ROGER SMITH: @SOLONOMAD.CA
By Paul Strubell of Dirt Orca’s – 6/11/18
For the seventy ninth installment in our ongoing interview series here at Dirt Orca’s, we are very pleased to share the travels of Roger Smith. You may know him as @solonomad.ca.
Roger is a committed adventure traveler who uses both an adventure motorcycle in the summer and his trusty truck in the winter to get out an explore. He certainly checks off a lot of epic destinations and rolls over the odometer at a heavy pace.
You can follow his Solo Nomadic adventure travels on Instagram ( @solonomad.ca ) I recommend giving him a follow for some great shots and inspirational travel moments.
His profile displays a quote from storied adventure motorcycle rider Ted Simon, it reminds us, “I am learning…that it is remarkably easy to do things, and much more frightening to contemplate them.”
Roger is a great reminder that most of the barriers between ourselves and a big adventure are the imaginary reasons we give ourselves that it isn’t a good time to go.
Just get out there and do it.
What do consider to be your place of work?
Currently, I have a “day” job but I work somewhat remotely anyway so I certainly enjoy a degree of flexibility with work. I’m working to blur the line between work vs time spent travelling and exploring. It’s a different approach to the work/life balance puzzle. Rather than draw a line in the sand saying I’m either working or “on vacation” isn’t really practical in this age of constant communication. I’ve simply taken my work on the road with me over the last few trips. I wasn’t always able to do this. I found the biggest stumbling block is in my own head, feeling like I have to be at my desk being busy. I’m fortunate my business partners don’t really care where I am as long as they can get a hold of me and I contribute. I’m still trying to refine this approach but I’m pretty stoked about the possibilities.
Tell me about your vehicle. What do you call it?
I do most of my overland trips by motorcycle now. I have a 2016 BMW 1200GS. I call it Donkey. I also travel and explore during the winter months in Canada in my 2011 Ford F-150 FX4.
What other vehicles did you consider and what made you ultimately pull the trigger on the one you bought?
Prior to my 1200GS I rode a BMW F800 GT, a sport touring bike. I loved that bike. I rode it north up into the Yukon and Alaska. I rode it over the Top of the World Highway. But I stopped short of riding it up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. I have a picture of that bike with the two wheels straddling the line where the pavement ends and the dirt begins on the Dempster. I didn’t have the heart to take that bike where it was never really intended to go. The thought of dropping it and ripping body parts off it freaked me out. I promptly made the decision right then and there that a dual sport motorcycle was what I needed/wanted. I wanted a bike I could pretty much go anywhere on. I can’t lie, I’m a BMW fanboy. I did consider a KTM 1190 but ultimately I stuck with BMW and went for the 1200GS. I did not consider the larger GSA.
I think choosing a motorcycle always, at some point, comes down to compromising. For my travelling objectives and riding style, the big GS simply made the most sense.
Have you made any upgrades or changes to it?
I promised myself I would treat the GS like a true adventure machine, not something to keep polished up and pretty. I installed AltRider crash bars on it before the very first ride, which was just as well because I dropped it the very first ride (dirt trail). The bike has been down many times since. It’s a beast. I swapped the OEM skid plate for an AltRider skid plate and added other AltRider protection guards around the bike. I’ve also installed Denali auxillary lights and their Can-Bus integrated controller. I added some Black Dog Cycle Works traction footpegs. Lastly, I’ve added Grip Puppies. I installed everything myself and service the bike myself.
In comparison, I’ve done nothing to my F-150 except change up to Goodyear Duratrac tires in a slightly larger size from stock (nothing remotely crazy), put the largest capacity battery in it and strengthen up the anti-freeze/coolant to better handle driving in the far north. Otherwise I’ve done nothing to it and it has performed flawlessly as long as I’ve had it. Suspension is all stock. That truck has literally gone up mountains, across rivers (some frozen), through intense snow storms and been driven to the Arctic Ocean in temperatures below 40 degrees Celsius without being turned off for days at a time due to the cold. I love that truck! It’s just a work horse with a solid power plant and capability. I have a simple Leer canopy on the back. I toyed with the idea of a camper unit but ultimately just kept things as simple as I could – and inexpensive as possible. No fridge. A cooler does the trick. I plug my laptop into the dedicated stock power outlet. Ez-pz fo’ breezy!
