no amount of tightening would stop the slippage, because the ends of the collars were pinched shut.

"You're going to have to shim those out," I said.

"What's shim?"

"It's a thin, flat strip of metal. You just slip it around the handlebar under the collar there and it will open up the collar to where you can tighten it again. You use shims like that to make adjustments in all kinds of machines."

"Oh," he said. He was getting interested. "Good. Where do you buy them?"

"I've got some right here," I said gleefully, holding up a can of beer in my hand.

He didn't understand for a moment. Then he said, "What, the can?"

"Sure," I said, "best shim stock in the world."

I thought this was pretty clever myself. Save him a trip to God knows where to get shim stock. Save him time. Save him money.

But to my surprise he didn't see the cleverness of this at all. In fact he got noticeably haughty about the whole thing. Pretty soon he was dodging and filling with all kinds of excuses and, before I realized what his real attitude was, we had decided not to fix the handlebars after all.

As far as I know those handlebars are still loose. And I believe now that he was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can!

Ach, du lieber!

Since then we have had very few conversations about motorcycle maintenance. None, now that I think of it.

You push it any further and suddenly you are angry, without knowing why.

I should say, to explain this, that beer-can aluminum is soft and sticky, as metals go. Perfect for the application. Aluminum doesn't oxidize in wet weather...or, more precisely, it always has a thin layer of oxide that prevents any further oxidation. Also perfect.

In other words, any true German mechanic, with a half-century of mechanical finesse behind him, would have concluded that this particular solution to this particular technical problem was perfect.

For a while I thought what I should have done was sneak over to the workbench, cut a shim from the beer can, remove the printing and then come back and tell him we were in luck, it was the last one I had, specially imported from Germany. That would have done it. A special shim from the private stock of Baron Alfred Krupp, who had to sell it at a great sacrifice. Then he would have gone gaga over it.

That Krupp's-private-shim fantasy gratified me for a while, but then it wore off and I saw it was just being vindictive. In its place grew that old feeling I've talked about before, a feeling that there's something bigger involved than is apparent on the surface. You follow these little discrepancies long enough and they sometimes open up into huge revelations. There was just a feeling on my part that this was something a little bigger than I wanted to take on without thinking about it, and I turned instead to my usual habit of trying to extract causes and effects to see what was involved that could possibly lead to such an impasse between John's view of that lovely shim and my own. This comes up all the time in mechanical work. A hang-up. You just sit and stare and think, and search randomly for new information, and go away and come back again, and after a while the unseen factors start to emerge.

What emerged in vague form at first and then in sharper outline was the explanation that I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. That's how I arrived at that distinction. And when you see what the shim is,in this case, it's depressing. Who likes to think of a beautiful precision machine fixed with an old hunk of junk?

I guess I forgot to mention John is a musician, a drummer, who works with groups all over town and makes a pretty fair income from it. I suppose he just thinks about everything the way he thinks about drumming...which is to say he doesn't really think about it at all. He just does it. Is with it. He just responded to fixing his motorcycle with a beer can the way he would respond to someone dragging the beat while he was playing. It just did a big thud with him and that was it. He didn't want any part of it.

At first this difference seemed fairly minor, but then it grew -- and grew -- and grew -- until I began to see why I missed it. Some things you miss because they're so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don't see because they're so huge. We were both looking at the same thing, seeing the same thing, talking about the same thing, thinking about the same thing, except he was looking, seeing, talking and thinking from a completely different dimension.

He really does care about technology. It's just that in this other dimension he gets all screwed up and is rebuffed by it. It just won't swing for him. He tries to swing it without any rational premeditation and botches it and botches it and botches it and after so many botches gives up and just kind of puts a blanket curse on that whole nuts-and-bolts scene. He will not or cannot believe there is anything in this world for which grooving is not the way to go.

That's the dimension he's in. The groovy dimension. I'm being awfully square talking about all this mechanical stuff all the time. It's all just parts and relationships and analyses and syntheses and figuring things out and it isn't really here. It's somewhere else, which thinks it's here, but's a million miles away. This is what it's all about. He's on this dimensional difference which underlay much of the cultural changes of the sixties, I think, and is still in the process of reshaping our whole national outlook on things. The "generation gap" has been a result of it. The names "beat" and "hip" grew out of it. Now it's become apparent that this dimension isn't a fad that's going to go away next year or the year after. It's here to stay because it's a very serious and important way of looking at things that looks incompatible with reason and order and responsibility but actually is not. Now we are down to the root of things.

