Biking through canyons next to gushing rivers and rattlesnakes in Oregon and mountain passes at elevations of over 10,000 feet in Colorado, social distancing looked a bit different for Tony Ionno and Nicole Winning than it did for most people this year.
The New Bedford couple started planning a cross country bike trip in November of last year, months before the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, to celebrate Winning completing her second masters degree from UMass Dartmouth.
Winning, 34, said she had completed two masters degrees, in Eastern Philosophy and Fine Art, back to back without a break and she wanted to go on a big expedition that would take months.
She describes herself as a very nomadic person who loves adventuring.
The idea to make her celebratory adventure biking across the United States came from Ionno’s background.
“My boyfriend is this huge cycle enthusiast his entire life…his background is in BMX and races… and our apartment and life and his enthusiasm revolves around bicycles,” Winning said, “and so it just clicked for me ‘Oh my gosh like I can put two and two together with something that I have the ability for, something he loves, and we do a multi-month trip…which is what I’m looking for, and let’s do that by cycling across America.’”
Ionno, 44, said in addition to BMX he’s worked as a bike messenger and even opened his own bike messenger business, describing cycling as something that has “always been my number one hobby, sport, fascination.”
He now works as an actor, most recently as an extra on the set of the Starz drama Hightown which shoots on Cape Cod, but said a cross country bike trip has been one of his top five bucket list items since he was a kid.
The couple, who have been together for a little over three years, were set to leave on their trip on May 17 starting in Cannon Beach, Oregon.
When the pandemic started hitting the United States hard in March, Ionno said they were a little concerned at first.
Then they thought about it, Ionno said, and they would be largely in isolation during the trip anyway between biking 5 – 8 hours a day and spending most nights in their small two person tent, so they decided to move forward with the trip.
Additionally, both Ionno and Winning lost work due to the pandemic, which gave them a larger window to go on the trip.
Winning was working as a yoga and wellness instructor with Project Wheel House and the Mindfulness Collaborative. She was going on hiatus to take the trip, but while she was on the trip the non-profits made that hiatus permanent.
Television and movie production in New England also shut down due to the pandemic, leaving little acting work for Ionno.
For the first two weeks of the trip in Oregon, most things were shut down, including restaurants, and they were also dealing with temperatures in the low 40s and constant rain.
“It was hard for us…we couldn’t go in places and warm up and dry off,” Ionno said, “Really the only places we had access to were grocery stores and gas stations.”
But, as the couple moved east things started to warm up and restrictions lessened.
“We continued to be careful,” Ionno said, noting that they wore masks in public places like restaurants even in states like Iowa and Nebraska where they said they didn’t see anyone wearing masks.
Ionno and Winning had originally planned to attend concerts and baseball games along the way, but many of those events were cancelled.
Additionally, the couple had plans to meet up with people along the way and in some cases the people they made plans with were no longer comfortable meeting up with them or the couple pitched their tent in their yard instead of staying inside their home.
The trip began by dipping their tires in the Pacific Ocean in May and ended three and a half months and 3,800 miles later when they dipped their tires into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean at Point State Park near Annapolis, Maryland.
Their route took them from the open desert in Utah to 330 miles of off road bicycle trails from downtown Pittsburgh to downtown Washington, D.C., with stops in Boise, Idaho; Fairfield, Iowa; and Columbus, Ohio in between.
“We designed the route based on places we wanted to visit…This was not a typical route and actually made our trip significantly harder than more established bike routes,” Ionno wrote in an email, “Very few cyclists ride across the open desert in Utah. Almost nobody crosses Colorado from East to West as this requires [summiting] many 10,000+ foot passes.”
Though they were making the trip during a pandemic, Ionno and Winning said they were able to make a lot of connections.
The couples’ bikes, weighing a total of around 180 lbs. with luggage include gallons of water, their cooking gear, food, and clothing, tipped off passersby to what they were up to.
“Everybody on the road pretty much knows what we’re doing, we got the most amazing love honks, everyday people were hanging out their windows shouting ‘Yeah keep going’, Winning said.
One man in his late 70s or early 80s noticed their bikes outside of a café in Nebraska and talked to them about his own experiences biking up and down the Rocky Mountains decades before.
He also shared another passion with the couple. The man lived alone in a senior housing facility, but spent time assembling puzzles of fine arts prints with members of his community, gluing the puzzles to mats, framing them, and hanging them by the hundreds on the walls of the facility.
The interaction showed Winning, “that it doesn’t matter if it’s 2020 or not 2020 you can be in your joy, you can be in your passion, and share it with others,” she said.
The couple was able to attend some baseball games in Nebraska and explained to other spectators and staff at a game what they were doing there with their bikes.
Near the end of the game, Ionno said they saw an envelope taped to one of the bikes.
The woman working the gate insisted on refunding them the cost of their tickets and also gave them an additional $20 to go out to dinner. The envelope also had a note that said “Have a fabulous adventure!”
Winning said she doesn’t think there could be a place in the world more visually stunning than the section of Utah they biked through, which included Arches National Park with its red rock formations, but she was invigorated so much by the people on the trip.
“The human encounters we had with people are mind blowing,” Ionno said.
Numerous people offered them meals and a place to stay across the country, some pulling their cars over and running to them with bottles of water, according to Winning.
“People were so willing to care for us,” Winning said.
Though they have many good memories, they did have difficult times on the trip too.
Reaching such high elevations in Colorado took a toll on Ionno’s body.
When they were in the town of Frisco, at an elevation of 9,000 ft., Ionno said he had a headache all day long, was struggling to catch his breath and felt fatigued, but he still had to bike an additional 3,000 feet in elevation to reach the pass they were aiming for.
Ionno called it “probably the most physically demanding thing” he’s ever had to do.
For Winning, there was a point in the trip where her medication for epilepsy wasn’t doing enough to stop her convulsions, and while they were biking through the desert in Utah in 98 degree weather she started having seizures.
She was trying to push through it and continued pedaling slowly when Ionno said her condition started to scare him, she was slurring her words when she was talking and he could see she was seizing.
A man in a pickup truck gave them a ride to the emergency room where they initially quarantined Winning for potentially having COVID-19 with a fever of 102.8 degrees, but once she tested negative she was advised to call her neurologist to increase her medication dosage and she was able to go.
Winning said they had luckily already planned on staying in Moab for several days and she was able to use that time to recover while an increase in her epilepsy medication stopped her seizures.
When asked if she considered stopping the trip at any point, Winning said, “No I’m really stubborn…there’s nothing I start that I don’t finish.”
They chose to finish the trip in Annapolis because neither Ionno nor Winning have family in New England but they do have family in the Washington D.C. area.
Even now after two months at home the couple said they’re still adjusting to be being back.
“Pretty much everyday of the trip was a new place, new people, non-familiar environments.. And when you are in that mode…with the elements, with the weather changes, with all that’s involved in finding food and shelter and talking with people, when you do that everyday for three-and-a-half months it really does something to you,” Winning said.
Since everyday was a whole new experience, Winning said they almost need double the amount of time they were on the tip to take it all in and process it.
Once they have been able to process it, they’ve mulled over the idea of writing a book about their experience and making a documentary.
Ionno took 14 hours of 4k footage while they were on trip and he’s working with someone who runs a production company, but said they’re a year or two at minimum away from completing it.
Ionno has been able to process enough for one takeaway.
“There’s a lot of corn in this country,” he joked, “I can’t tell you how many miles and miles of cornfields…we rode past a lot of corn in the middle of this country.”