Chrome and Black and Dusty: Robert Pirsig’s Motorcycle Heritage

Paul F. Johnston

“Silver-grey and chrome and black – and dusty. Dirt from Idaho and Montana and the Dakotas and Minnesota. From the ground up it looks very impressive. No frills. Everything with a purpose. I don’t think I’ll ever sell it. No reason to, really. They’re not like cars, with a body that rusts out in a few years. Keep them tuned and overhauled and they’ll last as long as you do. Probably longer.” ZAMM, p. 300

Many people know Robert Maynard Pirsig (1928-2017) as author of the iconic 1974 volume Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (William Morrow, NY). Dedicated reader-riders may even remember that he rode a motorcycle across the Midwest to California and back with his son back in the 1960s. But virtually no one outside of his immediate family members and editor know the depth and breadth of his relationship with motorcycles, or that it endured from the ages of four to eighty-seven. Based on background research on the famous Pirsig 1966 CB77F Honda Super Hawk, its ancestors, siblings and descendants, this article intends to illuminate that relationship; weld together the historical events that forged it, and backfill a significant lacuna in our modern knowledge of Pirsig’s life and influences.[i] Readers anticipating another learned treatise on Pirsig’s philosophical journey will be disappointed; this is about motorcycle history.

In the summer of 1968, Pirsig took a 5,700-mile trip on a Honda 305-cc Super Hawk motorcycle with his 11-year-old son Chris from Minneapolis, Minnesota to San Francisco, California and back.


He then spent several years drafting an ‘autobiographical novel’ about the experience, writing mostly overnight and in the early mornings in a rented office in downtown Minneapolis while his family slept. He supported them with his day job writing technical manuals, freelance writing and teaching. The resulting manuscript was declined by 121 publishers.

[Fig. 2a-b]

Finally, editor James Landis at William Morrow offered his standard new-writer advance of $3,000 for the unusual volume with the odd but intriguing title that contained a lengthy, complex philosophical message that was not easy to understand or absorb.

On 15 April 1974, William Morrow published that book as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. It was an immediate sensation that perfectly embodied the zeitgeist of youth, freedom and philosophy.

[Fig. 3]

A 1974 New Yorker review compared Robert Pirsig’s book to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.[ii] Within a few short months, more than 50,000 copies were sold, and by a year’s passage, the number topped a million. In 1991, when his second book was published, the Washington Post called ZAMM “the best-selling book of serious nonfiction for the past 20 years” and named Pirsig “author of the most famous book about motorcycles ever.”[iii]

Since then, HarperCollins estimates that well over six million copies of ZAMM in several editions and 27 languages are in circulation worldwide,[iv] and the book remains in print today. It is read in college philosophy, literature and religion courses, and it serves as the tip of the spear for academic studies in the history of technology under the multiple topics of maintenance, tinkering and DIY. “Pirsig’s Pilgrims” continue to ride along what they know of Pirsig’s 1968 route and document their inspirational experiences in one way or another.[v] Several entire books have been devoted to ZAMM,[vi] with more to come.

Where did the quixotic book title come from? As it turns out, ZAMM was not Pirsig’s first book, nor even his second. In mid-1954, he and his wife Nancy had saved around $3,400 from working as dealers in a casino in Reno, Nevada and the couple hitchhiked south to Acayucan and Minatitlan, Mexico for Bob to write “the great book.” An extended confrontation with a typewriter in an empty room ended in a humbling writing block for that first book, which consequently was never written.

Pirsig then decided to build boats for a living in Mexico, where labor was cheaper than in the States. He spent several months from September 1954-May 1955 in sweltering heat and humbling inexperience before running out of money and returning to Minnesota with a load of wood bought—but not used—for boatbuilding. Earning a Master’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota, Pirsig became a freelance journalist and technical writer, even writing “ads for the mortuary cosmetics industry.”[vii] In an interesting coincidence relative to the current coronavirus sweeping the globe, in the late 1950s he authored a booklet for elementary school children about the famous Black Plague pandemic of 1348 AD.[viii]

[Fig. 4]

In the early 1960s, Pirsig spent time in mental hospitals; his treatment for catatonic schizophrenia, anxiety and other issues over “many visits” included electroconvulsive therapy.[ix] Afterwards, he tried to renew his student pilot’s license but was prohibited on account of his hospitalizations. Seeking the same feelings of soaring, flying, freedom, escape and control in some other way, he found motorcycling to be the closest analog. The activity was familiar and comfortable, since he had been around bikes since the age of around four, first in a sidecar rig purchased by his father while stationed in England in the early 1930s[x].