My legs have become so stiff they are aching. I hold them out one at a time and turn my foot as far to the left and to the right as it will go to stretch the leg. It helps, but then the other muscles get tired from holding the legs out.

What we have here is a conflict of visions of reality. The world as you see it right here, right now, is reality, regardless of what the scientists say it might be. That's the way John sees it. But the world as revealed by its scientific discoveries is also reality, regardless of how it may appear, and people in John's dimension are going to have to do more than just ignore it if they want to hang on to their vision of reality. John will discover this if his points burn out.

That's really why he got upset that day when he couldn't get his engine started. It was an intrusion on his reality. It just blew a hole right through his whole groovy way of looking at things and he would not face up to it because it seemed to threaten his whole life style. In a way he was experiencing the same sort of anger scientific people have sometimes about abstract art, or at least used to have. That didn't fit their life style either.

What you've got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don't match and they don't fit and they don't really have much of anything to do with one another. That's quite a situation. You might say there's a little problem here.

At one stretch in the long desolate road we see an isolated grocery store. Inside, in back, we find a place to sit on some packing cases and drink canned beer.

The fatigue and backache are getting to me now. I push the packing case over to a post and lean on that.

Chris's expression shows he is really settling into something bad. This has been a long hard day. I told Sylvia way back in Minnesota that we could expect a slump in spirits like this on the second or third day and now it's here. Minnesota...when was that?

A woman, badly drunk, is buying beer for some man she's got outside in a car. She can't make up her mind what brand to buy and the wife of the owner waiting on her is getting mad. She still can't decide, but then sees us, and weaves over and asks if we own the motorcycles. We nod yes. Then she wants a ride on one. I move back and let John handle this.

He puts her off graciously, but she comes back again and again, offering him a dollar for a ride. I make some jokes about it, but they're not funny and just add to the depression. We get out and back into the brown hills and heat again.

By the time we reach Lemmon we are really aching tired. At a bar we hear about a campground to the south. John wants to camp in a park in the middle of Lemmon, a comment that sounds strange and angers Chris greatly.

I'm more tired now than I can remember having been in a long time. The others too. But we drag ourselves through a supermarket, pick up whatever groceries come to mind and with some difficulty pack them onto the cycles. The sun is so far down we're running out of light. It'll be dark in an hour. We can't seem to get moving. I wonder, are we dawdling, or what?

"C'mon, Chris, let's go," I say.

"Don't holler at me. I'm ready."

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.

I try to get unpacked as fast as possible but am so stupid with exhaustion I just set everything by the camp road without seeing what a bad spot it is. Then I see it is too windy. This is a High Plains wind. It is semidesert here, everything burned up and dry except for a lake, a large reservoir of some sort below us. The wind blows from the horizon across the lake and hits us with sharp gusts. It is already chilly. There are some scrubby pines back from the road about twenty yards and I ask Chris to move the stuff over there.

He doesn't do it. He wanders off down to the reservoir. I carry the gear over by myself.

I see between trips that Sylvia is making a real effort at setting things up for cooking, but she's as tired as I am.

The sun goes down.

John has gathered wood but it's too big and the wind is so gusty it's hard to start. It needs to be splintered into kindling. I go back over to the scrub pines, hunt around through the twilight for the machete, but it's already so dark in the pines I can't find it. I need the flashlight. I look for it, but it's too dark to find that either.

I go back and start up the cycle and ride it back over to shine the headlight on the stuff so that I can find the flashlight. I look through all the stuff item by item to find the flashlight. It takes a long time to realize I don't need the flashlight, I need the machete, which is in plain sight. By the time I get it back John has got the fire going. I use the machete to hack up some of the larger pieces of wood.

Chris reappears. He's got the flashlight!

"When are we going to eat?" he complains.

"We're getting it fixed as fast as possible," I tell him. "Leave the flashlight here."

He disappears again, taking the flashlight with him.

The wind blows the fire so hard it doesn't reach up to cook the steaks. We try to fix up a shelter from the wind using large stones from the road, but it's too dark to see what we're doing. We bring both cycles over and catch the scene in a crossbeam of headlights. Peculiar light. Bits of ash blowing up from the fire suddenly glow bright white in it, then disappear in the wind.

BANG! There's a loud explosion behind us. Then I hear Chris giggling.

Sylvia is upset.

"I found some firecrackers," Chris says.

I catch my anger in time and say to him, coldly, "It's time to eat now."

"I need some matches," he says.

"Sit down and eat."

"Give me some matches first."

"Sit down and eat."

