The next morning, I awoke with an Ice Fog hangover headache. Not the most ideal way to start a day of wilderness riding, but a greasy western omelette at Klondike Kate’s restaurant provided relief. I rode towards the ferry to recross the Yukon River. An adventure company advertised jeep rentals to traverse the super-remote Dempster Highway, 457 miles of gravel treachery ending at Inuvik, Northwest Territories, the northern-most point on the highway system in Canada. Another famous adventure motorcycle route, but “that will have to wait until next time,” I told myself.
As I attacked the Top of the World, my mind wandered to the thesis question of my pigrimage. What transpires when one interacts deeply with a person of another faith or philosophy? Succinctly, what is the phenomenology of interfaith encounters? How does one reconcile the particularity of one religious committment to the diversity of religions throughout America, the world?
This question is my version of Robert Pirsig’s Chautauqua in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or his underlying thesis that tried to reconcile the dichotomy between art and science, or the dichotomy of the romantic and the rational. Pirsig finds through treating a rational task such as motorcycle maintenance as an art with an eye towards quality and an end goal of the experience of being in the moment, on can bridge the gap. Both rationality and romanticism can co-exist. And he posits, this reconciliation would cure many evils and difficulties of modern existance.
Like Pirsig, I see the dichotomy in my Chautauqua as a cause for much pain and suffering in modern existance. The divide between the strong particularity of one religious belief with the unlimited complexity of religious diversity creates havoc in our individual consciousnesses which translates into evil and tragic manifestations in our communal lives. Wars, prejudice, hate crimes, poverty, bigotry, bullying, fear, depression, low self-esteem, patriarchy, among others, have at least a partial origin in the inability to reconcile faith’s particularity with faith’s diversity.
Some have attempted to solve this Chautauqua through a pluralistic view, most basically believing all religions and even non-religious belief, like atheism, have equal value or at least all carry merit. Whichever belief is best for the individual is true. Others cling adamantly to their particular flavor of religion, ostracizing and denouncing all others simultaneously attempting to proselytize the masses to adhere to their narrow interpretation. Even some others respond to the difficult dichotomy by abandoning religion all together, deeming it too complex or too unbelievable.
My hunch is that the answer lies in the experience of religious diversity. It’s experiential. It’s phenomenoligical. When our particular beliefs converse with another’s varient beliefs, in the context of the multitudes of diverse beliefs, the reconciliation begins to happen. That’s what this pilgrimage is about–to experience interfaith conversion, for our experiences of religious diversity to change us. Conversion is the key. The root is to engage another in conversation. And it is this experience that bridges the gap. We have to willing to be changed, to be converted, to better understand religion’s most difficult question. And this very experience is a deeply spiritual act, and may be the foundation of religious expression.
Sometimes through these encounters we better understand our own particular faith. Sometimes we may learn something from another and incorporate it into our own faith. Sometimes we may do the difficult task of acknowledging and holding the tension between two contradictory tenets. Maybe we arrive at the idea that religion, faith, belief, philosophy is so large and all-encompassing that we cannot even begin to systematize it realistically. Maybe we realize that the faith of the other isn’t for us. Or maybe we experience a deeply sad reality that the other’s belief system or unwillingness to engage is repulsive and unworthy of respect.
The pilgrimage of conversion has emerged as the business of faith in a religiously diverse world. If we remain complacent, only interacting with people of the same faith specifically, we cease growing spiritually and fail to grapple with the Chautauqua. While beliefs remain important, the acting out of faith through experience is the paramount expression.
Here, like Pirsig’s dichotomy of rational and artistic, we have a similar phenomenon. Religious beliefs have evolved to become equivalent to believing something to be true–rationality. Whereas, practicing faith through religious encounters–conversing, serving, listening, empathizing, helping–is an art. It takes practice and points towards a deeper, complex truth that cannot explicitly be named. Like the notions of love, death, the meaning of life, eternity, these can only be grasped through artistic means.
Religious belief (logos) and artistic expression (mythos) can exist harmoniously in interfaith encounters. The pilgrimage of conversion is the key to bridging the gap.
I return to Chicken and park my motorbike at the Chicken saloon. Inside, a local gold miner was drinking away his day off. Dollar bills and panties hung from the walls, which of course, is the universal sign for a great tourist dive. I purchased a few Chicken stickers to afix to my luggage cases and returned to the road for Tok.
Before my pilgrimage, I read about Thompson’s Eagle’s Claw Motorcycle Only Campground which was tonight’s planned stay. After buying a six pack of Alaskan IPA and pack of American Spirit cigarettes, my first breakdown in will power since the Shinto shrine, I turned into the entrance of the campground which was surrounded by tall spruce. The sign at the entrance instructed the visitor to choose a type of dwelling for the night–camp site, wall tent, tee pee, or an ambulance–and the ownder would be around later to collect the very reasonable fee.
I rode around the grounds and spotted the ambulance tent site. Though a sort of morbid irony manifested with the thought of sleeping in an ambulance on an epic overland motorcycle trip, I chose the opportunity for a 20 dollar nights sleep protected from the environment (read: bears) couldn’t be foresaken. The site boasted a blue tarp awning covering the side doors of a circa 1980s white and orange medevac from nearby 40-Mile, complete with the gurney adapted into bench seats.
Vanessa, the owner, came by to collect my fee for the night and mentioned I was the first motorcycle of the season. She exuded a gentle jubilence that caused me to feel I had known her all my life while sharing stories of her Alaskan lifestyle. She and her husband lived in a school bus for many years, after moving up to the Last Frontier. With a woodstove serving as the only heat during the harsh winters, she said the floor of the bus would freeze the skin of your bare feet instantly and at head height it was 90 degrees. I liked her immediately. She and her husband were Harley enthusiasts and dreamed up the campground together. They eventually divorced and Vanessa bought out his share. Her days are spent working at the local airport nearby and her evenings at the campground. We shared stories until we ran out and she retired to her house on the property. That night I had the entire camping grounds to myself. I enjoyed my soundest nights sleep of the journey.