ExPo interview with Two Wheeled Nomad

(Expedition Portal: November 2017)

It seems like just yesterday, although it was way back in 2014, when Lisa sent me an email telling me about the journey she and Jason had just begun. I was fascinated by a woman brave enough to ride around the world, but brand new to motorcycling. How intimidating was it to take on such a massive project with so little riding experience?–Christophe Noel, Former Senior Editor, Expedition Portal

Hah! To begin, I starting riding a motorcycle by accident. Content as Jason’s pillion, it never hit my radar to ride my own bike. Not until I won a competition at a moto-show in the U.K. By “won,” I received the runner-up prize for a taster session astride a 50cc automatic. Something akin to my first mini bike. Up to that point, I’d never ridden anything other than a donkey on the beach as a kid. Bitten by the biking bug and only weeks before the trip (not long after passing my test), I still had the turning circle of a cruise liner—afraid to lean the bike into corners. Really.

A two-day off-road skills course taken on the same bike I’d be riding in the Americas boosted my confidence a little. Yet the travel anxiety slowly crept in, fuelling the imagined fears of somersaulting the motorcycle and it landing on my head. That was my starting point. But it panned out in an ignorance-is-bliss at the deep-end sort of way. 

How long did it take to feel comfortable on two wheels, and would you have done it any other way? 

Longer than it should! I wasn’t exactly a natural dual sports rider. It took a year of near misses and dual effort to feel at ease off-road. Unfalteringly, Jason mentored me via the intercom system on the technical terrain and still does on occasion. Especially the loose gravel, sand and mud. Accompanied by some poignant pep talks that I didn’t want to hear but needed to, opining: “Suck it up, princess, I can’t ride your bike for you,” from the Motivational School of Jason. Admittedly, I hampered myself with a refusal to “let go” in the loose stuff and trusting in my ability as much as the bike’s. Not to mention regressing on the dirt if I’d spent a few weeks back on the pavement.

Gritted teeth from us both, we stayed hopeful in the knowledge that the act of motorcycling had to eventually improve my riding. A snail-paced process indeed, one an untrained monkey might have fathomed quicker but h-u-r-r-a-h!—I’ve come a long way since my mother’s doorstep, wobbling away like a drunken sailor. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been on an overladen bike already heavy for its class. Ho hum.

Over the course of your journey, which literally began at the bottom of the world, you’ve pressed ever northward, finally arriving at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Did you ever wonder if you’d be able to make it that far? Was there a point when it seemed impossible?

With more than our fair share of bike problems—an electric fire on my bike just before the trip; on the road replacing several water pumps and a fuel pump; two failed stators and rear shocks; a cracked yoke on Jason’s bike and a cracked frame on mine; bent rims and collapsed wheel bearings; and a PanAm’s worth of leaking fork seals—I’d say maybe, yes. Compounded by my slow-developing technique in the dirt and initial horror at having to cope with ripio (gravel) and strong winds in Patagonia. Not to mention the Kamikaze drivers in South America. Yet despite all that, I blindly assumed that with Jason by my side, I’d get there. Sooner or later, anyway. And we did.

Another aspect of your travels that has been fun to follow is your evolution as storytellers. Jason’s photography was always beautiful, but every mile traveled seems to make it better. It takes a lot of time to document a journey. Why was it so important to you to do so?

We’re freelance photographers and writers first, motorcyclists second. For Jason, capturing some of the world’s richest offerings provides the artistic outlet on which he thrives. Not just to preserve the big moments forever, it’s the challenge of forever pushing the boundaries of creativity while being in the environments he loves. And biased as I am, noticing something in an alternatively beautiful way. Grateful to be doing something he loves, it’s a channel through which he can surprise himself and learn about something that piques his interest. The more he shoots the better understands himself, what he values, and how he sees the world. It’s an art, albeit a mechanical one. Motorcycling is a means to facilitate that in a fresh and outdoorsy way.

As well, by documenting all the mishaps, mingled with the highs and the challenges we face as we go, our story hopefully conveys to all that we’re regular folks, who worked regular jobs that saved and sacrificed, and made a life-changing alteration to their lives.

Does the documenting of an experience ever get in the way of the enjoyment of it? Have there been times when you’ve kept the cameras and keyboard stowed away and just soaked up a moment for your own enjoyment?

I don’t know whether I ride to write or write to ride but it’s never a chore. Writing is a cerebral desire as much as it’s an emotionally derived means of expression. For Jason, keeping the camera close at all times IS the enjoyment. Although there were times when the camera got forgotten because we lacked the presence of mind to capture the more intense experiences. While dropping the loaded bikes and crashing in Bolivia’s sand dunes for 237 miles springs to mind. Shame! But it did reaffirm the benefits of small bike exploration. 

