I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it's this hot and muggy at eight-thirty, I'm wondering what it's going to be like in the afternoon.
In the wind are pungent odors from the marshes by the road. We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas. This highway is an old concrete two-laner that hasn't had much traffic since a four-laner went in parallel to it several years ago. When we pass a marsh the air suddenly becomes cooler. Then, when we are past, it suddenly warms up again.
I'm happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this. We bump along the beat-up concrete between the cattails and stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles. -- There's a red-winged blackbird.
I whack Chris's knee and point to it.
``What!'' he hollers.
He says something I don't hear.``What?'' I holler back.
He grabs the back of my helmet and hollers up, ``I've seen lots of those, Dad!''
``Oh!'' I holler back. Then I nod. At age eleven you don't get very impressed with red-winged blackbirds.
You have to get older for that. For me this is all mixed with memories that he doesn't have. Cold mornings long ago when the marsh grass had turned brown and cattails were waving in the northwest wind. The pungent smell then was from muck stirred up by hip boots while we were getting in position for the sun to come up and the duck season to open. Or winters when the sloughs were frozen over and dead and I could walk across the ice and snow between the dead cattails and see nothing but grey skies and dead things and cold. The blackbirds were gone then. But now in July they're back and everything is at its alivest and every foot of these sloughs is humming and cricking and buzzing and chirping, a whole community of millions of living things living out their lives in a kind of benign continuum.
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.
Chris and I are traveling to Montana with some friends riding up ahead, and maybe headed farther than that. Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. We are just vacationing. Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on ``good'' rather than ``time'' and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don't get swung from side to side in any compartment. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you're from and how long you've been riding.
It was some years ago that my wife and I and our friends first began to catch on to these roads. We took them once in a while for variety or for a shortcut to another main highway, and each time the scenery was grand and we left the road with a feeling of relaxation and enjoyment. We did this time after time before realizing what should have been obvious: these roads are truly different from the main ones. The whole pace of life and personality of the people who live along them are different. They're not going anywhere. They're not too busy to be courteous. The hereness and nowness of things is something they know all about. It's the others, the ones who moved to the cities years ago and their lost offspring, who have all but forgotten it. The discovery was a real find.
I've wondered why it took us so long to catch on. We saw it and yet we didn't see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Conned, perhaps, into thinking that the real action was metropolitan and all this was just boring hinterland. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, ``Go away, I'm looking for the truth,'' and so it goes away. Puzzling.
But once we caught on, of course, nothing could keep us off these roads, weekends, evenings, vacations. We have become real secondary-road motorcycle buffs and found there are things you learn as you go.
We have learned how to spot the good ones on a map, for example. If the line wiggles, that's good. That means hills. If it appears to be the main route from a town to a city, that's bad. The best ones always connect nowhere with nowhere and have an alternate that gets you there quicker. If you are going northeast from a large town you never go straight out of town for any long distance. You go out and then start jogging north, then east, then north again, and soon you are on a secondary route that only the local people use.
The main skill is to keep from getting lost. Since the roads are used only by local people who know them by sight nobody complains if the junctions aren't posted. And often they aren't. When they are it's usually a small sign hiding unobtrusively in the weeds and that's all. County-road-sign makers seldom tell you twice. If you miss that sign in the weeds that's your problem, not theirs. Moreover, you discover that the highway maps are often inaccurate about county roads. And from time to time you find your ``county road'' takes you onto a two-rutter and then a single rutter and then into a pasture and stops, or else it takes you into some farmer's backyard.
So we navigate mostly by dead reckoning, and deduction from what clues we find. I keep a compass in one pocket for overcast days when the sun doesn't show directions and have the map mounted in a special carrier on top of the gas tank where I can keep track of miles from the last junction and know what to look for. With those tools and a lack of pressure to ``get somewhere'' it works out fine and we just about have America all to ourselves.
On Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends we travel for miles on these roads without seeing another vehicle, then cross a federal highway and look at cars strung bumper to bumper to the horizon. Scowling faces inside. Kids crying in the back seat. I keep wishing there were some way to tell them something but they scowl and appear to be in a hurry, and there isn't -- .
I have seen these marshes a thousand times, yet each time they're new. It's wrong to call them benign. You could just as well call them cruel and senseless, they are all of those things, but the reality of them overwhelms halfway conceptions. There! A huge flock of red-winged blackbirds ascends from nests in the cattails, startled by our sound. I swat Chris's knee a second time -- then I remember he has seen them before.
``What?'' he hollers again.
``Just checking to see if you're still there,'' I holler, and nothing more is said.
Unless you're fond of hollering you don't make great conversations on a running cycle. Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them. On sights and sounds, on the mood of the weather and things remembered, on the machine and the countryside you're in, thinking about things at great leisure and length without being hurried and without feeling you're losing time.
What I would like to do is use the time that is coming now to talk about some things that have come to mind. We're in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it's all gone. Now that we do have some time, and know it, I would like to use the time to talk in some depth about things that seem important.
What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua...that's the only name I can think of for it...like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. ``What's new?'' is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question ``What is best?,'' a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and ``best'' was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.
Up ahead the other riders, John Sutherland and his wife, Sylvia, have pulled into a roadside picnic area. It's time to stretch. As I pull my machine beside them Sylvia is taking her helmet off and shaking her hair loose, while John puts his BMW up on the stand. Nothing is said. We have been on so many trips together we know from a glance how one another feels. Right now we are just quiet and looking around.
The picnic benches are abandoned at this hour of the morning. We have the whole place to ourselves. John goes across the grass to a cast-iron pump and starts pumping water to drink. Chris wanders down through some trees beyond a grassy knoll to a small stream. I am just staring around.
After a while Sylvia sits down on the wooden picnic bench and straightens out her legs, lifting one at a time slowly without looking up. Long silences mean gloom for her, and I comment on it. She looks up and then looks down again.
``It was all those people in the cars coming the other way,'' she says. ``The first one looked so sad. And then the next one looked exactly the same way, and then the next one and the next one, they were all the same.''
``They were just commuting to work.''
She perceives well but there was nothing unnatural about it. ``Well, you know, work,'' I repeat. ``Monday morning. Half asleep. Who goes to work Monday morning with a grin?''
``It's just that they looked so lost,'' she says. ``Like they were all dead. Like a funeral procession.'' Then she puts both feet down and leaves them there.
I see what she is saying, but logically it doesn't go anywhere. You work to live and that's what they are doing. ``I was watching swamps,'' I say.
After a while she looks up and says, ``What did you see?''
``There was a whole flock of red-winged blackbirds. They rose up suddenly when we went by.''
``I was happy to see them again. They tie things together, thoughts and such. You know?''
She thinks for a while and then, with the trees behind her a deep green, she smiles. She understands a peculiar language which has nothing to do with what you are saying. A daughter.
``Yes,'' she says. ``They're beautiful.''
``Watch for them,'' I say.
John appears and checks the gear on the cycle. He adjusts some of the ropes and then opens the saddlebag and starts rummaging through. He sets some things on the ground. ``If you ever need any rope, don't hesitate,'' he says. ``God, I think I've got about five times what I need here.''
``Not yet,'' I answer.
``Matches?'' he says, still rummaging. ``Sunburn lotion, combs, shoelaces -- shoelaces? What do we need shoelaces for?''
``Let's not start that,'' Sylvia says. They look at each other deadpan and then both look over at me.
``Shoelaces can break anytime,'' I say solemnly. They smile, but not at each other.
Chris soon appears and it is time to go. While he gets ready and climbs on, they pull out and Sylvia waves. We are on the highway again, and I watch them gain distance up ahead.
The Chautauqua that is in mind for this trip was inspired by these two many months ago and perhaps, although I don't know, is related to a certain undercurrent of disharmony between them.
Disharmony I suppose is common enough in any marriage, but in their case it seems more tragic. To me, anyway.
It's not a personality clash between them; it's something else, for which neither is to blame, but for which neither has any solution, and for which I'm not sure I have any solution either, just ideas.
The ideas began with what seemed to be a minor difference of opinion between John and me on a matter of small importance: how much one should maintain one's own motorcycle. It seems natural and normal to me to make use of the small tool kits and instruction booklets supplied with each machine, and keep it tuned and adjusted myself. John demurs. He prefers to let a competent mechanic take care of these things so that they are done right. Neither viewpoint is unusual, and this minor difference would never have become magnified if we didn't spend so much time riding together and sitting in country roadhouses drinking beer and talking about whatever comes to mind. What comes to mind, usually, is whatever we've been thinking about in the half hour or forty-five minutes since we last talked to each other. When it's roads or weather or people or old memories or what's in the newspapers, the conversation just naturally builds pleasantly. But whenever the performance of the machine has been on my mind and gets into the conversation, the building stops. The conversation no longer moves forward. There is a silence and a break in the continuity. It is as though two old friends, a Catholic and Protestant, were sitting drinking beer, enjoying life, and the subject of birth control somehow came up. Big freeze-out.
And, of course, when you discover something like that it's like discovering a tooth with a missing filling. You can never leave it alone. You have to probe it, work around it, push on it, think about it, not because it's enjoyable but because it's on your mind and it won't get off your mind. And the more I probe and push on this subject of cycle maintenance the more irritated he gets, and of course that makes me want to probe and push all the more. Not deliberately to irritate him but because the irritation seems symptomatic of something deeper, something under the surface that isn't immediately apparent.
When you're talking birth control, what blocks it and freezes it out is that it's not a matter of more or fewer babies being argued. That's just on the surface. What's underneath is a conflict of faith, of faith in empirical social planning versus faith in the authority of God as revealed by the teachings of the Catholic Church. You can prove the practicality of planned parenthood till you get tired of listening to yourself and it's going to go nowhere because your antagonist isn't buying the assumption that anything socially practical is good per se. Goodness for him has other sources which he values as much as or more than social practicality.
So it is with John. I could preach the practical value and worth of motorcycle maintenance till I'm hoarse and it would make not a dent in him. After two sentences on the subject his eyes go completely glassy and he changes the conversation or just looks away. He doesn't want to hear about it.
Sylvia is completely with him on this one. In fact she is even more emphatic. ``It's just a whole other thing,'' she says, when in a thoughtful mood. ``Like garbage,'' she says, when not. They want not to understand it. Not to hear about it. And the more I try to fathom what makes me enjoy mechanical work and them hate it so, the more elusive it becomes. The ultimate cause of this originally minor difference of opinion appears to run way, way deep.
Inability on their part is ruled out immediately. They are both plenty bright enough. Either one of them could learn to tune a motorcycle in an hour and a half if they put their minds and energy to it, and the saving in money and worry and delay would repay them over and over again for their effort. And they know that. Or maybe they don't. I don't know. I never confront them with the question. It's better to just get along.
But I remember once, outside a bar in Savage, Minnesota, on a really scorching day when I just about let loose. We'd been in the bar for about an hour and we came out and the machines were so hot you could hardly get on them. I'm started and ready to go and there's John pumping away on the kick starter. I smell gas like we're next to a refinery and tell him so, thinking this is enough to let him know his engine's flooded.
``Yeah, I smell it too,'' he says and keeps on pumping. And he pumps and pumps and jumps and pumps and I don't know what more to say. Finally, he's really winded and sweat's running down all over his face and he can't pump anymore, and so I suggest taking out the plugs to dry them off and air out the cylinders while we go back for another beer.
Oh my God no! He doesn't want to get into all that stuff.
``All what stuff?''
``Oh, getting out the tools and all that stuff. There's no reason why it shouldn't start. It's a brand-new machine and I'm following the instructions perfectly. See, it's right on full choke like they say.''
``That's what the instructions say.''
``That's for when it's cold!''
``Well, we've been in there for a half an hour at least,'' he says.
It kind of shakes me up. ``This is a hot day, John,'' I say. ``And they take longer than that to cool off even on a freezing day.''
He scratches his head. ``Well, why don't they tell you that in the instructions?'' He opens the choke and on the second kick it starts. ``I guess that was it,'' he says cheerfully.
And the very next day we were out near the same area and it happened again. This time I was determined not to say a word, and when my wife urged me to go over and help him I shook my head. I told her that until he had a real felt need he was just going to resent help, so we went over and sat in the shade and waited.
I noticed he was being superpolite to Sylvia while he pumped away, meaning he was furious, and she was looking over with a kind of ``Ye gods!'' look. If he had asked any single question I would have been over in a second to diagnose it, but he wouldn't. It must have been fifteen minutes before he got it started.
Later we were drinking beer again over at Lake Minnetonka and everybody was talking around the table, but he was silent and I could see he was really tied up in knots inside. After all that time. Probably to get them untied he finally said, ``You know -- when it doesn't start like that it just -- really turns me into a monster inside. I just get paranoic about it.'' This seemed to loosen him up, and he added, ``They just had this one motorcycle, see? This lemon.And they didn't know what to do with it, whether to send it back to the factory or sell it for scrap or what -- and then at the last moment they saw me coming. With eighteen hundred bucks in my pocket. And they knew their problems were over.''
In a kind of singsong voice I repeated the plea for tuning and he tried hard to listen. He really tries hard sometimes. But then the block came again and he was off to the bar for another round for all of us and the subject was closed.
He is not stubborn, not narrow-minded, not lazy, not stupid. There was just no easy explanation. So it was left up in the air, a kind of mystery that one gives up on because there is no sense in just going round and round and round looking for an answer that's not there.
It occurred to me that maybe I was the odd one on the subject, but that was disposed of too. Most touring cyclists know how to keep their machines tuned. Car owners usually won't touch the engine, but every town of any size at all has a garage with expensive lifts, special tools and diagnostic equipment that the average owner can't afford. And a car engine is more complex and inaccessible than a cycle engine so there's more sense to this. But for John's cycle, a BMW R60, I'll bet there's not a mechanic between here and Salt Lake City. If his points or plugs burn out, he's done for. I know he doesn't have a set of spare points with him. He doesn't know what points are. If it quits on him in western South Dakota or Montana I don't know what he's going to do. Sell it to the Indians maybe. Right now I know what he's doing. He's carefully avoiding giving any thought whatsoever to the subject. The BMW is famous for not giving mechanical problems on the road and that's what he's counting on.
