By Frances Figart
Asheville surgeon reconnects with body and self as cast member of reality show
For three consecutive Sundays this past June, Asheville held its collective breath as its very own Dr. Laura Ellis played a major role – the kind that keeps you on the edge of your seat – in the philanthropic reality TV show Neale Bayly Rides: Peru on the new Fox SPEED channel. The show followed a group riding BMW dual-sport motorcycles through challenging South American environments, culminating at a remote orphanage, which was the beneficiary of the program.
Along for the adventure with Laura and seasoned cyclist and world traveler Neale Bayly were North Carolina entrepreneur Troy Rice and Bahamian-born minister James Johnson. Laura’s role on the crew was that of team doctor and chief medical officer for planning the children’s healthcare programs. Had she not listened to her own body just a few years ago, she would never had been able to tackle such a challenging adventure.
Changing body, changing self
Ultimately, we all want our bodies to reflect who we are inside: vibrant, strong souls that can adapt to any challenge that comes our way. But as we age, often our bodies go through changes that cause us to “not feel like ourselves.”
This was the case with Dr. Laura Ellis a few years ago. She was the owner of a successful vein-surgery practice, a devoted wife and conscientious mother of two boys with a busy lifestyle, but her energy level was not what she wanted it to be. Intent on staying vital, she worked with her own doctor to incorporate a new nutrition and exercise program into her routine.
The changes were so successful that she decided to help others who wanted their bodies to better reflect their true selves. So Laura collaborated with a partner to create medAge, a wellness practice helping people over 35 recover the healthy balance of younger days.
The changes Laura made to realign her body with her self not only led her to this new business opportunity, but also to a new sport – motorcycle racing. No stranger to adventure sports, Laura became a skilled competitive rider on the track within three years. Little did she know that this choice would ultimately take her on a philanthropic adventure as part of the cast of a reality TV show.
Laura Ellis, the Doctor
As a child, she was shy, a bit self conscious and not at all competitive. But as an adult, Laura has sought opportunities to push herself beyond her comfort zone—intellectually, physically and emotionally.
Sam True, the manager of a track in eastern North Carolina (NCCAR) where she had been riding her road bike, introduced Laura to British motorcycle journalist Neale Bayly.
“Sam told me that Neale needed help on a project and thought I might be able to help him,” she recalls. “Sam thought that since I am a woman, a doctor and a motorcycle rider I would be a good fit for the show. Neale described it as a challenge, an adventure and an opportunity to help the children in the Moquegua orphanage. All three of these things appealed to me.”
When Laura, who turned 50 this year, accepted Neale’s invitation to join the cast back in October of 2012, she was already a good road rider, riding fast on the track. But she lacked any off-road training. To prepare for the challenge, she trained in South Carolina under the tutelage of 20/20 Racing’s Ike De Jager at TNT Motorsports Park nearly every weekend from Thanksgiving 2012 through February 2013 when she left for Peru.
“As my coach, Ike De Jager, has told me many times, even a small motorcycle is more powerful than the strongest man,” Laura says. “What’s important is keeping control of the bike. Whoever you are, man or woman, large or small, if you do not have control—if you allow the bike to control you—you will never become a good rider and you will suffer significant consequences.”
Neale Bayly, the Motorcycle Journalist
“Out in the Peruvian desert, where the only sign of civilization is the long, black asphalt line that stretches endlessly into the hazy white distance, a man can lose himself to his thoughts. With the hypnotic rhythm of a big, single cylinder engine thumping beneath me, and warm air flowing across the padded handlebars, I’m riding toward the center of my soul.”
This excerpt from the journal of Neale Bayly provides a glimpse into his first experience traveling in Peru years ago. Transformed by the abandoned children he met at the Hogar Belen orphanage, Neale later formed Wellspring International Outreach, a nonprofit dedicated to helping orphans around the world.
Now a renowned philanthropic adventure traveler, Neale has explored much of the world on two wheels, riding across 45 countries in 35 years, many of them at the helm of adventure-seeking expeditions. The father of two teenage sons, he now calls Charlotte, North Carolina, home.
“I was making travel television and building my foundation and it seemed like a natural idea to combine the two to create television that gave something back,” Neale says of creating the show. “The three riders were either friends or friends of friends and all rode motorcycles so were naturals for the show.
“I met Laura and quickly realized she was very driven to achieve, so adapting to the training for the journey was natural for her,” he says. “James was (producer) Linda’s friend and had plenty of riding experience on street bikes, and Troy was a solid off road rider already, and having never left the country was perfect for such a journey. I think I was probably more protective of Laura in the beginning, although she turned out to be the toughest of the three.”