[Fig. 5]

Later, around 1940, his uncle Howard “Bud” Pirsig had a late 1930s Harley-Davidson.

[Fig. 6]

Some time after his last hospitalization, Bob purchased a new Honda 90.

[Fig. 7a-b]

As Pirsig recounts in ZAMM, that summer he and son Chris set out for Canada on the 90, but the bike quit after 130 miles in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. “At the time, like John, I hadn’t bothered to learn much about motorcycle maintenance. Way overloaded with luggage and underloaded with common sense,” Pirsig checked the gas, points, plugs, and carb. He kicked over the engine multiple times but failed to start it. The aborted vacation ended with Chris in tears, and the pair hitchhiked home, rented a trailer and towed the bike back. Two weeks later Pirsig realized that the gas he’d heard sloshing around in the tank was the reserve. Assuming that the rain had forced the engine to quit, he had forgotten to turn on the reserve petcock. He’d simply run out of gas in the main tank, and this embarrassing revelation and the resulting disappointing vacation jumpstarted his serious motorcycle maintenance: “Now we are on a twenty-eight-horse machine and I take the maintenance of it very seriously.”[xi] His Super Hawk was acquired soon after the Honda 90, but the circumstances of the smaller motorcycle’s disposal and the new bike’s purchase are unknown.

Sometime after the Honda 90 purchase, Bob bought a used 1966 CB77F 305cc Super Hawk, then Honda’s largest and sportiest motorcycle. His first wife Nancy also had a Honda Scrambler around this time, and the couple rode together.

[Fig. 8]

Women riders were exceedingly rare at that time; today, they represent around 19% of the licensed riding population in the United States.[xii] Pirsig and his friend and fellow rider John Sutherland, whom he had had met at a Dharma conference in Minneapolis in May 1957, were chatting one day about their mutual interest in and practice of Zen. The topic of John’s rough-running Harley-Davidson motorcycle and its owner’s disinterest in maintaining it or correcting its rough engine performance came up; this prompted Bob to suggest that John needed a book on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “We would ride for awhile and stop for a beer from time to time, where we often discussed philosophic subjects, including Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (1948). I knew John didn’t like motorcycle maintenance and I did, and I thought maybe I should write an essay for him called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to help make my point. The idea intrigued me and that’s how the book began.”[xiii] That wry turn of phrase stuck in Pirsig’s mind for some time after the idle conversation. Perhaps coincidentally, German motorcycle designer Hans Muth, renowned as BMW styling chief in the late 1970s responsible for the R90S, R100S and iconic R80GS, also credited Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery for inspiration when he later designed the 1981 Suzuki Katana.[xiv]

In the summer of 1968, Pirsig and Sutherland began planning a motorcycle trip longer than the shorter rides they’d shared before. Bob wanted to spend more time with his 11-year-old son Chris, whom he felt he’d neglected while writing so much. Undoubtedly, he also wanted to make amends for the earlier aborted motorcycle ride. John and his wife Sylvia had just purchased a new BMW R60/2 motorcycle. The four set out mid-summer from St. Paul, MN.[xv]

[Fig. 9a-c]

In Chapter 4, Pirsig listed in considerable detail the tools and manuals he took along for maintenance on the ride: “a. The shop manual for this cycle. b. A general troubleshooting guide containing all the technical information I can never keep in my head. The is Chilton’s Motorcycle Troubleshooting Guide written by Ocee Rich and sold by Sears, Roebuck…A standard tool kit comes with the cycle and is stored under the seat. This is supplemented with the following: A large, adjustable open-end wrench. A machinist’s hammer. A cold chisel. A taper punch. A pair of tire irons. A tire-patching kit. A bicycle pump. A can of molybdenum disulfide spray for the chain…Impact driver. A point file. Feeler gauge. Test lamp. Spare parts include: Plugs. Throttle, clutch and brake cables. Points, fuses, headlight and taillight bulbs, chain-coupling link with keeper, cotter pins, baling wire. Spare chain (this is just an old one that was about shot when I replaced it, enough to get to a cycle shop if the present one goes).”[xvi]

