Twenty years of Travellers Meetings: Horizons Unlimited

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At a Horizons Unlimited Travellers Meeting, you're just as likely to get useful advice over a campfire as at a seminar. Photo: Horizons Unlimited

PHOTOS COURTESY HORIZONS UNLIMITED

Grant and Susan Johnson want you to join the Horizons Unlimited community, attend a Travellers Meeting, and go on an adventure.

What they don’t want to do is sell you an expensive adventure bike — and that’s the ethic that has grown Horizons Unlimited from a small enthusiasts’ website to one of the Internet’s busiest travel sites, with the Travellers Meetings as an offshoot. And, in 2020, Horizons Unlimited will celebrate the 20th anniversary of those Travellers Meetings.

What’s it all about?

But wait, you say! What’s Horizons Unlimited?

If you’re not hip to the good work that HU does, you should head over to the website, and find out.

But if the pressures of modern life mean you don’t have time for that, then here’s a quick summary: Horizons Unlimited is a website founded by Vancouver’s Grant and Susan Johnson, containing all sorts of information about travelling the world by motorcycle (there’s some 4×4 stuff too, but that’s not the focus).

Along with that information, the site has the extremely useful HUBB forum, connecting serious travellers and helping them share information.

And then there are the Travellers Meetings, which are small-scale or large-scale meet-ups that HU helps organize, putting riders together so they can learn how to master the dark arts of moto-travel, or at least get inspired to venture out on their own.

It’s a big milestone for the Canadian moto-community, which isn’t known for exporting a lot of its motorcycle culture to the rest of the world (with the fairly recent exception of the MotoSocial). Not only have the Travellers Meetings made it to the two-decade mark, they’ve also spread around the world, with events in 16 countries on five continents for 2020.

The secret to the success of the events is two-fold. First, it’s a no-BS gathering that allows for plenty of rider-to-rider information sharing, stuff like how to cross borders, how to fix your bike, or any other situation you might encounter on the road. There are scheduled lectures, allowing travellers to share what they know, but there’s just as much information sharing afterwards, around campfires and dinners, says Grant Johnson.

You start to realize after a while that it’s not actually as hard as it sounds,” Johnson says. “You’re not crazy, you’re not going to die, you can go out there and travel the world and see things and meet people and it’s all good.”

The other secret to the success of the Travellers Meetings? They’ll never tell you this, but it’s the Johnsons themselves.

The very first Travellers Meeting came in 2001, when the Johnsons were travelling in the UK. They’d already made lots of friends when they kickstarted the Horizons Unlimited website (in an Argentine coffee shop, just before they went to Antarctica — it’s another story of its own). Before the Johnsons shipped themselves and their BMWs off the British Isles, they sent a note to their travelling friends that they were leaving, and someone said they should have a party. They did, and they were amazed at how many people showed up.

“People came from as far away as Norway for the weekend, to London,” says Grant. “So everybody had a great time, and someone said, ‘You have to do this again.’ And we said yeah, we’re not going to be here. And Glynn Roberts put up his hand and said ‘I’ll do it!’ and the Travellers Meetings were born.”

Since then, the Johnsons have been helping organize the Travellers Meetings, even when they can’t be there themselves (which is most of the time). How it works is, a group of riders decides they want a meeting in their area, and they contact Horizons Unlimited for help. The locals do the legwork, and the HU team manages the back end stuff, starting with a hundred-page how-to manual for running a Travellers Meeting.

The volunteers and presenters from a 2018 Horizons Unlimited Travellers Meeting, with Susan and Grant Johnson at front and centre.

“That’s a lot of reading and there’s always new questions, so we spend a lot of time Skyping with them, and on email, helping them understand all the nuances of how to do it, how to run it and how to deal with people,” Johnson says. “We create the registration and the information pages, and keep track of bookings, arrange accommodations, food, T-shirts, we do a lot of work finding and supporting presenters, helping them out, getting photos for promotion, we deal with the venue and finances in all the countries. In 16 countries, it gets tricky. It’s a lot of work, and it keeps us extremely busy.”

That’s a lot of work, but it’s what it takes to make it all happen, and the Johnsons are the key to it. Glynn Roberts, a key part of the UK meetings ever since that first event, says “Grant and Susan’s tireless enthusiasm for meetings and the website” is a large part of the success of the meetings over the years.”

Calgary’s Nevil Stow shows the secrets of tire-changing in a classic HU seminar.

The Ontario event is cancelled next summer, so for 2020 there are two Travellers Meetings in Canada, in Newfoundland (August 11-14) and in British Columbia (July 9-12). The Newfoundland event is new for 2020, and will be the standard sort of affair, with presentations and camping and all that fun. There’s also the HUMM event in BC on July 17-19.

The British Columbia meeting is a Mountain Madness event, a slightly different twist on the HU formula, as it involves a lot more offroad riding. It’s more of an off-road rally, using teams and focusing in building GPS navigation and dirt riding skills. This year, the Mountain Madness rally is moving to Princeton, a new location closer to Seattle and Vancouver.

There’s no “right bike” to ride to a Horizons Unlimited meet-up.

But no matter which style of event you go to, there’s one thing you won’t hear, at least from the Johnsons. Grant and Susan are constantly asked about motorcycle choice for a trip, but they refuse to get caught up in hype over what’s the best adventure bike in the market. They both firmly believe you can have an exciting trip using any bike on the market.

Dirt, that’s something I wash off the bike,” Susan laughs, quoting another Canadian rider who’s traveled around the world on a Gold Wing. “Adventure begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Riding RTW bikes in a slow race at a 2018 Horizons Unlimited Travellers Meeting.

“I’m often asked ‘What’s the best bike to go around the world on?’. And I have a simple answer. ‘Do you like what you’re riding? If so, it’s the best bike.’ More than anything, you have to love the bike, because it will fail at some point, and if you love it, you’ll just deal with it,” says Grant.

“All motorcyclists are fully capable of going around the world, or to the next country, or the next state or province …  People have gone around the world on everything from 50 cc step-throughs and scooters, full-dressed Gold Wings and Harley Electra Glides, Yamaha R1s, it doesn’t matter. The adventure is the travel.”

British Columbia’s Grant and Susan Johnson, with the BMW they took around the world. These are the people (and the bike) that started it all.

With that in mind, says Grant, it’s not just hairy-chested BMW GS riders who need to come to a Horizons Unlimited Travellers Meeting: It’s everyone.

“If you have a pulse and ride a motorcycle, there’s always that bit of road off in the distance that you want to ride. Keep going, and you’re a traveler. The very best way to learn what you need to know is at an HU Traveller’s Meeting, where you’ll quickly become part of the family of travellers, and get inspired and informed, and learn how to go a little farther, do something more. “

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