I might have thought this was just a peculiar attitude of theirs about motorcycles but discovered later that it extended to other things -- .Waiting for them to get going one morning in their kitchen I noticed the sink faucet was dripping and remembered that it was dripping the last time I was there before and that in fact it had been dripping as long as I could remember. I commented on it and John said he had tried to fix it with a new faucet washer but it hadn't worked. That was all he said. The presumption left was that that was the end of the matter. If you try to fix a faucet and your fixing doesn't work then it's just your lot to live with a dripping faucet.
This made me wonder to myself if it got on their nerves, this drip-drip-drip, week in, week out, year in, year out, but I could not notice any irritation or concern about it on their part, and so concluded they just aren't bothered by things like dripping faucets. Some people aren't.
What it was that changed this conclusion, I don't remember -- some intuition, some insight one day, perhaps it was a subtle change in Sylvia's mood whenever the dripping was particularly loud and she was trying to talk. She has a very soft voice. And one day when she was trying to talk above the dripping and the kids came in and interrupted her she lost her temper at them. It seemed that her anger at the kids would not have been nearly as great if the faucet hadn't also been dripping when she was trying to talk. It was the combined dripping and loud kids that blew her up. What struck me hard then was that she was not blaming the faucet, and that she was deliberately not blaming the faucet. She wasn't ignoring that faucet at all! She was suppressing anger at that faucet and that goddamned dripping faucet was just about killing her! But she could not admit the importance of this for some reason.
Why suppress anger at a dripping faucet? I wondered.
Then that patched in with the motorcycle maintenance and one of those light bulbs went on over my head and I thought, Ahhhhhhhh!
It's not the motorcycle maintenance, not the faucet. It's all of technology they can't take. And then all sorts of things started tumbling into place and I knew that was it. Sylvia's irritation at a friend who thought computer programming was ``creative.'' All their drawings and paintings and photographs without a technological thing in them. Of course she's not going to get mad at that faucet, I thought. You always suppress momentary anger at something you deeply and permanently hate. Of course John signs off every time the subject of cycle repair comes up, even when it is obvious he is suffering for it. That's technology. And sure, of course, obviously. It's so simple when you see it. To get away from technology out into the country in the fresh air and sunshine is why they are on the motorcycle in the first place. For me to bring it back to them just at the point and place where they think they have finally escaped it just frosts both of them, tremendously. That's why the conversation always breaks and freezes when the subject comes up.
Other things fit in too. They talk once in a while in as few pained words as possible about ``it'' or ``it all'' as in the sentence, ``There is just no escape from it.'' And if I asked, ``From what?'' the answer might be ``The whole thing,'' or ``The whole organized bit,'' or even ``The system.'' Sylvia once said defensively, ``Well, you know how to cope with it,'' which puffed me up so much at the time I was embarrassed to ask what ``it'' was and so remained somewhat puzzled. I thought it was something more mysterious than technology. But now I see that the ``it'' was mainly, if not entirely, technology. But, that doesn't sound right either. The ``it'' is a kind of force that gives rise to technology, something undefined, but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a death force. Something hideous they are running from but know they can never escape. I'm putting it way too heavily here but in a less emphatic and less defined way this is what it is. Somewhere there are people who understand it and run it but those are technologists, and they speak an inhuman language when describing what they do. It's all parts and relationships of unheard-of things that never make any sense no matter how often you hear about them. And their things, their monster keeps eating up land and polluting their air and lakes, and there is no way to strike back at it, and hardly any way to escape it.
That attitude is not hard to come to. You go through a heavy industrial area of a large city and there it all is, the technology. In front of it are high barbed-wire fences, locked gates, signs saying NO TRESPASSING, and beyond, through sooty air, you see ugly strange shapes of metal and brick whose purpose is unknown, and whose masters you will never see. What it's for you don't know, and why it's there, there's no one to tell, and so all you can feel is alienated, estranged, as though you didn't belong there. Who owns and understands this doesn't want you around. All this technology has somehow made you a stranger in your own land. Its very shape and appearance and mysteriousness say, ``Get out.'' You know there's an explanation for all this somewhere and what it's doing undoubtedly serves mankind in some indirect way but that isn't what you see. What you see is the NO TRESPASSING, KEEP OUT signs and not anything serving people but little people, like ants, serving these strange, incomprehensible shapes. And you think, even if I were a part of this, even if I were not a stranger, I would be just another ant serving the shapes. So the final feeling is hostile, and I think that's ultimately what's involved with this otherwise unexplainable attitude of John and Sylvia. Anything to do with valves and shafts and wrenches is a part of that dehumanized world, and they would rather not think about it. They don't want to get into it.
If this is so, they are not alone. There is no question that they have been following their natural feelings in this and not trying to imitate anyone. But many others are also following their natural feelings and not trying to imitate anyone and the natural feelings of very many people are similar on this matter; so that when you look at them collectively, as journalists do, you get the illusion of a mass movement, an antitechnological mass movement, an entire political antitechnological left emerging, looming up from apparently nowhere, saying, ``Stop the technology. Have it somewhere else. Don't have it here.'' It is still restrained by a thin web of logic that points out that without the factories there are no jobs or standard of living. But there are human forces stronger than logic. There always have been, and if they become strong enough in their hatred of technology that web can break.
Clichés and stereotypes such as ``beatnik'' or ``hippie'' have been invented for the antitechnologists, the antisystem people, and will continue to be. But one does not convert individuals into mass people with the simple coining of a mass term. John and Sylvia are not mass people and neither are most of the others going their way. It is against being a mass person that they seem to be revolting. And they feel that technology has got a lot to do with the forces that are trying to turn them into mass people and they don't like it. So far it's still mostly a passive resistance, flights into the rural areas when they are possible and things like that, but it doesn't always have to be this passive.
I disagree with them about cycle maintenance, but not because I am out of sympathy with their feelings about technology. I just think that their flight from and hatred of technology is self-defeating. The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha...which is to demean oneself. That is what I want to talk about in this Chautauqua.
We're out of the marshes now, but the air is still so humid you can look straight up directly at the yellow circle of the sun as if there were smoke or smog in the sky. But we're in the green countryside now. The farmhouses are clean and white and fresh. And there's no smoke or smog.
The road winds on and on -- we stop for rests and lunch, exchange small talk, and settle down to the long ride. The beginning fatigue of afternoon balances the excitement of the first day and we move steadily, not fast, not slow.
We have picked up a southwest side wind, and the cycle cants into the gusts, seemingly by itself, to counter their effect. Lately there's been a sense of something peculiar about this road, apprehension about something, as if we were being watched or followed. But there is not a car anywhere ahead and in the mirror are only John and Sylvia way behind.
We are not in the Dakotas yet, but the broad fields show we are getting nearer. Some of them are blue with flax blossoms moving in long waves like the surface of the ocean. The sweep of the hills is greater than before and they now dominate everything else, except the sky, which seems wider. Farmhouses in the distance are so small we can hardly see them. The land is beginning to open up.
There is no one place or sharp line where the Central Plains end and the Great Plains begin. It's a gradual change like this that catches you unawares, as if you were sailing out from a choppy coastal harbor, noticed that the waves had taken on a deep swell, and turned back to see that you were out of sight of land. There are fewer trees here and suddenly I am aware they are no longer native. They have been brought here and planted around houses and between fields in rows to break up the wind. But where they haven't been planted there is no underbrush, no second-growth saplings...only grass, sometimes with wildflowers and weeds, but mostly grass. This is grassland now. We are on the prairie.
I have a feeling none of us fully understands what four days on this prairie in July will be like. Memories of car trips across them are always of flatness and great emptiness as far as you can see, extreme monotony and boredom as you drive for hour after hour, getting nowhere, wondering how long this is going to last without a turn in the road, without a change in the land going on and on to the horizon.
John was worried Sylvia would not be up to the discomfort of this and planned to have her fly to Billings, Montana, but Sylvia and I both talked him out of it. I argued that physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn't mean much. And when thinking about Sylvia's moods and feelings, I couldn't see her complaining.
Also, to arrive in the Rocky Mountains by plane would be to see them in one kind of context, as pretty scenery. But to arrive after days of hard travel across the prairies would be to see them in another way, as a goal, a promised land. If John and I and Chris arrived with this feeling and Sylvia arrived seeing them as ``nice'' and ``pretty,'' there would be more disharmony among us than we would get from the heat and monotony of the Dakotas. Anyway, I like to talk to her and I'm thinking of myself too.
In my mind, when I look at these fields, I say to her, ``See? -- See?'' and I think she does. I hope later she will see and feel a thing about these prairies I have given up talking to others about; a thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent. She seems so depressed sometimes by the monotony and boredom of her city life, I thought maybe in this endless grass and wind she would see a thing that sometimes comes when monotony and boredom are accepted. It's here, but I have no names for it.
Now on the horizon I see something else I don't think the others see. Far off to the southwest...you can see it only from the top of this hill...the sky has a dark edge. Storm coming. That may be what has been bothering me. Deliberately shutting it out of mind, but knowing all along that with this humidity and wind it was more than likely. It's too bad, on the first day, but as I said before, on a cycle you're in the scene, not just watching it, and storms are definitely part of it.
If it's just thunderheads or broken line squalls you can try to ride around them, but this one isn't. That long dark streak without any preceding cirrus clouds is a cold front. Cold fronts are violent and when they are from the southwest, they are the most violent. Often they contain tornadoes. When they come it's best to just hole up and let them pass over. They don't last long and the cool air behind them makes good riding.
Warm fronts are the worst. They can last for days. I remember Chris and I were on a trip to Canada a few years ago, got about 130 miles and were caught in a warm front of which we had plenty of warning but which we didn't understand. The whole experience was kind of dumb and sad.
We were on a little six-and-one-half-horsepower cycle, way overloaded with luggage and way underloaded with common sense. The machine could do only about forty-five miles per hour wide open against a moderate head wind. It was no touring bike. We reached a large lake in the North Woods the first night and tented amid rainstorms that lasted all night long. I forgot to dig a trench around the tent and at about two in the morning a stream of water came in and soaked both sleeping bags. The next morning we were soggy and depressed and hadn't had much sleep, but I thought that if we just got riding the rain would let up after a while. No such luck. By ten o'clock the sky was so dark all the cars had their headlights on. And then it really came down.
We were wearing the ponchos which had served as a tent the night before. Now they spread out like sails and slowed our speed to thirty miles an hour wide open. The water on the road became two inches deep. Lightning bolts came crashing down all around us. I remember a woman's face looking astonished at us from the window of a passing car, wondering what in earth we were doing on a motorcycle in this weather. I'm sure I couldn't have told her.
The cycle slowed down to twenty-five, then twenty. Then it started missing, coughing and popping and sputtering until, barely moving at five or six miles an hour, we found an old run-down filling station by some cutover timberland and pulled in.
At the time, like John, I hadn't bothered to learn much about motorcycle maintenance. I remember holding my poncho over my head to keep the rain from the tank and rocking the cycle between my legs. Gas seemed to be sloshing around inside. I looked at the plugs, and looked at the points, and looked at the carburetor, and pumped the kick starter until I was exhausted.
We went into the filling station, which was also a combination beer joint and restaurant, and had a meal of burned-up steak. Then I went back out and tried it again. Chris kept asking questions that started to anger me because he didn't see how serious it was. Finally I saw it was no use, gave it up, and my anger at him disappeared. I explained to him as carefully as I could that it was all over. We weren't going anywhere by cycle on this vacation. Chris suggested things to do like check the gas, which I had done, and find a mechanic. But there weren't any mechanics. Just cutover pine trees and brush and rain.
I sat in the grass with him at the shoulder of the road, defeated, staring into the trees and underbrush. I answered all of Chris's questions patiently and in time they became fewer and fewer. And then Chris finally understood that our cycle trip was really over and began to cry. He was eight then, I think.
We hitchhiked back to our own city and rented a trailer and put it on our car and came up and got the cycle, and hauled it back to our own city and then started out all over again by car. But it wasn't the same. And we didn't really enjoy ourselves much.
Two weeks after the vacation was over, one evening after work, I removed the carburetor to see what was wrong but still couldn't find anything. To clean off the grease before replacing it, I turned the stopcock on the tank for a little gas. Nothing came out. The tank was out of gas. I couldn't believe it. I can still hardly believe it.
I have kicked myself mentally a hundred times for that stupidity and don't think I'll ever really, finally get over it. Evidently what I saw sloshing around was gas in the reserve tank which I had never turned on. I didn't check it carefully because I assumed the rain had caused the engine failure. I didn't understand then how foolish quick assumptions like that are. Now we are on a twenty-eight-horse machine and I take the maintenance of it very seriously.
All of a sudden John passes me, his palm down, signaling a stop. We slow down and look for a place to pull off on the gravelly shoulder. The edge of the concrete is sharp and the gravel is loose and I'm not a bit fond of this maneuver.
Chris asks, ``What are we stopping for?''
``I think we missed our turn back there,'' John says.
I look back and see nothing. ``I didn't see any sign,'' I say.
John shakes his head. ``Big as a barn door.''
He and Sylvia both nod.
He leans over, studies my map and points to where the turn was and then to a freeway overpass beyond it. ``We've already crossed this freeway,'' he says. I see he is right. Embarrassing. ``Go back or go ahead?'' I ask.
He thinks about it. ``Well, I guess there's really no reason to go back. All right. Let's just go ahead. We'll get there one way or another.''
And now tagging along behind them I think, Why should I do a thing like that? I hardly noticed the freeway. And just now I forgot to tell them about the storm. Things are getting a little unsettling.
The storm cloud bank is larger now but it is not moving in as fast as I thought it would. That's not so good. When they come in fast they leave fast. When they come in slow like this you can get stuck for quite a time.
I remove a glove with my teeth, reach down and feel the aluminum side cover of the engine. The temperature is fine. Too warm to leave my hand there, not so hot I get a burn. Nothing wrong there.
On an air-cooled engine like this, extreme overheating can cause a ``seizure.'' This machine has had one -- in fact, three of them. I check it from time to time the same way I would check a patient who has had a heart attack, even though it seems cured.
In a seizure, the pistons expand from too much heat, become too big for the walls of the cylinders, seize them, melt to them sometimes, and lock the engine and rear wheel and start the whole cycle into a skid. The first time this one seized, my head was pitched over the front wheel and my passenger was almost on top of me. At about thirty it freed up again and started to run but I pulled off the road and stopped to see what was wrong. All my passenger could think to say was ``What did you do that for?''