He sits down and I try to eat the steak with my Army mess knife, but it is too tough, and so I get out a hunting knife and use it instead. The light from the motorcycle headlight is full upon me so that the knife, when it goes down into the mess gear, is in full shadow and I can't see where it's going.

Chris says he can't cut his either and I pass my knife to him. While reaching for it he dumps everything onto the tarp.

No one says a word.

I'm not angry that he spilled it, I'm angry that now the tarp's going to be greasy the rest of the trip.

"Is there any more?" he asks.

"Eat that," I say. "It just fell on the tarp."

"It's too dirty," he says.

"Well, that's all there is."

A wave of depression hits. I just want to go to sleep now. But he's angry and I expect we're going to have one of his little scenes. I wait for it and pretty soon it starts.

"I don't like the taste of this," he says.

"Yes, that's rough, Chris."

"I don't like any of this. I don't like this camping at all."

"It was your idea," Sylvia says. "You're the one who wanted to go camping."

She shouldn't say that, but there's no way she can know. You take his bait and he'll feed you another one, and then another, and another until you finally hit him, which is what he really wants.

"I don't care," he says.

"Well, you ought to," she says.

"Well, I don't."

An explosion point is very near. Sylvia and John look at me but I remain deadpan. I'm sorry about this but there's nothing I can do right now. Any argument will just worsen things.

"I'm not hungry," Chris says.

No one answers.

"My stomach hurts," he says.

The explosion is avoided when Chris turns and walks away in the darkness.

We finish eating. I help Sylvia clean up, and then we sit around for a while. We turn the cycle lights off to conserve the batteries and because the light from them is ugly anyway. The wind has died down some and there is a little light from the fire. After a while my eyes become accustomed to it. The food and anger have taken off some of the sleepiness. Chris doesn't return.

"Do you suppose he's just punishing?" Sylvia asks.

"I suppose," I say, "although it doesn't sound quite right." I think about it and add, "That's a child-psychology term...a context I dislike. Let's just say he's being a complete bastard."

John laughs a little.

"Anyway," I say, "it was a good supper. I'm sorry he had to act up like this."

"Oh, that's all right," John says. "I'm just sorry he won't get anything to eat."

"It won't hurt him."

"You don't suppose he'll get lost out there."

"No, he'll holler if he is."

Now that he has gone and we have nothing to do I become more aware of the space all around us. There is not a sound anywhere. Lone prairie.

Sylvia says, "Do you suppose he really has stomach pains?"

"Yes," I say, somewhat dogmatically. I'm sorry to see the subject continued but they deserve a better explanation than they're getting. They probably sense that there's more to it than they've heard. "I'm sure he does," I finally say. "He's been examined a half-dozen times for it. Once it was so bad we thought it was appendicitis -- .I remember we were on a vacation up north. I'd just finished getting out an engineering proposal for a five-million-dollar contract that just about did me in. That's a whole other world. No time and no patience and six hundred pages of information to get out the door in one week and I was about ready to kill three different people and we thought we'd better head for the woods for a while.

"I can hardly remember what part of the woods we were in. Head just spinning with engineering data, and anyway Chris was just screaming. We couldn't touch him, until I finally saw I was going to have to pick him up fast and get him to the hospital, and where that was I'll never remember, but they found nothing."


"No. But it happened again on other occasions too."

"Don't they have any idea?" Sylvia asks.

"This spring they diagnosed it as the beginning symptoms of mental illness."

"What?" John says.

It's too dark to see Sylvia or John now or even the outlines of the hills. I listen for sounds in the distance, but hear none. I don't know what to answer and so say nothing.

When I look hard I can make out stars overhead but the fire in front of us makes it hard to see them. The night all around is thick and obscure. My cigarette is down to my fingers and I put it out.

"I didn't know that," Sylvia's voice says. All traces of anger are gone. "We wondered why you brought him instead of your wife," she says. "I'm glad you told us."

John shoves some of the unburned ends of the wood into the fire.

Sylvia says, "What do you suppose the cause is?"

John's voice rasps, as if to cut it off, but I answer, "I don't know. Causes and effects don't seem to fit. Causes and effects are a result of thought. I would think mental illness comes before thought." This doesn't make sense to them, I'm sure. It doesn't make much sense to me and I'm too tired to try to think it out and give it up.

"What do the psychiatrists think?" John asks.

"Nothing. I stopped it."

"Stopped it?"


"Is that good?"

