Zen and the art of motorcycle riding
We dropped down from Lake Tahoe into the Great Basin. The signage warned us about a veritable Noah’s Ark of animal life: bear, deer, cattle, moose, horses, men on horses, men on tractors. It got hot, fast. Ninety-two miles in we had lunch in Fallon, Nevada. Then we entered the desert, our motorcycles shredding the silence.
When I mentioned to Hunter, my riding companion, that the next stretch of 409 miles was known as the Loneliest Road in America, his response was “Well, I’m the loneliest man in America.”
Hunter was fleeing a relationship and riding with me back to the East Coast. I had set out from Cambridge on my motorcycle some seven weeks and 7,000 miles earlier, pinballing around the cities of the Midwest and then whipping across the plains and over the mountains to Seattle. I joked with friends that I was just swinging by Seattle to pick Hunter up. The truth is, our journeys happened to align. And yet I wasn’t sure what had caused me to fling myself out on the road once again. I had nothing to flee. Maybe it was like John Steinbeck said: “Once a bum always a bum.”
Hunter tore ahead astride Rhonda, his 1979 CB750. Rhonda had a menacing growl and a whole host of complications. She was in her dirty thirties, we joked—a longtime smoker. We wondered if she could make it through the desert unscathed. We wondered if we could make it through the desert unscathed.
I cruised steadily behind on Darsan, my 1990 BMW K75, so named because the Hindu concept of darshan—witnessing and being witnessed by the divine—has long intrigued me. And what better way to take darshan of America than on a motorcycle?
In his own American motorcycle journal, Robert Pirsig wrote, “The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.” But what about valleys? Hunter and I were about to find out.
The emptiness was striking. All that space has a way of shrinking distance. The image of Hunter ahead, ducking into the wind and surging toward the mountains, is burned into my memory. Largely because to get to the mountains we had to surge toward them for a long time. The valleys were designed to a scale that we city boys weren’t accustomed to. The road was straight, the landscape barren. Though we pushed our bikes to 85, 90, 95 miles per hour, the pervading sense of stillness was broken only by the roaring wind.
We pulled over and removed our helmets, and the silence pulsed in our ears. Hunter’s constant fear was that Rhonda’s engine would seize and she would explode—spontaneous motorcycle combustion. We poured water on her cylinders and watched it sizzle. My constant fear was that my tires would explode. They’d traversed the country and then some. The upshot is that constant fear truly puts you in the moment. The great matter is birth and death, after all.
We plowed on. Over the miles we developed a natural rhythm: I’d overtake, lead for a while, and then, wordlessly, we’d switch positions. Peak, then valley; peak, then valley. After 112 miles we made it to Austin, population 300. Hunter entered the gas station and returned with a pin that read “I Survived the Loneliest Road in America.”
“I don’t know if I’d put that on just yet,” I told him.
“You mean it’s not over?” he asked.
The next stretch was 70 miles to Eureka. I eased into the ride, mind and body in sync. You find a rhythm on the bike. Each morning of the trip I’d set out with nerves, as if I’d forgotten how to ride overnight. Then, 50 miles in, humming along, my mind would begin to hum too, matching the vibrations of the engine. My thoughts would become incredibly simple and yet immensely joyful: This is it! Or, Oh my god! Or, Holy shit! Then, by the end of the day, gravity, exhaustion, would pull me back to earth.
By the time we arrived in Eureka—“The Friendliest Town on the Loneliest Road in America”—we were pink. The desert dust had coated us in a thin film, and Pink Hunter and Pink Alex took stock of each other and laughed. More gas for the thirsty steeds, and then it was off on the last stretch to Ely.
Peaks and valleys. This rising and falling, it seemed so familiar. First the valley encapsulated you, a perspective that seemed endless, inescapable. And then a rise, a curve, a series of moments spent winding gracefully upward, lost in the acts of slowing, cornering, accelerating, until—behold!—a view.
This was the whole trip, I realized. This was what my summer, my last 7,000 miles had been. Weeks earlier, after narrowly surviving a severe thunderstorm while camping out in Ohio, I woke to find that Darsan wouldn’t start.
“I think I’ve reached a new low,” I told my girlfriend over the phone.
“Maybe you shouldn’t start measuring low points,” she advised.
She was right. There were greater valleys. The time in South Dakota, at the height of my loneliness, before I joined forces with Hunter, when I killed a bird with my helmet at 70 miles per hour. The time in Portland I spent a sleepless night on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
And yet, those peaks! The ride up the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park across impossible swaths of mountain. Curving along Big Sur with my girlfriend clutching me, the Pacific gleaming to our right.
Shrubs and trees carpeted the approach to Ely as the sun began to dip behind us. After all that desolation they looked like foreign entities, like we had come from the arid, ancient past to find a world suddenly alive and flourishing. Deer sprinted away from the road, frightened by Rhonda’s snarling approach.
After 332 scorched miles we finally arrived. The following morning, and the rest of the ride back to the East Coast, would feature more peaks and valleys, but for now Hunter and I were all too content to rinse the desert off our faces, find a meal, and settle in with a bottle of whiskey.
As for the question about whether Zen can be found in valleys, I really can’t say. They were all empty.
Alex Tzelnic is a Zen practitioner and writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His essays have appeared in Killing the Buddha and The Rumpus.
Image: Jens Goerlich/Gallery Stock