With this kit over the course of the journey, he checked the oil level and changed it a couple of times; checked and adjusted various bolts, lubed and adjusted chain slack and tire pressure; adjusted the tappets in a shady spot after stopping for the day, because “Tappet adjustment has to be done with the engine cold”; adjusted the timing and gapped and replaced the plugs; replaced Chris’s footpeg rubbers; switched out the carburetor jets, and leaned out the idle to accommodate for mountain altitudes. This was all pretty common maintenance for a mid-1960s air-cooled carbureted motorcycle.

The Sutherlands rode along for just a week as far as Montana, but the Pirsigs kept riding for three more weeks westerly through Minnesota, North and South Dakota, crossing the Rockies in Montana and Idaho before dropping southwest through Oregon into coastal California. The known part of the month-long trip, during which they camped and occasionally stayed in motels, ended in San Francisco after 17 days.

[Fig. 10a-e]

They rode south to Los Angeles and homeward easterly to the Twin Cities through Nevada and Utah, covering a total of 12 states. [xvii] Today, very few motorcycle tourers would consider spending a month riding two-up nearly 6,000 miles on a small 305cc bike; in the current vernacular some might label this an adventure ride rather than touring, since the Pirsigs mostly camped and occasionally went off road.

[Fig. 11]

As a journalism student, Bob had written a short story about an “Indian Hindustani” who talked to crows. His teacher suggested he would do better to write about what he knew, so Pirsig set out to blend his interest in Eastern philosophy with his technical background. For the next few years after the trip, Pirsig wrote and rewrote his book, with the results described above. What made William Morrow editor Jim Landis take it on, when so many other publishers had declined? It was actually a long formative process, during which Landis recommended that Pirsig amplify the actual motorcycle trip in the philosophy manuscript to broaden its appeal. The trip, motorcycle and maintenance portions of the book are not central to the book’s metaphysical message, and they do have a cut-and-pasted feel to them in between the longer philosophical Chautauquas or discourses. Woven throughout the volume, the character Phaedrus represents Pirsig’s former self before he was hospitalized, and memories of that prior life were hazy at times on account of his treatment.

Maintenance is not only in the famous book’s title; the topic is also discussed at some length within the book itself. The incident featuring the reserve started a discourse on four-stroke engine seizures, of which Pirsig had three in just a couple of months. The first time, he took the bike to a shop, where the mechanic diagnosed it as a $140 tappet problem. A month later after repairs and a careful break-in period, it seized again. The same shop blamed Pirsig for a poor break-in, repaired the bike and took it for a test drive, during which it seized on the mechanic. It was returned to Pirsig not running, and Bob had to reconnect the plug wires, after which the unmistakable sound of maladjusted tappets did appear. The mechanic had rounded the tappet covers with the wrong wrench and then punched a hole in the head trying to get them off with a cold chisel. At that point, Bob left with two new tappet covers and set off down the road; a bad vibration was traced to missing engine mount and cam chain tensioner bolts! Pirsig then segued into a discussion on why the mechanics failed so badly to properly service the engine, starting with trying to analyze their relationship with technology. He ends the lengthy episode saying “And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is

considered either unimportant or taken for granted.” After that, Bob took over his motorcycle maintenance for good, finding that the seizures had been caused by a sheared internal pin blocking oil from reaching the head at high RPMs.