What is your favorite part about living/working out of your vehicle?
I don’t really live or work out of my vehicles, certainly not on a permanent basis. I’m not sure that will ever be a reality for me. However, I’m trying to do the next best thing, which is simply to blend my work life into my travels, which means I do get to spend spurts of time living/working on the road. This approach means I may have to change up my travel plans for any given day to find wifi somewhere and spend a few hours working – but I’m still in the middle of a travel adventure not in front of my desk back at the office, so it’s win-win! It’s as close to total freedom as I can responsibly get to. And it’s working for me.
What is your least favorite part about it?
In the past I’ve had trouble when work seemed to creep into my travels too much. That is to say, I’d get angry and frustrated that I had to, for example, pull over and spend an hour on the phone dealing with some work related issue, albeit minor. It was a selfish approach and one that needlessly ruined a couple of perfectly awesome trips. This was before I started to become more comfortable with the concept of blurring the lines between working while travelling. I’m still figuring it out but just making the mental adaptation that I’m on a working vacation has been pretty helpful.
How many miles have you put on your vehicle?
I’m not constantly on the road so my vehicles don’t have tons of mileage on them. I will say that I put almost 25,000 km on my first motorcycle in the first year I had it – and keep in mind the Canadian riding season is pretty short! My truck has 140,000 km on it and is still in great shape, but for the first five years I had it I didn’t use it extensively for any significant overland trips. The new GS is approaching 20,000 km and is barely broken in. I just rode it 4,000km in six days from my home in British Columbia down into Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada. I’m still reasonably new to overland travel and I’m only now really figuring out how and where I like to travel. I expect mileage on the GS will climb steadily moving forward! I really love covering long-distances. I’m not a big stopper.
What is the best place you’ve taken it?
I took the 800GT north to the Yukon and Alaska. Pretty much that whole trip was epic in my mind. It certainly wet my appetite for motorcycle adventure travel. The Top of the World Highway between Dawson City, Yukon and Chicken, Alaska was a watershed moment for me. The Haines Highway between Haines Junction, Yukon and down into Haines, Alaska was simply unbelievable. I rode that section on a Friday afternoon/evening in June for about three hours and only saw a handful of other vehicles.
Taking the 1200GS to the Pacific Ocean in California and over to the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada was pretty sweet. That trip sealed the deal for me with the GS and really has me excited about what my travel and exploration plans by motorcycle may look like in the future. Big rides!
Perhaps my best trip to date though was driving the F-150 up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik and then the frozen Mackenzie River Highway to Tuktoyuktuk – in the dead of winter. The truck handled the trip flawlessly. The extreme cold temperatures certainly added adventure to the trip. My ExPed sleeping mat was the only casualty of the trip. It burst on the second night of the trip at Liard River Hot Springs due to the -39 degree temperature I’m pretty sure. The views along the Dempster in winter were just spectacular. And the silence and solitude was simply inspiring. I wanted to drive the frozen Mackenzie River before the new all-weather road opened connecting Inuvik to Tuk (and now I want to ride my GS all the way to Tuk this year on the new road).
Is there just one?
Destinations are great to have as trip goals, but it really is the journey that makes the trip. I just try to take it all in when I’m on the road. That’s kind of the beauty of overland travel, you never know what you’ll see on any given day or where you’ll lay your head each night.
Favorite road you’ve driven?
If I had to name one so far I guess I’d have to say the Dempster Highway because it’s so iconic, followed closely by the Haines Highway.
In one word, what describes your approach to life?
If you could give a person one piece of advice when thinking about living from a vehicle, what would you tell them?
Keep things simple. I’ve found it’s not being on the road or racking up long days travelling that take a toll eventually, it’s making and breaking camp and making sure everything is in order before taking off every day. The less stuff you need to fiddle with the easier the process goes. Minimalistic living is pretty empowering when you start putting it into practice. Travelling on a motorcycle really forces the issue as space is so limited. But man, it’s such a cool thing to be taking off for a week or more on a bike and knowing all you have and need is right there. That’s freedom, and it’s totally liberating.
