Rivergator #014: Zen and the Art of Canoe Paddling

It recently came to my attention that two days ago, Robert Pirsig passed away. He penned the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, published by William Morrow in 1974.

Throughout the past decade, I’ve heard the work come up, and its title intrigued me. While stopped in the port of Vicksburg, Miss, one week ago, Saturday, I went into Lorelei Books. I had been recharging camera and computer batteries all morning, and during the process, got up and checked out the bookstore adjacent.

The shopkeeper greets me as I enter with a bright welcome, she is a petite southern gal and is friendly. I make one round through one section and the bright, white, paperback staring at me from the shelf, about three rows up from the floor, is Zen. I feel compelled to purchase it, even though I have a Kindle full of books I have barely touched*, for reasons unknown.

I grab the book, some postcards, and checkout. Hayley, the manager’s name, tells me she very recently studied at - and graduated - Columbia University in New York. She tells me the bookstore is changing ownership, but is running the shop through the transition. Her aim is grad school. I share some bits about New York, the canoe trip down the Mississippi, and she and her friends in the store (there were three gals, self-proclaimed ‘river-rats’) bid farewell. I apologize now for the funk I may have carried into the lovely and well-kept store.

Not long with the book and I am rapt. Modern take on philosophy. An exposition whose ideas align with and directly support many thoughts I’ve been having about “Quality” and how to live life. Halfway through reading, though, through my brief pursuits in checking the computer (what is now, hardly weekly), is that Pirsig, the author, has died at an old age in his home in South Berwick, Maine.

Of course the connection to Maine was first and clear, and second, the timing! What complete coincidental timing to have been compelled to read the book on this river odyssey - alongside which his personal odyssey shared in the book feels appropriate. (He and his son, Chris, take a motorcycle journey out West; trials and tribulations ensue.)

One morning, out on the river, after John gave a morning prayer. I felt compelled to read a passage from the book that has struck me since reading. I will share it here, with a note afterward:

"Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself…. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow."

Now if you substitute “river” for “mountain, and “paddle” for climb/footstep, the same thinking applies. He goes on.

"But of course, without the top you can’t have any sides. It’s the top that determines the sides."

Now, (May 1) I have finished the book as of three nights ago. The following day, around 5pm, we hear a tree fall in the woods (and yes, we all heard it). It looked like the top of an alder nearly missed John's tent. I explore with Andy and find another tree (maybe a Mulberry?) completely uprooted. The winds gusted up to 30mph, we think, and for some reason took these two trees out. He asks me where my tent is located and if it is okay. Of course it is, I was next to the sturdy elm tree, in a nice clearing with level sand and great view of the sky.

Lo and behold! As if a scene from a modern Wizard of Oz, my tent has been crushed by the topweight of a Hackberry tree, in its entirety, the only things sticking out were two broken tent poles and my hiking boots at the edges. What a sight to behold.

One of the outstanding thoughts I had after seeing this sobering scene was "I'm glad I just finished the Pirsig book." He speaks of actual motorcycle maintenance and his theory on how people dissassociate from the technology underlying things they use. He writes how easy it is to get stuck on something like a repair, or maintenance, or cleaning, if you don't pay the mind to start at the very nuts and bolts. In this instance, had I not read the book, I don't know if my mind would have been ready to process the tent pole repair by breaking down the entire thing and reassembling the structural integrity. I was ready to fail and ready to learn in the process. 

I urge you to go out to your local bookshop and find this book. It is best read non-digitally and it is best remembered where you read it and it is best read with a pen in-hand to take notes, reflecting on your own values. Its reading has helped me discern further truths about this river, this expedition. and what I look to in my immediate future. And how to temporarily maintain zen and the art of tent repair.

My copy of the novel after two weeks on the River.

My copy of the novel after two weeks on the River.