"I don't know. There's no rational reason I can think of for saying it's not good. Just a mental block of my own. I think about it and all the good reasons for it and make plans for an appointment and even look for the phone number and then the block hits, and it's just like a door slammed shut."

"That doesn't sound right."

"No one else thinks so either. I suppose I can't hold out forever."

"But why?" Sylvia asks.

"I don't know why -- it's just that -- I don't know -- they're not kin." -- Surprising word, I think to myself never used it before. Not of kin -- sounds like hillbilly talk -- not of a kind -- same root -- kindness, too -- they can't have real kindness toward him, they're not his kin -- . That's exactly the feeling.

Old word, so ancient it's almost drowned out. What a change through the centuries. Now anybody can be "kind." And everybody's supposed to be. Except that long ago it was something you were born into and couldn't help. Now it's just a faked-up attitude half the time, like teachers the first day of class. But what do they really know about kindness who are not kin.

It goes over and over again through my thoughts -- mein child. There it is in another language. Mein Kinder -- "Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind."

Strange feeling from that.

"What are you thinking about?" Sylvia asks.

"An old poem, by Goethe. It must be two hundred years old. I had to learn it a long time ago. I don't know why I should remember it now, except -- " The strange feeling comes back.

"How does it go?" Sylvia asks.

I try to recall. "A man is riding along a beach at night, through the wind. It's a father, with his son, whom he holds fast in his arm. He asks his son why he looks so pale, and the son replies, `Father, don't you see the ghost?' The father tried to reassure the boy it's only a bank of fog along the beach that he sees and only the rustling of the leaves in the wind that he hears but the son keeps saying it is the ghost and the father rides harder and harder through the night."

"How does it end?"

"In failure -- death of the child. The ghost wins."

The wind blows light up from the coals and I see Sylvia look at me startled.

"But that's another land and another time," I say. "Here life is the end and ghosts have no meaning. I believe that. I believe in all this too," I say, looking out at the darkened prairie, "although I'm not sure of what it all means yet -- I'm not sure of much of anything these days. Maybe that's why I talk so much."

The coals die lower and lower. We smoke our last cigarettes. Chris is off somewhere in the darkness but I'm not going to shag after him. John is carefully silent and Sylvia is silent and suddenly we are all separate, all alone in our private universes, and there is no communication among us. We douse the fire and go back to the sleeping bags in the pines.

I discover that this one tiny refuge of scrub pines where I have put the sleeping bags is also the refuge from the wind of millions of mosquitos up from the reservoir. The mosquito repellent doesn't stop them at all. I crawl deep into the sleeping bag and make one little hole for breathing. I am almost asleep when Chris finally shows up.

"There's a great big sandpile over there," he says, crunching around on the pine needles.

"Yes," I say. "Get to sleep."

"You should see it. Will you come and see it tomorrow?"

"We won't have time."

"Can I play over there tomorrow morning?"


He makes interminable noises getting undressed and into the sleeping bag. He is in it. Then he rolls around. Then he is silent, and then rolls some more. Then he says, "Dad?"


"What was it like when you were a kid?"

"Go to sleep, Chris!" There are limits to what you can listen to.

Later I hear a sharp inhaling of phlegm that tells me he has been crying, and though I'm exhausted, I don't sleep. A few words of consolation might have helped there. He was trying to be friendly. But the words weren't forthcoming for some reason. Consoling words are more for strangers, for hospitals, not kin. Little emotional Band-Aids like that aren't what he needs or what's sought -- .I don't know what he needs, or what's sought.

A gibbous moon comes up from the horizon beyond the pines, and by its slow, patient arc across the sky I measure hour after hour of semisleep. Too much fatigue. The moon and strange dreams and sounds of mosquitos and odd fragments of memory become jumbled and mixed in an unreal lost landscape in which the moon is shining and yet there is a bank of fog and I am riding a horse and Chris is with me and the horse jumps over a small stream that runs through the sand toward the ocean somewhere beyond. And then that is broken -- .And then it reappears.

And in the fog there appears an intimation of a figure. It disappears when I look at it directly, but then reappears in the corner of my vision when I turn my glance. I am about to say something, to call to it, to recognize it, but then do not, knowing that to recognize it by any gesture or action is to give it a reality which it must not have. But it is a figure I recognize even though I do not let on. It is Phædrus.

Evil spirit. Insane. From a world without life or death.

The figure fades and I hold panic down -- tight -- not rushing it -- just letting it sink in -- not believing it, not disbelieving it -- but the hair crawls slowly on the back of my skull -- he is calling Chris, is that it? -- Yes? --


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