If you haven’t heard of Lael Wilcox, allow us to introduce you. Lael has spent the better part of the last decade touring around the world on her bike. It all started about 8 years ago when Lael and Nicholas Carman decided to take off on a two-month paved tour in the United States—in some ways, the ride has yet to end. Since that tour, they have been splitting their years between working to save up money and traveling by bike.
They have spent time touring throughout North America, two summers chasing dirt routes across Europe and a substantial amount of time in both South Africa and the Middle East. Recently Lael has also taken to ultra-endurance racing with great success, setting the female record for the Tour Divide in the summer of 2015, although for the both of them, travel is most important and will probably always remain the focus.
Currently, Lael is down in Baja, Mexico aboard an Advocate Cycles Hayduke where she and Nick are working on mapping and planning a roughly 2,000 mile bikepacking route through the area. In the end, they hope to be able to publish the route for others to use as a springboard for their own rides. You can check out their project online at www.bajadivide.com. We caught up with Lael during her tour and asked her a few questions about what it’s like living this lifestyle.
RK: For starters, when you aren’t riding, where do you call home?
LW: I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. That’s where my family lives so that’s where I’d call home. I don’t spend too much time in Anchorage. I don’t have a house or a car, but I’ll always go back there. When we’re not traveling we may work in different places. We’ve lived in Tacoma, Denali, Key West, Annapolis, Albuquerque, and France, but for the last eight years, we’ve spent the majority of our time riding.
RK: What do you do for work in between these long rides? Do you keep a similar schedule or does it change year to year?
LW: I usually work in restaurants as a server or a bartender. I’ve been working in restaurants since I was sixteen. The first year I cleaned a bar in the mornings and washed dishes in a cafe for the afternoons. Since, I’ve worked in at least twenty restaurants. It’s usually an easy job to find and an easy job to quit, and I enjoy the work. I’ll work hard for four to six months in a stretch, often two jobs at once. I save money so I can travel on the bike again.
I’ve done other jobs as well. I taught English in France and yoga in Anchorage and once worked the door for a bar on New Year’s. I’ll take any job I don’t dread. Although, serving is fast-paced and fast cash and I prefer it.
I don’t have a set pattern of work and bike travel. Mostly, I travel until I run out of money and pick up a job to save for the next trip and leave town when I can. It’s nice to mix it up. I’ll often live and work in different places. It’s fun and exciting to learn a new place and make new friends along the way, but I’m always ready to leave after a few months. There’s a lot to do and see.
RK: Tell us about your first extended bike tour and what effect that tour had on your cycling and the course of your life.
LW: I met Nick when I was twenty years old while in college in Tacoma, Washington. He gave me a bike so I could commute to work four miles away—otherwise I got around on foot. The bike opened up my world. I love walking, but the problem is walking takes a lot of time. The bike really speeds things up. We started biking all around town together.
At the time, one of my sisters lived in Seattle. The other sister flew in for a weekend visit. I wanted to go see them both. Normally, I would’ve taken the bus—its only $3 even with a bike. However, we didn’t have enough cash to pay the fare. So I said, hell let’s just ride there instead.
At the time, Nick and I were riding fixed gear bikes and it was definitely the longest ride of my life—45 miles. We pedaled and talked the whole way on bike paths, through industrial zones, outskirts and in town. Along the way, I turned to Nick and said, “If we can bike to Seattle, we could bike across the country!” I’d never known anyone to do it, but I could imagine the lifestyle of pedaling all day and camping somewhere different every night. We figured, I’d graduate in the spring and we’d leave from Tacoma and ride to the east coast.
I graduated, but we didn’t have any money—none. So we worked all summer, saved what we could and left in the fall. We flew into Boston to visit Nick’s sister, rode north to Montreal and south to Key West, Florida. We chased fall colors all the way to South Carolina and then rode the coast. Sometimes it was cold and hard, but we learned a lot: how to camp, eat, ride, and spend all day with each other and feel safe and free.
We ended up in Key West in November. It was the end of the road and we were out of money—it seemed like a great place to spend the winter and work. We both got jobs as pedicab drivers and I worked in a restaurant. We shared a small house on a tropical lane with a French guy who assumed the name Jack. We dove off the pier for lobsters and I spent many afternoons at the outdoor laundromat down the street because we only had two white work-shirts. Besides, Felix the coffee man made good Cuban coffee and sassed me cause I was from Alaska. He called me Palin.
We saved enough money in three months to ride out of town and we haven’t stopped since. That was eight years ago.
RK: What do you look forward to most on these adventures? Is it the riding itself, travel to new places, seeing new cultures and landscapes? Tell us what it is that makes you want to live this lifestyle.
LW: This is my life. How does anyone look forward to their life? Do they appreciate what they have? Do they daydream about what could be different? Do they daydream about other places or other people’s lives? Does traveling on the bike allow me to do all of these things? Yes.
I see and experience and feel new things everyday with my best friend in the whole world. We do this together. And then we talk about it. And then we sleep next to each other on the ground and then we wake up and do it again and pedal somewhere else. What else could I want?
It’s not always easy and sometimes it rains and sometimes we fight, but that’s life. Life is not always easy, but it can be damn good.
I look forward to mixing it up. And along the way, I look forward to sunny weather and climbing mountains and sleeping hard and smiling until the wrinkles at the ends of my eyes hurt.
What I look forward to most is going somewhere new every day.
Everywhere I’ve been, Ukraine, South Africa, Israel, I’ve been invited in and I feel like a special guest. People see us on the bikes—they’re curious about us and we’re curious about them. To be invited into someone’s home, you learn so much about how they live and what they care about. If we share a language, then we talk. If we don’t, then we do our best. It’s real and it matters.
In the end, I guess we find a home away from home. We learn new places. We ride our bikes and we’re happy.
RK: Why did you decide on Baja? What was it about the area that made you want to ride and travel there?
LW: Baja is just south of California and, snowbiking aside, it’s one of the last mountainous places we could ride in North America in winter. We rode here five years ago, mostly on narrow, paved Highway 1. This time we came back with bigger tires and less luggage to ride a mostly dirt route. To do this, Nick invested a lot of time and money into printed and digital maps. We’ve decided to commit more time to this project to ultimately publish a high quality route for other riders to enjoy in the future. This means we’ll probably ride the peninsula again this spring to explore alternative routing. I’ve come to learn that the Hayduke is the perfect bike for Baja. The 27.5+ wheels eat up loose rock, sand and washboard.
The peninsula is a desert, the least populous region in Mexico, with open water on either side. On Christmas Eve, we arrived at the dead end of a dirt road. A family was slaughtering a cow and they invited us to stay for dinner and singing and breakfast.
In the month we’ve been here, we’ve ridden along both coastlines, spent a lot of time in the mountains, and encountered lots of fresh water and the camping has been awesome, with mostly clear skies.
Throughout this ride, we have been working on connecting dirt roads and rough jeep tracks as much as possible. We hope to share our route with others and encourage them to ride here too.
RK: What’s next? Any plans after your time in Baja?
LW: We plan to be here for another month or two. We’ll be riding with friends and working on the route and then we’ll see. I’ll need to work sometime in the next few months. We might go back to Alaska to ride fatbikes in the snow. I’d love to ride parts of the Iditarod Trail and in the White Mountains near Fairbanks.
RK: Thanks so much, we wish you all the best in the rest of your Baja tour and will be excited to see where you end up next.
All photos courtesy Nicholas Carman