Todd Lawson and Christina Tottle only had about 20 to 30 minutes left on the road for the day until reaching the next town. They had ridden their motorcycles across the Turkish border the day prior, with their daughter Seanna nestled in a sidecar.
“We were cruising along,” Todd recalled. “Whenever you enter a new country, it’s such a cool feeling to be experiencing it on a motorcycle, and not really knowing where we’ll sleep that night or what’s going to happen.”
His bike was running great. “And then all of a sudden, you hear that dreaded kind of sound—you don’t know what it is,” Todd remembered. Turns out, it was the engine failing. A hole blown through the piston, specifically.
It marked one of several plot twists in the epic journey that began just over a year ago, when longtime Whistler residents Todd, Christina and then-10-year-old Seanna boarded a plane bound for Ireland in May 2022. They opted to ship their bikes, one Royal Enfield and one Ural, kitted out with Seanna’s sidecar, across the pond. They planned to ride them all the way to India over the next 12 months, introducing Seanna to the joys—and challenges—of life on the road along the way. Ultimately, their travels instead ended earlier this month in the same time zone where they started, on the shores of the Atlantic in Lisbon, Portugal.
Leading up to that November break-down, the trio made their way through the entire United Kingdom, over to France and down to Spain for the Running of the Bulls. They headed east through Switzerland, to the Czech Republic and then to Poland, where they visited the village where Todd’s grandparents grew up, before exploring the Balkans. They camped most nights, interspersing fields and campgrounds with stays at friends’ houses and the occasional Airbnb.
But back to the broken-down bike.
They used their remaining bike to tow the malfunctioning motorcycle into the nearest city, where the owner of the hotel they stayed at that night connected them with a mechanic. The mechanic didn’t speak English, but called a friend who did, who volunteered to serve as translator. The good news? The bike was under warranty. On the not-so-bright side, they needed to ship the bike to a Ural dealer in Istanbul, about six hours away, and wait for the replacement parts.
“You get that first day of anger and frustration out of your system, and then it’s like, ‘OK, what’s Plan B?’” said Todd.
It ended up being a rented campervan the family called home for a month, until more plot twists, like cripplingly strict visa regulations and civil unrest in Iran, interrupted their route to India.
After exploring every possible detour to get there, a plane proved to be the only feasible option, Christina said. “At that point, we were like, ‘Well, we’ve got to leave the bikes and just carry on’—let the bike get fixed; we can come back to it.”
The unexpected two-month hiatus from the saddle brought about similarly unexpected silver linings, like Christmas in Kathmandu and a week spent trekking through the Himalayas. Then, a friend they met through a motorcycle travellers’ forum lent the family his bike—the same Royal Enfield model they’d stashed in the mechanic’s garage in Turkey—for a three-month, 4,000-kilometre loop through Southern India.
Once their own bike was ready for pick-up, the family continued west, through Greece and Italy and Morocco, before the bike broke down again. (Through some creativity, they were able to get it onto a ferry and to another dealer in Lisbon, who fixed the Ural just in time for the end of their journey.)
It was far from Todd and Christina’s first long-haul motorcycle trip. The couple rode from Whistler to Chile over a two-year span beginning in 2004, and spent most of 2008 travelling through 15 countries in Africa.
This time was different.
More internet access and fewer nights sleeping on the side of the road, but also the added responsibilities of work. Christina teaches yoga classes virtually, while Todd is a writer, photographer, photo editor and publisher of Mountain Life magazine, and is preparing to release a book, Inside the Belly of an Elephant, this fall. Seanna, meanwhile, supplemented her experiential education with remote learning assignments before rejoining her Grade 6 class in Whistler this month.
The 11-year-old named “meeting different people from different cultures,” as a major highlight of the journey. “Hanging out with people, even though I don’t speak their language, it was cool to like…”
“Break the culture barrier and be able to communicate even if you don’t speak the language?” her mom offered.
“Yeah,” Seanna confirmed. Her favourite countries out of the 29 they visited in the last year were Greece, Italy, Spain and Nepal, she added.
“Seanna was so amazing,” Christina said. “Every day she wanted to go on this mission. There was not a day that went by where she was like, ‘No, I want to go home. I don’t want to ride.’”
She was “a trooper,” Todd agreed.
“We’re just super grateful and blessed to be able to have taken this journey in the first place. Almost every day someone helps you, whether it’s someone who pumps your gas or helps you at the hotel or serves you food, or whatever,” he continued.
“Every single day, someone helps you and it’s so nice to be able to experience that from so many different cultures. And now for our daughter, she has this in her back pocket for the rest of her life. It’ll be really cool to see what she does with it in the future.”
Seanna is already thinking about their next trip. A ride south, without having to worry about shipping or ferries sounds nice. For now, the trio is settling back into “some semblance of normal Canadian reality,” and looking forward to a summer spent exploring their backyard in Whistler, said Todd.
On the road, “Every day was different,” he said. “There was no such thing as routine there, that we often have here, but it’s always so nice to be back home because the beauty of this place is unmatched.”
More than its physical attributes, Whistler’s “community is unparalleled,” Christina added. “Everyone here’s got your back, you know? You don’t have to look too far if you need anything at all, and that’s such a nice, comforting feeling after being in places where you don’t speak the language and you don’t know the currency and you don’t know where to find anything."