Constant companionship is the best and worst thing about long-distance motorcycle travel.
Words Lisa Morris Images Jason Spafford
The grueling satisfaction of long days, side-by-side on motorcycles, can make or break a relationship. Life together on motorcycles is an extraordinary adventure, packed with more highs than lows, and every time I ride with my partner, Jason, I love him more — even the days I loathe him. He and I are five years into a two-wheeled story that's still unfolding.
“Hi, I’m Jason,” said a man with a defined body. When I met him on a scuba excursion in Egypt in 2000, I was 19 years old. He was 31, and I wanted his attention and did everything I could to impress him above and below the waterline. It wasn’t until the last day of our trip — when, in the Hurghada Desert, Jason ran his four-wheeler over me, broke three of my ribs, and punctured one of my lungs — that he gave me the attention I’d wanted. Getting run over by a guy is the greatest reason to stay in touch.
Over the next 10 years, we settled into a routine, and soon we yearned for the intensity of our first days together. I remember us writing letters, passionate things full of innuendo and dopey sentiment. I still smile when I recall Jason, ever the sophisticate, saying he liked that I wasn’t one of those “glamorous types.”
We never defined success by our income or our postcode, and neither of us seemed cut out for domesticity, so we decided to live our life on the road. We didn’t have children and we weren’t married, so why not take an 18-month, 80,000-mile trip through 21 countries in the Americas? I bought Pearl, a factory-lowered ‘01 BMW F650GS I found on eBay, because I liked the color. It matched my helmet, much to Jason’s exasperation. Amusingly, Jason used my bike as our pack mule and saved his ’08 BMW F800GS for his “tech" — a camera, its lenses, and a drone. “If I want to be better wife material, this is how I do it,” I thought as we rode onto the container ship destined for Uruguay.
Jason was the mechanic and guide, flawlessly navigating each day. He brought me coffee every morning and picked up my fully laden bike after I crashed. He applauded every time I showed independence and spatial awareness, and I made him laugh, gave him compliments when he needed confidence, and corrected his atrocious spelling and grammar.
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: the same person who is often the source of them. If I had a pound for every time I swallowed the words, "Come on Captain Slow, give it some beans!” Thankfully, we're not grudge-bearers, but heaven forbid one of us got hangry. Our 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.
Even though you love your partner, there’s only one person to listen to your frustrations: the same person who is often the source of them.
We were in Argentina, en route to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, riding 145 miles on a sandy mountain pass on the border between the two countries. I envied Jason’s riding ability and watched in awe as he effortlessly rode along the soft trail. I arrived at the Chile border broken; I dismounted slowly, like I was lowering myself into an ice bath. That night, Jason sat me down and said I was a liability and my riding style was putting us at unnecessary risk. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I didn’t want to hear a word of it, but I needed to. The repercussions of my slow, tortured riding through a remote region became clear to me: provisions ran dry, bikes overheated, daylight ran out.
I awoke after a fitful night’s sleep, ready to not make the same mistakes again. I opened Pearl’s throttle further, feeling far less strained and more in control. I started having fun, and soon Jason yelled through our intercom, “Lise, slow the chuff down, will you? I’m struggling to keep up. See, you can do it.” A vexing route on the way there was velvety on our way back. I’d never ridden as aggressively before. As I rode over loose rocks, I whooped and yipped. This was good wife material. “You're riding like a pro today, I’m impressed," said Jason. He’s said that to me only a handful of times.
On the road to the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve in northern Chile, I had three spectacular crashes. Wheel-arch-deep in the sand, I demurred. Jason insisted. I acquiesced. I blinked the sweat out of my eyes, but the day got harder from there. Jason shot me murderous looks, yelling over the intercom, “Come on, I need you to get moving! Now! Just come on!” My acid-laced response to leave me alone might as well have been the droning of insects for all the attention the bugger paid. Emotion charged the air, the skies darkened, and we erected our tent in pitch black as temperatures dropped to seven below.
Our stint in Bolivia tried our contentment and 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. Jason and I had just conquered some of Guatemala’s craggy Grutas de Lanquín National Park when we came across huge billboards: “Guatemala needs work, not promises.” Unbeknownst to us, elections were coming up, and on the road to town, protesters set up a blockade of barbed wire in an effort to attract the government’s attention. The activists wanted to be heard and wouldn’t be seen letting two gringos slip through their net.