I shrugged and was as puzzled as he was, and stood there with the cars whizzing by, just staring. The engine was so hot the air around it shimmered and we could feel the heat radiate. When I put a wet finger on it, it sizzled like a hot iron and we rode home, slowly, with a new sound, a slap that meant the pistons no longer fit and an overhaul was needed.
I took this machine into a shop because I thought it wasn't important enough to justify getting into myself, having to learn all the complicated details and maybe having to order parts and special tools and all that time-dragging stuff when I could get someone else to do it in less time...sort of John's attitude.
The shop was a different scene from the ones I remembered. The mechanics, who had once all seemed like ancient veterans, now looked like children. A radio was going full blast and they were clowning around and talking and seemed not to notice me. When one of them finally came over he barely listened to the piston slap before saying, ``Oh yeah. Tappets.''
Tappets? I should have known then what was coming.
Two weeks later I paid their bill for 140 dollars, rode the cycle carefully at varying low speeds to wear it in and then after one thousand miles opened it up. At about seventy-five it seized again and freed at thirty, the same as before. When I brought it back they accused me of not breaking it in properly, but after much argument agreed to look into it. They overhauled it again and this time took it out themselves for a high-speed road test.
It seized on them this time.
After the third overhaul two months later they replaced the cylinders, put in oversize main carburetor jets, retarded the timing to make it run as coolly as possible and told me, ``Don't run it fast.''
It was covered with grease and did not start. I found the plugs were disconnected, connected them and started it, and now there really was a tappet noise. They hadn't adjusted them. I pointed this out and the kid came with an open-end adjustable wrench, set wrong, and swiftly rounded both of the sheet aluminum tappet covers, ruining both of them.
``I hope we've got some more of those in stock,'' he said.
He brought out a hammer and cold chisel and started to pound them loose. The chisel punched through the aluminum cover and I could see he was pounding the chisel right into the engine head. On the next blow he missed the chisel completely and struck the head with the hammer, breaking off a portion of two of the cooling fins.
``Just stop,'' I said politely, feeling this was a bad dream.
``Just give me some new covers and I'll take it the way it is.''
I got out of there as fast as possible, noisy tappets, shot tappet covers, greasy machine, down the road, and then felt a bad vibration at speeds over twenty. At the curb I discovered two of the four engine-mounting bolts were missing and a nut was missing from the third. The whole engine was hanging on by only one bolt. The overhead-cam chain-tensioner bolt was also missing, meaning it would have been hopeless to try to adjust the tappets anyway. Nightmare.
The thought of John putting his BMW into the hands of one of those people is something I have never brought up with him. Maybe I should.
I found the cause of the seizures a few weeks later, waiting to happen again. It was a little twenty-five-cent pin in the internal oil-delivery system that had been sheared and was preventing oil from reaching the head at high speeds.
The question why comes back again and again and has become a major reason for wanting to deliver this Chautauqua. Why did they butcher it so? These were not people running away from technology, like John and Sylvia. These were the technologists themselves. They sat down to do a job and they performed it like chimpanzees. Nothing personal in it. There was no obvious reason for it. And I tried to think back into that shop, that nightmare place, to try to remember anything that could have been the cause.
The radio was a clue. You can't really think hard about what you're doing and listen to the radio at the same time. Maybe they didn't see their job as having anything to do with hard thought, just wrench twiddling. If you can twiddle wrenches while listening to the radio that's more enjoyable.
Their speed was another clue. They were really slopping things around in a hurry and not looking where they slopped them. More money that way...if you don't stop to think that it usually takes longer or comes out worse.
But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easygoing...and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, ``I am a mechanic.'' At 5 P.M. or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. In their own way they were achieving the same thing John and Sylvia were, living with technology without really having anything to do with it. Or rather, they had something to do with it, but their own selves were outside of it, detached, removed. They were involved in it but not in such a way as to care.
Not only did these mechanics not find that sheared pin, but it was clearly a mechanic who had sheared it in the first place, by assembling the side cover plate improperly. I remembered the previous owner had said a mechanic had told him the plate was hard to get on. That was why. The shop manual had warned about this, but like the others he was probably in too much of a hurry or he didn't care.
While at work I was thinking about this same lack of care in the digital computer manuals I was editing. Writing and editing technical manuals is what I do for a living the other eleven months of the year and I knew they were full of errors, ambiguities, omissions and information so completely screwed up you had to read them six times to make any sense out of them. But what struck me for the first time was the agreement of these manuals with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the idea that ``Here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it, other than to turn certain switches, maintain voltage levels, check for error conditions -- '' and so on. That's it. The mechanics in their attitude toward the machine were really taking no different attitude from the manual's toward the machine, or from the attitude I had when I brought it in there. We were all spectators. 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.
On this trip I think we should notice it, explore it a little, to see if in that strange separation of what man is from what man does we may have some clues as to what the hell has gone wrong in this twentieth century. I don't want to hurry it. That itself is a poisonous twentieth-century attitude. When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things. I just want to get at it slowly, but carefully and thoroughly, with the same attitude I remember was present just before I found that sheared pin. It was that attitude that found it, nothing else.
I suddenly notice the land here has flattened into a Euclidian plane. Not a hill, not a bump anywhere. This means we have entered the Red River Valley. We will soon be into the Dakotas.
John and I have discussed the situation in Breckenridge and decided to keep going until we have to stop.
That shouldn't be long now. The sun is gone, the wind is blowing cold, and a wall of differing shades of grey looms around us.
It seems huge, overpowering. The prairie here is huge but above it the hugeness of this ominous grey mass ready to descend is frightening. We are traveling at its mercy now. When and where it will come is nothing we can control. All we can do is watch it move in closer and closer.
Where the darkest grey has come down to the ground, a town that was seen earlier, some small buildings and a water tower, has disappeared. It will be on us soon now. I don't see any towns ahead and we are just going to have to run for it.
I pull up alongside John and throw my hand ahead in a ``Speed up!'' gesture. He nods and opens up. I let him get ahead a little, then pick up to his speed. The engine responds beautifully...seventy -- eighty -- eighty-five -- we are really feeling the wind now and I drop my head to cut down the resistance -- ninety. The speedometer needle swings back and forth but the tach reads a steady nine thousand -- about ninety-five miles an hour -- and we hold this speed -- moving. Too fast to focus on the shoulder of the road now -- I reach forward and flip the headlight switch just for safety. But it is needed anyway. It is getting very dark.
We whizz through the flat open land, not a car anywhere, hardly a tree, but the road is smooth and clean and the engine now has a ``packed,'' high rpm sound that says it's right on. It gets darker and darker.
A flash and Ka-wham! of thunder, one right on top of the other. That shook me, and Chris has got his head against my back now. A few warning drops of rain -- at this speed they are like needles. A second flash...WHAM and everything brilliant -- and then in the brilliance of the next flash that farmhouse -- that windmill -- oh, my God, he's been here! -- throttle off -- this is his road -- a fence and trees -- and the speed drops to seventy, then sixty, then fifty-five and I hold it there.
``Why are we slowing down?'' Chris shouts.
``No, it isn't!''
I nod yes.
The house and water tower have gone by and then a small drainage ditch appears and a crossroad leading off to the horizon. Yes -- that's right, I think. That's exactly right.
``They're way ahead of us!'' Chris hollers. ``Speed up!''
I turn my head from side to side.
``Why not?'' he hollers.
``No.'' I shake my head. It's just a feeling. On a cycle you trust them and we stay at fifty-five.
The first rain begins now but up ahead I see the lights of a town -- I knew it would be there.
When we arrive John and Sylvia are there under the first tree by the road, waiting for us.
``What happened to you?''
``Well, we know that.Something wrong?''
``No. Let's get out of this rain.''
John says there is a motel at the other end of town, but I tell him there's a better one if you turn right, at a row of cottonwoods a few blocks down.
We turn at the cottonwoods and travel a few blocks, and a small motel appears. Inside the office John looks around and says, ``This is a good place. When were you here before?''
``I don't remember,'' I say.
``Then how did you know about this?''
He looks at Sylvia and shakes his head.
Sylvia has been watching me silently for some time. She notices my hands are unsteady as I sign in. ``You look awfully pale,'' she says. ``Did that lightning shake you up?''
``You look like you'd seen a ghost.''
John and Chris look at me and I turn away from them to the door. It is still raining hard, but we make a run for it to the rooms. The gear on the cycles is protected and we wait until the storm passes over before removing it.
After the rain stops, the sky lightens a little. But from the motel courtyard, I see past the cottonwoods that a second darkness, that of night, is about to come on. We walk into town, have supper, and by the time we get back, the fatigue of the day is really on me. We rest, almost motionless, in the metal armchairs of the motel courtyard, slowly working down a pint of whiskey that John brought with some mix from the motel cooler. It goes down slowly and agreeably. A cool night wind rattles the leaves of the cottonwoods along the road.
Chris wonders what we should do next. Nothing tires this kid. The newness and strangeness of the motel surroundings excite him and he wants us to sing songs as they did at camp.
``We're not very good at songs,'' John says.
``Let's tell stories then,'' Chris says. He thinks for a while. ``Do you know any good ghost stories? All the kids in our cabin used to tell ghost stories at night.''
``You tell us some,'' John says.
And he does. They are kind of fun to hear. Some of them I haven't heard since I was his age. I tell him so, and Chris wants to hear some of mine, but I can't remember any.
After a while he says, ``Do you believe in ghosts?''
``No,'' I say
``Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic.''
The way I say this makes John smile. ``They contain no matter,'' I continue, ``and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people's minds.''
The whiskey, the fatigue and the wind in the trees start mixing in my mind. ``Of course,'' I add, ``the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people's minds. It's best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you're safe. That doesn't leave you very much to believe in, but that's scientific too.''
``I don't know what you're talking about,'' Chris says.
``I'm being kind of facetious.''
Chris gets frustrated when I talk like this, but I don't think it hurts him.
``One of the kids at YMCA camp says he believes in ghosts.''
``He was just spoofing you.''
``No, he wasn't. He said that when people haven't been buried right, their ghosts come back to haunt people. He really believes in that.''
``He was just spoofing you,'' I repeat.
``What's his name?'' Sylvia says.
``Tom White Bear.''
John and I exchange looks, suddenly recognizing the same thing.
``Ohhh, Indian!'' he says.
I laugh. ``I guess I'm going to have to take that back a little,'' I say. ``I was thinking of European ghosts.''
``What's the difference?''
John roars with laughter. ``He's got you,'' he says.
I think a little and say, ``Well, Indians sometimes have a different way of looking at things, which I'm not saying is completely wrong. Science isn't part of the Indian tradition.''
``Tom White Bear said his mother and dad told him not to believe all that stuff. But he said his grandmother whispered it was true anyway, so he believes it.''
He looks at me pleadingly. He really does want to know things sometimes. Being facetious is not being a very good father. ``Sure,'' I say, reversing myself, ``I believe in ghosts too.''
Now John and Sylvia look at me peculiarly. I see I'm not going to get out of this one easily and brace myself for a long explanation.
``It's completely natural,'' I say, ``to think of Europeans who believed in ghosts or Indians who believed in ghosts as ignorant. The scientific point of view has wiped out every other view to a point where they all seem primitive, so that if a person today talks about ghosts or spirits he is considered ignorant or maybe nutty. It's just all but completely impossible to imagine a world where ghosts can actually exist.''
John nods affirmatively and I continue.
``My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn't that superior. IQs aren't that much different. Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to a modern man. In that sense I believe in ghosts. Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know.''
``Oh, the laws of physics and of logic -- the number system -- the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.
``They seem real to me,'' John says.
``I don't get it,'' says Chris.
So I go on. ``For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.''
``So when did this law start? Has it always existed?''
John is frowning, wondering what I am getting at.
``What I'm driving at,'' I say, ``is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.''
``Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone's mind because there wasn't anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere...this law of gravity still existed?''
Now John seems not so sure.
``If that law of gravity existed,'' I say, ``I honestly don't know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn't have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still `common sense' to believe that it existed.''
John says, ``I guess I'd have to think about it.''
``Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.
``And what that means,'' I say before he can interrupt, ``and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people's heads! It's a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people's ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.''
``Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?''
``Mass hypnosis. In a very orthodox form known as `education.'''
``You mean the teacher is hypnotizing the kids into believing the law of gravity?''
``You've heard of the importance of eye contact in the classroom? Every educationist emphasizes it. No educationist explains it.''
John shakes his head and pours me another drink. He puts his hand over his mouth and in a mock aside says to Sylvia, ``You know, most of the time he seems like such a normal guy.''
I counter, ``That's the first normal thing I've said in weeks. The rest of the time I'm feigning twentieth-
century lunacy just like you are. So as not to draw attention to myself.
``But I'll repeat it for you,'' I say. ``We believe the disembodied words of Sir Isaac Newton were sitting in the middle of nowhere billions of years before he was born and that magically he discovered these words. They were always there, even when they applied to nothing. Gradually the world came into being and then they applied to it. In fact, those words themselves were what formed the world. That, John, is ridiculous.
``The problem, the contradiction the scientists are stuck with, is that of mind. Mind has no matter or energy but they can't escape its predominance over everything they do. Logic exists in the mind. Numbers exist only in the mind. I don't get upset when scientists say that ghosts exist in the mind. It's that only that gets me. Science is only in your mind too, it's just that that doesn't make it bad. Or ghosts either.''
They are just looking at me so I continue: ``Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn't a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It's all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It's run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.''
John looks too much in thought to speak. But Sylvia is excited. ``Where do you get all these ideas?'' she asks.
I am about to answer them but then do not. I have a feeling of having already pushed it to the limit, maybe beyond, and it is time to drop it.
After a while John says, ``It'll be good to see the mountains again.''
``Yes, it will,'' I agree. ``one last drink to that!''
We finish it and are off to our rooms.
I see that Chris brushes his teeth, and let him get by with a promise that he'll shower in the morning. I pull seniority and take the bed by the window. After the lights are out he says, ``Now, tell me a ghost story.''
``I just did, out there.''
``I mean a real ghost story.''
``That was the realest ghost story you'll ever hear.''
``You know what I mean. The other kind.''
I try to think of some conventional ones. ``I used to know so many of them when I was a kid, Chris, but they're all forgotten,'' I say. ``It's time to go to sleep. We've all got to get up early tomorrow.''
Except for the wind through the screens of the motel window it is quiet. The thought of all that wind sweeping toward us across the open fields of the prairie is a tranquil one and I feel lulled by it.
The wind rises and then falls, then rises and sighs, and falls again -- from so many miles away.