Troy Rice, the Entrepreneur
A North Carolina-native, Troy Rice is an entrepreneur and owner of the IT company SEE THE MATRIX.
“I trained with Ike De Jager for the past three years on my dirt bike, and he was helping get the cast members ready for the show,” Troy says. “With only three weeks until the show left for Peru, a cast member suddenly had to drop out. Neale went to Ike to see if he could suggest a good replacement that would be able to handle this adventure and my name was at the top of Ike’s list.”
Troy says through the Peru experience, Laura has become one of his closest friends. “We both run very successful businesses and we spend a tremendous amount of time bouncing ideas off of each other.”
“The idea I had in my head of what an orphanage was and what this one actually looked like were completely different,” he says. “The two sisters have a well-oiled machine. All of the kids were well fed, clean, and most of all loved.
“The love I saw at the orphanage really was a common theme for all the children and families I saw along my journey. They may not have had much, but they had each other and that was just fine by them.”
James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest
Born in Nassau, Bahamas, James Johnson is an ordained pastor who is affectionately called “The Whiskey Priest.” Having traveled extensively in Europe and Africa, he is an entrepreneur, a writer, a spiritual director and, ironically, a former hair model.
James started riding motorcycles when he was nine and went to traffic court at age 11 for doing 60 mph on a sidewalk. The show’s producer Linda Midgett was a college friend and asked him to participate in the program.
“She knew I was a long time motorcycle rider and thought that the spiritual angle would be a good addition to the team.”
Having ridden with his sisters, James did not think it unusual to have a female along for the journey. “I enjoyed having Laura on the team and appreciate her as a person. She’s tenacious and a real fighter.”
Having traveled extensively, neither Peru’s culture nor the orphanage came as a surprise to James. “As always, the kids (and people in general) seem to have a great happiness about them in the face of difficult circumstances. They seem to have a lot more of the things that are essential to real life than many of us in the western, privileged world.”
Sojourners Magazine has published James’ articles at sojo.net under James Johnson.
On the ground in Peru
Laura felt very comfortable being the only woman on the team. “It’s something I’m accustomed to in my field of work (surgery) and in riding motorcycles. There are women in both of those areas but men far out number the women. I feel strongly that women are just as capable as men in adventure travel and sports, including motorcycle riding.”
“I wasn’t set on casting a woman, but after I saw Laura ride, I knew she would be perfect for this journey,” said the show’s producer, the Emmy-winning Linda Midgett. “I was attracted to her determination and fearlessness, and loved that she was a doctor and could bring some medical expertise to the orphanage. I didn’t feel more protective of her because she was a woman, but I can say that I was always rooting for her. I was always proud of her when she managed to prevail over her obstacles, whether in training or in Peru. You can’t help but cheer her on!”
Laura says the riding was so intense, she practically forgot about the filming.
“Nearly every moment of riding, I focused on the ride itself. Not the cameras. It truly was reality filming—there was no acting whatsoever. The challenge of taking such large motorcycles equipped with street tires through the deep desert sand and across dirt and rock roads for hours required full attention. Riding a motorcycle at high speeds on the Pan American Highway with strong winds and crazy traffic and riding through third world city traffic in Lima and Arequipa required full attention too. No time to think about anything else.”
When they finally arrived at the orphanage that would benefit from their attention and provision of a new oven, Laura was surprised to see that the children were well nourished, clean and happy. “It is a loving place actually,” she says. “More like a group home than what I expected as a third world orphanage.”
Laura knew this would be a rewarding adventure, but she could never have imagined the depth of its lasting personal effect. She says many who worked on the show together will always remain close friends.
“It’s hard to explain the bonding among the cast and crew, the intensity of the riding, the joy on the faces of the children,” she says. “But the charity component was the most important part of the ride for me. I would do it again in a minute.”
For Neale, urgency is the overarching emotion. “The effect on me was created five years ago when I first went to the orphanage and set out to make a TV show to put the plight of these children on National television—while showing people they could have adventurous lives in the process,” says Neale. “So the only ongoing frustration for me is that I am not doing enough to change their lives fast enough.”
Frances Figart is a travel editor who studied Spanish in Peru. Learn more about her at francesfigart.com.
More Photo Credits: James Johnson photographed by Kate Bradbury; Troy Rice photographed by Jennifer Johnson. Other photographers unknown.