From the tense border towns in west Texas to the boarded-up communities of upstate New York to the homes of hospitable strangers, a Minneapolis couple biked the perimeter of the continental United States over the past 14 months, and have come back with a host of stories and impressions.
Anne and David Winkler-Morey, both 54, returned home last week after a 12,200 mile bicycle trip that took them through 34 states, two Mexican states and two Canadian provinces.
Both are educators. Anne was a college professor at St. Cloud State University where she taught history and race relations until she was laid off in 2010. David is a social worker at Anthony Middle School in Minneapolis. He took a year’s leave. They cashed in an insurance policy, sold their car and rented out their house to pay for the trip, and have returned with a treasury of memories that Anne says will be the subject of a book she plans to write with photographs by her husband.
“I always wanted to escape,” Anne says. “It was a great and wonderful escape.”
The couple got a close-up view of America’s economic trauma. “There are these building across the country that are closed and abandoned,” she said. “Our country is littered with empty buildings.” Needing a rest stop or shelter from the rain, they would frequently see a hopeful sign and a building up ahead, perhaps half a mile, but when they got up close, they would discover that the structure was boarded up, she said.
“Maybe the most shocking site for us was in upstate New York,” Anne said. “We heard about Detroit. We hadn’t heard that upstate New York looked like Detroit.” They found one industry towns with the industry shut down, businesses closed and weeds growing high in the yards.
They met, by and large a generous population, people who would stop and talk to them, invite them home, feed them and let them sleep in their spare bedrooms overnight. But people often expressed fear about their neighboring communities. Their town was safe, people would say, but be careful about the next community over, Anne said. When the couple got to the next town, those people would say how safe they were there, but it wasn’t safe in the town where they’d just been. Yet during the long journey, she said, they were never victims of a crime.
Still, the couple were also amazed by the appreciation people had for the beauty of their own town, their lake and perhaps a hill on which they lived. “We were able to see it through their eyes,” she said.
“The first time I remember this was right on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. We were resting, looking for shade, next to a lake. “These guys came by. They said, ‘Isn’t this the most beautiful place in the world. It’s safe here. Don’t worry. But be careful when you get across the border.’”
The couple rode for hundreds of miles along the border between Mexico and the United States. “We were struck by the number of border patrol,” Ann said. She said that a half dozen times they were stopped at checkpoints inside the United States where they had to show their IDs. They were allowed to pass. She said she and her husband felt like “privileged people going through the war zone.” She said they saw busloads of what appeared to be illegal Mexican immigrants being carried back to Mexico on buses with the insignia of U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement. Once they stopped at a building on the prairie that turned out to be an ICE detention center. She asked if she could use the restroom and she said she was taken to a bathroom used by the detainees. The idea of shutting the thick door behind her made her feel so uncomfortable, she said she let it stay open, even if the guards could see her.
Much of west Texas was desolate and they sometimes feared they would run out of water. They would see people’s clothing and water bottles lying discarded on the desert ground.
David said that one of the more memorable sights were the gated communities along the Florida coast, where they could see the white residents, driving out in the morning, and watch the people of color, the gardeners and other workers, going into the neighborhoods for their day’s work. “In Florida, they were constantly trimming the hedges,” he said. “I understand now the purpose of hedge funds. They are there to maintain their gardens.”
In North Dakota, the couple had to avoid the traditional biking routes, because there were so many trucks on the road carrying water and sand for fracking. They had trouble finding a place to stay, he said, because the campgrounds and motels were filled with workers. “They are building all these mega-hotels to accommodate the workers,” he said.
The couple had one horrific bike accident, near Waterbury, Conn. Coming down a hill at about 20 miles an hour, David said he hit an indentation on the curb and flipped over his handlebars. He was hurt badly enough that the couple thought they might have to end their trip. They were seen in an emergency room, and later cared for by a contact they had in New York who came and picked them up and allowed him to recuperate for five days. David flew back to Minneapolis to attend his parent’s 65th wedding anniversary, and to see his own doctor who said he had bruised his ribs but not broken anything.The doctor’s advice: Keep riding but go slower.
The other injury David suffered was at a motel near Ocean Springs, Mississippi. “We were exhausted and couldn’t go any further,” so they stopped at a “flea bag motel,” said Anne. “It was horrible. It was uncomfortable, it was smelly.” David slipped in the shower and cut his hand on a nail that was sticking out of the shower. He had 10 stitches in an emergency room a half mile away.
Anne said her book will be entitled “Turtle Road.” She said that’s because they kept seeing turtles along the road, plus “we rode really slowly,” especially after the mishap in Connecticut. Anne wrote in her blog about many of the conversations they had with people they met along the way.
The couple had planned to use the trip to raise some money for a couple of their favorite causes but she confesses they did not raise much. “We are not good fundraisers,” she said. “We had a hard time asking for money.”
However, David and Anne plan to give a talk on August 20, from 6 to 8 p.m.at the park building at McRae Park, 907 47th St. East, in Minneapolis which will include a fundraising pitch. Donations will go to Women Against Military Madness, the antiwar organization, and Project Success, a program in the Minneapolis Public Schools that provides experiences for middle school and high school students that can help them get into college.