``Did you ever know a ghost?'' Chris asks.
I am half asleep. ``Chris,'' I say, ``I knew a fellow once who spent all his whole life doing nothing but hunting for a ghost, and it was just a waste of time. So go to sleep.''
I realize my mistake too late.
``Did he find him?''
``Yes, he found him, Chris.''
I keep wishing Chris would just listen to the wind and not ask questions.
``What did he do then?''
``He thrashed him good.''
``Then he became a ghost himself.'' Somehow I had the thought this was going to put Chris to sleep, but it's not and it's just waking me up.
``What is his name?''
``No one you know.''
``But what is it?''
``It doesn't matter.''
``Well, what is it anyway?''
``His name, Chris, since it doesn't matter, is Phædrus. It's not a name you know.''
``Did you see him on the motorcycle in the storm?''
``What makes you say that?''
``Sylvia said she thought you saw a ghost.''
``That's just an expression.''
``This had better be the last question, Chris, or I'm going to become angry.''
``I was just going to say you sure don't talk like anyone else.''
``Yes, Chris, I know that,'' I say. ``It's a problem. Now go to sleep.''
``Good night, Dad.''
A half hour later he is breathing sleepfully, and the wind is still strong as ever and I am wide-awake. There, out the window in the dark...this cold wind crossing the road into the trees, the leaves shimmering flecks of moonlight...there is no question about it, Phædrus saw all of this. What he was doing here I have no idea. Why he came this way I will probably never know. But he has been here, steered us onto this strange road, has been with us all along. There is no escape.
I wish I could say that I don't know why he is here, but I'm afraid I must now confess that I do. The ideas, the things I was saying about science and ghosts, and even that idea this afternoon about caring and technology...they are not my own. I haven't really had a new idea in years. They are stolen from him. And he has been watching. And that is why he is here.
With that confession, I hope he will now allow me some sleep.
Poor Chris. ``Do you know any ghost stories?'' he asked. I could have told him one but even the thought of that is frightening.
I really must go to sleep.
Every Chautauqua should have a list somewhere of valuable things to remember that can be kept in some safe place for times of future need and inspiration. Details. And now, while the others are still snoring away wasting this beautiful morning sunlight -- well -- to sort of fill time --
What I have here is my list of valuable things to take on your next motorcycle trip across the Dakotas.
I've been awake since dawn. Chris is still sound asleep in the other bed. I started to roll over for more sleep but heard a rooster crowing and then became aware we are on vacation and there is no point in sleeping. I can hear John right through the motel partition sawing wood in there -- unless it's Sylvia -- no, that's too loud. Damned chain saw, it sounds like -- .
I got so tired of forgetting things on trips like this, I made this up and store it in a file at home to check off when I am ready to go.
Most of the items are commonplace and need no comment. Some of them are peculiar to motorcycling and need some comment. Some of them are just plain peculiar and need a lot of comment. The list is divided into four parts: Clothing, Personal Stuff, Cooking and Camping Gear, and Motorcycle Stuff.
The first part, Clothing, is simple:
The next list is Personal Stuff:
Combs. Billfold. Pocketknife. Memoranda booklet. Pen. Cigarettes and matches. Flashlight. Soap and plastic soap container. Toothbrushes and toothpaste. Scissors. APCs for headaches. Insect repellent. Deodorant (after a hot day on a cycle, your best friends don't need to tell you). Sunburn lotion. (On a cycle you don't notice sunburn until you stop, and then it's too late. Put it on early.) Band-Aids. Toilet paper. Washcloth (this can go into a plastic box to keep other stuff from getting damp). Towel.
Books. I don't know of any other cyclist who takes books with him. They take a lot of space, but I have three of them here anyway, with some loose sheets of paper in them for writing. These are:
I see Chris is sleeping over there completely relaxed, none of his normal tension. I guess I won't wake him up yet.
Camping Equipment includes:
Motorcycle Stuff. 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. (This has tremendous penetrating ability into the inside of each roller where it really counts, and the lubricating superiority of molybdenum disulfide is well known. Once it has dried off, however, it ought to be supplemented with good old SAE-30 engine oil.) 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).
And that's about it. No shoelaces.
It would probably be normal about this time to wonder what sort of U-Haul trailer all this is in. But it's not as bulky, really, as it sounds.
I'm afraid these other characters will sleep all day if I let them. The sky outside is sparkling and clear, it's a shame to waste it like this.
I go over finally and give Chris a shake. His eyes pop open, then he sits bolt upright uncomprehending.
``Shower time,'' I say.
I go outside. The air is invigorating. In fact...Christ!...it is cold out. I pound on the Sutherlands' door.
``Yahp,'' comes John's sleepy voice through the door. ``Umhmmmm. Yahp.''
It feels like autumn. The cycles are wet with dew. No rain today. But cold! It must be in the forties.
While waiting I check the engine oil level and tires, and bolts, and chain tension. A little slack there, and I get out the tool kit and tighten it up. I'm really getting anxious to get going.
I see that Chris dresses warmly and we are packed and on the road, and it is definitely cold. Within minutes all the heat of the warm clothing is drained out by the wind and I am shivering with big shivers. Bracing.
It ought to warm up as soon as the sun gets higher in the sky. About half an hour of this and we'll be in Ellendale for breakfast. We should cover a lot of miles today on these straight roads.
If it weren't so damn cold this would be just gorgeous riding. Low-angled dawn sun striking what looks almost like frost covering those fields, but I guess it's just dew, sparkling and kind of misty. Dawn shadows everywhere make it look less flat than yesterday. All to ourselves. Nobody's even up yet, it looks like. My watch says six-thirty. The old glove above it looks like it's got frost on it, but I guess it's just residues from the soaking last night. Good old beat-up gloves. They are so stiff now from the cold I can hardly straighten my hand out.
I talked yesterday about caring, I care about these moldy old riding gloves. I smile at them flying through the breeze beside me because they have been there for so many years and are so old and so tired and so rotten there is something kind of humorous about them. They have become filled with oil and sweat and dirt and spattered bugs and now when I set them down flat on a table, even when they are not cold, they won't stay flat. They've got a memory of their own. They cost only three dollars and have been restitched so many times it is getting impossible to repair them, yet I take a lot of time and pains to do it anyway because I can't imagine any new pair taking their place. That is impractical, but practicality isn't the whole thing with gloves or with anything else.
The machine itself receives some of the same feelings. With over 27,000 on it it's getting to be something of a high-miler, an old-timer, although there are plenty of older ones running. But over the miles, and I think most cyclists will agree with this, you pick up certain feelings about an individual machine that are unique for that one individual machine and no other. A friend who owns a cycle of the same make, model and even same year brought it over for repair, and when I test rode it afterward it was hard to believe it had come from the same factory years ago. You could see that long ago it had settled into its own kind of feel and ride and sound, completely different from mine. No worse, but different.
I suppose you could call that a personality. Each machine has its own, unique personality which probably could be defined as the intuitive sum total of everything you know and feel about it. This personality constantly changes, usually for the worse, but sometimes surprisingly for the better, and it is this personality that is the real object of motorcycle maintenance. The new ones start out as good-looking strangers and, depending on how they are treated, degenerate rapidly into bad-acting grouches or even cripples, or else turn into healthy, good-natured, long-lasting friends. This one, despite the murderous treatment it got at the hands of those alleged mechanics, seems to have recovered and has been requiring fewer and fewer repairs as time goes on.
There it is! Ellendale!
A water tower, groves of trees and buildings among them in the morning sunlight. I've just given in to the shivering which has been almost continuous the whole trip. The watch says seven-fifteen.
A few minutes later we park by some old brick buildings. I turn to John and Sylvia who have pulled up behind us. ``That was cold!'' I say.
They just stare at me fish-eyed.
``Bracing, what?'' I say. No answer.
I wait until they are completely off, then see that John is trying to untie all their luggage. He is having trouble with the knot. He gives up and we all move toward the restaurant.
I try again. I'm walking backward in front of them toward the restaurant, feeling a little manic from the ride, wringing my hands and laughing. ``Sylvia! Speak to me!'' Not a smile.
I guess they really were cold.
They order breakfast without looking up.
Breakfast ends, and I say finally, ``What next?''
John says slowly and deliberately, ``We're not leaving here until it warms up.'' He has a sheriff-at-sundown tone in his voice, which I suppose makes it final.
So John and Sylvia and Chris sit and stay warm in the lobby of the hotel adjoining the restaurant, while I go out for a walk.
I guess they're kind of mad at me for getting them up so early to ride through that kind of stuff. When you're stuck together like this, I figure small differences in temperament are bound to show up. I remember, now that I think of it, I've never been cycling with them before one or two o'clock in the afternoon, although for me dawn and early morning is always the greatest time for riding.
The town is clean and fresh and unlike the one we woke up in this morning. Some people are on the street and are opening stores and saying, ``Good morning'' and talking and commenting about how cold it is. Two thermometers on the shady side of the street read 42 and 46 degrees. One in the sun reads 65 degrees.
After a few blocks the main street goes onto two hard, muddy tracks into a field, past a quonset hut full of farm machinery and repair tools, and then ends in a field. A man standing in the field is looking at me suspiciously, wondering what I am doing, probably, as I look into the quonset hut. I return down the street, find a chilly bench and stare at the motorcycle. Nothing to do.
It was cold all right, but not that cold. How do John and Sylvia ever get through Minnesota winters? I wonder. There's kind of a glaring inconsistency here, that's almost too obvious to dwell on. If they can't stand physical discomfort and they can't stand technology, they've got a little compromising to do. They depend on technology and condemn it at the same time. I'm sure they know that and that just contributes to their dislike of the whole situation. They're not presenting a logical thesis, they're just reporting how it is. But three farmers are coming into town now, rounding the corner in that brand-new pickup truck. I'll bet with them it's just the other way around. They're going to show off that truck and their tractor and that new washing machine and they'll have the tools to fix them if they go wrong, and know how to use the tools. They value technology. And they're the ones who need it the least. If all technology stopped, tomorrow, these people would know how to make out. It would be rough, but they'd survive. John and Sylvia and Chris and I would be dead in a week. This condemnation of technology is ingratitude, that's what it is.
Blind alley, though. If somone's ungrateful and you tell him he's ungrateful, okay, you've called him a name. You haven't solved anything.
A half hour later the thermometer by the hotel door reads 53 degrees. Inside the empty main dining room of the hotel I find them, looking restless. They seem, by their expressions, to be in a better mood though, and John says optimistically, ``I'm going to put on everything I own, and then we'll make it all right.''
He goes out to the cycles, and when he comes back says, ``I sure hate to unpack all that stuff, but I don't want another ride like that last one.'' He says it is freezing in the men's room, and since there is no one else in the dining room, he crosses behind a table back from where we are sitting, and I am sitting at the table, talking to Sylvia, and then I look over and there is John, all decked out in a full-length set of pale-blue long underwear. He is smirking from ear to ear at how silly he looks. I stare at his glasses lying on the table for a moment and then say to Sylvia:
``You know, just a moment ago we were sitting here talking to Clark Kent -- see, there's his glasses -- and now all of a sudden -- Lois, do you suppose? -- ''
John howls. ``CHICKENMAN!''
He glides over the varnished lobby floor like a skater, does a handspring, then glides back. He raises one arm over his head and then crouches as if starting for the sky. ``I'm ready, here I go!'' He shakes his head sadly. ``Jeez, I hate to bust through that nice ceiling, but my X-ray vision tells me somebody's in trouble.'' Chris is giggling.
``We'll all be in trouble if you don't get some clothes on,'' Sylvia says.
John laughs. ``An exposer, hey? `The Ellendale revealer!' '' He struts around some more, then begins to put his clothes on over the underwear. He says, ``Oh no, oh no, they wouldn't do that. Chickenman and the police have an understanding. They know who's on the side of law and order and justice and decency and fair play for everyone.''
When we hit the highway again it is still chilly, but not like it was. We pass through a number of towns and gradually, almost imperceptibly, the sun warms us up, and my feelings warm up with it. The tired feeling wears off completely and the wind and sun feel good now, making it real. It's happening, just from the warming of the sun, the road and green prairie farmland and buffeting wind coming together. And soon it is nothing but beautiful warmth and wind and speed and sun down the empty road. The last chills of the morning are thawed by the warm air. Wind and more sun and more smooth road.
So green this summer and so fresh.
There are white and gold daisies among the grass in front of an old wire fence, a meadow with some cows and far in the distance a low rising of the land with something golden on it. Hard to know what it is. No need to know.
Where there is a slight rise in the road the drone of the motor becomes heavier. We top the rise, see a new spread of land before us, the road descends and the drone of the engine falls away again. Prairie. Tranquil and detached.
Later, when we stop, Sylvia has tears in her eyes from the wind, and she stretches out her arms and says, ``It's so beautiful. It's so empty.''
I show Chris how to spread his jacket on the ground and use an extra shirt for a pillow. He is not at all sleepy but I tell him to lie down anyway, he'll need the rest. I open up my own jacket to soak up more heat. John gets his camera out.
After a while he says, ``This is the hardest stuff in the world to photograph. You need a three-hundred-and-sixty degree lens, or something. You see it, and then you look down in the ground glass and it's just nothing. As soon as you put a border on it, it's gone.''
I say, ``That's what you don't see in a car, I suppose.''
Sylvia says, ``Once when I was about ten we stopped like this by the road and I used half a roll of film taking pictures. And when the pictures came back I cried. There wasn't anything there.''
``When are we going to get going?'' Chris says.
``What's your hurry?'' I ask.
``I just want to get going.''
``There's nothing up ahead that's any better than it is right here.''
He looks down silently with a frown. ``Are we going to go camping tonight?'' he asks. The Sutherlands look at me apprehensively.
``Are we?'' he repeats.
``We'll see later,'' I say.
``Because I don't know now.''
``Why don't you know now?''
``Well, I just don't know now why I just don't know.''
John shrugs that it's okay.
``This isn't the best camping country,'' I say. ``There's no cover and no water.'' But suddenly I add, ``All right, tonight we'll camp out.'' We had talked about it before.
So we move down the empty road. I don't want to own these prairies, or photograph them, or change them, or even stop or even keep going. We are just moving down the empty road.
The flatness of the prairie disappears and a deep undulation of the earth begins. Fences are rarer, and the greenness has become paler -- all signs that we approach the High Plains.
