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2022 Overlanders of the Year :: Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford of Four Wheeled Nomad

Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford

Our list of candidates for 2022 included many worthy travelers, all mixing it up in a world that has been decidedly shaken rather than stirred these past few years. Ultimately, we chose long-time travelers Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford for their propensity to embrace change and create adventure no matter their whereabouts. Formerly known as Two Wheeled Nomad, the couple swapped their two wheels (each) for four (total) and now employ their 2015 Toyota Hilux, “White Rhino,” to charge forward on the roads less traveled.

Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford

In order to make the best of 2020, the pair returned to England, saving funds while they worked in the healthcare industry, exploring Scotland and other locales close to home while putting designs on the future. In a radical change of course, Lisa and Jason decided to volunteer at an ashram in India in 2021; the venture was delayed due to travel restrictions but then green-lighted for June 2022. While not specifically related to overlanding, the ashram was an outside-of-the-box solution to travel in uncertain times and was not without its share of risk. It’s a perfect example of life (as an overlander) moving on, though maybe in a different form than expected.

With the ashram squarely in the rearview mirror, Lisa and Jason explored the wilds of Nepal and the Upper Mustang. Currently back in the UK for a regrouping session, they have their sights planted on another Nordic expedition in January.

Interview with Lisa Morris over the span of a few months:

Before beginning your overloading adventures, you and Jason were dive instructors on scuba safaris. Where did this job take you in the world, both literally and figuratively?

Our initial f’underwater adventure in the Red Sea was how it all began, where we met in 2000. Over a decade, we plunged passionately into the global diving industry. The shine didn’t wear off, although scubaing for us eventually took priority. This change saw us dive world-class sites, sometimes over a year at a time. Namely, shore-based diving and liveaboards off Southeast Asia and the Maldives; the shores of Australia and New Zealand; the Bahamas, Galapagos Islands, and Mexico; and along the South and East Africa coastlines, to name a few.

I’ll always treasure how simple we made life back then, carrying a backpack full of dive gear and little else. Our bond and understanding of each other’s behaviors underwater became so strong that Jason and I developed our own sign language. This watery era consolidated a mutual love for travel. It felt natural for me to start writing with so much stimulus while Jason established himself as an underwater photographer. It’s been a continual joy to hone these creative outlets. And for me, it tied in with the mindful decision to deny my brain turning to mush.

Lisa Morris with motorcycle

Alas, my dad died without warning when I was 16, which flicked a one-way internal switch. From that moment, every cell in my body changed track—to live less conventionally and get out there. Through a friend, I fell into scuba diving. I may have projected to the world, perhaps attracted a “Jason.” Fortunately, neither of us defined success by our salaries or postcode, nor did we seem cut out for long-term domesticity. Jase has always suffered from an indescribable restlessness when tied to one spot for too long. In 2014, after several extended trips together, we chose to be location-independent. It’s corny, but my home is where Jason is.

In 2014, you sold the house, packed your belongings in what sounds like precious few boxes, and hit the road on two sets of two wheels. While Jason had moto experience, you had very little. Was it a steep learning curve, or did you catch right up? Would you recommend others learn on the road?

Hah! I began biking thanks to winning the runner-up prize in a competition at Motorcycle Live—a taster session astride a 50cc automatic. Until then, I’d never ridden anything other than a donkey as a kid. With only weeks before the Americas trip, not long after passing my test, I sourced Pearl, a factory-lowered ’01 BMW F 650 GS. The primary reason [was that] it complemented my helmet, much to Jason’s despair. I still had a turning circle of the container ship taking us there, fearful of leaning the bike into corners.

A natural rider, I was not. This was tantamount to enduring countless slow-speed crashes mingled with too many near misses. I am the cat with nine lives. It took a year of being painstakingly mentored [via] intercom on technical terrain. Despite needing to, I didn’t want to hear the stream of pep talks. Jason often opined: ‘Give it some beans!’ or ‘Suck it up, princess, I can’t ride your bike for you,’ courtesy of Spafford’s School of Motivation. Admittedly, I impeded myself with a refusal to ‘let go’ in the loose stuff and believe in my capability as much as Pearl’s. Not to mention the relapses on the dirt if I’d spent time back on tarmac. Gritting our teeth, we remained sanguine that the act of motorcycling had to advance my riding—sooner or later.

Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford

Beforehand, I should have better considered less is more where size does matter. Overladen at 530 pounds, Pearl (already heavy for her class) was sadly fulfilling neither of the above. After Alaska, I invested in a 2001 Suzuki DR650, 100 pounds lighter than my former beauty. He glided over gravel, encouraged me to weight shift confidently, and revolutionized my off-road riding. My recommendation if you are going to learn heuristically on the road [is to] get a bike that will give you unbridled joy every mile of the way.

In your partnership, you write the words, and Jason illuminates the stories with his photography. Did you evolve into those roles naturally?

Absolutely. I studied English in college and love indulging in a bit of wordcraft. From [age] 14, Jase hasn’t really put his penchant for photography down. It’s a practical division of labor, and we cherish our personal affairs with them. When engrossed in those, one of us is always unbedevilled by time.

After 4.5 years and 80,000 miles of moto adventures exploring the globe “bottom to top,” what made you switch to four wheels? Would you ever (or do you) go back to two?

After our two-wheeled ride in the Americas, we transitioned to a 2015 Toyota Hilux, affectionately called White Rhino. After years astride the bikes, we yearned for a mode of transport that provided self-sufficiency beyond a charging point on the handlebars and with more refrigeration than a double-walled flask—facilitation of a lock-up and walk away from your rig freedom.

The fully featured splendor afforded by a four-berth rooftop tent, solar and lithium power, mains sockets throughout, an onboard shower, gallons of refrigerated magic, a gull-wing kitchen, drawer loads of lockable storage, and a convertible awning to annex room brought overlanding bliss. All-terrain [tires], a beefy suspension, a winch, and a snorkel took us practically anywhere we wanted. Scaling volcanoes in Iceland is a testament to that. Gloriously, instead of feeling wiped out from 300 moto miles, we emerged full of vigor for outdoor activity after driving the truck equivalent.

Now [that] we’ve sampled both camps, the pair of us ache for two wheels periodically. Motorcycling breeds a raw excitement born from a vulnerability that, arguably, a big cage on wheels doesn’t achieve in the same way. For sure, there are future bike trips in us.

Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford Toyota HiLux

In preparation for a Cape to Cape journey through Africa, you roamed some of the Nordic countries in White Rhino. You had to scrap that trip when that which shall not be named struck, opting to explore areas closer to home that were available to you, namely Scotland. It appears you uncovered a great wealth of experience in your “backyard.” Are there any other stones left unturned in the UK that pique your interest from an overloading perspective?

Thankfully, 2019 saw us make substantial inroads on the Cape to Cape jaunt. During the six-month road trip, we wended our way from the UK to Nordkapp, Northern Norway, ferried over to hoof it across the windswept Faroes, and later docked in Iceland for a winter of sublime hiking craziness. [It’s a] shame we were forced into lockdown and never made it onto African soil. An even greater shame that we had already shipped the truck to Africa when Covid-19 hit. Definitely chalked that one down to “Stuff happens, right?’ Apparently, White Rhino had a blast, although he never sent us a postcard.

As far as the UK goes, it will always be there. Plenty of unexplored pockets remain, southern Ireland being one of those, swimming with basking sharks off the Isle of Man another. I’d also like to feast my eyes on more private estate land and the Shetland Isles in Scotland—a stunning part of Great Britain.

You went back to the traditional workforce in the last couple of years, working for the healthcare industry, stockpiling for your next adventures. Overlanders were pushed into semblances of their old lives in droves, and while more and more are pushing on as of late, many are still staying put or pursuing brand-new enterprises. Which leads me to India…

After nigh 20 years of travel, Jase and I reached a crossroads. It took a while to get to this place: two years of walking a more conscious path. Or a lifetime, depending on how you look at it. Our former lives of backpacking, diving, biking, and so forth continue to amass in a Russian doll. [We were] happy to turn our eyes to the east with a world of intrigue, press[ing] pause on the quest for our next epic adventure from the external world. Never before have we gone inward to seek and find that sacred space within ourselves. In the spirit of inquiry, I [was] keen to examine what [would] happen when we [did].

Gratefully, we were accepted on an intensive program called Sadhanapada, headed by a spiritual leader named Sadhguru at the Isha Yoga Centre in Southern India. The day started with the sound of drums at 4:30 a.m. and finished around 9:30 p.m. We’d complete our morning and evening practices, between which we undertook eight hours of seva (volunteering), were given two nutritious meals, and hand-washed our clothing.

Lisa Morris in India

While it was a seven-month program, we found the self-discipline to fully immerse ourselves for nearly three—still quite the journey of self-transformation. Admittedly, the schedule, the ashram, and the Indian culture were a lot to drink in. We embarked on a spiritual experience outside the physical realm while aspiring toward a firmware upgrade. Specifically, we unlearned the essence of who we were, dissolved some of our strong likes and dislikes, and gained a greater inner balance. Aside from shedding a good few pounds, unearthing a more in-depth part of our authentic selves was a loaded experience.

Since leaving India, Jason and I have maintained our practices and continue to reap the benefits. Yoga practices and kriya meditation increase energy levels, reduce stress and anxiety, make you smarter, and improve cardiac health. It can also ward off age-related illnesses. After nearly three years of practice, I’d argue that our time devoted to introspection feels like having a shower on the inside. I feel a sparkling cleanliness inside my inner temple. Namely, it’s put me in touch with a deeper sense of knowing, my conscious awareness—it’s the clarity I was lacking before.

Jason Spafford and Motorcycle

Now that your stint with the ashram is concluded, you’ve gotten back to your overlanding roots full force. Could you tell us what the future may bring?

Ultimately, the Sadhanapada program made us profoundly appreciate our ungoverned life on the road. Once we felt satiated, the obvious route for us was to take a sleeper train out of India and hightail it into Nepal, imbibing what we came for from Isha.

We’ve just returned from our first 10-day trekking sojourn in the Upper Mustang region of the Himalayas. Not having hoofed it at over 14,000 feet in some time, we rose to the challenge, slowly but surely. The pair of us were bowled over by the obscenely big landscapes and [wide-open] sky—so vast that I forgot all sense of self by the infinite. The way the locals still live in the most remote parts (mud floors and a hole in the ground were commonplace) felt like jumping back 1,000 years. Tibetan Buddhism and social and cultural traditions have stayed [strong here].

Further through-treks in the Himalayas look promising on the horizon, although it’s difficult to know how they’ll compare with the Upper Mustang. A wonderful problem to have, for sure. Aside from the Khumbu region near Everest, there’s trekking in Manaslu, Upper Dolpo, and Langtang. The lush expanse of the foothills is perhaps Nepal’s best-kept secret. And then there’s Nepal’s last nomadic gypsies, the Raute and Janjati, known for subsistence hunting of macaque and langur monkeys. There’s much more to do.

Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford Toyota HiLux

Words of wisdom to those just setting out?

Know that it’s no real consequence where you start or end up. Everything and everyone present on your journey matter most—rarely the final destination. If you don’t arrive where you’re headed, that’s not necessarily a negative, maddening as it may feel—you’ll have spent time absorbing the enthralling places and personalities along the way. No doubt, the first trip won’t be your last. You’ll evolve after every one and refine your wants and needs for the next.

What counts is that you’re out there channeling all that energy into a new landscape of experience—come freezing one’s maracas off in a winter wilderness or having the mind and cobwebs blown in a sun-scorched valley. Ultimately, overlanding will make your one wild and precious life layered with substance, sometimes hard-going, but often euphoric. And above all else, you’ll be enriched.


Images: Jason Spafford and Lisa Morris

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A steadfast believer in the power of words, Tena can usually be found with her eyes turned toward some source of written knowledge, be it for pleasure, information, or planning her next adventure. Recognizing the value of the spoken word as well (unless it is coming from her GPS, in which case, she is perfectly capable of getting lost on her own), Tena finds there is no substitute for confabulation. Refuge from the monotony of the everyday is found by immersing herself in her surroundings—whether in an exotic locale or her backyard—and disconnecting from technology and seeking solace in the great outdoors is a cure well taken. While vehicles are a component for overlanding, she finds enthusiasm provides the only fuel required to get you there.