This chronicle is followed by a DIY pathway for diagnosing “intermittents” and a diatribe about the cost and ill-fitting character of spare parts, machining one’s own parts, bad tools and bad lighting, a mechanic’s feel for torqueing nuts and impact forces, keeping a disassembly sequence notebook, and generally detailing a host of actions and activities that most shadetree mechanics likely perform without such deep thought or analysis of process. He ends his wide-ranging maintenance musings with the famous phrase “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”[xviii]

[Fig. 12a-b]

In the early pages of his last book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991), Pirsig describes in considerable detail his writing process, comparing compiling his thoughts on note cards quite literally to a computer’s random access memory (RAM).[xix] Small bits on cards could be shuffled and combined into varying sequences, after which they formed themselves into strings or threads that were eventually shaped and stitched together into more lengthy narratives. Ill-fitting sequences could be reshuffled into more coherent concepts, or trashed. This was a software compiling method that he knew well from his programming background and technical computer manual writings.

There was a second, undocumented motorcycle journey on the Super Hawk with Bob’s second son Ted in 1969, when Ted too was eleven. The original plan was to head south to Rio di Janeiro, but Bob decided that was too risky, so the team pivoted 180 degrees to the north, heading for the Canadian town of Churchill on Hudson Bay. They first rode north via a family stop in Grand Forks, ND, to The Pas, Canada. The last hundred miles to Churchill, best known for its polar bears, were unpaved, so the Pirsigs dismounted and took a train.

[Fig. 13a-b]

After returning to La Pas on the 24-hour train ride, they rode to Flin Flon and then back to St. Paul via northern Wisconsin, camping, fishing and hiking along the way.

[Fig. 14]

In the spring of 1974, the Pirsig family went on a camping trip to Texas in their Ford pickup truck with a camper top, towing the Super Hawk behind on a trailer. On a highway stretch at speed, the bike broke loose from its mount and flipped over, breaking the handlebars into two pieces and damaging the front fender and some other parts.

[Fig. 15]

The bars were welded back together, and the bike went into the garage. Two years later, the family was away again, leaving Ted alone at the house for the summer. A friend on a motorcycle stopped by and showed Ted how to work the controls. Ted then rolled his father’s old Honda out of the garage and got it running. A tipover in an auto parts store parking lot that summer rebroke the bars at the same place as the towing accident, and they were rewelded once again.

[Fig. 16]

What did Pirsig do with the royalties from ZAMM? Buy a new house, truck or motorcycle? Quite the opposite: he ordered a new $60,000 32-foot Westsail sailboat from a California yacht builder. It was a stoutly built, roomy oceangoing vessel, designed for serious long-distance cruising. Like bikes, Pirsig had a lifelong affinity for ships and boats that burned even brighter than his fondness for motorcycles, but that’s the subject of another story.[xx]

In late 1979, Pirsig’s 21-year-old son Chris was murdered during a robbery in San Francisco outside the Zen Center where he lived and studied. The afterword in the 25th anniversary edition of ZAMM describes the murder in painful detail; Chris wrote his father that he had just bought a used 1972 Honda CB450 motorcycle with almost 30,000 miles for $300.00, and it needed the transmission and clutch fixed for another $200 to get on the road. Chris wrote the letter just a month or so before his death, so it is unlikely that the Honda was repaired. He’d also bought a ticket to England, where his father and stepmother were living, but fate interfered with the family plan. [xxi]

Bob and his second wife Wendy picked up Chris’s personal items and motorcycle in San Francisco and drove them in the back of a pickup truck to Minnesota, where they were left at his grandfather Maynard’s property.

[Fig. 17a-b]

Pirsig noted with sadness the irony of that trip, which reversed the one he’d taken with Chris eleven years earlier.

That same year, Bob and Wendy taught themselves celestial navigation and sailed across the Atlantic to England in August, where they remained in part to escape the loss of Chris and the notoriety caused by ZAMM. In 1981, they had a daughter, Nell, and they sailed and lived around Europe and Scandinavia for the next several years until 1985, when they returned to the United States[xxii]. Pirsig took the next several years (a total of 17) to write his second book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991), which was another autobiographical novel—a ZAMM sequel—about a boat captain on the Hudson River and the philosophical subject of morals. Although it was a finalist for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Lila never achieved the widespread popularity of its older sibling; it was Pirsig’s last book.

