For years, Jonathan McGonagle dreamed about bicycling across the United States.

But unlike many of us who dream but don’t do, he jumped in.

Last year, with the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, he sprouted a plan.

Bicyclists Nicki Grisi, left, and Jonathan McGonagle relax Wednesday at the house of their host, Paul Ureneck, in Waterville. The men stayed with Ureneck after pedaling 5,000 miles through 14 states. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“It was always just kind of like a pipe dream and I said, ‘No better time than the present to do it,'” he said. “I’m a biker and I’d always watched documentaries and read articles in National Geographic about it. It just really intrigued me. Last summer, a lightbulb went off in my head. I was at work and I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to bike across the country in the spring.'”

McGonagle, 36, was working in a restaurant in Portland, where he lives half the year. He lives in Mexico the other six months.

He headed to California and then shoved off March 2 from San Diego on his 11-speed mountain bike converted into a touring bicycle. The day before, fellow cyclist Nick Grisi, 40, left San Diego on a 30-speed Cannondale touring bike and they met up in Arizona for the trip east.

McGonagle and Grisi, a concession beverage salesman from Milltown, New Jersey, pedaled through wind, rain and snow, meeting other cyclists along the way who would travel with them for a while. At one point, the group numbered a dozen, ranging in age from 20 to 76.

They slept in tents, bought food at out-of-the-way gas stations and met many characters along their southern route, traveling through New Mexico, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. Then, McGonagle and Grisi headed up the East Coast to Maine.

One day, Paul Ureneck of Waterville received a message from McGonagle, a longtime family friend, asking if McGonagle and Grisi could crash at his house for a night. Ureneck oversees all downtown Waterville construction for Colby College, as director of commercial real estate for Elm City LLC, an affiliate of Colby.

Bicyclists Nicki Grisi, left, and Jonathan McGonagle, right, with their host, Paul Ureneck, at his house Wednesday in Waterville. The men stayed with Ureneck after pedaling 5,000 miles through 14 states. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Ureneck had followed the bicyclists’ journey online and welcomed them into his house.

They arrived in Waterville on Tuesday night after biking 5,000 miles and, after a good night’s sleep, told their story Wednesday morning in Ureneck’s living room.

“He’s like my hero,” Ureneck said of McGonagle. “He basically floats around the world in mega-yachts. He’s been all over the world, gets good jobs in restaurants, making some bucks, and then travels.”

McGonagle and Grisi biked an average of 80 miles a day, encountering good people and not so good. Firefighters put them up and fed them at firehouses. A young woman in Louisiana, who had little money but had learned about their trip online, housed all 12 bikers one night.

“It was the day before Easter,” McGonagle said. “We arrived at her house and she had a massive ham waiting for us and two massive pitchers of iced tea.”

On a back road in Texas, a man driving a pickup truck with a trailer screamed at Grisi, called the bikers names and told them to go back to where they came from.

“Honestly, it was bizarre,” Grisi said. “Otherwise, people were generally fine.”

The cyclists carried their own tire repair kits with spare tires and tubes. McGonagle went through four tires along the trip.

There was never a time when they wanted to quit, although 35- and 40-mph headwinds tested them. The key was to stay positive, according to McGonagle.

“You have to be adaptable to anything that happens,” he said. “When traveling with people, you can’t have negative energy — you’ll bring the crew down, and you shouldn’t do that. It was pretty good energy and everyone was cheering each other on, for the most part.”

Bicyclists Jonathan McGonagle, left, and Nick Grisi ride their bikes Wednesday near the house of their host, Paul Ureneck, in Waterville. The men stayed with Ureneck after pedaling 5,000 miles through 14 states. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Grisi raised several thousands dollars along the trip to donate to an animal rescue at which he and his girlfriend volunteer in his hometown. He and McGonagle parted ways Wednesday morning after 80 days on the road together.

Grisi took off for Dedham to visit a old friend before pedaling back to New Jersey. McGonagle headed to Sangerville to visit his brother and family before returning to Portland.

Their cross-country trip was life-changing, according to McGonagle.

“I learned to just keep moving forward and progressing and be adaptable,” he said. “Keeping a good attitude through the really crappy times really gets you far in life. Enjoy things, even when they’re not enjoyable. It makes the whole world such a manageable and better place to be.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 33 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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