RTW before RTW was cool.
Pioneers and trailblazers are seldom recognized in their time. How many great minds, for example, are only revered posthumously? For Elspeth Beard, it has only taken 35 years.
Back in 1982, when the then-23-year-old first approached motorcycle dealers and magazines for support in her round-the-world endeavour, she was met with indifference, chauvinism, and derision: A woman on a motorbike? And you want to travel where?
Their dismissiveness only made her more determined, but even after she completed her now-iconic two-and-a-half-year odyssey (notably without their help), the press was uninterested, and friends and family had little to say. In particular, her parents’ mix of disapproval and apathy was both bewildering and heartbreaking. So, she packed her journals and photos in a box and forgot about them, turning instead to her (eventually award-winning) career in architecture and remodeling a century-old London water tower into her own unique home.
In the early 2000s, stories of her conquest began circulating on the internet, and Elspeth received a call from a Hollywood film company wishing to buy the rights to her story. It was then that she realized she needed to write a book, before the moviemaking machine took her story and made it into something that never was — something of which she could not be proud.
It took her three long years of poring through her journals, identifying photos, researching place names, and then the inevitable writing, editing, and rewriting, but in 2017, Lone Rider was released.
Told with honesty and vulnerability, her masterful writing simply flows. As for the adventure — well, it speaks for itself. I find it a delight that the dyslexic schoolgirl who was told she was “thick” can now school us in adventure riding while offering electives in courage and resourcefulness.
I met Elspeth at a Horizons Unlimited event in Virginia where we heard her account firsthand, and of course, I asked her to sign my copy of her book. She struck me as immensely talented, tenacious, and graceful — traits which she had to call upon many times during her undertaking, from teaching herself how to rebuild her 1974 BMW R60/6 with just a Haynes manual; to navigating and finding accommodation in a time before cell phones, internet, or GPS; to rebuffing unwanted male attention; and to, of course, earning money en route to keep going.
Hers is an odyssey in the classic sense: a perilous journey that changes the protagonist. Elspeth seeks love and meaning and finds — often through challenge and heartbreak — self-love and understanding, wisdom, and quiet fortitude. Riding more than 56,000 km across the U.S. and through Australia, Thailand, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Iran — over mountain and desert, through war, corruption, illness, and endless bureaucracy — she discovers that loneliness is “a high price to pay for independence.” On top of that, the uniqueness of her pursuit “was setting me apart from almost everyone I met or knew.” They just didn’t get it.
But the life lessons she gained were foundational: “Surviving a life-threatening accident taught me to worry less about what lay ahead,” and “the journey taught me that making plans was pointless. The only way to survive was to take one mile at a time.”
From the Thai mechanic who refused payment, to the Aussie who helped her fashion some lockable aluminum panniers, to the poor rural family who nursed her back to health after a brutal crash, one episode after another demonstrated what we hear from so many long-distance travellers: people are good. Oh sure, she encountered a few who were damaged and dangerous, but time and again, she found that people would freely and generously go out of their way to help her.
Finally, returning through more affluent Western Europe, she observed how much her experience had changed her: “It struck me that people in poorer countries appeared happier, even though they had very little. It was clear to me now how easy it is to take things for granted and forget to be grateful for the basics in life: family, food, and shelter.”
Already, Lone Rider has become a classic in the genre alongside Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels and Sam Manicom’s four-book set, which is the highest of praise. The stories of romance, friendship, the angst of young adulthood, the danger, and the humour — not to mention a heart-wringing conclusion — all set Lone Rider apart as that rare travel story that will appeal to readers of all interests.
Elspeth has since ridden extensively elsewhere. When I asked her if we could expect more writing from her in future, she reflected on how much work was involved in getting a book to print and into readers’ hands, and the many other projects she has on the go, like converting two more water towers into homes for clients. She has, however, just released a terrific hardcover companion piece, Lone Rider – The Photographs, which contains 450 colour photos with additional stories and background.
Both books are available from her website, elspethbeard.com, for £10.99 and £25.00 respectively. The paperback and audiobook can be found on Amazon.ca for $26.21.
This one absolutely belongs at the top of your must-read list.