It takes a special kind of person to recognize that the journey, not the destination, is the point of life. Travelers know this. Was there a point in your life where you became conscious that you were those people?
Well, I’d be completely lying if I said I wasn’t goal-driven and I do consider destinations as goals to a degree. Travelling particularly by motorcycle, however, is just a whole new level of freedom and it really forces the journey to be the priority, not the destination. You’re completely at the mercy of the elements and often plans and routes are forced to change for one reason or another and you just learn to roll with it, literally. It really teaches a person to just deal with shit. It’s totally true that adventure happens when things don’t go as planned and that’s the stuff that makes the trip memorable. Reaching the planned destination is just simply a bonus.
I think it’s worth mentioning that these days, unless you’re far off the beaten path, the Internet has taken a lot of the magic out of destinations. Google street view makes it possible to virtually drive to any destination or route and get a feel for “arriving” there even when you’re thousands of miles away at a desk looking at a computer screen. It’s kinda sad. I prefer to simply allow the journey to morph into something special in it’s own right, and relegate the destination to the back seat in terms of what the actual priority is.
I also find it oddly amusing when people are aghast when I tell them I drove to the Arctic Ocean in winter and slept in my truck. I don’t really see the big deal about it. I don’t know if this makes me a traveler, but I certainly crave the adventurous element of those trips.
You have found a strong place in the community of travelers. What values do you think your home or family instilled in you, that you take on the road?
I’m still very much a newbie in the community of travelers, most certainly if social media is thrown into the mix. I’m slowly finding my way and I’m making friends as I go. I think it’s important to be respectful and have empathy for everybody, regardless of who they are or where they live, particularly when one is simply travelling through. And it’s not just the people along the way, but the places as well. Globally, population density and resource extraction are putting huge pressure on the planet. I think travelers have a greater respect for what’s over the horizon or across the border. We also have a responsibility to document it in some way and hope those who are content staying at home will be inspired to travel and add their voices to others who want to preserve and protect the planet.
I’m an introvert. I figure that’s why I enjoy solo motorcycle travel so much. The funny thing is that I’m finding out that many other travelers are the same way. I gave a presentation about one of my trips at a Horizons Unlimited event a couple of years ago and I actually said out loud during the talk that I considered myself an introvert and I wasn’t sure sometimes if this added to my appreciation of travelling or if I was missing something by generally keeping more to myself and being less social. The response was overwhelming. More people came up to talk to me and connected with me about being an introvert than were interested in the trip I was talking about! I was pretty surprised by that. I think it’s okay to distill a trip down to nothing more than a very simple journey of self-discovery. Don’t over plan. Don’t stress the small stuff. Just go.
I admire your outside the box approach to career and home. Do you see yourself as somebody who took a leap of faith to live in an unconventional way or do you think it kind of just happened?
It was not just a leap of faith and it didn’t just happen, I had to work at getting to this point and it was tough to turf some of the conventional mental baggage I was carrying around with me in order to do so. The conventional way has been the expected way for most of my life. I would not have been able to travel and work simultaneously a few years ago. I went through stages of figuring out that I could actually balance my wanderlust and keep working at the same time. I make compromises for sure, but selling everything to travel the world is not a reality for me, nor is completely living on the road. Figuring all this out has been a journey in its own right. It’s kind of like the old adage “the teacher will appear when the student is ready.” When you’re ready to figure the work/life/travel balance conundrum out, the way will appear. Sounds corny, but I think it’s true.
Where do you want to go next?
Oh, man, I pretty much want to go everywhere!
Realistically though, I’ll probably spend this year ripping around Canada and back down into the western United States.
I love the North. I’m optimistic I will be able to leave next month to ride my GS up to the Northwest Territories. I want to follow the Deh Cho Trail which consists of some historic corridors that early Canadian explorers and fur traders once used. The route can now be traced roughly by taking sections of the Mackenzie, Liard and Alaska Highways. I’d also like to get back up the Dempster Highway and continue north on the new all-weather road right to Tuktoyuktuk. That would be a heck of a trip!
I’m also trying to develop a project which involves visiting Canadian First Nations communities in the north and documenting the struggles some continue to have with water quality.