Seeking Zen in a rental Miata


Zen and…

A couple of months ago, I found myself wandering around a bookstore. In the philosophy section, I started flipping through Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and was soon taken in by his description of what it’s like to ride a motorcycle:

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. The concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

He describes racing thunderstorms, riding through cold mornings and hot days, seeing birds, smelling smells. I’ve never motorcycled before, but his words resonated in a deeply intuitive way. I too wanted to travel and be connected to the world, to feel alive in it and sense it and experience it fully.

But instead of making me want a motorcycle, the passage reminded me of a car. Specifically, it reminded me of a longstanding interest I’ve had in the Mazda Miata, the lightweight simple two-seat convertible sports car. Driving that car, I thought, would be pretty close to what Pirsig is describing. I’d wanted one years ago, but had always deferred those dreams for more practical, normal cars. Now I remembered why I wanted one, and I couldn’t put it out of my head.

A snippet from the 1990 Miata brochure.

Thinking it over later, I realized I needed to discern whether I really wanted to own a Miata, or if I just liked my idealized image of it. A good first step would be to drive one.

In my Miata dreaming, it was usually one of the older ones, like the classic NA generation with the pop-up headlights, or the NB generation that followed. I never really thought as much about the current ND generation. But nowadays in 2023, NA and NB Miatas are growing increasingly scarce and collectible, with prices rising correspondingly. Meanwhile, ND Miatas are readily available to rent for under $100 a day on Turo. I figured at the very least, driving one would help me understand if I wanted a convertible at all. So I booked a nearby red 2016 Miata, and Sharlene and I cleared our calendars for a weekend road trip.

Our rental Miata. This is the owner VJ’s personal car—many thanks to him for sharing his car with people like me. Turo link here.

Driving Impressions

Driving the Miata was wonderful. It was both more modern and more retro than I expected.

Pulling it out of the parking lot, the first thing I noticed was how easy it was to drive smoothly. The clutch and shifter were so buttery smooth. The exhaust note was a sporty growly sound with an addictive bark when rev matching downshifts, like classic sports cars I’ve only driven in video games. It made me want to shift gears at every opportunity, just to hear that musical sound. In addition, the pedals were perfectly placed for heel-toe downshifting. I was never able to get it right in my previous cars, but in the Miata it came easily.

The handling was magic, sharp and poised to carve corners. I don’t think I approached even half of the car’s capabilities.

This car made me feel far more gifted than I really was. Some of those downshifts and corners are now deeply etched into my memory, they were so satisfying and glorious and perfect.

Me driving, photo by Sharlene. Most of the photos in this post were shot on Portra 400.

I’d always thought this generation Miata was decent-looking, but not particularly arresting. However, up close, I gained a much better appreciation for the design. From behind the wheel, the view over the deep red, curvy front fenders feels Italianate, like a mini-modern version of seductive old Alfas or Ferraris. The way the tail narrows down, the clean surfaces and crisp edge of the trunk lid—all just right.

The car is noisy and unpleasant to drive on interstates and big highways. However, upon reflection, I think this interstate misery may actually be a feature rather than a bug. Because we wanted to be off the highway, we sought out roads less traveled, and this took us through beautiful places we wouldn’t have visited if we’d just taken the fastest route.

Finally, last surprise—the Miata is impressively fuel-efficient. The trip computer indicated an average 34.9 MPG over the course of our weekend, and I’d been revving it out the whole time.

Are there any things I would change? Just a few:

That’s about it.

Day One

Sharlene and I left San Francisco with minimal planning, besides slathering ourselves with sunblock, highlighting a few curvy roads on our map, and aiming for the coastline north of the city.

After lunch in Fairfax, we wandered across the street into the Marin Museum of Bicycling. The Museum has an amazing collection, but I think the people running the place were what really made it special. Ross, the volunteer on duty, was out there on Repack Road back in the day riding klunkers with the pioneers of mountain biking! And for a whole hour or so, he showed us around the museum and shared all his knowledge of bike history. Towards the end of our visit, we also briefly met Joe Breeze, of Breezer Bikes, co-founder and curator of the museum. It’s so cool that all these early innovators in the sport just hang out at the museum.

Some of the early “klunker” bikes at the museum.

We continued out to the ocean, and then picked up Highway 1 north along the coast. Warm sunshine gave way to cool fog.

Invasive (but pretty) iceplant at the visitor center in Jenner, CA.
We met some friendly horses at Jenner Headlands Preserve.
We also encountered some cows on the trail.
Preparing to hit the road again after our hike.

We found dinner at the (rather too fancy) Timber Cove Resort, and stayed the night at the (cozy, affordable, cute) Ocean Cove Lodge. There, we soaked in our hot showers and fell into bed exhausted.

Day Two

A few more miles north on Highway 1, we stopped at Stump Beach at the recommendation of Tim (the Ocean Cove Lodge owner).

Later, we turned inland onto Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road. The road started out as a narrow and bumpy single lane, but soon became miles and miles of two-lane twists and turns all the way to Lake Sonoma.

In the afternoon, we savored more two-lane roads through Dry Creek Valley, Nicasio Valley, and Lucas Valley, with a stop at the Petaluma In-N-Out in the middle. I’m not sure that life gets much more pleasant than driving like that through the rolling green hills in the spring sunshine. I wish I had some photos, but we were too busy enjoying the drive!

Where To Next?

I think this trip fulfilled the lofty expectations set by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I do believe that traveling with a vehicle like this encourages moving through the world in a different way. In our normal car, it would have been easiest to just pick a destination, punch it into Apple or Google Maps, and then just follow the fastest route there. In the Miata, it was natural to embrace and engage with the journey itself.

There are many reasons not to own a Miata—not enough seats, not enough space—but maybe life is too short to miss out on experiences like these.

They really knew how to market these cars back in 1993…

Sharlene and I both loved wandering with no destination in mind, seeking out curvy scenic roads on paper maps, feeling the wind and sun and fog on our skin. I hope that this trip will be just the first of many more to follow.

Follow-up post here: Deciding whether to buy a Miata, and test driving an NB →