The Journey

Robert Pirsig was right

John Sutherland and Robert Pirsig holding Chris Pirsig.
If you’re in to motorcycles it’s a good bet you’ve tried to force yourself to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at some point. And, if you’re like me, your attention started to wane once the Sutherlands headed back to Minnesota. Partially because there is from that point increasingly less talk about motorcycles and partially because, deep down, I can relate more to John Sutherland than I can to Pirsig.
Well, at least where motorcycles are concerned. Because Sutherland, you’ll remember, wasn’t terribly interested in learning how to work on a motorcycle. This is why he spent so much money on a new BMW R60/2 (a). He wanted a machine he didn’t have to fuss with, and he bought into the idea of BMWs as the most reliable of machines. Keen observers will note from my recent post about sport tourers that this is more or less the same reason the modern BMW F800GT sits amid the top three motorcycles I would most like to own.
I’d like to tell myself that I’m a little better than Pirsig makes Sutherland out to be. I clean and lube my bike’s chain every 200 or so miles, I check the chain free play and adjust as needed, I do BOLT checks (b) before every ride, and so on and so on. I’m not at all averse to the idea of doing my own maintenance, I’m just not keen on actually doing it. I mean, from a romantic standpoint, I’m all for it. Yes, let us all do our own maintenance and live with motorcycles as God intended. But from a practical standpoint — squatting down on the dirty, wet ground and banging my hands all to hell trying work out a big, greasy, metal puzzle — I’d instinctively prefer to let someone else do it. Especially if the puzzle involves a vehicle’s electrical system.
Pirsig says this sort of thinking is just an expensive means of making yourself angry. In part, because when you take your motorcycle to a mechanic he or she doesn’t invest into it the same things as you. When a mechanic looks at my Honda CBF600SA, they don’t see a shining beautiful tool for helping me come to terms with the fact I am presently “stuck” in the UK. They don’t see a representation of freedom. They don’t see the end product of setting a goal and accomplishing it. They don’t see a way for my wife and I to have more enriched lives through access to Britain’s breathing spaces. They don’t see any of that. They see a Honda CBF600SA — a motorcycle that Motorcycle News describes as “a bit soulless” — and they don’t care about it the way I do.
The end result of this lack of emotional investment, Pirsig says, is that mechanics are more inclined to do shoddy work.
But not all of us write technical manuals for a living, Rob. Not all of us have a nice, comfy, secure garage where we can dismantle our bikes and leave them sitting for a while if we run into unexpected challenges. Not all of us want to spend the bulk of our far-too-limited free time fixing a damned machine rather than using it.
So, when my father bought me heated grips for Christmas I decided to have someone else install them.
Chris and Robert Pirsig on a Honda CB77, in 1968.

Initially, my plan was to take the bike to one of the Thunder Road locations, with the ulterior motive of test riding another machine while they did the work. Thunder Road are the primary Honda and Suzuki dealers in South Wales. My interaction with them thus far has been less than spectacular, but I was keen to give them another chance because the only real wrong they’ve done is ignore me.

But when they did that to me again, failing to reply to an email I sent enquiring about service (I got an auto reply but nothing after that), I got huffy and decided to take the bike to a little shop just around the corner from my flat. Sure, that place was “low rent,” shall we say, but I figured a professional mechanic of even basic calibre would be able to handle the installation of heated grips.
I figured wrong. The fact is, they did such a poor job that I was able to identify problems on sight. Sparing you a long story, I worked myself into a quivering rage and got most of my money back. The grips work as they should but the electrical tape on my right grip makes it look as if the job was done in Arkansas.

I feel now like John Sutherland: angry at the mechanic for doing such a substandard job, and angry at myself for having trusted him. Would it have been better if I had taken my bike to Thunder Road (c) and paid more? I don’t know. I wish I had the skills (and time and space and tools and motivation) to have just done the job myself.

(a) Isn’t it crazy to think that both Pirsig and the Sutherlands made this trip on machines that produced no more than 30 bhp?!
(b) BOLT stands for “Brakes, oil, lights, tires.” Based on a quick search of the interwebs, I appear to have made up this acronym. I don’t remember making it up, but I also don’t remember anyone telling it to me. So perhaps there is my own knowledgeable Phaedrus lurking deep within.

(c) My relationship with Thunder Road is an odd one, it has to be said. Because my empirical experiences, i.e. those experiences I’ve actually had rather than those I could have, suggest I should focus my attention on other businesses. But opposing this is Thunder Road’s incredibly positive outreach. After my initial negative experience, they contacted me directly to apologise. When they disappointed me again, they again got in touch. So, since they’ve not ever made me angry in a way that cost me money, I’m likely to give them a third try sometime soon.