As worthy as their demonstration was, it was hot, I was famished, and I erupted. I almost stopped sobbing when I saw Jason gesture his concern to the leader about my unborn baby. Uh, what? When I met the crowd’s stare, reading only defiance, the volume of my distress rose. An insufferable woman now grieving her womb, dry-heaving through a muss of snot, tears, and filth. I streamed some more before Jason asked, “Lisa, are you alright or are you just creating?” Inside I fidgeted like a fish on a spear, but it worked and we were allowed to pass through. Even to this day, I’m ashamed of our behavior.
Rough roads, tedious traffic patrol, and pesky roadblocks notwithstanding, the stars and universe sometimes do align. Huascarán National Park in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range of western Peru is home to 600 glaciers and packed full of Andean leviathans that soar above 13,000 feet. En route to this mountainous utopia was Yanama, a tiny pueblo where local children shrilled happily in the plaza while parents cracked tienda doors to welcome the breeze. The ride to the peak drained me — a narrow dirt trail peppered with potholes and ruts, packed with rocks, on the backbone of a ridge between two ragged shards of mountain. At least I had Jason cheering me on: "Just keep doing what you're doing,” he’d say.
Occasionally road patrol stopped us to check our paperwork or elicit a bribe, but I’d learned that nothing ends a conversation quicker than accidentally revealing one’s feminine products or underwear. On the road north to Cañón del Pato, Pearl’s rear end flailed around more than usual, grappling with the ripio, a splintered mishmash of sharp pointed rocks in the compacted dirt. Then, after a hard turn, she skidded to an abrupt stop and slumped hard. The rear shock linkage had broken, the suspension snapped clean in half.
Cars blew 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 shop. Eventually, an Argentinean moto-angel named Damien rocked up on a Honda Tornado 250, his girlfriend sitting on the back. With his help, we prised the faulty parts off my bike and we all rode two-up to a welding shop in Chimbote.
On the outskirts of town, we were pulled over by the local traffic patrol. Thanks to Damien, we got to know police chief Igor, who gave us a flashing-lights escort to the welding shop. The welders saw our convoy coming, dropped everything, did a sterling job fixing my suspension, and only charged me a tenner. Igor insisted upon finding us accommodations; saucy wall art adorned glossy red walls, and an unapologetically giant mirror hung adjacent to a vibrating bed wrapped in plastic sheets. In our first “love hotel,” Jason fell asleep almost instantly. Pity.
By the time we reached Prudhoe Bay, Alaska’s northernmost navigable road, I’d given up on Pearl — Mr. Jangles, the Suzuki DR650 I bought on the road, is some 100 pounds lighter than Pearl — but I never gave up on Jason. We endured off-road pains together, and I now have a terrific fondness for him; a conviction that our partnership has gone the distance and is here to stay. 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 a lot of discomfort. But never once I did I worry about us.
We were changed by riding through the Americas. During our trip, I decided against having a kid, which surprised the heck out of Jason. We want to see where an unscripted future takes us. Though after 16 years I got tired of waiting for him to propose, so in 2016, while watching the grey whales in Mexico, I asked Jason to marry me. He said, “I guess I’ve run out of excuses, haven’t I?”
Our biographies are so intertwined that we share nearly every page. Our partnership has gone the distance and is here to stay. Being in each other’s company as often as we are borders on unhealthy, but riding alone is as fun as a funeral. We’ve fallen for constantly changing horizons, whether we’re standing in a colony of Gentoo penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, or watching humpbacks bubble-net feed beneath us, or seeing the Bonneville Salt Flats fade in our rearview mirrors. It’s an endless loop of sunrises and sunsets, of nights spent under skies ablaze with stars. Tension trickles from our bodies, leaving us as light as dandelion seeds.
We thrive on adventure, endlessly rugged and a little dangerous, and share our successes and failures. We live at large, and the thrill of motorcycling together has made our lives tender and raw, tough but euphoric, and absolutely, inextricably linked. There is nothing better than sharing your life with someone. For me, that someone is Jason: my soulmate, my best friend, sometimes my opponent, but always the love of my life.
This article was originally featured in Issue 037 of Iron & Air Magazine.