Lois On The Loose

An Interview with Lois Pryce

by Molly Gilbert

When you picture a woman who is known for her long-distance solo adventures, what do you see? I immediately envision an Eleanor Roosevelt look-alike; someone huge and imposing, who would have no problem keeping others at bay, you know? Not a 5’-4” flaming red head with a sweet smile who expects the best out of all she meets. So, if you’re not taken aback already, you will be soon.

Lois Pryce’s story starts at a desk job, working for the BBC in London. Born with wanderlust unmatched in most humans, she quickly grows tired of her cube-farm hell. At age 29, after a year of saving and planning, she chucks the job and sets out for Alaska. On a 225cc Yamaha Serow trail bike, no less.

I met Lois while she was in Minnesota to make a presentation. When assigned to interview Lois about her adventures, one question nagged at me: where is your sense of fear? Now, not only is Lois the most optimistic person I have ever met, but it was interesting to hear her take on fear – that she really didn’t have much, especially once she’d set out. Fear is greatest in the beginning, with the unknown. Once you are off, you don’t have time for such late-night obsessions. When questioned where in the hell she got her glass half-full vs. glass half-empty outlook, she said that it gains momentum as you press on, as you start to realize that things simply will work out in the end.

All of us know women who ride, many of them better than us, some of whom go on great adventures; but this is on a whole different scale. Save for a five-day Tour de France, this gal had barely left London prior to taking on this trip around the world. Lois said, “How often is it in life that we make such an opportunity for ourselves?” There are very few times in one’s life where we can do such a thing, and this was her time. She didn’t know anyone who had ever done this, and she realized being just an average person, not a millionaire, hard-core long-distance rider, or even anyone particularly out of the ordinary, that she probably couldn’t afford to go around the whole world, so settled on the trip of the Americas.

Lois said she never expected to be gone for ten months (she expected six) but she did leave her job fully – no leave of absence, as she really wanted to take her time. She talked about the rarity of such an opportunity. She was unattached emotionally, so just needed to quit her job and go.

Lois claims that she has a stronger fortitude than most, due to being the only girl raised between two boys, and the fact that her parents really never told her that anything was really worthy of being scared of. Then she reveals that her mum, now 60-odd yrs of age, has recently been working as a Peacekeeper in Palestine and just took up the sport of rock climbing. Umm, yeah – I’d say mum was a pretty big influence. Shockingly, her most frightening moment was her run-in with an angry Canadian trooper. Much of the dialog between the two is absolutely hilarious. The combination of a rage-filled trooper and a naive, English gal with no insurance, a homemade license plate and a sense of independence is some serious comedy. But you’ll have to read the book for that.

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The really cool thing about all of this is she discovered her true talent, her ability to write.  And what an enjoyable read it is. We are not talking about dry, guidebook commentary. We are talking about being forced onto a train car in the middle of the night with forty Congolese soldiers, aged 10 to 19, fully armed and drunk. Lois referred to it during her talk as “the worst bachelor party you’ve ever been invited to”. Yes, the only female mixed in with a bunch of brawling, immature, drunken soldiers for a nine-hour ride. Despite the serious comedy mixed in, it’s just so absurd; you can’t imagine getting out in one piece.

Then there is her story of her off-road excursion in land mine-riddled Angola. Lois goes down the wrong road and – whoops! – finds herself in a field rimmed with signs emblazoned with skull and crossbones and “DANGER!” It makes for hilarious dinner tales later in life, but at the time you aren’t laughing so hard.

I am thinking for an adventure such as this, she went out and bought the best, newest gear, and was a bright, shining example of all the right stuff to have.  In fact, she said that she “dressed to fit in with the locals” as much as possible.  To keep cool while in the Sahara, she favored a half-helmet and goggles. Lois mentioned the importance of being able to make eye contact, or flash a quick smile at a border if needed. She found it was more difficult to make such essential connections while wearing a full-face helmet. Same thing with her gear; just an old leather jacket, jeans, sometimes leathers or whatever was on hand. Another thing she mentioned was never riding at night.  Not only for personal safety reasons, but because the roads are so unpredictable: potholes, animals, or children running out in front of you. It just wasn’t the way to go.  One needed the daylight to deal with these hazards. When I questioned her choice of the Yamaha XT-225 Serow, she said that most Americans laughed at her choice, due to everything always needing to be supposedly “bigger and better” over here. In Britain, smaller, nimbler bikes are the way to go, so the Serow was a natural choice for her.

The next question is fuel.  What do you do in the midst of the Sahara when you have no idea where the next gas pump is? “Oh, I would just rummage around in rubbish bins for old Coke bottles and fill them up and strap them to the back of the bike.” On her first trip, Lois ran with the Serow’s stock, two-gallon tank. This gave her a range of about 99 miles. She later strapped a one-gallon can to the back of the bike, which she only had to use twice on her entire first tour. For her Africa trip, she had a 22-liter/6-gallon tank, giving her Yamaha TTR250 a range of 350 miles.

