Ninety-nine days and some 5,000 miles later, a 63-year old Napa woman is back home after riding her bike – alone—across the U.S.
On June 8, Donna Risinger hopped on her bicycle in Maine, loaded with some 60 to 70 pounds of food and gear, and started pedaling west.
Over the next three months, Risinger would battle bugs, headwinds and many, many hills in her quest to cross the U.S. on her longest bike ride ever.
“The whole point was to have an adventure,” she said. And she did.
“It was fantastic,” said Risinger. “Every day was exciting because every day you’d go somewhere you’d never been before.”
However, her ride didn’t exactly start as she imagined.
Risinger originally planned to ride across the country with a friend she’d met in 2015 while trekking on the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain. Each trained separately for the bike ride. The woman, who lives in France, agreed to meet Risinger at their cycling starting point, Bar Harbor, Maine, in early June.
The two rendezvoused and began what was intended to be a three-month ride. However, just two days later, her friend decided the bicycle journey wasn’t for her.
“She said she was going home,” said Risinger.
Risinger said she tried to convince her friend to give it a little more time. But, “she was adamant,” said Risinger. “She said, ‘I’m done.’”
It was a moment of truth for Risinger. Now what? The answer was simple.
“I said, I’m not quitting.”
“I felt bad for her,” but Risinger decided to ride on. “I was there. I already committed myself,” she said.
Risinger, who previously worked taking care of senior citizens, was not working full time at the start of the ride.
When her husband and two adult children found out she was going on, and solo, they didn’t discourage her, said Risinger.
They had always encouraged her plan, she said. In fact, it was her son’s bike ride down the West Coast that originally inspired her.
“I’m sure they worried a little bit, but oh well, I gotta do it now or never.”
The next day, the adventure – somewhat altered – began again.
Following a path along the northern United States, some of the first states she pedaled through were Vermont, New Hampshire and New York, as well as parts of Canada. “You go through all these different towns. Every day was new,” she said.
Using route maps, she was able to navigate alone, although she admits she did get lost a few times, especially in the beginning.
Even though Risinger was riding a bike with more than 60 pounds of gear attached, it turns out one of the biggest challenges along the way were the bugs.
“I got eaten up by mosquitoes” and black flies, she said. “I had never seen anything like these insects. They were voracious. They would land on my packs and ride along. They would follow me in a cloud.”
She ended up wearing repellent with the highest amount of DEET possible. “That was the only thing that would really fend everything off.”
By day, she’d ride alone, or pair up with other riders for a day or longer at a time. At night, she camped.
Some of her most interesting stops included Niagara Falls, Kootenai Falls, Montana (where “A River Runs through It” was filmed), Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi, Fargo, North Dakota, and Mackinac Island, Michigan (which is without cars and known for the film “Somewhere in Time”).
Temperatures ranged from a low of 34 degrees in the morning to into the 90s. Smoke from fires in certain parts of the country helped keep the temperature down, she noted.
The Napa cyclist did not get saddle sore, even riding on a leather saddle. “I guess my butt was tough enough,” she said with a laugh.
Risinger said she averaged about 50 miles a day. Some of her go-to meals and snacks included peanut butter and honey sandwiches, salami and cheese, yogurt and oatmeal.
It wasn’t all healthy foods. “I ate a lot of ice cream along the way,” she admitted.
Another challenge was the wind. “I fought a headwind the whole time.” Risinger thinks she must have gotten stronger during the 5,000 miles, but “It didn’t ever get easier to go up any of these big hills.”
Did she ever think of giving up? “Oh, no, no,” she said. Between bugs and wind, “That’s just part of the adventure. It’s something you just have to deal with.”
Risinger said she She met hundreds of people along the way, some of whom she’s still in touch with.
The most common question she got was “Where are you from and where are you going?”
When people found out her plans, most were surprised. One man told her she was crazy. Another asked if she carried a pistol. (She did not.)
“My big thing was to meet a cross-section of people from the U.S.,” and in a way that had nothing to do with politics. What she found was that “people were curious, helpful and generous.”
Risinger had a few flat tires and also ended up getting a new bike chain and gear cassette for her Salsa Marrakesh touring bike. She was never seriously injured, but fell off her bike a few times.
Risinger said she never felt scared or unsafe. “You have to just keep all those fears at a minimum and not think of it,” she said. You can’t dwell on what might happen “because it would make you afraid to do anything. You have to just keep going and hope for the best and be as safe as possible.”
Risinger originally planned to finish her journey in Anacortes, Washington, but later decided to keep on riding farther down the California coast.
On Sept. 14, the last day of her adventure, Risinger rode into Arcata to meet her husband.
The last day of riding was almost anti-climactic, she said. She wasn’t overcome with sadness. “I knew it was coming.”
Encouraged by other cyclist headed down California and to Mexico, “I probably could have (kept riding) to Cabo San Lucas,” she said. “But I said I better come home. You have to come back to reality at some point.”
Risinger said she hasn’t decided on her next adventure yet.
“I met this lady from England. She’s going to Thailand to tour. That sounds like an interesting trip. Or Florida. That’s a possibility.”
As for her friend from France and would-be cycling companion, there are no hard feelings, said Risinger.
“We left on good terms.”
Ultimately, traveling alone was freeing, she said.
“You do whatever you want.”
“I never would have thought of going by myself so I had to thank her for that.”