In February 2014, Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford set off to ride the length of the Americas. While the trip was only meant to be 18-months long, four years and 80,000 miles later, the couple finally returned. We caught up with Lisa Morris to find out more about their epic two-wheeled adventure
Photos: Jason Spafford
ABR: Who are you, and what did you do before you left to ride around the world?
Lisa Morris: Our lives have taken us down many paths. At 19, during uni, I met Jason, who was 31, on a Red Sea diving liveaboard, in 2000. Since graduating, the pair of us worked regular jobs in between guiding and instructing around the globe for the best part of ten fish-filled years. That feels like a lifetime ago, but diving the world-class sites together was one of the best of times.
ABR: What was the catalyst for deciding to up and leave?
LM: Having learned to ride a motorcycle by accident in my early 30s (I won a two-hour taster session on a 50cc) playing house and working 9-5 wasn’t unbearable, it just wasn’t enough. With no kids in tow, a change was overdue, so we decided on a big one. Long story short, we sold our one-bedroom cottage, pared down the possessions to a few boxes and packed everything we’d need on the back of our steeds.
Fortunately, we never defined success by our income or postcode, and neither of us seemed cut out for eternal domesticity, so we decided to live our life on the road.
ABR: Can you describe the feelings you had on that first day on the road?
LM: As someone who set off with a turning circle bigger than our cargo ship’s, I was plagued by a tornado of concerns. Setting off from my mum’s doorstep in 2014, headed for the Atlantic, I couldn’t bring myself to open my mouth just in case my heart fell out of it. So, I just kept silent and looked at my mother hoping she’d intuit what I meant – that I was going to miss her. I prayed a grim nod and shaky thumbs-up would get the message across.
ABR: Did you expect you’d be away so long?
LM: No. In my head, I hoped the trip would last the planned 18 months. Jason, I know now, had other ideas. Living out an adventure side by side, we motorcycled from the southern tip of Argentina to the northernmost navigable road in Alaska. Going by the name Two Wheeled Nomad from the Antarctic to the Arctic, a life-changing, mind-bending adventure ensued, which incredibly lasted four and a half years.
ABR: Does living in such close proximity to each other ever lead to arguments?
LM: Haha! Of course. The gruelling satisfaction of long days in the saddle over a significant period can make or break a relationship. Although we backpacked and camper-vanned previously for months at a time, life together on motorcycles is something else. It’s an extraordinary endeavour, packed with more highs than lows. Every time I rode with Jason, I loved him… Even on the days I loathed him! In truth, parts of the trip were painstaking for me; I often refused to trust Jason’s advice (a gnawing bone of contention for him) and it led to discomfort, but never once I did I worry about us.
ABR: What’s the best part of living on the road?
LM: Constant companionship is the best and worst thing about long-distance motorcycle travel. Even though you love your partner, there’s only one person to listen to your frustrations, which typically involve them. If only I had a pound for every time I swallowed the words: “Captain Slow, give it some beans!” or “Come on princess, I can’t ride your bike for you!”
Thankfully, we’re not grudge-bearers, but heaven forbid when one of us got hangry. My winning strategy boiled down to this: don’t nag the guy. Sometimes he wore the trousers, sometimes I did. Fact is, I’d be lost without him… Probably somewhere in Uruguay. One of the best moments on the trip for me was in 2016, a leap year. While wide-eyed watching the grey whales in Mexico, I asked Jason to marry me to which he responded: “I guess I’ve run out of excuses, haven’t I?”
ABR: And the worst?
LM: Our biographies are so intertwined that we share nearly every page. While our partnership has gone the distance and is here to stay, neither of us can wait to remember what it’s like to miss each other. Being in each other’s company as often as we have borders on unhealthy, but riding alone is as fun as a funeral. The stretches of technical terrain taxed our relationship, but such is life on the road. You get back on your bikes and ride together, because you need to and you want to.
ABR: How do you fund a trip like this?
LM: Neither of us earned silly money in our former lives. Just regular money, like most people. Your standard income university-educated professional on salary and earnings from a self-employed electrical contractor.
It sounds obvious, but start saving early. At least a year, or longer if you’re not a savvy saver. It took us well over two years. And let’s face it, financial planning is one of the least appealing aspects of facilitating a life on the road. If you’re not comfortably wealthy from the outset, my advice would be to save the travel money after non-negotiable bills first, not last. Cut everything else.
Generally, there are five solutions to making a big trip financially possible: cheaper living; selling stuff (no one regrets a good purge and it’s less to keep in storage); earning more (getting a pay-rise or a second job); cheaper travelling or pushing your trip’s start date back. I even contemplated selling my hair for £2,000, but I’m not sure Jason would have appreciated the new look.
