We were an unlikely trio gathered in my garage that afternoon. There was me and Robert Pirsig and Richard the Third slouching on shop stools trying not to think too much while I softly sang, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” the biblically inspired folkie chestnut by Pete Seeger; so I guess Pete was there in a sense, as well.
What wasn’t there in the garage at that moment was my Blue Bike. My once-saintly ’87 FLHS sat morosely out in the driveway, unapproachable and seemingly irreparable.
“This is some killer chronic,” you might suspect I was thinking at the time, only I wasn’t. I wasn’t high, for one thing, and at Pirsig’s urging I wasn’t thinking, either.
I was simply stuck in a “gumption trap.” That’s the term Pirsig coined in his cult classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to describe an occurrence that saps all hope and enthusiasm for the project at hand, and in following Pirsig’s prescription for extricating myself I had walked away from the task and set about putting my mind into a different space entirely. An empty space. Turning it off completely and letting the old gumption grow back like a lizard’s tail.
It had all started promisingly enough as a pleasant day of routine maintenance in anticipation of a busy riding season ahead. I’d pulled the Blue Bike out of the barn to perform a procedure familiar from 26 years of doing it to this bike at this time of year: Fluid changes, cable lubrication, tire inspection and airing up, air cleaner servicing, critical fastener retightening—you all know the drill.
Since it had been some months since I’d ridden this bike, I was prepared for what had become the messiest step in the operation, i.e., pulling the crankcase breather tube from the air cleaner backing plate, directing it into a funnel to a collection pan, and then hitting the starter button. The motor fired eagerly and just as eagerly starting gurgling oil from the crankcase and out the tube. I grimaced as a good quart and a half of motor oil gushed from the bowels of the motor in a quaint ritual unique to older Harleys called “sumping.” That’s become a reliable pain in the ass over the years, but it didn’t represent any kind of gumption trap.
While mopping up errant spurts of oil from the driveway, I noticed a small puddle beneath the petcock, and a trickle of fuel coming from the fuel line clamped thereto. No biggie there, I thought. I needed to remove the air cleaner cover anyway to service the K&N filter, so while I was at it I’d simply remove the backing plate as well, which would give me access to the fuel line coming from the carburetor. I could then replace the line, and while it wasn’t a routine part of my maintenance program, it wasn’t a gumption trap, either.
Removing the air cleaner cover is the simplest of all mechanical maintenance operations—in theory, anyway. A single large chrome Allen cap bolt, easily accessible right there in the center of the cover like the bike’s shiny omphalus, holds the cover on and when quickly removed allows easy disassembly of the whole works including removal of the backing plate. So I commenced to unscrew the bolt, and that’s when Pete joined the proceedings: Turn, turn, turn. All it did was turn. It wouldn’t retract and it wouldn’t tighten, no matter what tricks I tried including prying against the cover and the bolt head while turning it in quick bursts to try to catch a thread. Turn, turn, turn.
The likeliest culprit seemed to be a stripped thread, but it wasn’t the only possible culprit. The captive nut in the plastic backing plate could have been spun by an overzealous wrench wielding a pneumatic impact driver without regard to boring old-school notions like torque settings. The same neglect could also explain a stripped thread, and I realized in that moment two things: 1) I’d had a new petcock installed by a young mechanic at a local shop the previous year, and, 2) King Richard the Third was now in the house.
As you may have heard, the King’s remains were finally discovered last month after going missing for five centuries, so naturally he was on my mind. That’s how I roll. And what was particularly on my mind was the line delivered by Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard III–to wit: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” Which in turn was a direct reference to the old English verse that starts, “For want of a nail, a shoe was lost.” As you recall, things deteriorate from there to the horse, rider, battle and kingdom being lost all because of a missing horseshoe nail. This old saw is commonly acknowledged to be the first popular evocation of what we now call Chaos Theory, the Butterfly Effect, or the House that Jack Flipped.
This was the gumption trap to beat all gumption traps. The air cleaner cover bolt is recessed enough that it’s virtually impossible to get any vice-grip purchase on it while trying to drill out the head, and without that resistance, well, it’s just another chorus of turn, turn, turn.
What should have been the most routine of operations had now become a Gordian knot of interlinked impossibilities, and a maintenance session ground to an infuriating halt with no elegant solutions and the prospect of ultimately hunting down obscure parts—like a 1987 backing plate—most likely at a swap meet somewhere, somehow, since my online search has come up empty.
So you see why I had to walk away and endeavor to avoid the whole pickle, confident that with some time and distance from the problem a solution will come to me like a bolt from the blue. All I have to do in the meantime is hang in the garage with my spectral buddies and try not to think of that stripped thread as a metaphor for modern life. Can’t go forward, can’t go back. Turn, turn, turn.
It’s all right here in the diaries.