The narrator rides a motorcycle through the American Central Plains with his eleven-year-old son Chris. It is a muggy July morning. The narrator points out a blackbird to Chris, but realizes that his son is too young to be impressed by the nature around him. Traveling by a motorcycle, the narrator comments, offers a much less passive experience of the surrounding world than a car ride. The motorcycle rider must be immediately present and attuned to his environment.
The narrator’s attunement with and reverence for his surroundings makes Chris’s lack of interest in nature seem jarring.
Chris and the narrator are on a trip from Minneapolis to Montana with the narrator’s friends, John Sutherland and his wife Sylvia, who ride a motorcycle ahead of them. They have no strict schedule and prefer to take uncrowded, rural roads to avoid the impersonal bustle of highways. The narrator uses his time on the motorcycle to meditate upon and discuss important issues. He calls this philosophical process the Chautauqua, a reference to traveling lectures that were popular in America at the turn of the 20th century. The philosophical question of interest at the moment is “what is good?”
“What is good?” is a question that will prove central to the book’s overall philosophy. The narrator’s patient, meditative approach to his surroundings comes as a result of his committed study of this very question, and the fact that his behavior is not the norm suggests that society as a whole might benefit from pondering the question in more depth.
The group stops for a rest. Sylvia reflects on a grim and dissatisfied-looking group of Monday morning commuters that she saw earlier. The four resume travel, and the narrator begins to discuss a “disharmony” he observes in John and Sylvia’s marriage. Despite the narrator’s urgings, John is opposed to learning how to repair his own motorcycle, an aversion his wife shares. The two are uncomfortable with the technology and prefer not to understand it. The narrator describes several occasions on which John’s motorcycle has broken down, yet John has inconvenienced himself by rebuffing the narrator’s efforts to teach him about motorcycle maintenance. There are very few shops in middle America that can repair John’s motorcycle, a BMW R60, but John has nevertheless brought no replacement parts and has no desire to learn how to do so himself.
Proper motorcycle maintenance is used throughout the book to symbolize the narrator’s philosophy. John and Sylvia’s aversion towards learning this skill suggests that they have yet to adopt, or even to recognize or understand, some of the principles that guide the narrator’s life.
The narrator also recollects a time he visited the Sutherlands’ house and found they had a leaky faucet. John had made only a perfunctory attempt to repair it, which failed, and the couple made no further efforts to fix it. He notices Sylvia lose her temper at her children and realizes that she has been worn down by trying to suppress her anger at the malfunctioning faucet.
The Sutherlands’ reliance on technology that they resent causes them great anxiety. The narrator recognizes that his friends’ attitude towards technology is negative and untenable.
The narrator realizes from these anecdotes that John and Sylvia are distressed by technology—or humankind’s mechanistic tendencies in general. They, like other “beatniks” or “hippies,” react against “the system” in a way that he finds self-defeating. To the narrator, technology is not to be utterly eschewed—the Buddha can reside in artifice as easily as it can in a flower.
The Sutherlands’ reactionary position is an unfulfilling response to an unfulfilling reality. The philosophy that the narrator will develop throughout the book represents an attempt to unite the two extremes of belief into a constructive, positive whole.