We stop for gas at Hague and ask if there is any way to get across the Missouri between Bismarck and Mobridge. The attendant doesn't know of any. It is hot now, and John and Sylvia go somewhere to get their long underwear off. The motorcycle gets a change of oil and chain lubrication. Chris watches everything I do but with some impatience. Not a good sign.
``My eyes hurt,'' he says.
``From the wind.''
``We'll look for some goggles.''
All of us go in a shop for coffee and rolls. Everything is different except one another, so we look around rather than talk, catching fragments of conversation among people who seem to know each other and are glancing at us because we're new. Afterward, down the street, I find a thermometer for storage in the saddlebags and some plastic goggles for Chris.
The hardware man doesn't know any short route across the Missouri either. John and I study the map. I had hoped we might find an unofficial ferryboat crossing or footbridge or something in the ninety-mile stretch, but evidently there isn't any because there's not much to get to on the other side. It's all Indian reservation. We decide to head south to Mobridge and cross there.
The road south is awful. Choppy, narrow, bumpy concrete with a bad head wind, going into the sun and big semis going the other way. These roller-coaster hills speed them up on the down side and slow them up on the up side and prevent our seeing very far ahead, making passing nervewracking. The first one gave me a scare because I wasn't ready for it. Now I hold tight and brace for them. No danger. Just a shock wave that hits you. It is hotter and dryer.
At Herreid John disappears for a drink while Sylvia and Chris and I find some shade in a park and try to rest. It isn't restful. A change has taken place and I don't know quite what it is. The streets of this town are broad, much broader than they need be, and there is a pallor of dust in the air. Empty lots here and there between the buildings have weeds growing in them. The sheet metal equipment sheds and water tower are like those of previous towns but more spread out. Everything is more run-down and mechanical-looking, and sort of randomly located. Gradually I see what it is. Nobody is concerned anymore about tidily conserving space. The land isn't valuable anymore. We are in a Western town.
We have lunch of hamburgers and malteds at an A & W place in Mobridge, cruise down a heavily trafficked main street and then there it is, at the bottom of the hill, the Missouri. All that moving water is strange, banked by grass hills that hardly get any water at all. I turn around and glance at Chris but he doesn't seem to be particularly interested in it.
We coast down the hill, clunk onto the bridge and across we go, watching the river through the girders moving by rhythmically, and then we are on the other side.
We climb a long, long hill into another kind of country.
The fences are really all gone now. No brush, no trees. The sweep of the hills is so great John's motorcycle looks like an ant up ahead moving through the green slopes. Above the slopes outcroppings of rocks stand out overhead at the tops of the bluffs.
It all has a natural tidiness. If it were abandoned land there would be a chewed-up, scruffy look, with chunks of old foundation concrete, scraps of painted sheet metal and wire, weeds that had gotten in where the sod was broken up for whatever little enterprise was attempted. None of that here. Not kept up, just never messed up in the first place. It's just the way it always must have been. Reservation land.
There's no friendly motorcycle mechanic on the other side of those rocks and I'm wondering if we're ready for this. If anything goes wrong now we're in real trouble.
I check the engine temperature with my hand. It's reassuringly cool. I put in the clutch and let it coast for a second in order to hear it idling. Something sounds funny and I do it again. It takes a while to figure out that it's not the engine at all. There's an echo from the bluff ahead that lingers after the throttle is closed. Funny. I do this two or three times. Chris wonders what's wrong and I have him listen to the echo. No comment from him.
This old engine has a nickels-and-dimes sound to it. As if there were a lot of loose change flying around inside. Sounds awful, but it's just normal valve clatter. Once you get used to that sound and learn to expect it, you automatically hear any difference. If you don't hear any, that's good.
I tried to get John interested in that sound once but it was hopeless. All he heard was noise and all he saw was the machine and me with greasy tools in my hands, nothing else. That didn't work.
He didn't really see what was going on and was not interested enough to find out. He isn't so interested in what things mean as in what they are. That's quite important, that he sees things this way. It took me a long time to see this difference and it's important for the Chautauqua that I make this difference clear.
I was so baffled by his refusal even to think about any mechanical subject I kept searching for ways to clue him to the whole thing but didn't know where to start.
I thought I would wait until something went wrong with his machine and then I would help him fix it and that way get him into it, but I goofed that one myself because I didn't understand this difference in the way he looked at things.
His handlebars had started slipping. Not badly, he said, just a little when you shoved hard on them. I warned him not to use his adjustable wrench on the tightening nuts. It was likely to damage the chrome and start small rust spots. He agreed to use my metric sockets and box-ends.
When he brought his motorcycle over I got my wrenches out but then noticed that no amount of tightening would stop the slippage, because the ends of the collars were pinched shut.
``You're going to have to shim those out,'' I said.
``It's a thin, flat strip of metal. You just slip it around the handlebar under the collar there and it will open up the collar to where you can tighten it again. You use shims like that to make adjustments in all kinds of machines.''
``Oh,'' he said. He was getting interested. ``Good. Where do you buy them?''
``I've got some right here,'' I said gleefully, holding up a can of beer in my hand.
He didn't understand for a moment. Then he said, ``What, the can?''
``Sure,'' I said, ``best shim stock in the world.''
I thought this was pretty clever myself. Save him a trip to God knows where to get shim stock. Save him time. Save him money.
But to my surprise he didn't see the cleverness of this at all. In fact he got noticeably haughty about the whole thing. Pretty soon he was dodging and filling with all kinds of excuses and, before I realized what his real attitude was, we had decided not to fix the handlebars after all.
As far as I know those handlebars are still loose. And I believe now that he was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can!
Ach, du lieber!
Since then we have had very few conversations about motorcycle maintenance. None, now that I think of it.
You push it any further and suddenly you are angry, without knowing why.
I should say, to explain this, that beer-can aluminum is soft and sticky, as metals go. Perfect for the application. Aluminum doesn't oxidize in wet weather...or, more precisely, it always has a thin layer of oxide that prevents any further oxidation. Also perfect.
In other words, any true German mechanic, with a half-century of mechanical finesse behind him, would have concluded that this particular solution to this particular technical problem was perfect.
For a while I thought what I should have done was sneak over to the workbench, cut a shim from the beer can, remove the printing and then come back and tell him we were in luck, it was the last one I had, specially imported from Germany. That would have done it. A special shim from the private stock of Baron Alfred Krupp, who had to sell it at a great sacrifice. Then he would have gone gaga over it.
That Krupp's-private-shim fantasy gratified me for a while, but then it wore off and I saw it was just being vindictive. In its place grew that old feeling I've talked about before, a feeling that there's something bigger involved than is apparent on the surface. You follow these little discrepancies long enough and they sometimes open up into huge revelations. There was just a feeling on my part that this was something a little bigger than I wanted to take on without thinking about it, and I turned instead to my usual habit of trying to extract causes and effects to see what was involved that could possibly lead to such an impasse between John's view of that lovely shim and my own. This comes up all the time in mechanical work. A hang-up. You just sit and stare and think, and search randomly for new information, and go away and come back again, and after a while the unseen factors start to emerge.
What emerged in vague form at first and then in sharper outline was the explanation that I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. That's how I arrived at that distinction. And when you see what the shim is,in this case, it's depressing. Who likes to think of a beautiful precision machine fixed with an old hunk of junk?
I guess I forgot to mention John is a musician, a drummer, who works with groups all over town and makes a pretty fair income from it. I suppose he just thinks about everything the way he thinks about drumming...which is to say he doesn't really think about it at all. He just does it. Is with it. He just responded to fixing his motorcycle with a beer can the way he would respond to someone dragging the beat while he was playing. It just did a big thud with him and that was it. He didn't want any part of it.
At first this difference seemed fairly minor, but then it grew -- and grew -- and grew -- until I began to see why I missed it. Some things you miss because they're so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don't see because they're so huge. We were both looking at the same thing, seeing the same thing, talking about the same thing, thinking about the same thing, except he was looking, seeing, talking and thinking from a completely different dimension.
He really does care about technology. It's just that in this other dimension he gets all screwed up and is rebuffed by it. It just won't swing for him. He tries to swing it without any rational premeditation and botches it and botches it and botches it and after so many botches gives up and just kind of puts a blanket curse on that whole nuts-and-bolts scene. He will not or cannot believe there is anything in this world for which grooving is not the way to go.
That's the dimension he's in. The groovy dimension. I'm being awfully square talking about all this mechanical stuff all the time. It's all just parts and relationships and analyses and syntheses and figuring things out and it isn't really here. It's somewhere else, which thinks it's here, but's a million miles away. This is what it's all about. He's on this dimensional difference which underlay much of the cultural changes of the sixties, I think, and is still in the process of reshaping our whole national outlook on things. The ``generation gap'' has been a result of it. The names ``beat'' and ``hip'' grew out of it. Now it's become apparent that this dimension isn't a fad that's going to go away next year or the year after. It's here to stay because it's a very serious and important way of looking at things that looks incompatible with reason and order and responsibility but actually is not. Now we are down to the root of things.
My legs have become so stiff they are aching. I hold them out one at a time and turn my foot as far to the left and to the right as it will go to stretch the leg. It helps, but then the other muscles get tired from holding the legs out.
What we have here is a conflict of visions of reality. The world as you see it right here, right now, is reality, regardless of what the scientists say it might be. That's the way John sees it. But the world as revealed by its scientific discoveries is also reality, regardless of how it may appear, and people in John's dimension are going to have to do more than just ignore it if they want to hang on to their vision of reality. John will discover this if his points burn out.
That's really why he got upset that day when he couldn't get his engine started. It was an intrusion on his reality. It just blew a hole right through his whole groovy way of looking at things and he would not face up to it because it seemed to threaten his whole life style. In a way he was experiencing the same sort of anger scientific people have sometimes about abstract art, or at least used to have. That didn't fit their life style either.
What you've got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don't match and they don't fit and they don't really have much of anything to do with one another. That's quite a situation. You might say there's a little problem here.
At one stretch in the long desolate road we see an isolated grocery store. Inside, in back, we find a place to sit on some packing cases and drink canned beer.
The fatigue and backache are getting to me now. I push the packing case over to a post and lean on that.
Chris's expression shows he is really settling into something bad. This has been a long hard day. I told Sylvia way back in Minnesota that we could expect a slump in spirits like this on the second or third day and now it's here. Minnesota...when was that?
A woman, badly drunk, is buying beer for some man she's got outside in a car. She can't make up her mind what brand to buy and the wife of the owner waiting on her is getting mad. She still can't decide, but then sees us, and weaves over and asks if we own the motorcycles. We nod yes. Then she wants a ride on one. I move back and let John handle this.
He puts her off graciously, but she comes back again and again, offering him a dollar for a ride. I make some jokes about it, but they're not funny and just add to the depression. We get out and back into the brown hills and heat again.
By the time we reach Lemmon we are really aching tired. At a bar we hear about a campground to the south. John wants to camp in a park in the middle of Lemmon, a comment that sounds strange and angers Chris greatly.
I'm more tired now than I can remember having been in a long time. The others too. But we drag ourselves through a supermarket, pick up whatever groceries come to mind and with some difficulty pack them onto the cycles. The sun is so far down we're running out of light. It'll be dark in an hour. We can't seem to get moving. I wonder, are we dawdling, or what?
``C'mon, Chris, let's go,'' I say.
``Don't holler at me. I'm ready.''
We drive down a county road from Lemmon, exhausted, for what seems a long, long time, but can't be too long because the sun is still above the horizon. The campsite is deserted. Good. But there is less than a half-hour of sun and no energy left. This is the hardest now.
I try to get unpacked as fast as possible but am so stupid with exhaustion I just set everything by the camp road without seeing what a bad spot it is. Then I see it is too windy. This is a High Plains wind. It is semidesert here, everything burned up and dry except for a lake, a large reservoir of some sort below us. The wind blows from the horizon across the lake and hits us with sharp gusts. It is already chilly. There are some scrubby pines back from the road about twenty yards and I ask Chris to move the stuff over there.
He doesn't do it. He wanders off down to the reservoir. I carry the gear over by myself.
I see between trips that Sylvia is making a real effort at setting things up for cooking, but she's as tired as I am.
The sun goes down.
John has gathered wood but it's too big and the wind is so gusty it's hard to start. It needs to be splintered into kindling. I go back over to the scrub pines, hunt around through the twilight for the machete, but it's already so dark in the pines I can't find it. I need the flashlight. I look for it, but it's too dark to find that either.
I go back and start up the cycle and ride it back over to shine the headlight on the stuff so that I can find the flashlight. I look through all the stuff item by item to find the flashlight. It takes a long time to realize I don't need the flashlight, I need the machete, which is in plain sight. By the time I get it back John has got the fire going. I use the machete to hack up some of the larger pieces of wood.
Chris reappears. He's got the flashlight!
``When are we going to eat?'' he complains.
``We're getting it fixed as fast as possible,'' I tell him. ``Leave the flashlight here.''
He disappears again, taking the flashlight with him.
The wind blows the fire so hard it doesn't reach up to cook the steaks. We try to fix up a shelter from the wind using large stones from the road, but it's too dark to see what we're doing. We bring both cycles over and catch the scene in a crossbeam of headlights. Peculiar light. Bits of ash blowing up from the fire suddenly glow bright white in it, then disappear in the wind.
BANG! There's a loud explosion behind us. Then I hear Chris giggling.
Sylvia is upset.
``I found some firecrackers,'' Chris says.
I catch my anger in time and say to him, coldly, ``It's time to eat now.''
``I need some matches,'' he says.
``Sit down and eat.''
``Give me some matches first.''
``Sit down and eat.''
He sits down and I try to eat the steak with my Army mess knife, but it is too tough, and so I get out a hunting knife and use it instead. The light from the motorcycle headlight is full upon me so that the knife, when it goes down into the mess gear, is in full shadow and I can't see where it's going.
Chris says he can't cut his either and I pass my knife to him. While reaching for it he dumps everything onto the tarp.
No one says a word.
I'm not angry that he spilled it, I'm angry that now the tarp's going to be greasy the rest of the trip.
``Is there any more?'' he asks.
``Eat that,'' I say. ``It just fell on the tarp.''
``It's too dirty,'' he says.
``Well, that's all there is.''
A wave of depression hits. I just want to go to sleep now. But he's angry and I expect we're going to have one of his little scenes. I wait for it and pretty soon it starts.
