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April 15, 2024

Victory Highway (Part V)

By John Trindle

One of his favorite books as a teenager was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", by Robert M. Persig. It was a road trip book, set inside the skull of a man rediscovering his past by riding a motorcycle across the United States, with his friends and his young son.

"Zen" was one of those books that had depth. Mark must have re-read it 6 or 8 times before he got all the way through. When he finally finished, he felt a huge sense of accomplishment, and not a little bit of enlightenment. Persig had cunningly interweaved an adventurous road story with a philosophical treatise. As a teen, Mark followed the road trip part, and skipped over the boring philosophy and sociology. As the book progressed, the external action sections got shorter, and the introspective ones got longer. When the reader reached his enlightenment tolerance, he quit reading, or reverted to skipping to the next action part.

As Mark got older, and theoretically wiser, the road trip sections lost their luster. After all, he had read them many times before, The philosophy, however, became more interesting, as he gained the perspective needed through experience in the real world. At some point, his enlightenment tolerance was high enough to finish the book, even reading the ramblings about Quality. Those always caused him to argue with the author mentally, which was quite a strain. Not a fun read at all, but excellent exercise for the mind.

The portion that resonated most with him (and was the first and most accessible of the introspective threads) was on the difference between Romantic and Classical thought patterns. Persig's character was a technical writer, and so very analytical and logical. That put him on the Classical side of the line. His adult friends on the trip, however, reacted viscerally to life. They found technology disturbing and boring, not beautiful and fascinating. They represented the "hippie" ideal of harmony and ideal stasis versus the inexorably triumphant progress toward complexity of science and technology. They were a refutation of the Manifest Destiny ideal which continued in America until the Japanese pulled the rug out from under us in the 1970s.

After Mark fetched another porter, he continued to watch the Harley crew. One lady mechanic with red hair and freckles was deep inside the engine of one, with the cylinder head off. She had a white towel on the floor next to the bike, with a precise arrangement of frequently used hand tools, like the array of scapels and clamps next to an operating table. Occasionally she would take a piece back to her workbench, if it required a power tool or the bench vise.

The Classical mind (and yes, Mark considered himself to have one) found the whole process beautiful. The mechanic's motions were sure and swift, the components were solid and well designed, and the ultimate outcome was the power and freedom of the open road.

The Romantic mind, on the other hand, would see it as ugly, and inhuman, and dirty. The open road was very well and all, getting back to nature especially, but the mechanics behind the scene were best left hidden.

Mark thought about rainbows. When he looked at a rainbow, he also thought of Isaac Newton and refraction indexes and water droplets and updrafts and downdrafts and all kinds of things, the phenomena which related in some small way to ultimately producing the colored arc in the sky. When he tried to verbalize his thoughts to someone of the Romantic bent, though, the reaction was always the same. "Oh, I can't think about all that stuff. Doesn't it spoil the beauty for you? Just look at the rainbow and enjoy it."

Of course the details were part of the beauty to Mark, and to Persig's character, and just looking at the rainbow without thinking about it seemed flat and uninteresting. In fact, if you just cared about the appearance, a painted rainbow on a bit of cardboard was much easier to see, more intensely colored, and was available whenever you wanted. Why bother with the real thing? It was just damp and difficult.

Laura's mother was a grand example of the Romantic mind, though one with a higher than average tolerance for mechanism. She was an artist and art teacher, and specialized in vaguely impressionistic and primitive aintings, and bizarrely organic metal sculpture. Technical details went in one ear and fell out the other onto the floor. She learned just enough mechanical process to make her art hang together, and was joyfully clueless about the rest.

Laura, on the other hand, was the best of both worlds. She could indeed be analytical whenever she chose, and was quite clever mechanically. Her mind wasn't the trivia dumping ground that Mark's was, but she did remember and process technical information, as long as it was related to her ultimate goal. She didn't play with technology, but worked with it.

