This ‘Zen’ Motorcycle Still Inspires Philosophical Road-Trippers 50 Years Later

Robert M. Pirsig’s odyssey vehicle takes its final ride as it vrooms into public view for the first time ever at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

1966 Honda Super Hawk
Robert M. Pirsig’s 1966 Honda Super Hawk Motorcycle. Jaclyn Nash / Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Fifty years ago, America took a motorcycle ride that doubled as an exploration into the human mind.

Amid a long struggle with mental illness, the author and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig invited the nation to join his journey in his 1974 autobiographical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values.

The book’s narrative focuses on Pirsig’s motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son from Minnesota to California. The novel become a phenomenon. Since its publication, his complex and challenging work has deeply affected many readers. The book has been published in more than 25 languages, and the total number of copies sold has topped 5 million. Now, the motorcycle that he and his son rode takes its place in the National Museum of American History.

Robert and Chris Pirsig
Robert M. Pirsig with his son Chris on his 1966 Honda Super Hawk Motorcycle. Courtesy of Wendy Pirsig

Pirsig, who experienced electroconvulsive treatments in the early 1960s after being committed to a mental health facility, used his two-wheeled expedition as a way to reconnect with the man he had been before his mental transformation.

By revisiting his past self and his greater willingness to take chances in the years before he became subsumed by mental illness, Pirsig provided a multifaceted and sometimes daunting narrative about his own struggles to deal with personal changes, and the peace he found in practicing Zen as a part of daily life from early adulthood onward. The book’s message still has value today as a different perspective on life.

Pirsig’s bike is on public display for the first time ever, after the National Museum of American History recently acquired many of his personal belongings. The display celebrates the book’s continued popularity a half-century after its release.

The book is “like a New Testament of the post-Beat generation,” says Anthea M. Hartig, director of the museum. “Much has been said about it tapping into the zeitgeist of the time, both the turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s and the radical social changes.” Taking to the road is a recurring theme in the nation’s mythology and a demonstration of rugged American individualism, she says.

The bike’s new home will be “America on the Move,” the museum’s biggest exhibition, which was launched in 2003. According to curator Paul Johnston, the display keys in on three facets of Pirsig’s life: writing, riding and sailing. Visitors will be able to see his manual typewriter and an Apple II computer to which he made extraordinary upgrades that won him a place—the Pirsig Meeting Room—at Apple headquarters.

Also on view is the original Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance manuscript, which 121 publishing houses rejected before his persistence won over publisher William Morrow. Before finding publishing success, Pirsig worked jobs as a teacher, journalist, casino employee and technical writer.

The star of the riding section will be the 1966 Honda Super Hawk he shared with his son Chris on their 1968 quest for understanding. It will be displayed alongside the riding jacket and helmet Pirsig wore during their monthlong, 5,700-mile trek from Minneapolis-St. Paul to San Francisco and back.

At the beginning of their travels, the two Pirsigs were accompanied by a couple on a BMW motorcycle, and the author repeatedly mentions that bike’s manufacturer, but he never even hints that he is riding a Honda. Johnston wondered about that and asked Pirsig’s widow, Wendy, about the omission. She said that Japanese motorcycles were beginning to displace British products, and that had become controversial. As a result, Pirsig thought it was best not to name his vehicle, which was the largest Honda sold in the United States and yet is “teeny,” in Johnston’s analysis.

Pirsig used his royalties from the book to buy a 30-foot, $60,000 sailboat named Arete. In it, he crossed the Atlantic with his wife and daughter, living aboard the boat in Europe for several years until their daughter reached school age.

His author’s note stated that the book should “in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice,” and he added that “it’s not very factual on motorcycles either.” When asked to sum up the bottom line of his philosophy in a 1974 interview, Pirsig said, “Pay attention to where you’re at right now and not where you’re going to be in the future.” Enjoy the journey, he told readers, and don’t fixate on the destination.

In the final decades of his life, he struggled through the grief of losing Chris, who was killed by robbers in 1979 after he walked out of the Zen Center in San Francisco. Pirsig died in 2017, but his message survives.

Some fans, who inhaled Pirsig’s descriptions of backroad travels, follow his path from state to state and town to town as they repeat his journey. Year after year, they pass through communities like Bozeman, Montana, where they are known as Pirsig’s Pilgrims. They take an odyssey to see America, find themselves and recall a time decades ago when words on a page changed their lives.

The book and the display serve as “one man’s lens and one man’s objects. We get to see so much of the richness and complications of his own self,” Hartig says. She sees the book as offering “a broader reflection on the complications of mid- to late-20th-century life.” And yet, she adds, the book “has a certain timelessness, Pirsig’s kind of modern-day existential philosophy. … And it’s about what we tell ourselves to survive. And how we deal with life’s misfortunes and challenges.”

In his work, Pirsig made a case for motorcycle repair as a valuable activity. He wrote, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.”

To Hartig, the motorcycle is both a practical piece of Pirsig’s story and a metaphor reflecting his philosophy of doing.

Clearly, Pirsig liked to be on the move. The display, Hartig says, reflects “both his uneasiness and his need to get out, to get on the road, or get on the water, to have something much bigger than himself.” Dating back to ancient mythology, she recognizes “this very kind of intensely complicated masculine need to find oneself through journey and having to leave home to do it.”

Scholar Beverly Gross wrote that “the center of meaning of the book has to do with the necessity of synthesizing the normal, everyday, functioning self with the person given to extremes, excesses, dizzying heights, obsessions—our crazy self with our sane self, the greatness in us with our ordinariness.” In Gross’ view, Pirsig “endows the simple matter of keeping an old bike in good repair with tremendous moral and cultural significance.”

Turning her attention to the book’s 50 years in print, Hartig regards the timing of the anniversary as “a really fascinating kind of collision of eras, as the nation grapples with its own identity” in the aftermath of pandemic isolation. During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, many looked out their windows into empty streets, as even the most adventurous of Americans stayed at home. While many Americans have had difficulty reintegrating with society, Hartig wonders: “Do we actually yearn more for community of shared spaces and deeper relationships?”

Hartig describes him as a philosopher for our time: “Forget about Foucault, move over Plato, here comes Pirsig. It’s a very American story that he did all that, that he overcame so much, that he persevered.”

Zen and the Open Road” is on view at the National Museum of American History from April 15, 2024.

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