Fortunately, we bought rental property with the proceeds of selling our house which, coupled with being a travel writer and photographer duo, helps us to keep gas in the tank and foremost, the story unfolding.
ABR: Has living on the road for so long changed you as people?
LM: Riding through the Americas has changed us. During the trip, I decided against having a kid, which surprised the heck out of Jason. We want to see where an unscripted future takes us. Gratefully, we survived another lifetime together and acquired a priceless vault of memories in the process. Motorcycle travel is stitched into the very fabric of our beings.
Every time I reflect on the trip, I feel a pleasing, bone-deep certainty that happiness can be as simple as being warmed by the winter sun, dining al fresco on something locally sourced and delicious, then washing it down with a cold beer. Filled to the brim with that happy fatigue after a big hike in the backcountry. Or, making a connection with another human being – by merely dissolving into giggles with them. It’s integral to what makes me happy, finding contentment in what I’ve got and sharing that life with someone.
ABR: Why did you opt for the motorcycles that you did, and have you made any modifications to them?
LM: Jason’s motorcycle: The bike of Jason’s heart is a 2008 BMW F800GS. It’s lighter than his former R1200GS, particularly noticeable in the bends with a lively engine and a top speed on par with the R1200GS. Namely, loads of fun! It was already equipped with a custom belly pan, and a set of heavy-duty engine bars, so he saved a few quid there, but needed to do something about the useless screen and iron-hard seat.
Adding an Airhawk was tantamount to riding twice the distance before his backside goes to sleep. The problem with the screen was solved with a Touratech fairing – not cheap but does a great job of protecting him from most of the wind. He also thinks it looks the business. The bike was formerly fitted with a set of Metal Mule panniers, which we replaced with the Adventure Spec Magadan MK2 saddlebags, and then supplanted with Giant Loop luggage.
Lisa’s motorcycle: Meet Mr Jangles, my 2001 Suzuki DR650. Much taller than I’m used to, but what a joy this motorcycle is in the dirt. Entering my life during my 36th birthday celebration, our meeting kick-started well as I bonded with him throughout Canada. He glides effortlessly over gravel, weight shifts like a break-dancer and has transformed my off-road riding.
I couldn’t be happier whizzing my maracas off astride this dandy DR. DR650s are maybe one of the best-kept secrets among moto-travellers. At around 45kg lighter than Pearl, my BMW 650 GS, Mr Jangles is infinitely easier to ride in gravel.
Jason upgraded the suspension, added a bigger Acerbis tank, installed new plastics, rejetted the carburettor, opened up the airbox, fitted a lighter exhaust, a Vapour Tech digital display, an aftermarket windscreen, cruiser pegs, bigger handguard shields, and a lowered custom seat.
Both bikes bear Woody’s Wheels, and we saw huge value in sticking with Heidenau K60 Scout tyres throughout the Americas. Despite lowering the DR650, I still had more clearance than Jason’s F800GS.
ABR: Do you need to be a good rider to do what you two do?
LM: Goodness, no! Unlike Jason, I had virtually no riding experience, but we left anyway. During my motorcycle training, I recall wrapping myself around a lamppost, smacking into a corrugated shed wall at around 20mph during a practice emergency stop and repeatedly requesting for Jason to stop talking down the intercom on my hill starts. What a maniac! Not exactly a natural rider, ignorance is biking bliss when you’re unknowingly thrown in the deep end.
I had no realistic expectation of what I was taking on, and therefore it seemed pointless catastrophising from the get-go. I’m living proof that you don’t need to fulfil the burly bloke astride his R1200GSA stereotype to set off on a bike trip.
ABR: From your time on the road, where has been the best place you’ve ridden?
LM: Argentina. Predominantly because of meeting life-long biking friends who bestowed us with a nine-month-long guided tour in hanging out with them as fellow riders. One of them also owned a vineyard – it was pretty much meat, Malbec and motorcycling the whole time. Due to a favourable exchange rate on top, we lived like kings and, for the first time, really sank into a place.
ABR: And in contrast, which country, area or region did you not like?
LM: Central America was probably our least favourite region, although there were still interesting and pretty pockets encountered throughout.
ABR: Is there anywhere you’ve not yet been that you would like to?
LM: Oh sure. Mongolia, Iceland, Greenland and Nepal to name a few.
ABR: Where are you now, and what are your plans for the next few months?