The only time she ran out of gas was in Argentina, and she said that was due to sheer laziness. She flagged a car down; they took her to their house, got a can of gas then took her back to her bike. In the process, they made her tea and asked her all about the Royal Family and English football, of which she knows very little about it got her the gas she needed.

In the Sahara, she met up with a couple of other riders and rode with them, which was fortunate as there are massive stretches where there are no petrol stations. The worst stretch was the Atacama Desert in Chile, where she ran into a sign that warned, “Next gas 370 miles”. This is the point where she decided to go dumpster diving for old Coke bottles.

When I asked her if there was anything she would do differently, she said that she wished she’d taken more time in general, but specifically in Africa. She loved Angola, which she didn’t expect, and wishes she’d taken the time to absorb more of the people and culture, as she found them to be delightful. Another thing she wished she’d done: she wished she’d taken more risks. She said she wished she hadn’t fed into that general fear others had impressed upon her and decided to go here or there, or take more time while doing it. I suppose at some point you focus on where you’re going and getting from point A to point B, but enjoying the trip along the way was a theme she brought up again and again.

I asked Lois what she would suggest to the beginning rider. Her main theme was “Don’t let anyone put you off. There is a lot of fear out there, and most of it is unfounded. Follow your heart. It’s really so much easier than it appears.” She says she always tries to tell people that she is not an expert rider by any stretch of the imagination, as she only started riding in her late 20’s. Even after her trips, she does not consider herself to be an expert rider at all. She doesn’t speak loads of languages. She isn’t rich. She is just a normal person. She said that she runs into these folks that think they have to have all sorts of training, this incredible kit (toolbox), the best of everything, when you only need to have an open mind and a positive attitude.

Her message of optimism and hope, looking forward and simply taking the next, right step, is a lesson to all of us, whether motorcyclist or not. This incredible spirit of living life in the moment instead of fearing the consequences, doing instead of dreamin, being instead of wishing; all of us could use more reminders of.

When asked what were some of the most valuable lessons she’d learned, she said she learned just how resourceful one could be. How our inner strength comes out in situations when you might think you have none, and how ingenuity just appears; the ability we possess to get one’s self out of a situation that you’ve never been faced with before.

Her main message is that “everything works out in the end,” and it does – for her. I couldn’t help commenting after her talk on how others, if placed in some of these situations, may not have come out alive. She tells a story of being stopped at a border crossing – consisting of a small tent stuck in the middle of a dirt road – staffed by two Congolese soldiers. The younger was about ten-years old, the older perhaps twelve. Both carried submachine guns almost larger than them. As they looked through her paperwork, she saw some colored pictures taped up on the walls, and decided to have a look.

What she saw almost made her physically ill. There were photos of dead people hanging from a tree limb by their tongues, another completely gutted – and – well, you get the picture. She was so taken aback she couldn’t help but ask these boys what this was all about. The response? “C’est la vie.” (fatalistic French idiom meaning “Such is life.”) Several times, she mentioned the deadness of the eyes of these young soldiers. They had seen so much, been through so many horrible things, that there was simply no life left behind their eyes. So I think about the immediate potential for violence in these soldiers, how saying or doing the wrong thing could land you in hot water and it gives me a full appreciation of the personality of the person taking these travels.

Lois’s favorite places are #1, the U.S. – due to her general obsession with everything American since she was a kid. All her music is American, which partially explains her tour of the southeastern US this summer. Argentina received special mention in that it had the most handsome men and women she’d ever seen. Spain and Wales round out her top four destinations.

Mexico was one of her favorite parts of her first trip. Algeria was an amazing experience from a riding standpoint, with its beautiful scenery. As a woman, travel in Algeria was stifling; its Muslim culture not particularly ready for a very white girl riding around on a motorbike. Riding across the Sahara is the greatest thing she has ever done in her entire life. The best wildlife she saw was in Namibia, with elephants, giraffe, rhinos and “baboons running beside me.” Imagine!

As far as luggage was concerned, on her first trip, by the time she got to Mexico, she threw a lot of stuff out. On her second (Africa) trip, she packed neater, stored her gear lower and binned the front rack, all of which improved the handling of her bike.

When asked what features she looked for in a long-distance bike, she gave me two answers: a big tank and seat comfort. Hyper-freaky Gadget Geeks, take heed. Please note there is absolutely no mention of a GPS, radar detector, laptop computer, telephone or anything else electronic. Lois set off with a map and a pencil, documenting her trip with daily entries in a hand-written journal.

When questioned as to what her “dream bike” would be for her next adventure, she said she already has it: a 1978 Yamaha XT500. She prefers the older bikes due to ease of workmanship. Lois is able to handle most repairs herself and feels this is the perfect size for her. Starting on British bikes forced her to learn to tinker in order to keep them on the road. Then came a seminar on basic motoring mechanics, which helped. While acquiring off-road riding skills, she learned there is a real culture amidst off-roaders of fixing your own bike. Off-roaders, by their nature, have to figure out a fix to get home.