In the summer of 1999, Bob was invited to speak in Lake George, NY at the 17th Americade, a large annual rally of touring motorcyclists that continues today. He declined but asked Morrow editor Jim Landis to speak for him, since it was ZAMM’s 25th anniversary and a commemorative edition with new content had just been published. Although Landis wasn’t a motorcycle rider and had never spoken in public about Pirsig or his book, he accepted the challenge and spoke at a Saturday barbecue hosted by BMW motorcycles and Esquire magazine. He recalls sunny, hot weather and a 100-person audience for his hillside speech, which began with asking the audience how many had read Bob’s book. Only his own hand went up, so he asked how many had heard of Zen, with exactly the same result. His presentation, written out for 40-60 minutes, was consequently abbreviated to “probably 12 painful minutes at most” so the event raffle could begin. Clearly, either the book’s fame had waned or these riders weren’t readers.[xxiii]

Bob had never interacted with the motorcycling community or joined group rides, other than with a close friend or family member. The feelings of soaring, freedom and escape from anxiety and the pressures of fame that motorcycling had offered him in earlier life had been replaced by the boat, which he kept and personally maintained well into his eighties. Maintenance of his motorcycle, boat, other vehicles and house undoubtedly gave him a sense of control over and order within his environment. The 1966 Super Hawk spent several years on a trickle charger in the family’s garage in Maine, rarely ridden. In 2014/15, Bob and a local mechanic did a frame-off mechanical restoration of the bike, saving all the worn and replaced parts, right down to the broken and rewelded handlebar.

[Fig. 18a-b]

Wendy Pirsig wrote to the Smithsonian in 2016, asking if there might be interest in her husband’s motorcycle. At the time, Bob was elderly, frail and in poor health; he had considered the disposition of the bike but had not made any decisions. The contact initiated a dialog between Smithsonian research staff and the Pirsig family. In summer 2019 on a visit to Mrs. Pirsig in New England, the Honda was on its center stand out of the way against a two-car garage wall, with 33,213 miles on the battered odometer.

[Fig. 19]

After an offer to demonstrate its running condition, Ms. Pirsig led the writer down to the basement, where she went through the remarkably well-preserved and documented materials associated with the bike and the famous ride: clothing, maps, tools and tool bag; the white and battered fiberglass Harley-Davidson “bubble bags;” bungee cords; several Minnesota and Maine vehicle registrations; the worn maintenance manual whose spine was secured with electrical tape that Bob had used for his famous book title, and to repair and maintain the bike over the years. Helmets, clutch plates, a condenser, the broken and twisted handlebar, goggles, miscellaneous spare parts and the like: the whole gamut.

[Fig. 20–24]

Two Kennedy boxes of tools that Bob used to maintain his vehicles and home, together with photographs of him with them also were offered. Number 1 of the ten ZAMM manuscripts that Pirsig had sent out to prospective publishers, together with a first edition of the final product, also were available. Wendy and Bob had gone through the contents of the basement thoroughly, and as a former journalist Wendy carefully documented his thoughts and reminiscences about the objects and their significance to his past. This provided historical context and depth to the collection offered and made it significantly more valuable for research.

Bob Pirsig and his family always bought and rode Honda motorcycles, although surprisingly the brand and model are not mentioned even once in ZAMM. His Super Hawk is simply called the “cycle” more than 100 times throughout the book. This is in contrast with his mention not only of the make and model of his friend John Sutherland’s BMW R60,[xxiv] but also with his recounting of a tale of a Henderson motorcycle mentioned by a retired stockman he and Chris met in Bowman, North Dakota. The Henderson brand is mentioned twice in consecutive sentences in the same paragraph.[xxv] Considering the long and intimate relationship between Pirsig and his motorcycle, and the amount of thought and ink he devoted to it in ZAMM, the absence of the brand name, model or even date is puzzling. However, a conversation with his wife revealed that this omission was deliberate. Bob wanted his readers to focus on the broader maintenance aspect of motorcycles in general, and he didn’t want to be perceived as endorsing Hondas over other brands. He also was aware of the chasm between riders of American and Japanese (or other foreign) motorcycles–a gap that persists into the present day.[xxvi]

[Fig. 25]

