Fall 2010, Lowell Smoger finished his masters program in engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology and found himself–like many young Americans–high on smarts, degrees, and skills, but low on that all important, job-landing element, experience. Unlike many young Americans, however, Lowell didn’t move back in with his parents and start scouring Craigslist for job openings. He started planning a bike tour that would introduce him to America and maybe introduce him to a few bike industry folks along the way, as well.
I met Lowell this Labor Day weekend while he was stopped in Seattle. A college friend of mine, Hannah, had ridden with him for the first few weeks of the tour and had sent me a message telling me to meet up with her tour partner when he got to Seattle. Lowell, my girlfriend, and I spent an afternoon exploring nearby Bainbridge Island by bike. On the ferry ride over to the island, Lowell and I talked about his reasons for touring, his life on the road, his take on the kindness of strangers, and more.
Lowell with Jesse, the friend who inspired his tour. Picture from steelingwest.com
Why this trip? Why’d you want to take off and spend five or six months on the road?
I didn’t want a full time job yet. Well, I did. I want to work in the bicycle industry engineering bikes or parts. But, understandably they don’t want a fresh guy just out of school without much experience.
When a buddy of mine, Jesse, rode through town on his own tour, it inspired me to want to get out there and learn more about the country, see the US and maybe place search or job search along the way. The idea was to see where the job market is, especially in terms of what I want to do.
I had a job for a little bit over the winter, then on May 1, I set off on this ride. I didn’t know if the trip was going to be one month or six months. If I got to Chicago and though “this is an amazing place, I’m just going to stay here” so be it. I didn’t really think that was going to happen, but I also didn’t think that I would be out for six months.
I’m getting ready to wrap it up, at this point. I’m looking forward to going down the coast and have it be a little more relaxing. I think one more month is going to be about the right amount of time.
Did you have any touring experience before you started this trip?
No tours, but I’ve liked bikes for a while. I like mountain biking and BMX. I tried road biking for a while, but it was too boring for me.
Last summer I was riding a commuter bike around Rochester, just commuting and exploring, and I found that was a lot of fun and a great way to learn more about the city. When my friend Jesse rode through on his tour, I figured I could expand what I was doing in Rochester to rest of the country, so I got a more serious bike.
But yeah, no touring experience before this trip. I only did 100 miles of loaded riding before I set off. In the first two days of the trip I ended up surpassing my own previous record.
It’s more about knowing what equipment to buy than the actual riding–if you’re in decent shape, of course. It’s also about knowing how to camp, knowing how to travel, pretty much.
Your route has taken you all over the place, Philly, West Virginia, Chicago, Utah. How did you plan it?
There’s definitely no pre-made map for my route. I’ve been making it as I go along. I planned my route on places I wanted to see, people I wanted to see, and companies I wanted to visit. And then, in places in between my destinations, I just picked spots that seemed interesting.
What have been some of the highlights? Obviously you can’t condense four months into one answer, but what are some of the big experiences?
In the beginning of the trip there was a whole lot of rain. We crossed West Virginia in five days and it rained the entire time except for maybe a half hour in Lewisburg.
Indiana was pretty much the same, only there you had tornado warnings as well. And being an east coast guy, I didn’t know what to look for with tornadoes. So I rode 90 miles to Indianapolis in a tornado warning, or watch, whatever it was. I rode while constantly looking at the sky trying to figure out if there was a tornado coming. It was a stressful mental game.
Chicago was great. I spent a week there and it was just a wonderful place. Lots of great neighborhoods. I could definitely see myself living there. Plus it doesn’t hurt that there’s a bike company in the city.
I’ve gathered from your blog that you’ve had some warm receptions from people in the bike industry.
It’s been pretty great. The guys at SRAM in Chicago were more than happy to go out to lunch with me. I didn’t want to just walk up there and ask for an interview, plus I didn’t have a suit [laughs], so I invited them out to lunch and I learned more about what they do and what the company does.
They put me in touch with someone from Colorado. So I went and visited their facilities out there in Colorado Springs and got a really warm welcome there as well. I could definitely see myself living there too. It’s a great place with really great people.
Great people and places are everywhere. You can’t just look at the news, you gotta get out there and experience it. South Dakota is one of the nicest places. even the little towns with less than 100 people are filled with great folks. I got a free apple pie passing through a town of less than 74. It was awesome.
Do you feel like your perception about people has changed cause of this trip? Not to suggest you were some embittered guy before, or anything, but you seem to be impressed with all the kind people you’ve met.
I definitely don’t think I was embittered before. I think trying to join a community of people in Rochester helped me to find the nice people and to just be open minded and accepting of how anyone is. I always felt that if community is in Rochester it’s gotta be in other places. I thought there were nice people out there, it was just a matter of finding them. Coming across the country has solidified my impressions about the kindness of people.
On the practical side, now that you have many months of touring experience under your belt, what are some of the most important pieces of advice you could offer to a wannabe touring cyclist?
It is what you make it. You have to try a little harder to meet people. You have to look at everyone as a potential friend, otherwise it’s going to be a lonely ride. And if that’s the way you want to do it, if you want to tour in a secluded kind of way, then that should be pretty easy. But if you want to meet people and interact, then you gotta work at it.
Touring happens in waves. You’re going to have your good days and your bad days. Your good riding days and your bad riding days. Your fun days in Seattle and your mediocre days in Seattle. But you’re never going to–or at least I haven’t experienced–a long period of bad days.
Now that you’re on your final stretch of your tour, what are your plans for when you finish?
I’ve had three legs of the trip so far. One to Chicago, one to Colorado, and one to Seattle. For my final leg down to San Francisco, I’m going to contact the companies I’ve met, see where that stands, if anything. I’ll head back, see my family for a while, spend some time in Philadelphia. Weigh my options. My friend that inspired me to do this tour around the country found that he wanted to move to Fort Collins, Colorado. I spent some time with him there and it was really great to see where his life has taken him after his own big bike tour. He just moved out there cause he loved the place and he’s really happy there right now. Maybe I’ll do something like that.