By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Matt DiNote was overcome by emotion as soon as he arrived in Sea Isle City, the culmination of an arduous, 4,400-mile, cross-country journey powered by his legs and inspired by the love for his brother.
“Oh, my God,” he said softly as he bowed his head and wiped away tears while sitting on his bike Saturday evening.
Minutes later, he and his brother, Michael, embraced each other during a tender moment that brought more tears flowing down the cheeks of family members and well-wishers who had welcomed Matt back to Sea Isle with cheers and applause.
Matt embarked on his cross-country journey on Aug. 30 in San Diego to raise money for Eden Autism Services, a nonprofit organization based in Princeton, N.J., that provides education and therapy for children and adults who have autism.
His inspiration for the trip was his brother, Michael, 25, who has autism and Down’s syndrome.
“I’ve realized I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for a lot of the people I’ve met in my life, one in particular. I’m lucky enough to call Mikey my brother, and if it weren’t for him, I’m not sure where I’d be in this life,” Matt wrote in his blog chronicling the trip.
Matt ceremoniously dipped his back bike tire in the Pacific Ocean when he set out from California in August. In a triumphant touch to end the trip on Saturday, he walked his bike out on the beach at 65th Street in Sea Isle and dipped his front tire in the Atlantic Ocean just before nightfall.
“I feel good. I feel happy. But it will be nice to get some rest,” he said in an interview on the beach.
His father and mother, Lenny and Patti DiNote, joined with Michael to give Matt their hugs.
While standing on the beach, Lenny DiNote held up a ceremonial oversized check in the amount of $16,538 to indicate how much money Matt had raised for Eden Autism Services during his trip.
“We are very emotional,” Patti DiNote said of the family’s feelings for Matt.
“Very proud,” Lenny DiNote added.
Matt, who celebrated his 29th birthday on Sept. 22 when he was out on the road, has strong ties to Sea Isle. Although his family’s primary residence is in Voorhees, Camden County, they have had a summer home at 65th Street and Landis Avenue in Sea Isle since the early 1980s.
They also have owned a vacation home in Ocean City since 1976. The Ocean City home at 51st Street and West Avenue is where Lenny DiNote grew up and where his father, Frank DiNote, still lives.
Matt also has two other brothers, Chris and Nick. Over the years, Lenny DiNote and his sons have worked at Kix-McNutley’s, the Sea Isle bar and nightclub owned by Mayor Leonard Desiderio. Lenny DiNote continues to work as a summer bartender at Kix.
It was at Kix that Desiderio gave Matt the nickname “Matt the Hat” because of the old plaid fedora that he always wore at that time. He used the moniker “Matt the Travelin’ Hat” for his blog.
“The Hat is back home,” Matt’s father exclaimed on the beach.
Desiderio was among the well-wishers who greeted Matt when he arrived in town over the Sea Isle Boulevard bridge. Matt was accompanied by a police and fire department escort as he biked along Landis Avenue for the final mile of his trip to the beach at 65th Street.
“We are so happy to have you back home,” Desiderio said during a celebration on the beach that included the mayor presenting Matt with a Sea Isle-themed T-shirt and a ceremonial key to the city.
“What you have done is really amazing,” Desiderio said of Matt’s fundraising efforts for autism awareness.
The trip proved to be a daunting mental and physical challenge. On the very first day out of San Diego, Matt and his girlfriend, Aslyn Mayhew, ran over a patch of thorns and suffered three flat tires. Other problems with his bike followed, forcing him to head back to San Diego for repairs. Aslyn was with him for the first day, but Matt pressed on solo for the rest of the journey.
From California, he followed the southern route across country to avoid mountains and highways. He arrived on the East Coast in St. Augustine, Florida, on Nov. 25.
After a short break for Thanksgiving, he hit the road again for a final, nearly 1,500-mile push to Sea Isle. His arrival in Sea Isle at about 4:15 p.m. Saturday was filled with joy.
“When I got here, I just let my emotions flow. They just took over,” he said. “It was happy tears that that I was wiping from my eyes.”
His cross-country trip came about after his original plans to join the Peace Corps this year were interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Matt, a musician, is known for his free-spirited personality, or, as his father says, “The wanderer, the adventurer, that kind of guy.”
“He’s one of the guys who go to the moon in a rocket, ride their bike across country, or jump out of a perfectly good airplane with a parachute,” Lenny DiNote said of Matt in an earlier interview.
Matt initially set a fundraising goal of $10,000, but attained that amount even before he pedaled his first mile. Later, he upped his fundraising goal to $15,000, but surpassed that figure as well.
His comments in an interview Saturday, though, suggested that his fundraising efforts on his bike may not be done, after all.
“There’s something inside of me that says maybe it’s not all over. I might be back on the bike again tomorrow,” he said.