In late 2019, the Smithsonian collected the above objects, along with the typewriter and Apple II computer on which Pirsig had written his books; a first edition of Lila (1991); some promotional items for both books, and some maritime materials representing Pirsig’s lifelong interest in ships and boats. Also accessioned were notebooks containing Pirsig’s Apple II programming, in which he was more than proficient. Pirsig hotrodded his Apple, stacking seven cards inside that attest to his technical computer prowess. The Smithsonian has another Apple II donated by a computer programmer that contains only three cards. In fact, a meeting room in Apple Park, Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino, CA is named after Pirsig, but the writer’s relationship with Apple computers, software, programming and manuals is yet another story. Multiple photographs documenting the artifacts in use accompanied the gifts; significantly, Pirsig himself had scanned high-definition copies of the images he considered most important prior to his death. Harvard University’s Houghton Library is the repository for Pirsig’s writings and associated holdings;[xxvii] with his material and intellectual culture shared between the Smithsonian and Harvard, Pirsig’s heritage will be well preserved for future generations.

The community of academic historians and museum staff with motorcycle licenses is very small. I regret not meeting Robert Pirsig, but I do feel an affinity through time, shared interests, and coming of age in the period that Pirsig inhabited and inspired. I especially appreciate kindred visceral and ephemeral experiences that those with bikes and boats at heart can know. As we measure, photograph and document the Pirsig artifacts in our storage facilities, it’s interesting to think about the different artifacts in the life-spanning collection—especially the tools and maintenance manuals–and speculate about their use in light of the ZAMM’s influence and its impact on American culture. Rarely are we offered the opportunity to select highlights with such deep context relative to a culturally formative individual’s personal possessions; normally heirs will hold on to just a few keepsakes or souvenirs collected or used by an individual. Most commonly these are scattered within a generation or two, and their stories are collaterally diluted or distorted. Those sparse items only leave a hint of an individual’s life that researchers must piece together like a jigsaw puzzle or develop educated hypotheses to derive and distill the creative essence of an artist’s output. In this case, we have preserved a rich and varied collection of his most important personal artifacts starting from childhood that manifest a well-considered and representative sampling of a significant American writer’s influences and output, and his lasting impact on our culture. We look forward to presenting this extraordinary gift to the nation in a 2024 exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of ZAMM’s publication. From today’s historical perspective, Robert Pirsig’s words about a bike outlasting its owner were prophetic!

[Fig. 26]


[i] The author is profoundly grateful to the Pirsig family and Morrow editor James Landis, all of whom generously provided stories, images and publications by and about Robert Pirsig for the historical record and this article. Over time and space, memories can fade and tales trend taller, but the author takes responsibility for any errors. The quotation is from Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1999) p. 300. All ZAMM page numbers cited in in this article are from this 25th anniversary edition, since it includes the author’s introduction and afterword.

[ii] George Steiner, “Uneasy Rider,” The New Yorker, 15 April 1974.

[iii] David Streitfeld, “Zen and the Art of Pirsig,” The Washington Post, 21 October 1991. Pirsig and his family abbreviate the book title among themselves as ZMM.

[iv] Peter Hubbard, pers. comm., 19 December 2019.

[v] See, for example,

[vi] Robert L. Disanto and Thomas J. Steele, Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (NY: Wm. Morrow And Co., 1990); Mark Richardson, Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (NY: Knopf, 2008); Worth Books, Summary and Analysis of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values: Based on the Book by Robert M. Pirsig (Smart Summaries) (Worth Books: 2017); The Gale Group, A study guide for Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (Novels for Students) (The Gale Group: 2015); Des Molloy, Zen and the Last Hurrah: In the Wheel-Tracks of Robert Pirsig Across Backcountry America (Kahuku Publishing: 2021), inter alia.

[vii] See Tim Adams, “The interview: Robert Pirsig,” The Guardian for 18 November 2006, occasioned by the fifteenth anniversary and a new edition of Lila (1991). Pirsig was remarkably candid in this interview, in which he even describes what he remembered of the actual electroconvulsive process. Adams compared the experience to Ken Kesey’s 1962 description of electroconvulsion treatment in Ken Kesey’s 1962 book and 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

[viii] This 21-page illustrated booklet lacks an author credit, although the publisher and Pirsig family have confirmed that Bob wrote it. The earliest known edition is 1959; the cover illustration features the famous leather beaked mask that supposedly protected Dr. Schnabel on his Black Death rounds.

