As an adolescent, I might have had a fascination for motorcycles, but I didn't. In New York City, motorcycles were an anomaly; to have missed something, one must know of its existence. However, in 1969, I learned about this remarkable machine.
The movie "Easy Rider" was the link that conjoined my endless fascination of freewheeling through experience and at the same time, smelling the roses. The protagonists travel the length of America on choppers, hybrid motorcycles with radical designs. Throughout the movie, the motorcycle is incidental to a plethora of plots; however, it's the link that propelled "Easy Rider" to iconic status.
A few years later, Robert Pirsig published an intellectual masterpiece, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." The book described the author's motorcycle journey from Minnesota to Northern California. Pirsig weaves intricate analogies between the maintenance of motorcycles and a myriad of sophisticated philosophical discussions. The motorcycle is a supporting actor that defined the book as the bible for philosophical analysis during the '70s.
Pirsig expressed, "Not everyone understands the rational process of motorcycle maintenance. They think it's some kind of 'knack' or some kind of 'affinity for machines' in operation. They are right, but the knack is almost purely a process of reason. A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself."
I wanted to find someone who thought in the same dimension as Pirsig, someone who could intellectualize that propensity toward a meticulous attention to detail and see an engine as a spiritual entity. And then, one day I found him at Starbucks buried behind the morning paper, drinking a cappuccino. I met Judah Cashburn. Initially, we exchanged pleasantries, probably not more than a "hi and bye." However, our discussions grew and eventually I found that Judah was a link between quality and reason, and its association with the incredible world of moving parts.
Judah is from England and is a retired mechanical engineer. His inspiration was Thomas Telford, the great engineer from the Victorian era. "I live in the past," he said.
As a boy his fascination for mechanical things drove him toward steam engines, cars, locomotives, aircraft and motorcycles. "Anything that looked exciting," he said. He explained there are hundreds of miracles happening within a single engine and there is a beautiful synchronicity of moving parts. Judah understands the spiritual significance of a machine, which is the core of Pirsig's book.
"Engineering is a form of art and function which is echoed by the natural world," he said. "Take a cheetah, for example, and note how it has evolved into animal of prey. Its evolution increases its function. I torture myself thinking of these philosophies," he said.
I had to think about that comment a few times.
Judah rebuilds old technology and has rebuilt assorted MGs, motorcycles and engines. "If you want to meet mad people like me who love vintage machinery, go to England. The artistry of mechanics is fascinating," he said. "There is much nostalgia in old things."
His latest passion is a priceless box of parts he recently purchased. Judah will reassemble one of the fastest and most aesthetically pleasing motorcycles ever manufactured, a Vincent. It's not merely the motorcycle, but it's how he describes it.
"I have the vision to see what most people cannot see. The Vincent is beautiful; it's an iconic machine; it moves me."
"So, Judah, what moves you about a Vincent?" I asked.
He looked at me as though my question was perplexing.
"I can't answer that," he replied.