Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mayhem

From the back of a Harley on Independence Pass

I found my bliss last weekend while on the back of a motorcycle.  Mind you, I ride behind the driver and I would never claim that I’m Zen.  But as a weekend biker chick who spends a part of each ride taking pictures at 70 miles an hour, surely I was close while at the summit of Colorado’s Independence Pass. 

Alpine Lake near Leadville

Last weekend’s ride followed the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway, from Copper Mountain, to Leadville, over Independence Pass, to Aspen.   Most of the 115 miles of this route are chock-full of ooh and aaaah-inspiring vistas in country first used by native people as an abundant summer hunting ground.  Silver lured new immigrants when it was discovered near Leadville in 1879.  Legend has it the town of Independence was founded that year after a prospector struck a rich vein of silver about 3 miles west of the summit of today’s pass.   In its prime, 1,000 people lived there and had a part in processing silver worth 100,000 in those days’ dollars in the one year that the local mill operated.  By 1882, it shrank ghost-like until its last full-time resident left in 1912.

The enticement for my ride across Independence Pass last weekend was not silver, nor the promise of abundant wildlife, but merely the chance to ride above tree line on the back of a Harley with my Nikon in hand.   Mayhem it wasn’t, except if you consider the unruly yoga practitioner and photographer friend who disregarded signage asking all to stay on the path out of respect for the fragile fauna.

Errant Yogi at Top of Independence Pass

Mayhem, it wasn’t, despite a sizeable throng at the top.  Rather than chaos,  I found a Zen-like moment at the summit, much as I do each time I ride through the Rockies on a motorcycle.   From that moment and other such moments come some truths……………

Some Life Lessons I’ve Learned from the Back of a Motorcycle

  • Simplicity leads to happiness.   Until you’ve perfected the art of packing for a weekend in the space of a saddlebag, you carry too much baggage.  Spend less time managing possessions and you’ll have more time to enjoy the view.
  • Savor the journey.   Some of the best and most interesting roads are those that are unknown and unexpected.   Take the scenic byways, explore the out-of-the-way places, slow down and enjoy the ride.   And so, with life.  Sometimes it is the unexpected or unplanned path that is the most interesting and rewarding.

    Independence Pass

  • Open up and feel more.  You are completely open to the elements on the back of a motorcycle.  There is no air conditioner, no heater, you feel the hard sting of rain on your face.  Prepare for all possibilities but allow yourself to feel a bit uncomfortable.    Smell the pines, feel the breeze, see the clouds churning not far above and hear the soft, unexpectedly meditative hum of the engine.  Being open connects your senses in ways you might have forgotten.  
  • Always pay attention to where you are going.  Watch for wildlife ahead, gravel on the roadway, bumps, careless drivers, wet pavement, oil and other potential dangers.    Motorcycling can be dangerous.  So can life.  Concentrate on where you are headed and be alert for hazards along your path.

    Mountain Runoff

  • Lean into the curves.  Rather than fight the hairpin turns you meet in life, follow their momentum till the path straightens.  Because it will. 
  • Don’t let fear get in your way.  Riding in the open at 12,095 feet on a slightly oversized one lane road with only a beaten-up guard rail between you and a very deep drop-off can be scary.   But if you close your eyes, you’ll miss the beauty.   Learning to control the impulse of fear means you can fully enjoy where you are at.  Think not of risk but enjoy the moment you are in. 
  • One is never too old to remember how to play or to learn to fly.  I always wanted to ride on a motorcycle through the Rockies and now I’m doing it. Better late than never.    It is wildly playful and feels like flying. 
  •  Stop often.  Whether you’re day tripping or on your life’s journey, the change of pace gives you time to reflect and does you good. 

    Reflections at the Summit


And finally, my last pearl of wisdom is an observation from Robert Pirsig, author of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.   “The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”  So go ahead and ride to the summits.  Love the crystal clear air, the alpine flowers, the bluebird sky and the pulsing clouds.  Sure, it’s spectacular.  But what you have within is more so. 

28 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mayhem

  1. Beautiful photography of even more beautiful country. The views over Independence Pass are stunning for sure especially during winter. Just don’t tarry to long during a snowfall or you may not get your wheels back until next spring. If you ever decide to extend your reach for more “catch your breath” beauty then head furthur south from Leadville, over the hill and through the woods to Lake City. There you’ll meet Slumgullion Pass, American Basin, Cinnamon Pass (no Harleys) and the downhill run to Silverton just to name a few..

    • Bob, you must be from around these parts. Love Lake City and the Alpine Loop on an ATV. Haven’t done that for awhile but you’ve reminded me how much I love it. Thanks for your input.

  2. When I saw this entry on my Twitter feed I knew I had to click it! I ride a scooter and experience zen moments riding every day- especially riding in this beautiful state of Colorado. Thanks for this awesome post about the zen of riding, and the beautiful photos of my home.


    By the way, you may enjoy my recent entry about riding, “Navigating Career Success Is Like Riding a Motorcycle”: http://www.liveandlovework.com/2011/07/01/how-to-have-career-success/

  3. Loved how you tied riding a motorcycle with life lessons. I loved the pictures, but I have to tell you, riding a motorcycle is not something I ever want to do. I hate speed. I’m the gal on the merry-go-round at the park while everyone else in the family (okay, except my daughter, My Pajama Days) is flying high on the meanest roller coaster. Guess it ties in with being a city girl, you think? Great post, and I loved the experience vicariously.

  4. I learned the art of motorcycling riding (not driving) over a year ago and loved it. I was the one who swore I’d never get on a bike but… wow. The immediacy of it all and the sensual delights. I can only imagine what it’d be like in the Rockies; I did some of the Appalachias and that was pretty awesome.
    It helps to be riding with someone you care about!

  5. Mu husband and I spent many years motorcycle touring in the Canadian Rockies. I admire the way you wove the life lessons into your travelogue. I love the photos too. The most wonderful thing about biking is that we are part of the scene rather than in a vehicle and viewing it going by. Speed is an exhilarating factor. We were also horse people and being a part of the scene while on horseback has a different quality, a closer to nature quality. Thanks for posting this because I’m currently in a chrysalis and reading it evoked some lovely memories for me.
    With love,

  6. I was meant to read this. I was feeling nervous about driving hours to my family reunion by myself, and then spending time with them, but now, will stop along the way at produce stands and such, and enjoy the ride. Your post made me feel brave–even brave enough to weather my family of origin!

  7. I’m the passenger on my husband’s Harley, and am busy writing a post about our trip last week-end in the Canadian Rockies (through the Roger’s Pass). Beautiful though this ride was, nothing beats the Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park in Montana!

    • Thanks Margie. I will head over to see and read about your adventures. I agree, Going to the Sun Highway is most spectacular. I enjoyed it prior to getting my camera. Now I need to go back with it 🙂

  8. Hi,
    I have never been on a Harley, but use to do some 100 plus mile road bike rides throughout the mountains, inland roads, and coastline of San Diego County. Yelp…that rush of flying down along mountain curves! My ‘Little Brother’ who lives of his sailboat in Thailand will be here for a visit come mid-Sept. He was one of the best commercial photographers in town before he left on his sailboat 18 years ago…has taken some great shots where the wind has brought him. He’s my old cycling buddy…time to get my SR Triathelon out of storage!


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