She made herself learn the basic things. Lois told me she would never attempt an engine rebuild, but flat tires, chain and sprocket replacements, clutch plates; are all tasks she can now handle. It is logic, she said, but she gets that it’s intimidating, especially for some girls, so she always tries to encourage gals to just take their time. Maintenance doesn’t have to be this big, scary thing. When asked what her “kit” consisted of, she answered: Spanners, sockets, Vise grips®, Leatherman®, Allen® wrenches, puncture packet, WD-40®, Zip ties and duct tape. There you go, people!

Of course, we all want to know how much an adventure like this might put you back financially, and Lois said that her first adventure (Alaska to Argentina) set her back about $20,000.

She said that the African Visas were the hardest things she had to come by. Her advice is to ask for the longest visa you can get (typically three months) and to ask for the most exit and entry points possible. Lois admits to having to resort to “a bit of forgery” in a pinch.

How did she handle money? Do you carry it on you? Need it for bribes? What about exchanging it? She basically said that she carried a certain amount of US Dollars, but otherwise she would just wait until she got to the main cities to get to an ATM and use her credit card to withdraw what she might need. She did admit to stuffing Euros in the air box and odd places on the bike as well as on her person. The air box money became a bit of a challenge to exchange as it became infused with the smell of oil. In Africa she was straight-up refused: people simply would not exchange it due to the smell.

I asked Lois if she had sponsors. She’s never had any. At first she said she specifically didn’t want them, as she had just left this boring office job where someone pretty much “owned” her. The whole point was to get away from all that. Even the feeling of needing to be somewhere at a certain time made her skin crawl. She has since gotten that out of her system. If someone wanted to give her a free bike, she’d be all over it. Lois said she knows she should probably get with the program, or she’s likely to be buried in a pauper’s grave, but again, she thinks its a bit of an English thing in that she doesn’t like to reach out and engage in much self-promotion.

There were a few “What the hell am I doing here?” moments. In Africa, there were two routes: The East coast goes through the former English Colonies, so the locals speak English and the roads have tarmac. There’s a bit of a tourist industry and all the backpackers tend to go there. The West coast has “the crazy, mad stuff,” especially the Congo. Lois wanted to see if it was really as bad as people made it out to be. It was pretty much the only country where the stories lived up to reality.

Otherwise, she had a couple of rough times at the Mexican border where she was mobbed by kids grabbing her and guys shouting at her, and then she had to try to control the situation as it was all in Spanish, which she doesn’t speak very well. She had to pay bribes to the police, so there were a few moments when she felt out of her comfort zone, but she never wished she was home or wished she hadn’t departed for the trip. “Borders really attract the hustlers. It can be hard to discern between actual officials and imposters; some wear uniforms, some do not. You just have to trust your instinct,” she said. Many times a Good Samaritan would pop up in the midst of a difficult situation and provide help. “And you know,” she said, “That probably wouldn’t have happened if I was a big tough guy on a big, bad-ass bike. But they see a girl on a bike and they feel sorry for her, so that’s OK. We’ll take it.”

She spoke of not listening to the endless tales of “fear, Fear, FEAR!” from others.  Lois believes one of the most important reasons to travel (besides keeping our own minds open) is to spread goodwill and create understanding between cultures. She continually found that she was told all of the worst possible stories from others warning her along the way, “Mexico?!?  You’re going through Mexico? Are you crazy?? You will be raped, pillaged and plundered upon crossing that border!”  She was so terrified, she delayed her departure until the very last minute of the very last day, fearing she would immediately be jumped, thrown in jail, or worse.  Of course, it was fine. Having survived the Angry Canadian Mountie, she had the chutzpah to handle those trying to swindle her for a bribe.

After all this talk about past Big Adventures, the next question was, “Where to next?” This time, Lois is riding with her husband, Austin, conducting a quick trip of the southeast United States, traveling in a Ural sidecar rig with a banjo. Yes, a banjo. She plays, and wants to immerse herself in the culture from whence that particular instrument came. She and Austin will trade off driving, so the other can rest. After that, they are taking a look at the Far East.

I asked Lois if she had difficulty coming home and dealing with mundane, daily life after such incredible adventures for months at a time. She said she really felt this after her first trip. Ten months was a long time to have completely separated from her normal style of living, so when she got back, it was a shock. Real life hit her hard and it took her a while to adjust. The Africa trip was shorter, so it wasn’t so bad. Plus, she’d been through it before so she knew what to expect. This led to the realization that six months is her perfect length of trip. Ten months was a bit much. The danger sign is when you start to say, “Yeah, yeah, another volcano – so what?” at the end of your day. When the novelty wears off, you need to go home, as the excitement and wonder is the whole point of a trip like this. You leave to get away from routine. Once the travel becomes your routine, you are in trouble. Lois knows people that have been on the road for three or five years and it has become their life. She states she would not want that. It should be like an escape.

And an escape is what Lois provided the four of us for a good three hours on a random Monday night in April. After talking with her, or reading her books, you can’t help but get the same, itchy feet that she talks about leading to her first trip of the Americas. Such adventure awaits you in this wide world – what are you waiting for?

To read more about Lois and her adventures or order her books, visit www.loisontheloose.com

M.M.M.

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