``I don't like the taste of this,'' he says.
``Yes, that's rough, Chris.''
``I don't like any of this. I don't like this camping at all.''
``It was your idea,'' Sylvia says. ``You're the one who wanted to go camping.''
She shouldn't say that, but there's no way she can know. You take his bait and he'll feed you another one, and then another, and another until you finally hit him, which is what he really wants.
``I don't care,'' he says.
``Well, you ought to,'' she says.
``Well, I don't.''
An explosion point is very near. Sylvia and John look at me but I remain deadpan. I'm sorry about this but there's nothing I can do right now. Any argument will just worsen things.
``I'm not hungry,'' Chris says.
No one answers.
``My stomach hurts,'' he says.
The explosion is avoided when Chris turns and walks away in the darkness.
We finish eating. I help Sylvia clean up, and then we sit around for a while. We turn the cycle lights off to conserve the batteries and because the light from them is ugly anyway. The wind has died down some and there is a little light from the fire. After a while my eyes become accustomed to it. The food and anger have taken off some of the sleepiness. Chris doesn't return.
``Do you suppose he's just punishing?'' Sylvia asks.
``I suppose,'' I say, ``although it doesn't sound quite right.'' I think about it and add, ``That's a child-psychology term...a context I dislike. Let's just say he's being a complete bastard.''
John laughs a little.
``Anyway,'' I say, ``it was a good supper. I'm sorry he had to act up like this.''
``Oh, that's all right,'' John says. ``I'm just sorry he won't get anything to eat.''
``It won't hurt him.''
``You don't suppose he'll get lost out there.''
``No, he'll holler if he is.''
Now that he has gone and we have nothing to do I become more aware of the space all around us. There is not a sound anywhere. Lone prairie.
Sylvia says, ``Do you suppose he really has stomach pains?''
``Yes,'' I say, somewhat dogmatically. I'm sorry to see the subject continued but they deserve a better explanation than they're getting. They probably sense that there's more to it than they've heard. ``I'm sure he does,'' I finally say. ``He's been examined a half-dozen times for it. Once it was so bad we thought it was appendicitis -- .I remember we were on a vacation up north. I'd just finished getting out an engineering proposal for a five-million-dollar contract that just about did me in. That's a whole other world. No time and no patience and six hundred pages of information to get out the door in one week and I was about ready to kill three different people and we thought we'd better head for the woods for a while.
``I can hardly remember what part of the woods we were in. Head just spinning with engineering data, and anyway Chris was just screaming. We couldn't touch him, until I finally saw I was going to have to pick him up fast and get him to the hospital, and where that was I'll never remember, but they found nothing.''
``No. But it happened again on other occasions too.''
``Don't they have any idea?'' Sylvia asks.
``This spring they diagnosed it as the beginning symptoms of mental illness.''
``What?'' John says.
It's too dark to see Sylvia or John now or even the outlines of the hills. I listen for sounds in the distance, but hear none. I don't know what to answer and so say nothing.
When I look hard I can make out stars overhead but the fire in front of us makes it hard to see them. The night all around is thick and obscure. My cigarette is down to my fingers and I put it out.
``I didn't know that,'' Sylvia's voice says. All traces of anger are gone. ``We wondered why you brought him instead of your wife,'' she says. ``I'm glad you told us.''
John shoves some of the unburned ends of the wood into the fire.
Sylvia says, ``What do you suppose the cause is?''
John's voice rasps, as if to cut it off, but I answer, ``I don't know. Causes and effects don't seem to fit. Causes and effects are a result of thought. I would think mental illness comes before thought.'' This doesn't make sense to them, I'm sure. It doesn't make much sense to me and I'm too tired to try to think it out and give it up.
``What do the psychiatrists think?'' John asks.
``Nothing. I stopped it.''
``Is that good?''
``I don't know. There's no rational reason I can think of for saying it's not good. Just a mental block of my own. I think about it and all the good reasons for it and make plans for an appointment and even look for the phone number and then the block hits, and it's just like a door slammed shut.''
``That doesn't sound right.''
``No one else thinks so either. I suppose I can't hold out forever.''
``But why?'' Sylvia asks.
``I don't know why -- it's just that -- I don't know -- they're not kin.'' -- Surprising word, I think to myself never used it before. Not of kin -- sounds like hillbilly talk -- not of a kind -- same root -- kindness, too -- they can't have real kindness toward him, they're not his kin -- . That's exactly the feeling.
Old word, so ancient it's almost drowned out. What a change through the centuries. Now anybody can be ``kind.'' And everybody's supposed to be. Except that long ago it was something you were born into and couldn't help. Now it's just a faked-up attitude half the time, like teachers the first day of class. But what do they really know about kindness who are not kin.
It goes over and over again through my thoughts -- mein Kind...my child. There it is in another language. Mein Kinder -- ``Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.''
Strange feeling from that.
``What are you thinking about?'' Sylvia asks.
``An old poem, by Goethe. It must be two hundred years old. I had to learn it a long time ago. I don't know why I should remember it now, except -- '' The strange feeling comes back.
``How does it go?'' Sylvia asks.
I try to recall. ``A man is riding along a beach at night, through the wind. It's a father, with his son, whom he holds fast in his arm. He asks his son why he looks so pale, and the son replies, `Father, don't you see the ghost?' The father tried to reassure the boy it's only a bank of fog along the beach that he sees and only the rustling of the leaves in the wind that he hears but the son keeps saying it is the ghost and the father rides harder and harder through the night.''
``How does it end?''
``In failure -- death of the child. The ghost wins.''
The wind blows light up from the coals and I see Sylvia look at me startled.
``But that's another land and another time,'' I say. ``Here life is the end and ghosts have no meaning. I believe that. I believe in all this too,'' I say, looking out at the darkened prairie, ``although I'm not sure of what it all means yet -- I'm not sure of much of anything these days. Maybe that's why I talk so much.''
The coals die lower and lower. We smoke our last cigarettes. Chris is off somewhere in the darkness but I'm not going to shag after him. John is carefully silent and Sylvia is silent and suddenly we are all separate, all alone in our private universes, and there is no communication among us. We douse the fire and go back to the sleeping bags in the pines.
I discover that this one tiny refuge of scrub pines where I have put the sleeping bags is also the refuge from the wind of millions of mosquitos up from the reservoir. The mosquito repellent doesn't stop them at all. I crawl deep into the sleeping bag and make one little hole for breathing. I am almost asleep when Chris finally shows up.
``There's a great big sandpile over there,'' he says, crunching around on the pine needles.
``Yes,'' I say. ``Get to sleep.''
``You should see it. Will you come and see it tomorrow?''
``We won't have time.''
``Can I play over there tomorrow morning?''
He makes interminable noises getting undressed and into the sleeping bag. He is in it. Then he rolls around. Then he is silent, and then rolls some more. Then he says, ``Dad?''
``What was it like when you were a kid?''
``Go to sleep, Chris!'' There are limits to what you can listen to.
Later I hear a sharp inhaling of phlegm that tells me he has been crying, and though I'm exhausted, I don't sleep. A few words of consolation might have helped there. He was trying to be friendly. But the words weren't forthcoming for some reason. Consoling words are more for strangers, for hospitals, not kin. Little emotional Band-Aids like that aren't what he needs or what's sought -- .I don't know what he needs, or what's sought.
A gibbous moon comes up from the horizon beyond the pines, and by its slow, patient arc across the sky I measure hour after hour of semisleep. Too much fatigue. The moon and strange dreams and sounds of mosquitos and odd fragments of memory become jumbled and mixed in an unreal lost landscape in which the moon is shining and yet there is a bank of fog and I am riding a horse and Chris is with me and the horse jumps over a small stream that runs through the sand toward the ocean somewhere beyond. And then that is broken -- .And then it reappears.
And in the fog there appears an intimation of a figure. It disappears when I look at it directly, but then reappears in the corner of my vision when I turn my glance. I am about to say something, to call to it, to recognize it, but then do not, knowing that to recognize it by any gesture or action is to give it a reality which it must not have. But it is a figure I recognize even though I do not let on. It is Phædrus.
Evil spirit. Insane. From a world without life or death.
The figure fades and I hold panic down -- tight -- not rushing it -- just letting it sink in -- not believing it, not disbelieving it -- but the hair crawls slowly on the back of my skull -- he is calling Chris, is that it? -- Yes? --
My watch says nine o'clock. And it's already too hot to sleep. Outside the sleeping bag, the sun is already high into the sky. The air around is clear and dry.
I get up puffy-eyed and arthritic from the ground.
My mouth is already dry and cracked and my face and hands are covered with mosquito bites. Some sunburn from yesterday morning is hurting.
Beyond the pines are burned grass and clumps of earth and sand so bright they are hard to look at. The heat, silence, and barren hills and blank sky give a feeling of great, intense space.
Not a bit of moisture in the sky. Today's going to be a scorcher.
I walk out of the pines onto a stretch of barren sand between some grass and watch for a long time, meditatively -- .
I've decided today's Chautauqua will begin to explore Phædrus' world. It was intended earlier simply to restate some of his ideas that relate to technology and human values and make no reference to him personally, but the pattern of thought and memory that occurred last night has indicated this is not the way to go. To omit him now would be to run from something that should not be run from.
In the first grey of the morning what Chris said about his Indian friend's grandmother came back to me, clearing something up. She said ghosts appear when someone has not been buried right. That's true. He never was buried right, and that's exactly the source of the trouble.
Later I turn and see John is up and looking at me uncomprehendingly. He is still not really awake, and now walks aimlessly in circles to clear his head. Soon Sylvia is up too and her left eye is all puffed up. I ask her what happened. She says it is from mosquito bites. I begin to collect gear to repack the cycle. John does the same.
When this is done we get a fire started while Sylvia opens up packages of bacon and eggs and bread for breakfast.
When the food is ready, I go over and wake Chris. He doesn't want to get up. I tell him again. He says no. I grab the bottom of the sleeping bag, give it a mighty tablecloth jerk, and he is out of it, blinking in the pine needles. It takes him a while to figure out what has happened, while I roll up the sleeping bag.
He comes to breakfast looking insulted, eats one bite, says he isn't hungry, his stomach hurts. I point to the lake down below us, so strange in the middle of the semidesert, but he doesn't show any interest. He repeats his complaint. I just let it go by and John and Sylvia disregard it too. I'm glad they were told what the situation is with him. It might have created real friction otherwise.
We finish breakfast silently, and I'm oddly tranquil. The decision about Phædrus may have something to do with it. But we are also perhaps a hundred feet above the reservoir, looking across it into a kind of Western spaciousness. Barren hills, no one anywhere, not a sound; and there is something about places like this that raises your spirits a little and makes you think that things will probably get better.
While loading the remaining gear on the luggage rack I see with surprise that the rear tire is worn way down. All that speed and heavy load and heat on the road yesterday must have caused it. The chain is also sagging and I get out the tools to adjust it and then groan.
``What's the matter,'' John says.
``Thread's stripped in the chain adjustment.''
I remove the adjusting bolt and examine the threads. ``It's my own fault for trying to adjust it once without loosening the axle nut. The bolt is good.'' I show it to him. ``It looks like the internal threading in the frame that's stripped.''
John stares at the wheel for a long time. ``Think you can make it into town?''
``Oh, yeah, sure. You can run it forever. It just makes the chain difficult to adjust.''
He watches carefully as I take up the rear axle nut until it's barely snug, tap it sideways with a hammer until the chain slack is right, then tighten up the axle nut with all my might to keep the axle from slipping forward later on, and replace the cotter pin. Unlike the axle nuts on a car, this one doesn't affect bearing tightness.
``How did you know how to do that?'' he asks.
``You just have to figure it out.''
``I wouldn't know where to start,'' he says.
I think to myself, That's the problem, all right, where to start. To reach him you have to back up and back up, and the further back you go, the further back you see you have to go, until what looked like a small problem of communication turns into a major philosophic enquiry. That, I suppose, is why the Chautauqua.
I repack the tool kit and close the side cover plates and think to myself, He's worth reaching though.
On the road again the dry air cools off the slight sweat from that chain job and I'm feeling good for a while. As soon as the sweat dries off though, it's hot. Must be in the eighties already.
There's no traffic on this road, and we're moving right along. It's a traveling day.
Now I want to begin to fulfill a certain obligation by stating that there was one person, no longer here, who had something to say, and who said it, but whom no one believed or really understood. Forgotten. For reasons that will become apparent I'd prefer that he remain forgotten, but there's no choice other than to reopen his case.
I don't know his whole story. No one ever will, except Phædrus himself, and he can no longer speak. But from his writings and from what others have said and from fragments of my own recall it should be possible to piece together some kind of approximation of what he was talking about. Since the basic ideas for this Chautauqua were taken from him there will be no real deviation, only an enlargement that may make the Chautauqua more understandable than if it were presented in a purely abstract way. The purpose of the enlargement is not to argue for him, certainly not to praise him. The purpose is to bury him...forever.
Back in Minnesota when we were traveling through some marshland I did some talking about the ``shapes'' of technology, the ``death force'' that the Sutherlands seem to be running from. I want to move now in the opposite direction from the Sutherlands, toward that force and into its center. In doing so we will be entering Phædrus' world, the only world he ever knew, in which all understanding is in terms of underlying form.
The world of underlying form is an unusual object of discussion because it is actually a mode of discussion itself. You discuss things in terms of their immediate appearance or you discuss them in terms of their underlying form, and when you try to discuss these modes of discussion you get involved in what could be called a platform problem. You have no platform from which to discuss them other than the modes themselves.
Previously I was discussing his world of underlying form, or at least the aspect of it called technology, from an external view. Now I think it's right to talk about that world of underlying form from its own point of view. I want to talk about the underlying form of the world of underlying form itself.
To do this, first of all, a dichotomy is necessary, but before I can use it honestly I have to back up and say what it is and means, and that is a long story in itself. Part of this back-up problem. But right now I just want to use a dichotomy and explain it later. I want to divide human understanding into two kinds...classical understanding and romantic understanding. In terms of ultimate truth a dichotomy of this sort has little meaning but it is quite legitimate when one is operating within the classic mode used to discover or create a world of underlying form. The terms classic and romantic, as Phædrus used them, mean the following:
A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. It has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show the same blueprint or schematic or give the same description to a classical person he might look at it and then become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.
The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. ``Art'' when it is opposed to ``Science'' is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. In the northern European cultures the romantic mode is usually associated with femininity, but this is certainly not a necessary association.