[ix] Tim Adams, ibid.

[x] Wendy Pirsig, pers. comm. 18 May 2020.

[xi] ZAMM, pp. 28-30.

[xii] See Alisa Clickenger, “Why the Industry is Focusing on Women,” Motorcycle Consumer News 51.1 (January 2020) 32-33.

[xiii] This is excerpted from Pirsig’s introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of ZAMM, reprinted in Anonymous, “A Quarter-Century of Zen and Motorcycles,” Inside Borders for July 1999, p. 47.

[xiv] See Mark Lindemann, “Design Macht Mut(h), Cycle World 2 (2020) 54-55, where Muth also mentions Reinhard Kammer’s Zen and Confucius in the Art of Swordsmanship (1978) for Katana inspiration and the bike’s name, which translates from the Japanese as “sword”. Given the mid-1970s timing, he likely also read ZAMM.

[xv] Gary Wegner, pers. comm. for 15 September 2021 sets the departure date at 8 July 1968.

[xvi] ZAMM, pp. 46-48; most of these items were saved and donated to the transportation collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

[xvii] St. Paul Dispatch, Tuesday, August 13, 1968, second edition, Page 1 (cover). A map of the westward leg of the journey as far as San Francisco is seen in Disanto and Steele, ibid., pp. 18-19. Molloy, ibid. also has short map segments scattered throughout his text matching his chapters’ content. Gary Wegner also developed an interactive map of the Pirsig journey from Minnesota to California here:,-110.43413566406251&z=7. None of these provide any details of the journey back home from California to Minnesota, which is stitched together from a newspaper interview and lecture notes.

[xviii] ZAMM, p. 325.

[xix] 2006 Alma Books edition, pp. 24-30.

[xx] See Paul F. Johnston, “IF BOAT IS GOING DOWN BRING THIS LIST,” Sea History 173 (Winter 2020-21) 12-19. This article is available online at

[xxi] Wendy Pirsig, pers. comm., 17 August 2020.

[xxii] According to Wendy Pirsig, Bob had stopped riding by Nell’s time, and the two never rode together. Wendy Pirsig, pers. comm, 8 June 2020.

[xxiii] See Paul Grondahl, “Zen on Wheels,” Times Union (Albany, NY) for Saturday, June 12, 1999, pp. D1-D and Jim Landis, pers. comm. for 9 July 2020.

[xxiv] ZAMM (1999), p. 22.

[xxv] ZAMM (1999), p. 81.

[xxvi] Wendy Pirsig, pers. comm. for 5 March 2021.

[xxvii] Full citation: Robert M. Pirsig Papers, circa 1880-2019 (MS Am 3359). Houghton Library, Harvard University. Due to the pandemic, at this writing the Pirsig Papers are not yet available to researchers.˙

Paul F. Johnston holds a B.A. in English Literature from Middlebury College and a Ph.D. in Anthropology/Archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania. He serves as Curator of Transportation History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH). Active on PTWs since the age of eleven, he’s an AMA Charter Life Member and rides and commutes year-round on his motorcycle.

Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Marvelous! When I was an undergrad in the People’s Republic of Berzerkeley (early 70s), I firsts discovered Persig’s book. Although I was an earnest student of Zen, I found Persig somewhat hard to get my mind around, back then. Now, after all these years, I relish learning all the details of his fascinating life…more so, because I began my own lifelong love of (Japanese) motorcycles on a Honda C-110 Super Cub (nee ‘Honda 50’), then graduated to a Honda CA-200 (AKA ‘Honda 90’), just like Persig, and eventually to a Honda 305 ‘Dream’ while in college (my closest friend bought a 305 Superhawk!).

