Native Texan Kate Murray, along with her husband Alex, are on the honeymoon of a lifetime: riding their two Kawasaki KLR 650s, “Lil Bird” and “Cactus,” from Alaska to Antarctica. Recently they’ve been joined by two additional trekkers, Falko and Sarah from Germany, bringing the crew up to four. Kate sat down with Matador to talk overland travel advice, dance competitions in Mexico, and the ups and downs of being a female motorcyclist traveling the Americas.
Matador: When did you start riding?
Kate: My very first moments on a motorcycle were on the boda-boda taxis in Uganda and Rwanda, circa 2011. I was on the back - not driving - but it sparked a desire to ride which I carried home with me. When I first met Alex in early 2012, he was commuting on a 1988 Limited Edition Ducati Paso 750 in rare blue, which caught my attention. My first moments driving were in late 2013 on a 1971 Yamaha CT90 which we bought for dirt cheap on Craigslist, and which sputtered out thick white smoke as it tugged along.
I only spent 5% of all my riding time in Uganda on paved roads - and that 5% was in the chaotic traffic of the capital, Kampala. By the end of , I was practiced in dodging potholes, cows, kids, buses, and other bikes... riding through knee-deep water, mud, and loose dirt... controlling the fishtail halt with a flat rear tire... carrying live chickens on my handlebars and two passengers on the back.
Learning to ride in Uganda is, without a doubt, the core of the reason I feel most comfortable in off-road, adventure riding circumstances. I will choose a crazy back road over the paved highway, any day.
M: Tell us about how MotoTraverse came to be.
K: In May 2014, in Uganda, we were attending a triathlon in Fort Portal when a lanky German dude pulled up to the hostel on a Honda dirt bike. We could tell he had traveled a long way on the bike, and were both interested in talking to him. We didn't learn his name that night, but the next day, I watched him trudge up a huge hill after his bike pedals fell off. He did it with a smile, got a new bike, and finished the course without a loss of positive demeanor in any way. This was not a triathlon or landscape for the faint of heart, and this guy was just exuding happiness. We hosted Falko, our new German friend, in Gulu for a couple of weeks and started a friendly and consistent exchange across the country.
About two months later, we ended up taking a trip across Uganda on Falko's dirt bike. After rough and dangerous 13-hour days on the bike, and at a challenging point in Alex and I's relationship, the ride and the time with Falko brought us closer together and spurred on the initial repair of bridges that had broken down between us.
It was also the weekend when we discussed the ride from Alaska to Antarctica in a serious way. It was a decision that Alex and I were making together, but it also just seemed natural that Falko was a part of the process. I can't remember even specifically asking him if he wanted to join - he was just on board. He also ended up serving as one of our two officiants for our wedding in March 2016.
So I guess in a poetic sense, MotoTraverse is as much about the repairing and formation of relationships with motorcycles as a conveyor, as it is about the ride itself.
M: How does moving overland on bikes change your experience compared to the classic backpacking methods of travel?
K: For me, traveling by motorcycle puts me more in touch with the landscape and its changes, and exposes me not only to the environment but also to a greater number of social interactions with depth.
The driving time itself is usually made up entirely of reflection, too. The challenges and discomforts of being on a bike lead me to have a greater level of appreciation for the comforts and kindnesses we are afforded, and the need to solve problems also breaks down many barriers between myself and the people we meet along the way.
Having a bike means we can go where we want, when we want - including onto paths that might be too long for a hiker, too rough for a car, or not visited frequently or at all by other forms of transport. But it also means frequent gas station visits, roadside maintenance, mishaps, excited conversations, and more.
M: Three of your favorite stops so far on the trip?
K: Wowee, difficult question. I will have to choose unique experiences, the serendipity of which I do not believe can be recreated. Each of these exchanges significantly reinvigorated my love for travel and for the human race (and my place in it).
First was in Waterville, Washington, a tiny town of about 1,000 people that is set among endless golden wheat fields. We ended up at the Historic Waterville Hotel for a night because the building drew me in and I thought it a nice stopping point to regain blood flow in my butt. The inspiration I experienced from the time at their hotel and the exchange we shared with them is unmatched by anything else on this trip.