LM: Ultimately, the trip paved the way for staying location independent. After journeying through the Americas, we’ve decided to hang up the motorcycle boots temporarily. After an intense saving period in the UK, we jumped in White Rhino (a 2015 Toyota Hilux) in late spring 2019, which will see us traverse from Cape to Cape. Namely, an unassisted expedition we’re calling ‘The Mega Transect’ from South Africa to Northern Norway for about a year.
We’ll go by the name Four-Wheeled Nomad to tell 4WD tales on the trails. If nothing else, travelling has made us wonder if there’s enough left. But while time is on our side, it will be through the very raw and real continent that is Africa.
ABR: Why do you choose to explore?
LM: Exploration is the one thing we look forward to practically every day; the benefits are enormous for the physical and mental self. Boundaries among people are broken down. Above all, it’s real.
Arguably, we all spend too much time indoors, ‘plugged in’ and under artificial light. So anything that sees us outside to step back into nature and experience the world directly is positive.
Overlanding allows us to rediscover the rhythms of the day and enjoy the seasons. Whether on a trail, hill or mountain, wandering the earth is an unscripted way to connect to your surroundings, engage with people and stay mindful. It gives us unalloyed joy every mile of the way.
ABR: Do you ever see yourself returning home and settling back into a ‘normal’ life?
LM: Since meeting 19 years ago, it’s always been about diversifying the way we live our life. When it comes to Jase, he’s also partial to being in the right place with the right light. And I’m smitten with the big open spaces left in the world.
We’ve fallen for constantly changing horizons, whether we’re standing in a colony of Gentoo penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, watching humpbacks bubble-net feed in Alaskan waters, or seeing Mount Fitz Roy fade in our rear-view mirrors. It’s an endless loop of sunrises and sunsets, of nights spent under skies ablaze with stars.
We thrive on adventure, endlessly rugged and a little dangerous, and share our successes and failures. Right now, there is nothing more appealing than facilitating that way of living, to stay time-rich and thankful for the choices we make.
ABR: What impact has this trip had on your relationships with your family?
LM: Although the bikes paved the way in opening up uncharted worlds for us, we still battled with traveller’s guilt along the way. Particularly as Jason’s parents are older than mine. I now know that my mum was convinced she’d never see me again – keeping company with dread for goodness knows how long, love alone couldn’t keep a daughter safe.
That aside, everyone thinks they have the best and most supportive mum around, but actually, I do. So as to not cut ourselves off completely, we flew home twice on the trip at Christmas time. Our parents visited us in Alaska and Alberta, and I made another visit back for my mum’s 60th to keep the old gal happy. I surprised my sister for her 40th in Australia too.
ABR: Many readers of ABR will feel as though they have too many commitments at home that stop them from doing what you guys are doing, what advice would you give them for going on their own adventure?
LM: Many of us daydream about making a road trip across continents, although some might imagine they’re unable to overcome the real or perceived hurdles. But what does it take to actually do it? Anyone whose jigsaw pieces in their life can coalesce – and respectfully, not everybody’s can – simply a commitment to the decision to go is all it takes. Followed by doing whatever is necessary to make it happen.
Having reached a point in our 9-5 lives that no longer reaped enough intrinsic reward, the time came for a change and we decided on a big one. Once we engaged in a ‘It’s time for a talk’ chat, we pinned down a departure date, or rather, the shipping agent sent us one, and the pieces began slotting into place. By ‘slotting into place,’ I mean it still took a degree of work but at least with every task and penny under our belts, we were one step closer to leaving.
Countries ridden through: From England: France, Belgium, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, a day in Brazil, Antarctica, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, USA and Canada.
Miles covered: Over 80,000
Tyres worn through: Circa 15 pairs on each bike. On my first Heidenau K60 Scout, I managed to wring 31,000 miles on the front that low and behold, still had another grand left on it.
Photographs taken: A plethora, shall we say.
Visas required: For most countries, one per country – predominantly visa on arrival.
Mechanical issues: How long have you got? It’s still too soon to say “leaking fork seals” to Jason.
Months on a container ship: 1
Lisa’s motorcycles: Formerly Pearl (2001 BMW F650GS – 49,585 miles) and Mr Jangles (Suzuki DR650)
Chain & sprockets: 8
Fuel pumps: 1
Water pumps: 4
Wheel rims: 2
Sets of wheel bearings: 4
Steering head bearings: 4
Cracked sub-frame: 1
Cracked yoke: 1
Rear shocks: 2
Stators rewound/replaced: 4
Brake pads: 6
Leaking fork seals: Too darn many!
Bikes conked out: 13
Marriage proposals: 1 (He said yes.)