Everyone seems to develop their own style of travel. I know of people who spent less than two months traveling a distance you covered in two years. What determines your pace of travel? 

It depends. Thankfully, neither of us are distance junkies—250 miles is the upper-end of our preferred daily limit. Often times it’s the people we meet, locals as much as fellow travellers, that magnetize us to a spot. Not always motorcyclists, we’ve made fast friendships with those on foot, unicyclists, 4×4 overlanders, van lifers, Unimoggers and so forth. Or stopping just because of the feeling you sometimes get when you sink into a place. Finding somewhere appealing only the locals or few know about.

You have now been in Canada for some time, much of the winter. Did you get smitten by the country? What did you do to while away the dark and cold days when you couldn’t ride?

The country is beautiful, especially the Rockies—biting temperatures for half the year notwithstanding. Although the winter-long draw was solely people driven, the thought of halting our trip otherwise was completely untenable. A fortnight with a British couple living in Canada somehow extended into autumn with our hosts inviting us to stay until spring 2017. Through the dictates of the warmest hospitality, we did just that.

Embracing an Albertan winter was further enhanced in the company of seasoned moto-travellers, clinking many a “garagarita” (margarita in our host’s garage). The Motorcycle Show in Calgary was a hoot; discreetly attended by Ewan McGregor who, I have on good authority raved about the DR650 as thee bike for a trip to South America. Aside from almost rubbing shoulders with movie stars, we borrowed our host’s Jeep on day trips all over the province, enjoyed the novelty of skating over frozen lakes and during the occasional cabin fever-induced days, pushed our luck astride the bikes on gravelly snow.

One of the characters in your narrative from day one was, Pearl, your much-loved BMW 650GS. You bought another motorcycle for the next leg of your trip. Why was that and how have you “adventurized” it?

My plucky Pearl: she executed a 50,000-mile ride through 21 countries. At 15 years old, Jason nurse-maided her ailments while she threw her all into getting me to relax. Regardless of the umbilical attachment, I took stock of my clunky mare in October 2016, realized her road-oriented abilities outshone her off-road ones and ignoring my heart, I severed all ties. Upon wishing to ride more dirt dictated the need to embrace “less is more” where “size does matter”. Laden at 530-pounds, Pearl was sadly fulfilling neither.

Entering my life on my 36th birthday, the bonding period with Mr. Jangles, a 2001 Suzuki DR650, began well in spite of the big shoes to fill. “Well suck my pants and call me Noreen!” nailed Stephen Fry—he glides effortlessly over gravel, permits me to weight shift like a break-dancer and has transformed my dirt riding. At 100 pounds lighter, DR650s are mayhap one of the best-kept secrets among motorcycle travellers. Undeniably, Mr. Jangles requires less input from me and minimal maintenance from Jason.

Upgrading the lights and suspension, Jason added a bigger tank, installed new plastics, rejetted the carburetor, opened up the airbox, fitted a lighter exhaust and a digital display. He attached a decent windscreen, cruiser pegs, robust hand guards, and a lowered custom seat. As well, I invested in the lowering links to pare the bike down to my height.

Undeniably, Pearl was a great bike for the first big jaunt and I adored her. A Calgarian lady burst into tears upon adopting her, she wanted her that badly. Knowing Pearl’s in good hands, Mr. Jangles has so far given me unalloyed joy every mile of the way.

Now that you’ve been stationary for a few months, I imagine you’re getting itchy feet. Where next?

Man alive were we! Riding the remainder of the year in Canada, February 2018 will be our fourth anniversary on the road where we’ll already be wending through continental U.S. Far from done with the colossal country, exploration awaits us through the likes of Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon National Parks before we explore eastern Canada. Africa’s calling thereafter but so are the Nordic countries and Mongolia. 

One last question. If you could have given yourself any sage advice on that first day when you rolled off the container ship at the southern end of South America, what would it have been?

Jason: “If you don’t reach the top of Alaska, that’s not a negative—you’ll have more time along the way to explore the places that really interest you. And don’t even think about taking that beast—a DR650 will be biking bliss for you off-road.”

Lisa: “Sell that factory-lowered bike and source a WR250R or a CRF250L; either will be MUCH cheaper to maintain and simpler to repair, bestowing unprecedented pleasure in the dirt.” A serious game-changer.

The boy’s got his bike, and Jason’s got his.