Mark remembered telling her about rainbows, and how to use all that detail to find them. Mark saw more rainbows than most Romantic artists, just because he know where and when to look. Laura was delighted, and fascinated, and he remembered the feeling of his love for her deepening at that moment.

His chest tightened and his eyes watered, and he cursed his wandering mind. A quick trip to the men's room and another porter was in order.

When he returned to his table, Mark watched the red-headed mechanic start to reassemble the bike engine. Persig's exposition on the Systems of the Motorcycle was a particularly pleasant line of thought for Mark, clean, and unemotional, so he deliberately took his mind in that direction.

The bike is a collection of components, that's for certain. Each one has a function. However, that function has different significances when grouped with others. And parts counters (or people) might very well put the component in a group you don't expect. Who is right?

For example, the ignition switch. One person might consider that part of the ignition system, and file it with the distributor and plug wires. Another might consider it part of the main electrical system (since it switches on things other than the engine) and lump it with light bulbs and sockets. A third might very well consider its physical placement, and file the ignition switch under Console. Mark knew that finding parts for the Fiat could be a long process, since the common divisions of systems had changed in the last twenty years.

A reckless abandon seized him. He could walk next door, right now, and buy a Harley. He had always wanted one, but first his mother and then his wife had expressly prohibited it. They cared too much for his physical frame, bikes were too dangerous, blah blah. Now, they were gone, out of his life, dismissed in the parking lot of Mike's. He could afford it, too, still having most of the insurance money.

"I'll do it!" he muttered, a bit loudly, causing the patrons at the surrounding tables to turn. He drained the last of his porter and stood up.

The room swam a bit, and he clutched the back of the chair and belched. Mmm. Fine Virginia hops. He looked down at his wrinkled and somewhat dirty clothes, and thought, "they'll never take me seriously. They'll think I'm a drunken nut and kick me out. F*** 'em!"

He made his way carefully to the parking lot, and was somewhat revived by the blast of cool air. He popped his last Altoid from a tin he kept in his jacket pocket.

Mark noticed an ironic wrinkle on Mike's concept of rebellion. One of the original Howard Johnson buildings (with the characteristic peaked orange roof) had been restored and was now a fast food takeout establishment cum convenience store. He bought a styrofoam cooler, a couple bags of ice, a bottle opener and a twelve pack of Heineken for the road. Then he loaded up the passenger seat of the Fiat, checked around for state troopers, and carefully merged into traffic. When he got up to speed, he popped a cold one.

The sun sank lower as the ice melted in the cooler, and the bottles were emptied one by one. Soon Mark had no idea where he was, or how long he had been driving. All he remembered was the road to follow; US 40.

The giant man by the side of that road impressed him. His hands were held out, one palm up, the other palm down as if grasping something. He wore a set of desert camouflage, resembling a soldier from the 1991 Gulf War. Mark stopped next to the man and shouted up to him, "Hey mister! You look like you know your way around here!"

The man stood still, staring and slightly smiling, but completely silent.

Mark blinked and looked again. Of course, this was one of the world famous Muffler Men. Back when this road was new, they stood in front of muffler shops, or brake shops, or wherever, holding an auto part of some kind. They were part of the support crew for the American Open Road show.

"Carry on, fine sir, and a good job you are doing". Mark saluted the steel sculpture and turned to get back in the car. A sudden thought occurred to him, and he turned back to the Muffler Man, and approached him. He looked around, and then ducked behind the Muffler Man's left leg. Then he unzipped his pants and started pissing on the Great American icon.

"Yep, a fine job." He zipped up, and slapped the Muffler Man's leg with his hand. The Muffler Man rang dully. "Keep it up. Though I suppose if it *were* up you wouldn't have any choice, eh?"

Laughing hysterically at his own dry wit, he got back in the Fiat and merged back onto the highway. The sign by the side of the road leading out of town said "Come on back to Havre de Grace, City of Industry."

Article © John Trindle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-06-16
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