True Grit is Female: Respect for Elspeth Beard

I just watched the movie, True Grit (2010) and noticed how the promotional poster highlights the names, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin. This really bothered me, especially the highlighting of Brolin who plays a bit part, considering that the film is truly about the young teenager, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who perseveres to bring justice after her father is murdered.

Ross needs the support of two trackers and must constantly coax and motivate them, even though they ridicule her, by using articulate words and appealing to their better nature and their “grit.” She’s the one who eventually shoots and kills the murderer, and yet the notion of true grit is still not credited to her, but rather the drunken character Rooster Cogburn who finally steps up when she’s bitten by a snake. But maybe this is part of the genius of True Grit… tricking the audience into thinking they are watching something about men, when it’s really about women! Kind of sad, but it worked.

All this to say that I feel that the characteristic of true grit or perseverance should be doled out more frequently to women – women like Elspeth Beard, a hero of mine!

There was only one thing I wanted for my 40th birthday, and that was a copy of Elspeth Beard’s memoir, Lone Rider: the first British woman to motorcycle around the world. September 27th came and went, and Scott was discouraged because the book had been ordered well in advance. He ordered a second copy, and two months later they both arrived! One for me, and one for a rad library patron who grew up in logging camps and ripped around the backroads on a dirtbike since her dad was a logger.

I had trolled Beard online for some time, featuring her photos of her global adventure on my Pinterest board: Vintage Women Motorbike Riders.  I was fascinated by Beard because she was only 23 years old when she took off on her 1974 BMW R60/6 to ride around the world, and in 1982 there was no wifi, no email, no cell phones or GPS, and there was definitely still prejudice towards women! I could find little about her story or any media coverage, so what a relief to finally get the inside scoop, and this book was worth the wait.

The book triggered some personal memories of being 23 and travelling solo. While my trips were not remotely as hardcore as Beard, there were some similar motivations. I shipped myself over to Europe with my skateboard three summers in a row to wander around, compete in skateboarding contests and demos, often being the only female participating, having dudes assume I was a “loose woman” just because I was a skater, finding myself crashing on strangers’ couches because of some weak connection of being a fellow skateboarder, etc.

I desperately wanted to be an independent traveler, but it was also incredibly lonely and often fueled by a crush on a guy, contrasted with wanting to prove that I didn’t need a guy. Strange times but it certainly made me appreciate those rare, kind individuals when I was stuck in an abandoned border town at midnight or lost in Portugal. At least I was able to hit up an Internet cafe to check my email in larger cities or the occasional youth hostel!

When reading Beard’s account I could easily imagine her state-of-mind since her writing and description was raw and true. Torn between meditating on the long stretches of road, with processing her thoughts about relationships, then battling situations in the moment that seem overwhelming like serious illnesses including hepatitis, break-downs and accidents (that are inevitable with motorcycles!), and then trying to celebrate and enjoy the novelty of her trip. The reader is on edge, knowing she will get through it all, but not sure how some of the obstacles could be overcome like the ridiculous bureaucracy of border patrols in India, sandstorms and monsoons, or gnarly accidents in rural Thailand.

I also loved it that she didn’t shy away from describing the prejudice and dismissal she received from the British motorcycle community – a crew of macho jerks, the trials she faced as a young Western woman (with multiple sexual advances and creepy behaviour from men around the world, from all backgrounds!), the indifference of her parents, and then the heartbreak of love gained and love lost. Her trip was an adventure of a lifetime and helped shape her future back in England as an independent architect and single mom.

Obviously the motorcycle-riding plays the biggest part in the book. The terrain, the weather and the distance meant her bike paid a huge toll, and was in constant need of maintenance, which Beard tackled and persevered with. I’ve faced the occasional roadtrip breakdown, but nothing on this scale where you are thousands of miles away from home, completely cut-off from any support, and simply relying on your own wits and the kindness of strangers who may or may not be able to communicate with you. All hail Elspeth Beard!

During her two year adventure there are men who play a significant role in supporting Elspeth, but this support goes both ways. Her on / off boyfriend Mark is motivated to leave England to join Elspeth in various places like Australia and Nepal, to offer comfort and distraction from the road, like hiking the Annapurna track. Without Elspeth he never would have considered international travel or evolved into a more confident person. And then Robert, her Dutch motorcycle companion in Northern India and Iran. Robert provides mechanical support and eventually romance, but Elspeth also calms his quick temper (which might have landed him in jail!) and cares for him in hospital. She needs these men in certain moments, but is definitely not dependent on them.

This book reminds me of a TV series called, “Ladies on the Loose – the Achievable Dream” featuring interviews with Elspeth Beard and many more women who have been adventuring on their motorcycles from the 1930s to the present. Very inspiring! Check out the trailer:

While reading this book I was reminded a lot of my friend Rhianon Bader, who lived in Afghanistan for many years where she volunteered and then worked for Skateistan, to help empower street children in war-torn countries to enjoy sport like skateboarding, and also return to public education. She has ridden a motorcycle there, disguised as a man, and more recently traveled the circumference of South America with her partner by purchasing and riding dual sport bikes. Rhianon has a similar look as Elspeth, combined with determination and an adventuresome spirit!

I’m so proud of having female friends that take risks and push the boundaries of adventure, knowing that you only live once! There are hardships along the way, loneliness and frustration, but it definitely makes you stronger. When you face adversity it makes you appreciate those rare individuals who go out of their way to help you and those “coincidental” moments that make you grateful and humbled. That’s the best part of travel, even though it can be stressful at the time.

As Elspeth makes the final trek across Europe to get home, after going through the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey she notices how miserable everyone looks driving the German autobahns in their powerful machines. She writes, “It was quite an eye-opener and a considerable shock to be thrown back into the melee of Western Europe… It struck me that people in poorer countries appeared happier, even though they had very little… and it seemed the more people had the more they wanted” (p. 278). I’ve heard this comment before, and while it may be a generalization I suspect there is a lot of truth here. Acquiring commodities and luxuries certainly does not guarantee happiness or contentedness.

Simultaneously, having the most extreme adventures and checking off the greatest number of countries traveled will not necessarily guarantee you happiness either. I think we have to approach these opportunities with gratefulness and humbleness, not to prove something to others or yourself, but to see what part you can play in creating something positive for others, or in the situation of Elspeth Beard dispelling myths about female roles, like she did on several occasions through non-verbal connections with other women in developing countries.

These days I don’t have any epic adventure lined-up besides popping over to New Zealand for a family reunion in December, so it’s fun to live vicariously through such stories. Scott also forwarded me a cool blog about an older couple, and their adventures riding motorcycles in the Americas. It’s called “Don’t lose your dreams to protect your days” – and is a good reminder that the adventures don’t stop just because you no longer have the youthful spirit or energy of a twenty year-old anymore!

I really hope someone makes a movie about Beard, perhaps comparable to Tracks or Wild, and that she continues to get the recognition she deserves, as she was entirely ignored at the time of her trip! This book puts the naysayers to shame, and highlights the female experience as valid, courageous and the epitome of “true grit.”

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