    From there I ‘graduated’ to a diverse range of Japanese motorcycles over the years and today at the age of 75, I still have three Japanese bikes in my stable (two early 90s vintage ZX11 Kawasaki Ninjas and one 20s vintage Honda VFR800 Interceptor). [I lust after a 2021 Moto Guzzi V7 Stone, but will probably let that dream die a normal death, given my age!]

    Thanks so much for giving us all this detailed account of Persig’s life and for sharing his insights into life’s meaning with us as you have in this article! As I began by saying, “Marvelous!”

  2. PAUL F. JOHNSTON: What a wonderful addition by words and photos to this special man, writer and rider, Robert Pirsig. THANKS!!- I am busy with mc-travellers 1885-2021 in each continent since 1970 when I crossed Africa after my study of mechanical engineering (uni-civil-engineer in Aachen, Germany). In (go on the startsite left.Follow there chapter Moto-Tours. Click on the continent you want. Here America-North. Here under 1968 you find what Robert Pirsig wrote to me personally in the 1990s several times (see link below). And my short summary about him.
    – When I wanted to write a summary after 25 years of his book ZEN in 1999 Robert send me his photo. He wrote to me that he (and nobody) knows how many different publishers of his book were printed. More than 1.000.000. He did not own a copy of the black print in North-Korea.
    -In my database you find now appr. 12.500 international TRAVEL-Books including 2.469 intern. motorcycle-TRAVEL-books. At least detailed bibliographic book-datas from 24 editions of Robert Pirsig. The first edition 1974 I own personally signed by R.P.
    – When I visited the 10 most famous American mc-travellers in USA (e.g. like Robert Fulton. Jim Wilson. Ted Simon. Dan Kennedy and .) Robert refused to see him in person.
    – It is already four years that great Robert had gone. We ALL will follow him in a few universe seconds to the ur-materia without our motorcycles and travels… Bernd Tesch (*1941) in village Hammer. Germany.

  3. Wonderful article, Paul, thanks.

    Somewhere in there the Middlebury English major is showing. Who were your professors? I learned to ride at Middlebury on a friend’s CB77 in the fall of 1964, earlier attempts on an Atlas had proved too much for me. The training must have taken, as I later graduated to a Gold Star and then a Velocette Thruxton. In the same year, in my Hepburn Junior Fellow’s room, we built a full race CB77 which unfortunately was confiscated while on a trial run out on Route 125. That’s another story.

    The photo of the Super Hawk’s combined tach and speedo brings back those days. What an ingenious oddity it seemed.


  4. William C. Patterson (COS.CO.USAA)

    I read ZAMM several times in the ’70s, impressed me enough to promote riding (CB450) and touring on a student budget, good & foolish times for a 20something guy. Thanks for the article, look forward to the anniversary at the Museum, maybe a visit…on two wheels?

  5. I’m not a rider but I am a writer. I read ZAMM in the early 80s and I’ve never forgotten it or gotten over the effect it had on me. It gave me a new outlook on life and creativity. Must be time to pick it up again. It’s great writing, and I must add so is this article. My compliments.

  6. Thanks for this piece. I recall as a child that nearly every home bookshelf had a dogeared copy of this important work. It seems to be stocked as almost a ‘self-help’ book these days, but I actually find it pretty bleak and depressing!

    Still, glad to know it will stay in print for some time to come, and Pirsig is certainly the most well-known Honda rider there’s ever been.

  7. What an amazing article. I met a man many years ago (1985)when I was hitchhiking into Galway city from a place about 10 miles outside the city. I had a helmet with me and the driver remarked upon it. He asked me if I had ever read ZAAM, (which I had) and we had a long conversation about motorcycles and philosophy. He told me that he was lecturing in universities around Ireland and that his name was Robert Pirsig, but this was at the end of the drive. It only struck me over the years how privileged I was to have met the man and shaken his hand.

  8. Fantastic work, Paul,
    It’s so good to have this sort of information and photographs to hand.
    I’ve read both books at least ten times.

    The only vehicle I’ve ever bought new is a 2008 Yamaha FZ1S.
    I also bought what New Zealand calls a ‘personalised plate’, the numberplate ‘MOQ’ (Metaphysics of Quality) to give the man and his philosophy some free advertising while I’m riding around Christchurch, NZ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *