Giving It Your Best Shot | Swapping A Routine Life For The Ride Of A Lifetime
What's the first thing you'd do after learning to ride a motorbike? For Lisa Morris it was an 80,000 miles, four-and-a-half year, road trip with her partner Jason across the length and breadth of the Americas
We never defined success by our postcode, job or salary, and neither of us seemed cut out for domestic bliss, so we decided to spend our lives on the road. We didn’t have children, weren’t married, so why not take a motorcycle bimble through the Americas? Perfectly content as Jason’s pillion, I meanwhile won some taster lessons in a competition. Bitten by the bug, I ended up passing my test on a 125cc and invested in Pearl, an ‘01 BMW F650GS I found on eBay. Chiefly, because I liked her colour. She matched my helmet beautifully, much to Jason’s exasperation.
“We never defined success by our postcode, job or salary”
Amusingly, Jason utilised my bike as the pack mule and saved his ’08 BMW F800GS for “tech”—a drone, a camera and accompanying lenses. As I wobbled onto the container ship destined for South America, little did I know the trip I was about to undertake would span 80,000 miles through 21 countries; taking in everywhere from Antarctica to the Arctic over four-and-a-half years.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Gently Down The Stream
In our case, ‘stream’ meant Atlantic Ocean and ‘boat’ meant a 660-foot freighter weighing in at 45,000 tons. Our time onboard the M/V Grand Amburgo, a‘poor man’s cruise’, should have been spent learning Spanish. Instead, we hung out with the Filipino crew, revealing a sizeable language gap we needed to bridge should we ever wish to converse on Latin American turf.
“To mark our equatorial passing, the Captain summoned King Neptune”
To mark our equatorial passing, the Captain summoned King Neptune. Grinning through a beard made from a mop’s strings, the Seven Seas Lord looked the part in a bedsheet tied with rope at his waist, holding a fork fashioned from aluminium foil. During the ceremonial baptism, I was reborn as Shaula and Jason as Merak. Nightly, the crew urged me to sing Kylie Minogue songs, karaoke style; ridiculously embarrassing but it staved off sinking fathoms deep in boredom. After voyaging 6,906 nautical miles over a month we docked in Uruguay. A dandy way to decompress and kick-start our two-wheeled adventure.
The Mix Of Beauty And Death Was Intoxicating
An 11,000-foot descent, vicious drop-offs and more than 200 fatalities a year. Welcome to Bolivia’s legendary Road of Death – the terrifying route tourists love to two-wheel down. Safety barriers were slim to nil so the mortality rate is not surprising, especially considering that vehicles meet head-on along a minuscule dirt track at peak altitudes of 14,700 feet. Beforehand, I was hit with a mixed bag feeling of ‘How hard can it be?’ tinged with that delicious anticipation you get before a rollercoaster’s tipping point. Elevated in the lush jungle, I got power-showered through 100-meter high waterfalls and crossed rocky streams surrounded by cocoa fields. A ride like no other? Just a bit.
“An 11,000-foot descent, vicious drop-offs and more than 200 fatalities a year”
When it got slippery under rubber, and the road washed away, I rallied and made it to the end of the Death Road. A wasted opportunity not to return the way we came and enjoy the steep mountains, plunging valleys and rugged terrain going back up. Riding on the precipice was definitely a day to let the world take care of itself. A visceral experience made up of jaw-on-the-floor views, it’s one that left me windblown, mind-blown, and utterly exhilarated.
What Went On In That Tent, Stays In That Tent!
The plan was to vacate Bolivia on 237 sandy miles via the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, crossing the Chilean border. The online forums agreed: our designated route was “slow-going but not technical”. We had a guy called Matt, an Albertan astride his KLR 650, riding with us so there was three of us for once.
Inside a morning, I endured three spectacular crashes. Nevertheless, I barged past my limits with a hungry gusto to prove I could keep up. Back soaked with sweat, I was left with a thumping headache, throbbing wrist and pumped forearms. We were getting sand dunes bigger than we’d bargained for – Sahara size.
“Jason and I insulated the lad with our spare clothing before spooning him”
Erecting the tent in pitch black, gusts shook our Dome Sweet Dome. Cocooned in our pegged saviour, it wasn’t a night to be out. Temperatures plummeted to -22C and Matt had zero camping gear. His ensemble comprised a pair of chaps, his dad’s old leather jacket, a few spares and whisky.
As honourable Brits, Jason and I insulated the lad with our spare clothing before spooning him with all the sleeping bag warmth we could muster. Jase, it turns out, prefers to be spooner… not the spoonee! Joking aside, keeping Matt alive was a legitimate concern.
The next morning, a whirl of emotions – relief and incredulity at what we’d endured – swirled within me like mixing floodwaters. I erred on the wistful but smiled with quiet satisfaction at Bolivia’s brutal beauty. Oh, and Matt survived the night.
“You’re Riding Like A Pro Today. I’m Impressed”
Huascarán National Park, crammed full of Andean leviathans, encompasses most of the Cordillera Blanca above 13,000 feet. On a rocky ride, we were set to behold 600 glaciers and the poised Andean condor. “Lisa, just keep doing what you’re doing,” Jason implored en route to this utopia. Okay, my darl, Iwill. “Although I’d be much happier if you stayed away from the edge” he added, as I careened in the soft stuff. He had a point, those precipices were downright vertiginous. It made Bolivia’s Death Road look like a day at the beach.
“It made Bolivia’s Death Road look like a day at the beach”
“You’re riding like a pro today. I’m impressed.” Jason had said that to me only a handful of times in my riding career, so I must have been doing something right. Up and up, we bounced over bobbled terrain. We scaled a slender backbone of a ridge and rode between two ragged shards of mountain. Rimming the incredible vista, ice-capped glaciers thrust up like filed teeth; their spiny points raking the bottom of the clouds. I sneaked up on silent feet towards the edge for a closer look.
The route left me spent but filled with a silence so profound it bristled against my soul. I gazed at the sheer gravity of it all, soaking up the grandeur of it all as hawks dove effortlessly here and there.
The milk of human kindness
Peruvian road patrol had stopped us earlier in our tracks to “check our paperwork”, hankering to elicit a bribe. Clued-in: nothing ends this caper quicker than producing one’s feminine products from the panniers. Later that afternoon, Pearl’s rear end floundered more than usual towards Canon del Pato (Duck Canyon), grappling with the ripio – a splintered mishmash of sharp-pointed rocks in the compacted dirt. After a hard turn, she skidded to a sudden stop and slumped hard. The suspension had snapped clean in half.
“The suspension had snapped clean in half”
Cars threw dust in our faces as we sat marooned on the roadside, trying to flag down a vehicle capable of carrying Pearl 50 miles to the nearest workshop. Eventually, an Argentinean moto-angel named Damien rocked up on a Honda Tornado 250cc, his girlfriend on the back.
Prizing the faulty parts off my bike, off we rode two-up. Thanks to our new best friend Damien translating, we became acquainted with police chief Igor. He’d spotted our convoy and gave us a flashing-lights escort to the welding shop. The chief then insisted on dropping us off where parking was secure and there were inexpensive rooms to rent (by the hour, no less). Saucy wall art adorned glossy red walls here, and there was an unapologetically giant mirror hung above a vibrating bed; covered in plastic. Jason hit the “love hotel” pillow immediately after checking in, out for the count. Pity.
the Wave, Arizona
Situated on the Colorado Plateau, the Wave is a unique series of sandstone buttes. Part of the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness area, scores of travellers gravitate from all over the globe to experience it. Although ascertaining a permit to do so is on a par with winning a ticket to Willy Wonka’s workhouse. We happened to get monumentally lucky.
“I felt spiritually drunk on the dune field”
Famed for its implausibly twisted sandstone, the area resembles a mixture of giant domed mushrooms and great big pancake stacks. Deposits of iron claim responsibility for the unique blending of colour, which runs like rainbow candy stripes through the mineral-rich rock.