Second was caused by a breakdown in rural Nevada. As we drove fast through stifling heat, Alex's chain flew off the bike and I swerved out of its way. Luckily the chain did not bunch and lock up his rear tire, or cause a crash for either of us, but it did tear up some essential wiring and parts in the process. We ended up in front of one of two houses to be found in the entire desolate landscape, and by the end of the day were sleeping in their yard, sharing dinner with them, getting all sorts of assistance, and answering endless questions from their three kids.
Not only did they help us get back on the road safely, but the experience gave me great insight into the depth human kindness despite perceived difference or separation. We are still in contact with this family, and they have continued supporting our journey. I think of them each time I approach a stranger for assistance.
Third was in the city of Mérida, Mexico - a beautiful city with colonial era architecture, amazingly delectable and cheap cuisine, and a wide array of natural and man-made gems to explore nearby. Our fantastic host - a highlight in and of himself - took us on a walk through the historic centro after dinner. The rest of the story is as I told it on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/BK-4-cnh4g2/?taken-by=mototraverse
M: Okay, how about three of the most challenging moments?
K: Yaaa now we're really getting into it. I have to give two categories to the challenges:
On the bike:
Facing my own physical limits and mental doubts during the first week of serious long distance riding, when we were trying to make way too many miles per day and were dealing with California traffic.
Riding through a surprise, marble-sized hailstorm outside of Kelowna in Canada that left me totally pissed at Alex and with visible welts and bruises despite my full protective gear
Sitting on the back of the bike and giving up control after crossing North America on my own bike [editors note: this is when Falko joined Kate and Alex in South America.]
Off the bike:
Diving head first into depths and intricacies of marriage only two months after the wedding, and amidst 24/7 exposure to each other in constantly changing and often stressful circumstances
Being apart of my family and friends, particularly my six-year-old nephew, during high and low moments.
Money. Budgeting and finances have been a recurring stressor, and I miss working - not only for money but for the particular work that I was doing... I felt inspired and inspiring every day.
M: How have you been received as a woman on a bike?
K: The average reaction is definitely a solid double- or triple-take, particularly if they catch me in the moment just after helmet removal. I joke that it feels like people are hoping for some movie scene, where I shake my hair back, raise an eyebrow, and give them some sultry stare. But the reality is most of the time I'm a sweaty mess.
I thoroughly enjoy countering the norm and providing an example of a capable female rider. But I tend to resent some reactions of the surprise because the surprise insinuates that the first assumption was the lack of capability, or that "my place" is only on the back of the bike.
All of this definitely flows into a topic I am passionate about - that women are generally presented and viewed as a sex object paired with a motorcycle, rather than as an empowered subject in control of the machine. This takes on both overt and subtle forms and expressions. Even the most accomplished female riders end up getting put into advertisements in a certain position or lacking all their gear.
Elspeth Beard is the first badass lady biker that comes to mind, and I think her first ride around the world years ago is a fantastic representation and example that does not align with all the struggles I mentioned above.
There are some great collection feeds like @dualsportwomen, some events like @thedreamroll, and a lot of individuals riders: @lea_rieck is riding solo around the world, @mallorydangerpaige rides around the U.S. with her dog in a sidecar, @megs_braap is a professional dirt biker, and @thejessicombs is a metal fabricator as well as driver/racer.
M: What advice you would give someone considering a big overland moto-trek?
K: Do your research. Find the bike that works for you, and get familiar with it. Gear up your body and the bike on many practice rides. Save as much money as you can - you will be glad to have saved more than you think necessary. Know your travel partners and set standards for communication amongst yourselves.
Do as much maintenance yourself - don't visit the dealer. Listen to your limits. Slow down. Immerse yourself. Ask for directions and recommendations. Remember that it's not about coloring in the longest route as "accomplished" or having the certain photo of a place - it's about what you experience along the way.