Zen and the Art of Motorscooter Travel

Saturday, 16th May 2009; 8:04 am - Location:

zenWhen I was in 12th grade, my Lit teacher Richard Holm assigned our class to read a rather new book: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It’s about – among other things – a man on a long-distance motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son. At the time, my friend Adam Pinsky and I were already planning a long-distance bicycle trip, so it had some additional relevance to us. In addition to the philosophical insights the book offers, one practical insight we gained – later made crystal clear to us on some of our more physically demanding days in the saddle – was that a motorcycle would be a pretty good way to travel: most of the benefits of bicycling, but with many of the benefits of driving a car.

When you travel across the country by airplane, you don’t actually see the country. When you travel through it by car, you see the country but you’re still separated from it; (as Pirsig pointed out to me) it’s a bit like watching a widescreen movie of the trip in the frame of your windshield. At the other extreme, traveling on foot makes you part of the place, but it also takes a damn long time to go anywhere. A bicycle greatly expands your range while still keeping you in the environment, but if you’re straining to pedal up a hill you probably aren’t enjoying the view, and if you’re too exhausted when you get there to explore the ruins at Glastonbury, what’s the point? A motorbike is a good compromise, a mix of immersion and range.

So it’s no surprise that motorcycle travel is a fairly popular activity. There are motorcycles and equipment specifically designed for touring, and a thriving culture of runs and rallies. Motorcyclists still have the stereotype of biker gangs, but there’s lots of just regular folk out there cruising the highways on their Harleys and Hondas. Which is great for them, but I don’t want to ride a bike with an engine nearly as big as the one in my car, that gets gas mileage only a little better.

Traveling by scooter is much less common. It seems from my limited research that most of it’s being done on scooters that are legally classified as “motorcycles” due to their engine size: still much smaller than my car’s, but powerful enough to take hills at full speed and fast enough for the expressways. Which from my perspective is a mark against them, not for. First, there’s the issue of safety: I don’t want to be on a bike going 65mph. Yeah, you don’t have to go 65mph on a 150cc scooter, but if you can, you eventually will. (e.g. It looks like it’s about to rain, and you’re 5 miles from home.) I don’t feel that’s safe. But more importantly for this topic, if you’re riding on an expressway or even on a smaller highway at those speeds, everything close to you is a blur. You’re pretty near traveling by car… a convertible with two wheels.

I ride a 50cc scoot with a top speed (as shipped) of 30mph. With a fairly simple operation, they can be retuned to reach 40mph at full throttle. That means I’m not allowed on expressways, but I consider that a feature, not a bug. I’ll have to take what other people call “alternate routes”… which in many cases means “the routes that people took before the interstate went in”. The roads less traveled. If I may refer to a work with less profundity than Zen or the poetry of Frost, it’s what the movie Cars was about.

At a casual cruising speed of 25-30mph I can cover 100 miles in less than four hours, assuming I don’t stop. But I will.

I’ll encounter stop lights and stop signs. I may notice something interesting by the road, hit the kill switch and the kickstand, and go look. I might even be lucky enough to find some kids selling lemonade. I’m not just going to see places, I’m going to be places. (Isn’t that a Zen kinda thing?) A 50cc scooter is exactly the right vehicle for that.

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