The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws...which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. In the European cultures it is primarily a masculine mode and the fields of science, law and medicine are unattractive to women largely for this reason. Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic. The dirt, the grease, the mastery of underlying form required all give it such a negative romantic appeal that women never go near it.
Although surface ugliness is often found in the classic mode of understanding it is not inherent in it. There is a classic esthetic which romantics often miss because of its subtlety. The classic style is straightforward, unadorned, unemotional, economical and carefully proportioned. Its purpose is not to inspire emotionally, but to bring order out of chaos and make the unknown known. It is not an esthet- ically free and natural style. It is esthetically restrained. Everything is under control. Its value is measured in terms of the skill with which this control is maintained.
To a romantic this classic mode often appears dull, awkward and ugly, like mechanical maintenance itself. Everything is in terms of pieces and parts and components and relationships. Nothing is figured out until it's run through the computer a dozen times. Everything's got to be measured and proved. Oppressive. Heavy. Endlessly grey. The death force.
Within the classic mode, however, the romantic has some appearances of his own. Frivolous, irrational, erratic, untrustworthy, interested primarily in pleasure-seeking. Shallow. Of no substance. Often a parasite who cannot or will not carry his own weight. A real drag on society. By now these battle lines should sound a little familiar.
This is the source of the trouble. Persons tend to think and feel exclusively in one mode or the other and in doing so tend to misunderstand and underestimate what the other mode is all about. But no one is willing to give up the truth as he sees it, and as far as I know, no one now living has any real reconciliation of these truths or modes. There is no point at which these visions of reality are unified.
And so in recent times we have seen a huge split develop between a classic culture and a romantic counterculture...two worlds growingly alienated and hateful toward each other with everyone wondering if it will always be this way, a house divided against itself. No one wants it really...despite what his antagonists in the other dimension might think.
It is within this context that what Phædrus thought and said is significant. But no one was listening at that time and they only thought him eccentric at first, then undesirable, then slightly mad, and then genuinely insane. There seems little doubt that he was insane, but much of his writing at the time indicates that what was driving him insane was this hostile opinion of him. Unusual behavior tends to produce estrangement in others which tends to further the unusual behavior and thus the estrangement in self-stoking cycles until some sort of climax is reached. In Phædrus' case there was a court-ordered police arrest and permanent removal from society.
I see we are at the left turn onto US 12 and John has pulled up for gas. I pull up beside him.
The thermometer by the door of the station reads 92 degrees. ``Going to be another rough one today,'' I say.
When the tanks are filled we head across the street into a restaurant for coffee. Chris, of course, is hungry.
I tell him I've been waiting for that. I tell him he eats with the rest of us or not all. Not angrily. Just matter-of-factly. He's reproachful but sees how it's going to be.
I catch a fleeting look of relief from Sylvia. Evidently she thought this was going to be a continuous problem.
When we have finished the coffee and are outside again the heat is so ferocious we move off on the cycles as fast as possible. Again there is that momentary coolness, but it disappears. The sun makes the burned grass and sand so bright I have to squint to cut down glare. This US 12 is old, bad highway. The broken concrete is tar-patched and bumpy. Road signs indicate detours ahead. On either side of the road are occasional worn sheds and shacks and roadside stands that have accumulated through the years. The traffic is heavy now. I'm just as happy to be thinking about the rational, analytical, classical world of Phædrus.
His kind of rationality has been used since antiquity to remove oneself from the tedium and depression of one's immediate surroundings. What makes it hard to see is that where once it was used to get away from it all, the escape has been so successful that now it is the ``it all'' that the romantics are trying to escape. What makes his world so hard to see clearly is not its strangeness but its usualness. Familiarity can blind you too.
His way of looking at things produces a kind of description that can be called an ``analytic'' description. That is another name of the classic platform from which one discusses things in terms of their underlying form. He was a totally classic person. And to give a fuller description of what this is I want now to turn his analytic approach back upon itself...to analyze analysis itself. I want to do this first of all by giving an extensive example of it and then by dissecting what it is. The motorcycle is a perfect subject for it since the motorcycle itself was invented by classic minds. So listen:
A motorcycle may be divided for purposes of classical rational analysis by means of its component assemblies and by means of its functions.
If divided by means of its component assemblies, its most basic division is into a power assembly and a running assembly.
The power assembly may be divided into the engine and the power-delivery system. The engine will be taken up first.
The engine consists of a housing containing a power train, a fuel-air system, an ignition system, a feedback system and a lubrication system.
The power train consists of cylinders, pistons, connecting rods, a crankshaft and a flywheel.
The fuel-air system components, which are part of the engine, consist of a gas tank and filter, an air cleaner, a carburetor, valves and exhaust pipes.
The ignition system consists of an alternator, a rectifier, a battery, a high-voltage coil and spark plugs.
The feedback system consists of a cam chain, a camshaft, tappets and a distributor.
The lubrication system consists of an oil pump and channels throughout the housing for distribution of the oil.
The power-delivery system accompanying the engine consists of a clutch, a transmission and a chain.
The supporting assembly accompanying the power assembly consists of a frame, including foot pegs, seat and fenders; a steering assembly; front and rear shock absorbers; wheels; control levers and cables; lights and horn; and speed and mileage indicators.
That's a motorcycle divided according to its components. To know what the components are for, a division according to functions is necessary:
A motorcycle may be divided into normal running functions and special, operator-controlled functions.
Normal running functions may be divided into functions during the intake cycle, functions during the compression cycle, functions during the power cycle and functions during the exhaust cycle.
And so on. I could go on about which functions occur in their proper sequence during each of the four cycles, then go on to the operator-controlled functions and that would be a very summary description of the underlying form of a motorcycle. It would be extremely short and rudimentary, as descriptions of this sort go. Almost any one of the components mentioned can be expanded on indefinitely. I've read an entire engineering volume on contact points alone, which are just a small but vital part of the distributor. There are other types of engines than the single-cylinder Otto engine described here: two-cycle engines, multiple-cylinder engines, diesel engines, Wankel engines...but this example is enough.
This description would cover the ``what'' of the motorcycle in terms of components, and the ``how'' of the engine in terms of functions. It would badly need a ``where'' analysis in the form of an illustration, and also a ``why'' analysis in the form of engineering principles that led to this particular conformation of parts. But the purpose here isn't exhaustively to analyze the motorcycle. It's to provide a starting point, an example of a mode of understanding of things which will itself become an object of analysis.
There's certainly nothing strange about this description at first hearing. It sounds like something from a beginning textbook on the subject, or perhaps a first lesson in a vocational course. What is unusual about it is seen when it ceases to be a mode of discourse and becomes an object of discourse. Then certain things can be pointed to.
The first thing to be observed about this description is so obvious you have to hold it down or it will drown out every other observation. This is: It is just duller than ditchwater. Yah-da, yah-da, yah-da, yah-da, yah, carburetor, gear ratio, compression, yah-da-yah, piston, plugs, intake, yah-da-yah, on and on and on. That is the romantic face of the classic mode. Dull, awkward and ugly. Few romantics get beyond that point.
But if you can hold down that most obvious observation, some other things can be noticed that do not at first appear.
The first is that the motorcycle, so described, is almost impossible to understand unless you already know how one works. The immediate surface impressions that are essential for primary understanding are gone. Only the underlying form is left.
The second is that the observer is missing. The description doesn't say that to see the piston you must remove the cylinder head. ``You'' aren't anywhere in the picture. Even the ``operator'' is a kind of personalityless robot whose performance of a function on the machine is completely mechanical. There are no real subjects in this description. Only objects exist that are independent of any observer.
The third is that the words ``good'' and ``bad'' and all their synonyms are completely absent. No value judgments have been expressed anywhere, only facts.
The fourth is that there is a knife moving here. A very deadly one; an intellectual scalpel so swift and so sharp you sometimes don't see it moving. You get the illusion that all those parts are just there and are being named as they exist. But they can be named quite differently and organized quite differently depending on how the knife moves.
For example, the feedback mechanism which includes the camshaft and cam chain and tappets and distributor exists only because of an unusual cut of this analytic knife. If you were to go to a motorcycle-parts department and ask them for a feedback assembly they wouldn't know what the hell you were talking about. They don't split it up that way. No two manufacturers ever split it up quite the same way and every mechanic is familiar with the problem of the part you can't buy because you can't find it because the manufacturer considers it a part of something else.
It is important to see this knife for what it is and not to be fooled into thinking that motorcycles or anything else are the way they are just because the knife happened to cut it up that way. It is important to concentrate on the knife itself. Later I will want to show how an ability to use this knife creatively and effectively can result in solutions to the classic and romantic split.
Phædrus was a master with this knife, and used it with dexterity and a sense of power. With a single stroke of analytic thought he split the whole world into parts of his own choosing, split the parts and split the fragments of the parts, finer and finer and finer until he had reduced it to what he wanted it to be. Even the special use of the terms ``classic'' and ``romantic'' are examples of his knifemanship.
But if this were all there were to him, analytic skill, I would be more than willing to shut up about him. What makes it important not to shut up about him was that he used this skill in such a bizarre and yet meaningful way. No one ever saw this, I don't think he even saw it himself, and it may be an illusion of my own, but the knife he used was less that of an assassin than that of a poor surgeon. Perhaps there is no difference. But he saw a sick and ailing thing happening and he started cutting deep, deeper and deeper to get at the root of it. He was after something. That is important. He was after something and he used the knife because that was the only tool he had. But he took on so much and went so far in the end his real victim was himself.
Heat is everywhere now. I can't ignore it anymore. The air is like a furnace blast so hot that my eyes under the goggles feel cool compared to the rest of my face. My hands are cool but the gloves have big black spots from perspiration on the back surrounded by white streaks of dried salt.
On the road ahead a crow tugs on some carrion and flies up slowly as we approach. It looks like a lizard on the road, dry and stuck to the tar.
On the horizon appears an image of buildings, shimmering slightly. I look down at the map and it must be Bowman. I think about ice water and air conditioning.
On the street and sidewalks of Bowman we see almost no one, even though plenty of parked cars show they're here. All inside. We swing the machines into an angled parking place with a tight turn that points them outward, for when we're ready to go. A lone, elderly person wearing a broad-brimmed hat watches us put the cycles on their stands and remove helmets and goggles.
``Hot enough for you?'' he asks. His expression is blank.
John shakes his head and says, ``Gawd!''
The expression, shaded by the hat, becomes almost a smile.
``What is the temperature?'' John asks.
``Hundred and two,'' he says, ``last I saw. Should go to hundred and four.''
He asks us how far we have come and we tell him and he nods with a kind of approval. ``That's a long way,'' he says. Then he asks about the machines.
The beer and air conditioning are calling, but we don't break away. We just stand there in the hundred-and-two sun talking to this person. He is a stockman, retired, says this is pretty much ranch country around here and he used to own a cycle years ago. It pleases me that he should want to talk about his Henderson in this hundred-and-two sun. We talk about it for a while, with growing impatience from John and Sylvia and Chris, and when we finally say good-bye he says he is glad to have met us and his expression is still blank but we sense that he really meant it. He walks away with a kind of slow dignity in the hundred-and-two sun.
In the restaurant I try to comment on this but no one is interested. John and Sylvia look really out of it. They just sit and soak up the air-conditioned air without a move. The waitress comes for the order and that snaps them out of it a little, but they are not ready and so she goes away again.
``I don't think I want to leave here,'' Sylvia says.
An image of the elderly man outside in the wide- brimmed hat comes back to me. ``Think what it was like around here before air conditioning,'' I say.
``I am,'' she says.
``With the roads this hot and that bad back tire of mine, we shouldn't go more than sixty,'' I say.
No comment from them.
Chris, in contrast to them, seems to be back to his normal self, alert and watching everything. When the food comes he wolfs it down and then, before we are half-finished, asks for more. He gets it and we wait for him to finish.
Miles later and the heat is just ferocious. Sunglasses and goggles are not enough for this glare. You need a welder's mask.
The High Plains break up into washed-out and gullied hills. It is all bright whitish tan. Not a blade of grass anywhere. Just scattered weed stalks and rocks and sand. The black of the highway is a relief to look at so I stare down at it and study how the blur whizzes by underfoot. Beside it I see the left exhaust pipe has picked up a bluer color than it has ever had before. I spit on my glove tips, touch it and can see the sizzle. Not good.
It's important now to just live with this and not fight it mentally -- mind control -- .
I should talk now about Phædrus' knife. It'll help understand some of the things we talked about.
The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us...these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road...aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.
Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious, a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.
The handful of sand looks uniform at first, but the longer we look at it the more diverse we find it to be. Each grain of sand is different. No two are alike. Some are similar in one way, some are similar in another way, and we can form the sand into separate piles on the basis of this similarity and dissimilarity. Shades of color in different piles...sizes in different piles...grain shapes in different piles...subtypes of grain shapes in different piles...grades of opacity in different piles...and so on, and on, and on. You'd think the process of subdivision and classification would come to an end somewhere, but it doesn't. It just goes on and on.
Classical understanding is concerned with the piles and the basis for sorting and interrelating them. Romantic understanding is directed toward the handful of sand before the sorting begins. Both are valid ways of looking at the world although irreconcilable with each other.
What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one. Such an understanding will not reject sand-sorting or contemplation of unsorted sand for its own sake. Such an understanding will instead seek to direct attention to the endless landscape from which the sand is taken. That is what Phædrus, the poor surgeon, was trying to do.
To understand what he was trying to do it's necessary to see that part of the landscape, inseparable from it, which must be understood, is a figure in the middle of it, sorting sand into piles. To see the landscape without seeing this figure is not to see the landscape at all. To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely.
There is a perennial classical question that asks which part of the motorcycle, which grain of sand in which pile, is the Buddha. Obviously to ask that question is to look in the wrong direction, for the Buddha is everywhere. But just as obviously to ask that question is to look in the right direction, for the Buddha is everywhere. About the Buddha that exists independently of any analytic thought much has been said...some would say too much, and would question any attempt to add to it. But about the Buddha that exists within analytic thought, and gives that analytic thought its direction, virtually nothing has been said, and there are historic reasons for this. But history keeps happening, and it seems no harm and maybe some positive good to add to our historical heritage with some talk in this area of discourse.
