A biker rides near Bear Butte in South Dakota, a place of worship and celebration of Native American ceremonies. Photo by Talli Nauman / Native Sun News Today
Zen and the art of COVID-19 motorcycling
Monday, October 5, 2020

The annual week-long Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, which recently ended, began in 1938, I’m told, and there have been thousands of stories told about it since. Most locals believe, as I do, that its impetus was for the economic tourist development in the Black Hills.

Some more philosophical types would like to believe it began as some kind of existential spiritual journey through the sacred Paha Sapa, a meditation on a particular way of moving through the world as technology was bursting into our lives and people were beginning to worry, even then, that the modern world was marked for extinction. We’ve come a long way toward that eventuality since, yes?

It is no accident that the motorcycle itself depicted in this old story, a machine which began to sell wildly some twenty years later, a 1966 Super Hawk,  is at the center of this book, which many of you have read and which I read during my college years titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig.

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Courtesy photo

The book was written probably because Pirsig performed his own maintenance as he rode through the prairies of North and South Dakota even while the early tech and computer development at places like Palo Alto, California, was conflicting with the American historical notion of the sacredness of “working with your hands”. And, as you read about his early road trip though the prairie you learn that it was his way of articulating his own version of what might be called “metaphysics values.”

Today, thousands of overweight sixty and seventy year old counter-cultural men and women of the past roar on their machines past my house on their way to settling down in a camp in the trees with a couple of six-packs of beer and they say they are just trying to “get away from it all.” One wonders if they have read the Zen story.

Today, the Sturgis riders  (a population during the week-long race now numbering in the tens of thousands) refuse to wear face masks and many abandon protective helmets to “be free” even as they expose themselves to the worst health crisis (COVID-19) ever experienced in their lives. The death rate from the disease in the US rises daily.

They display a noninvolvement in the maintenance of their glittering machines by having it done by professionals as a way to avoid being tagged as some kind of “countercultural hippie escape” from the present moment even as they cry for independence during this time of cultural despair. 


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Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is a retired Professor of Native Studies. She taught at Eastern Washington University and Arizona State University. She currently lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  She has written 15 books in her field. One of her latest is Anti-Indianism in Modern America: A Voice from Tatekeya’s Earth, published by University of Illinois Press.

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