My Route to Pirsig’s ‘High Country’

Hundreds of people will gather this week at MSU to celebrate author Robert Pirsig at a public Chautauqua on Dec. 7-8 (see pg. 4). Anticipating his reception of an honorary doctorate during this Fall’s commencement, the event will provide a forum for readers to share stories and reflect upon the meaning of Pirsig’s work.

Pirsig’s most popular book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” is legendary in some circles — a kind of cult classic. “Zen” has even inspired so-called “Pirsig Pilgrims,” fans who can quote the book by verse and retrace the route of the motorcycle trip that frames it. It’s a bizarre phenomenon that speaks to the book’s lasting impression on so many of its readers.

Though I wouldn’t consider myself a pilgrim, Pirsig’s work holds special meaning to me. If not for “Zen,” I don’t think I would have made the journey from my native Pittsburgh to Bozeman to study amidst Montana’s mountains.

I came across “Zen” in high school by chance while perusing a bookstore. Around the same time, I think, I had been trying to read a neuroscience textbook, and found Pirsig’s struggle to reconcile romantic and classical thought refreshing.

“Zen,” I remember, took me into new terrain. I hadn’t heard of a Chautauqua, metaphysics or a school named Montana State University. As I came across unfamiliar words in the text, I found myself running Google searches for each.

A year later, I was on a plane to Bozeman.

Ironically, Pirsig does not have great things to say about Montana’s land-grant college. He taught here for two years, from 1959-61, as an English instructor. In “Zen,” Pirsig writes about the bitter politics surrounding higher education in Montana, the university’s commitment to efficiency over creativity and the dull students who “avoided his sections like the Black Death.” It is a fairly powerful indictment.

Reading through the book, I found Pirsig’s engrossment in his ideas more compelling than philosophical argument itself. Shining through its pages was an impressive sense of the author’s earnestness as he recounted his search for quality through mountains and memory.

That struggle took Pirsig into what he called “the high country of the mind.” Up there, above the timberline, “one has to become adjusted to the thinner air of uncertainty,” he writes, “and the magnitude of the questions asked, and to the answers proposed to these questions.” The high country is treacherous, heart-wrenching terrain. In scaling its peaks, Pirsig put all of himself into the book and the trip that defines it.

Pirsig’s personal immersion in his project resonated deeply with me as I was preparing to enter university studies. I recall writing to several colleges, explaining my desire to be changed, personally, by my college experience. “I want to leave college a different person than I entered,” I wrote.

What I meant, though, was not that I wished change for its own sake, but that I craved the experience, the utter exposure, of the high country. I was ready to ask questions into the abyss and become nourished by the life of the mind.

Through “Zen,” Montana became for me a potent symbol of that possibility. Now in my fifth year at MSU, I remember my most transformative experiences here as the moments I have found myself struggling, floundering and climbing blindly, somewhere near the timber line.

But I have also realized that the high country contains more than the threat of sheer cliffs. “Soon stunted pines disappear entirely and we’re in alpine meadows,” Pirsig writes, describing his ascent along the Beartooth Pass near Red Lodge. “There’s not a tree anywhere, only grass everywhere filled with little pink and blue and white dots of intense color.”

Pink, white and blue, the high country offers a unique pleasure, a stark beauty. “Wildflowers, everywhere!” Pirsig exclaims. Wildflowers, I remember. Wildflowers indeed.