When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process. That is fairly well understood, at least in the arts. Mark Twain's experience comes to mind, in which, after he had mastered the analytic knowledge needed to pilot the Mississippi River, he discovered the river had lost its beauty. Something is always killed. But what is less noticed in the arts...something is always created too. And instead of just dwelling on what is killed it's important also to see what's created and to see the process as a kind of death-birth continuity that is neither good nor bad, but just is.
We pass through a town called Marmarth but John doesn't stop even for a rest and so we go on. More furnace heat, into some badlands, and we cross the border into Montana. A sign by the road announces it.
Sylvia waves her arms up and down and I beep the horn in response, but when I look at the sign my feelings are not jubilant at all. For me its information causes a sudden inward tension that can't exist for them. They've no way of knowing we're now in the country where he lived.
All this talk so far about classic and romantic understanding must seem a strangely oblique way of describing him, but to get at Phædrus, this oblique route is the only one to take. To describe his physical appearance or the statistics of his life would be to dwell on misleading superficialities. And to come at him directly would be to invite disaster.
He was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he's insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come at it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way. There is only one access to him that I can see as passable and we still have a way to go.
I've been going into all this business of analyses and definitions and hierarchies not for their own sake but to lay the groundwork for an understanding of the direction in which Phædrus went.
I told Chris the other night that Phædrus spent his entire life pursuing a ghost. That was true. The ghost he pursued was the ghost that underlies all of technology, all of modern science, all of Western thought. It was the ghost of rationality itself. I told Chris that he found the ghost and that when he found it he thrashed it good. I think in a figurative sense that is true. The things I hope to bring to light as we go along are some of the things he uncovered. Now the times are such that others may at last find them of value. No one then would see the ghost that Phædrus pursued, but I think now that more and more people see it, or get glimpses of it in bad moments, a ghost which calls itself rationality but whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness, which causes the most normal of everyday acts to seem slightly mad because of their irrelevance to anything else. This is the ghost of normal everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that he may live longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says.
At Baker, where we stop, the thermometers are reading 108 degrees in the shade. When I take my gloves off, the metal of the gas tank is so hot I can't touch it. The engine is making ominous knick-knicking sounds from overheating. Very bad. The rear tire has worn badly too, and I feel with my hand that it's almost as hot as the gas tank.
``We're going to have to slow down,'' I say.
``I don't think we should go over fifty,'' I say.
John looks at Sylvia and she looks at him. Something has already been said between them about my slowness. They both look as if they've about had it.
``We just want to get there fast,'' John says, and they both walk toward a restaurant.
The chain has been running hot and dry too. In the righthand saddlebag I rummage for a can of spray lubricant, find it, then start the engine and spray the moving chain. The chain is still so hot the solvent evaporates almost instantly. Then I squirt a little oil on, let it run for a minute and shut the engine off. Chris waits patiently, then follows me into the restaurant.
``I thought you said the big slump was going to come on the second day,'' Sylvia says as we approach the booth they are in.
``Second or third,'' I reply.
``Or fourth or fifth?''
She and John look at each other again with the same expression they showed before. It seems to say, ``Three's a crowd.'' They may want to go ahead fast and wait for me in some town up ahead. I'd suggest it myself except that if they go much faster they won't be waiting for me in some town. It'll be by the side of the road.
``I don't know how the people here stand this,'' Sylvia says.
``Well, it's hard country,'' I say with a little irritation. ``They know it's hard before they come here and are ready for it.''
I add, ``If one person complains he just makes it that much harder for the others. They've got stamina. They know how to keep on going.''
John and Sylvia don't say much, and John finishes his Coke early and is off to a bar for a snort. I go out and check the cycle luggage again and find that the new pack has been compressing a little and so take up the slack in the ropes and retie them.
Chris points to a thermometer in direct sunlight and we see it has gone all the way above the scale at 120 degrees.
Before we are out of town I am sweating again. The cool drying-off period doesn't last even half a minute.
The heat just slams into us. Even with dark sunglasses I have to squint my eyes into slits. There's nothing but burning sand and pale sky so bright it's hard to look anywhere. It's just become white-hot everywhere. A real inferno.
John up ahead is speeding faster and faster. I give up on him and slow it down to fifty-five. Unless you're just looking for trouble in this heat you don't run tires at eighty-five. A blowout on this stretch would really be it.
I suppose they took what I said as a kind of rebuke but I didn't have that in mind. I'm no more comfortable than they are in this heat but there's no point in dwelling on it. All day while I've been thinking and talking about Phædrus they must have been thinking about how bad all this is. That's what's really wearing them down. The thought.
Some things can be said about Phædrus as an individual:
He was a knower of logic, the classical system-of-the-system which describes the rules and procedures of systematic thought by which analytic knowledge may be structured and interrelated. He was so swift at this his Stanford-Binet IQ, which is essentially a record of skill at analytic manipulation, was recorded at 170, a figure that occurs in only one person in fifty thousand.
He was systematic, but to say he thought and acted like a machine would be to misunderstand the nature of his thought. It was not like pistons and wheels and gears all moving at once, massive and coordinated. The image of a laser beam comes to mind instead; a single pencil of light of such terrific energy in such extreme concentration it can be shot at the moon and its reflection seen back on earth. Phædrus did not try to use his brilliance for general illumination. He sought one specific distant target and aimed for it and hit it. And that was all. General illumination of that target he hit now seems to be left for me.
In proportion to his intelligence he was extremely isolated. There's no record of his having had close friends. He traveled alone. Always. Even in the presence of others he was completely alone. People sometimes felt this and felt rejected by it, and so did not like him, but their dislike was not important to him.
His wife and family seem to have suffered the most. His wife says those who tried to go beyond the barriers of his reserve found themselves facing a blank. My impression is that they were starved for some kind of affection which he never gave.
No one really knew him. That is evidently the way he wanted it, and that's the way it was. Perhaps his aloneness was the result of his intelligence. Perhaps it was the cause. But the two were always together. An uncanny solitary intelligence.
This still doesn't do it though, because this and the image of a laser beam convey the idea that he was completely cold and unemotional, and that is not so. In his pursuit of what I have called the ghost of rationality he was a fanatic hunter.
One fragment becomes especially vivid now of a scene in the mountains where the sun was behind the mountain half an hour and an early twilight had changed the trees and even the rocks to almost blackened shades of blue and grey and brown. Phædrus had been there three days without food. His food had run out but he was thinking deeply and seeing things and was reluctant to leave. He was not far away from where he knew there was a road and was in no hurry.
In the dusk coming down the trail he saw a movement and then what seemed to be a dog approaching on the trail, a very large sheep dog, or an animal more like a husky, and he wondered what would bring a dog to this obscure place at this time of evening. He disliked dogs, but this animal moved in a way that forestalled these feelings. It seemed to be watching him, judging him. Phædrus stared into the animal's eyes for a long time, and for a moment felt some kind of recognition. Then the dog disappeared.
He realized much later it was a timber wolf, and the memory of this incident stayed with him a long time. I think it stayed with him because he had seen a kind of image of himself.
A photograph can show a physical image in which time is static, and a mirror can show a physical image in which time is dynamic, but I think what he saw on the mountain was another kind of image altogether which was not physical and did not exist in time at all. It was an image nevertheless and that is why he felt recognition. It comes to me vividly now because I saw it again last night as the visage of Phædrus himself.
Like that timber wolf on the mountain he had a kind of animal courage. He went his own way with unconcern for consequences that sometimes stunned people, and stuns me now to hear about it. He did not often swerve to right or to left. I've discovered that. But this courage didn't arise from any idealistic idea of self-sacrifice, only from the intensity of his pursuit, and there was nothing noble about it.
I think his pursuit of the ghost of rationality occurred because he wanted to wreak revenge on it, because he felt he himself was so shaped by it. He wanted to free himself from his own image. He wanted to destroy it because the ghost was what he was and he wanted to be free from the bondage of his own identity. In a strange way, this freedom was achieved.
This account of him must sound unworldly, but the most unworldly part of it all is yet to come. This is my own relationship to him. This has been forestalled and obscured until now, but nevertheless must be known.
I first discovered him by inference from a strange series of events many years ago. One Friday I had gone to work and gotten quite a lot done before the weekend and was happy about that and later that day drove to a party where, after talking to everybody too long and too loudly and drinking way too much, went into a back room to lie down for a while.
When I awoke I saw that I'd slept the whole night, because now it was daylight, and I thought, ``My God, I don't even know the name of the hosts!'' and wondered what kind of embarrassment this was going to lead to. The room didn't look like the room I had lain down in, but it had been dark when I came in and I must have been blind drunk anyway.
I got up and saw that my clothes were changed. These were not the clothes I had worn the night before. I walked out the door, but to my surprise the doorway led not to rooms of a house but into a long corridor.
As I walked down the corridor I got the impression that everyone was looking at me. Three different times a stranger stopped me and asked how I felt. Thinking they were referring to my drunken condition I replied that I didn't even have a hangover, which caused one of them to start to laugh, but then catch himself.
At a room at the end of the corridor I saw a table where there was activity of some sort going on. I sat down nearby, hoping to remain unnoticed until I got all this figured out. But a woman dressed in white came up to me and asked if I knew her name. I read the little name clip on her blouse. She didn't see that I was doing this and seemed amazed, and walked off in a hurry.
When she came back there was a man with her, and he was looking right at me. He sat down next to me and asked me if I knew his name. I told him what it was, and was as surprised as they were that I knew it.
``It's very early for this to be happening,'' he said.
``This looks like a hospital,'' I said.
``How did I get here?'' I asked, thinking about the drunken party.
The man said nothing and the woman looked down. Very little was explained.
It took me more than a week to deduce from the evidence around me that everything before my waking up was a dream and everything afterward was reality. There was no basis for distinguishing the two other than the growing pile of new events that seemed to argue against the drunk experience. Little things appeared, like the locked door, the outside of which I could never remember seeing. And a slip of paper from the probate court telling me that some person was committed as insane. Did they mean me?
It was explained to me finally that ``You have a new personality now.'' But this statement was no explanation at all. It puzzled me more than ever since I had no awareness at all of any ``old'' personality. If they had said, ``You are a new personality,'' it would have been much clearer. That would have fitted. They had made the mistake of thinking of a personality as some sort of possession, like a suit of clothes, which a person wears. But apart from a personality what is there? Some bones and flesh. A collection of legal statistics, perhaps, but surely no person. The bones and flesh and legal statistics are the garments worn by the personality, not the other way around.
But who was the old personality whom they had known and presumed I was a continuation of?
This was my first inkling of the existence of Phædrus, many years ago. In the days and weeks and years that have followed, I've learned much more.
He was dead. Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain. Approximately 800 mills of amperage at durations of 0.5 to 1.5 seconds had been applied on twenty-eight consecutive occasions, in a process known technologically as ``Annihilation ECS.'' A whole personality had been liquidated without a trace in a technologically faultless act that has defined our relationship ever since. I have never met him. Never will.
And yet strange wisps of his memory suddenly match and fit this road and desert bluffs and white-hot sand all around us and there is a bizarre concurrence and then I know he has seen all of this. He was here, otherwise I would not know it. He had to be. And in seeing these sudden coalescences of vision and in recall of some strange fragment of thought whose origin I have no idea of, I'm like a clairvoyant, a spirit medium receiving messages from another world. That is how it is. I see things with my own eyes, and I see things with his eyes too. He once owned them.
These EYES! That is the terror of it. These gloved hands I now look at, steering the motorcycle down the road, were once his! And if you can understand the feeling that comes from that, then you can understand real fear...the fear that comes from knowing there is nowhere you can possibly run.
We enter a low-rimmed canyon. Before long, a roadside stop I've been waiting for appears. A few benches, a little building and some tiny green trees with hoses running to their bases. John, so help me God, is at the exit on the other side, ready to pull out onto the highway.
I ignore this and pull up by the building. Chris jumps off and we pull the machine back up on the stand. The heat rises from the engine as if it were on fire, throwing off waves that distort everything around it. Out of the corner of my eye I see the other cycle come back. When they arrive they are both glaring at me.
Sylvia says, ``We're just -- angry!''
I shrug my shoulders and walk to the drinking fountain.
John says, ``Where's all that stamina you were telling us about?''
I look at him for a second and see he really is angry. ``I was afraid you took that too seriously,'' I say, and then turn away. I drink the water and it's alkaline, like soapy water. I drink it anyway.
John goes into the building to soak his shirt with water. I check the oil level. The oil filler cap is so hot it burns my fingers right through the gloves. The engine hasn't lost much oil. The back tire tread is down a little more but still serviceable. The chain is tight enough but a little dry so I oil it again to be safe. The critical bolts are all tight enough.
John comes over dripping with water and says, ``You go ahead this time, we'll stay behind.''
``I won't go fast,'' I say.
``That's all right,'' he says. ``We'll get there.''
So I go ahead and we take it slowly. The road through the canyon doesn't straighten out into more of what we've been through, as I expected it would, but starts to wind upward. Surprise.
Now the road meanders a little, now it cuts back away from the direction in which we should be going, then returns. Soon it rises a little and then rises some more. We are moving in angular directions into narrow devil's gaps, then upward again higher and a little higher each time.
Some shrubs appear. Then small trees. The road goes higher still into grass, and then fenced meadows.
Overhead a small cloud appears. Rain perhaps? Perhaps. Meadows must have rain. And these now have flowers in them. Strange how all this has changed. Nothing to show it on the map. And the consciousness of memory has disappeared too. Phædrus must not have come this way. But there was no other road. Strange. It keeps rising upward.
The sun angles toward the cloud, which now has grown downward to touch the horizon above us, in which there are trees, pines, and a cold wind comes down with pine smells from the trees. The flowers in the meadow blow in the wind and the cycle leans a little and we are suddenly cool.
I look at Chris and he is smiling. I am smiling too.
Then the rain comes hard on the road with a gust of earth-smell from the dust that has waited for too long and the dust beside the road is pocked with the first raindrops.
This is all so new. And we are so in need of it, a new rain. My clothes become wet, and goggles are spattered, and chills start and feel delicious. The cloud passes from beneath the sun and the forest of pines and small meadows gleams again, sparkling where the sunlight catches small drops from the rain.
We reach the top of the climb dry again but cool now and stop, overlooking a huge valley and river below.
``I think we have arrived,'' John says.
Sylvia and Chris have walked into the meadow among the flowers under pines through which I can see the far side of the valley, away and below.
I am a pioneer now, looking onto a promised land.