Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is Driving in a Car Like Watching TV?

Robert Pirsig, in his book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", tried to explain why motorcycling was more exciting than driving in a car.

"You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it's right there, so blurred you can't focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness."

Now that I'm getting out to ride for the first few times this year, I'm starting to wonder if I might also be "in a compartment" while riding my motorcycle. While I don't have any doors between me and the outside, I do have a full face helmet to frame my view, and an armoured motorcycle jacket. I have never before had such a heavy, stiff outfit to wear. I have the face shield down, and the inner sun shield also down, and I am wearing earplugs, and the jacket with five armoured sections has the two front zippers done up, and a neck protector stuck on. It's starting to feel like I have traded away a lot of freedom just to eliminate the windshield and doors on the car that Pirsig says makes everything look like TV.

I have improved my motorcycle gear over the years. As my motorcycle gear gets better, and has more features, it also gets heavier and stiffer until I can hardly walk in it. Getting into the motorcycle gear is also quite a strenuous exercise, both mentally and physically. I have to make sure I don't pull a muscle in my back as I pull on my motorcycle boots, and I have to get dressed fairly quickly or I will get overheated before I can get out of the driveway. If I forget one thing (earplugs) I have to back up and try again. Even if I forget that my keys are in my jeans pockets, I have a lot of undressing and redressing to do to get at them.

I cannot help comparing this to how "The Lost Motorcyclist" (me) started out, as I have an identical motorcycle to my first one in the garage right next to the 650 lb. Vulcan 900. Now let me try to remember, what did I do before getting on my Honda 175 for a "short" ride forty years ago? Nope I can't think of anything for a short ride. For a medium ride I would put on sunglasses. For long ride I would wear a helmet, long pants and shoes. You don't need to tell me how stupid that was, I know by now that I was lucky to live through it. I once got hit with a big, hard, bug in the eye. I was almost bitten on the ankle by poisonous snake, and I was actually bitten by a dog that could have had rabies (but didn't). I skidded and fell once wearing shorts and flip-flops. I got hit by many rocks, soaked with rain and also mud, covered with dust, sunburned, and left with a ringing in my ears. Which I hardly noticed compared to my fingers numb from vibration and rear end pounded by over a hundred miles of crappy roads.

But all that discomfort is far behind me now as I waddle out to the bike wearing 70 lbs. of armoured gear, and ride around almost as comfortable as if I was in my car. I can look down as the road whizzes by just below my floorboards and my heavy boots, although it is a bit difficult to bend my neck far enough to see that. In fact it's a bit of a chore even to look down and see the speedometer, because of the helmet chin bar and the stiff jacket collar.

So last night, I was out for a ride in the car, and thinking how nice it was to be dressed in ordinary comfortable clothing, and to be able to turn up the heater and listen to Pearl Jam playing "Last Kiss" on the radio (until I remembered it was all about a fatal car crash.)

When I reached my destination, I thought I might just get out and go for a little walk to enjoy the sights. I got out of the car, locked the door, took two steps and turned around and got back in. I almost forgot! It's cold out there, and I forgot to bring my winter jacket and toque. One thing you never forget on a motorcycle is how cold or hot it is outside, because no matter how you dress for it, while you are riding, you are still outdoors.

Picture: Robert Pirsig and his son Chris posing on his bike. I suppose they wore helmets on their trip, although I don't see any in the picture, but they do look comfortably dressed for walking around the picnic area.


  1. You write, 'I suppose they wore helmets on their trip, although I don't see any in the picture.'

    One need read no further than the first page of 'Zen and the Art' to discover, 'He grabs the back of my helmet.'   ;-)

    When our generation started riding, there were no helmet laws. In fact, there was not even a 'motorcycle rating' on drivers' licences - anybody could (and did) hop on a bike, without experience, and head out on the highway - generally in jeans and a t-shirt!

    Of course, back in the glorious Sixties, we were all immortal; our reflexes were outstanding, none of our friends had yet been seriously damaged in motorcycle accidents, and motorcycling for most of us was primarily economical (i.e. 'cheap') transportation. Not only was armour rare and expensive, but seemed superfluous (if not pretentious).

    But, since then, we've seen the results of unanticipated body-pavement contact. And our bodies no longer mend as quickly as they once did.

    So the price we pay is a little bit of additional isolation from our environment. And, for some of us, knowing that we've not left ourselves quite as vulnerable to afflictions such as road rash does little to detract from the riding experience.

  2. That's a pretty nice ride! But we should always prioritize safey by wearing jackets and helmets. That's nice but being in a car is safer than riding a motorcycle.

  3. Being in a car with a driver who is adjusting the floor mats at high speed while in heavy traffic is more dangerous than being on a motorcycle with a rider who has not had an accident in over 50 years and more than one million kilometers. (yes they exist)

    The flip side of saying a car is safer than a motorcycle is the incorrect assumption that all drivers are the same.