I’ve never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I’m not going to. It’s not that I’ve got anything against it, quite the opposite in fact. The title resonates with me. So much so that in my own mind I’ve already decided what the book is about, fallen in love with the anecdotes and themes, and have all but awarded it a Pulitzer Prize. It’s seriously the best book I’ve never read. That’s what I’m assuming anyway, and I don’t want to know if I’m wrong, so I’m not going to read it.
As enthusiasts we all know what it’s like to spend some uninterrupted time in the garage wrenching on one of our most prized possessions. Just you and the bike, accompanied only by your thoughts, a few tools, and maybe a lazy dog napping in the corner. I’m not talking about those stressful occasions spent trying to ram five hours of maintenance into a one-hour sack (that’s how a rear axle nut doesn’t get tightened before heading to the sand dunes for a week, but that’s another story) in order to be ready for a race or trip the next morning. I’m talking about those times where you’re out there simply because you want to be. Chased from the mind are the stresses of everyday life, and thanks to the lack of deadlines, you’re free to move at your own pace, interrupted only by the occasional need to administer an approving “thumbs up” on Pandora. Fresh oil replaces old, chain tension is set, and spokes are tightened. While you’re at it, you reach for a rag and polish to compliment your machine’s mechanical readiness with a glistening coat of visible pride. At this moment there is nothing else. It’s exactly what I imagine is described on the pages of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and believing someone else understands this exact same feeling is strangely uplifting.
[Editor’s note: The book is actually about a motorcycle road trip and not working in the garage, but there is a theme of how two approaches to motorcycle maintenance can describe two types of personalities. But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story.]
It’s in these mental states of maintenance-induced zen that motorcycles can help a person reflect and learn by recognizing some of the parallels between life and dirt bikes. Suddenly a filthy air filter represents a mind clogged with negative, performance-hindering thoughts. That intimidating double out of the corner becomes a metaphor for how fear sometimes causes us to build things up in our minds to where we believe they’re nearly impossible. Finally launching it and cleaning it on the first try reminds you things aren’t always as tough as they seem. The understanding that most mental rev limiters are self-imposed quickly follows. It’s astonishing how much knowledge you can gain from a book you’ve never even opened.
The lessons learned are many, outnumbered only by the potential insight yet to be unlocked simply by twirling those 8mm, 10mm, and 12mm T-handles in solitude. Speaking of, my clutch and throttle cables could use some lube and a bit of oil is starting to trickle down my left fork. I’d better get busy. Who knows, maybe I’ll even pick up some wisdom that’ll help me understand how silly it is to avoid reading a book just because it might be different than I want it to be.