I felt spiritually drunk on the dune field, with its unspoiled magnificence. Heck, a flying saucer would not have looked out of place in this extraterrestrial setting. Exquisite.
Third Time Lucky In Death Valley
“Lisa, please listen. Promise me you’ll stay in second once we head down this trail, and then give it the tiniest amount to stay positive when it feels twitchy,” Jason begged. Knowing he was alluding to both the gas as much as my temperament didn’t take a lot to discern. “You just need to suck it up; I can’t ride your bike for you,” was his pragmatic conclusion. Looking back, I think it’s the reason you never hear the phrase ‘male intuition’. This was our third attempt to ride into Death Valley without one of the bikes breaking down.
“This was our third attempt to ride into Death Valley without one of the bikes breaking down”
At this stage of the journey, I had traded Pearl in for Mr Jangles, a Suzuki DR650. At Teakettle Junction, we took a hiatus from grappling over the grooves. Nimble and raring to go, I knew more by feel and sixth sense than by his exterior, Mr Jangles imparted a generosity of spirit and sense of sureness to the sandy gravel. Back-jarring corrugations notwithstanding, we passed the pleasing sights of narrow canyons, a meteor crater, and the odd Joshua tree against a striking backdrop of dunes. The remote desert wilderness made a stunning destination in a very earthly locale. Death Valley was my axis of bliss.
Nailing my knickers to the ceiling
Veering off the dirt track at an isolated location near the Mex 1, we pulled into Coco’s Corner on the Baja Peninsula. A dusty setting right out of the Australian outback where a tumbledown doorless house on a bed of sand emerged, home to a floor of souvenirs left by all walks of life that bounce through. Old aluminium cans strewn up with string jingled in the warm breeze. I suspected it was like no other place in Mexico.
“I suspected it was like no other place in Mexico”
Coco greeted us as a white-haired double amputee. At 79-years young, he bared crooked teeth in a smile that was indeed genuine. He laughed at his “penguin-walk” when sauntering around on his stumps, staccato style. With an apparent fetish for bras and knickers hanging from every square inch, people who didn’t know Coco gawked, catching flies before making polite introductions. I couldn’t help but develop a sneaking fondness for the old buzzard. Past the cheeky gestures, Coco opened up his home. A tugging incline told me he may not have wanted us to leave; I know I didn’t.
The Fishhook Fatties Road Trip
Skirting northeasterly around Denali National Park, I was hit with countless chevrons of snow-capped, and glacier-studded mountains in Interior Alaska. Wake no mistake, my hunger for wildlands was going to be well-nourished here. It was a sweet spot that seemed to me the very acme of Alaskan wilderness allure.
“For us, it was the final frontier—the beginning of the end of an epic bike trip”
For us, it was the final frontier—the beginning of the end of an epic bike trip. Inching closer to the top of the world, the benefits of social media connected us with the Fishhook Fatties, a gregarious biking group from south central Alaska whose ethos is “work hard, play hard”. At least it is during the short summer months, when daylight hours are in high demand. They gave us firsthand experience of an Alaskan’s Alaska, something which will stay with me forever.
You know that “right time, right place” magic
During our last push to Prudhoe Bay, one of the US’s most northern navigable points, the landscape took on a raw beauty with a bleak Wuthering Heights quality. The only landmark on the Dalton Highway vying for our attention in reaching it was the industrial pipeline that followed us from Fairbanks for 500 miles.
“We’d made it from the bottom of the planet to the top and, damn, it felt good”
We’d made it from the bottom of the planet to the top, and damn, it felt good. Just like the road to get there, our pleasure-drenched memories of the Americas calcified, and we experienced it feeling we’d blossomed many friendships, forged intoxicating new ones, and deposited them all in the Good Times Bank. In 2016 (a leap year), while watching the grey whales in Mexico, I popped the question and Jason said “yes.”
Side by side, I’ll remember the days as cloudless, the air golden and filled with a vulnerable excitement. There was a sense that having made it this far, I may not have touched the vanishing point but it didn’t matter. It was just part of the way to something else. If “ecstasy” means the intrusion of the wonderful into the ordinary, then it had just happened to me.
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