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Getting to Shreveport

Twenty minutes down the road we met up with Sherry Bell and her silver Dodge minivan. Chelsea, Pat and I worked like well-oiled machine, shifting the bikes and gear in under five minutes. After quick and heartfelt goodbye hugs with Pat, Chelsea and I settled into the middle two seats in back with our gear and bikes behind us. Sherry’s deliveries and personal items rode shotgun in the front seat next to her.

Eleven hours later, tired almost beyond caring, but quietly pleased with the direction things were heading, we sank in bone-deep relief onto the beds of a Super-8 motel in Shreveport, Louisiana.

I had driven a hundred sixty miles in the first three hours. We’d survived the battle of the dueling navigation systems. We’d driven another eleven hours, the first five hours with no break. We’d met a wonderful new friend. We’d had complete strangers be very kind to us.

Best of all, we laughed more from Atlanta to Shreveport, deep belly laughs, laughs that just took us over, than we’d laughed in far too long.

Sherry started it.

It took us the usual few minutes to get over the initial awkwardness of total strangers meeting one another. We all knew we’d just committed to spending many hours together under close conditions, and we all hoped it would turn out well.

This time it was complicated a bit by the misunderstandings and glitches, but Sherry soon started the ball rolling by asking why we’d been in South Carolina, and how long.

Not knowing how to answer efficiently, I went for brevity and gave her a concise three-sentence answer, simply and neutrally summing up our eventful previous four months. After a few heartbeats of silence, Sherry came back with a comment so blissfully funny that she endeared herself to us forever.

After that opener, the hours steadily rolled by as we covered the miles, swapping stories, sharing reminiscences and laughter. Sherry was astounded when she discovered that she was the first woman with whom we had spoken for more than five consecutive minutes in the last four months. That in itself was worth hours of swapping hilarious one-liners.

Not only was Sherry funny and down to earth, she was a great driver. I’d volunteered to drive, and was more than ready to at any time, but since she’s a professional driver and understands long-distance driving, she kept the wheel. I was both relieved and delighted to be able to sit quietly after such a wild week.

One of the downsides of having a professional driver is that she could drive an extraordinary length of time without needing to stop and she had a time schedule to meet. Sherry soldiered on for five straight hours, over three hundred miles, till we reached Meridian, Mississippi. Chelsea and I had had only a five-minute break in eight hours.

I’m not sure if it was our “phantom-Wal-Mart” vibration, or a remaining faint vibration from the dueling navigation systems earlier in the day, but when Chelsea and Sherry looked up Wal-Mart on their navigation systems in Meridian we naturally got lost. Our collective response was a bunch of very funny one-liners as we sorted our way through the hot and deserted streets of downtown Meridian.

Sherry is not shy about asking for what she needs, so when she spotted a police officer parking his car and heading into the Meridian Police Department, she didn’t hesitate a second to pull over and ask directions. Leaning his head into the open car window, Officer Early rattled off a complicated sequence of directions, only to be met with silence from inside the car.

“Did you get that?” he asked, with the beginnings of a faint smile.

I hadn’t gotten a thing. Chelsea wasn’t saying anything. Into the silence Sherry said, “No”.

Openly laughing by then, Officer Early repeated himself, then asked Sherry to repeat it. She had it down perfectly, so a few minutes later we were stretching our stiff, sore legs and achy backs in the Wal-Mart parking lot, thanks to Officer Early’s great directions.

Rosemary with legend Ronnie MacDonald

We spent a much-needed hour’s break in Meridian, splitting our time between Wal-mart and MacDonald’s to get food and bathroom breaks. Thanks to Chelsea, I managed to squeeze in two photo-ops with legend Ronnie MacDonald who happened to be lounging on a bench in both the MacDonald’s inside Wal-Mart and the standalone MacDonald’s closer to the freeway. I mean honestly, what are the chances of that?

The skies looked absolutely gruesome when we left Wal-Mart, thick with lowering black clouds and brilliant with frequent and spectacular strikes of lightning, but really, what would a road trip in the Deep South be without being stuck in a heavy rainstorm?

Sherry drove beautifully and didn’t let the terrible driving conditions get her flustered. She reminded us of JoAnn Nunez in Oak Grove, Louisiana with the way she kept up a running patter, interspersing comments to other drivers in her conversations with us.

“Come on now, ya ya, y’all can’t stop on the freeway in the middle of a rainstorm!”
“Now which way you goin’, huh?”
“You stoppin’? You pullin’ out? What?”

That got us onto a discussion about following other drivers’ lights when conditions are really rough and visibility is near zero. We talked about blindly following other cars, hoping they know where they’re going.

Sherry trumped all with her story of being stuck on a freeway in Alabama some months earlier. Her kids were with her. The blockage was severe, lasting several hours, with the entire freeway at a standstill. As frequently happens in those situations, folks were out of their cars, chatting with the occupants of neighboring cars.

One of those guys told Sherry a story of driving after dark in blinding rain. Not knowing the area, he crept slowly, following the lights on the car ahead of him, looking for the freeway onramp, hoping the guy ahead knew his way.

Eventually the guy ahead pulled over, so he stopped too. The lead guy came back, motioning for the driver in back to roll down his window, and said, “May I help you?”

“Yes”, the guy in back says, “I’m looking for the freeway onramp and I’m following you hoping you know the way.”

The first guy says, “Sir, you’re in my driveway!”

Sherry said the two-hour wait on that freeway in Alabama was worth every bit of irritation just to hear that story.

Sherry Bell

Despite the laughter and lightening of our moods, I could feel the exhaustion creeping up inexorably. My sinuses were beginning to feel unspeakable. I began coughing far too frequently. By the time I asked for a brief break in Monroe, Louisiana, I was hanging on the overhead door strap just to stay upright. Chelsea didn’t look much better.

I’d done my homework ahead of time and knew the exact address of an affordable motel in Shreveport, one in the Super-8 chain. While not luxurious, we know they are reliable and clean. Armed with the address and directions, Sherry found it quickly.

The check-in process was interminable for the two exhausted travelers, but was made infinitely easier by Elizabeth, an incredibly pleasant and kind check-in clerk. Without asking she gave us a nice discount on the room and made sure we knew the breakfast hours and offerings the following morning.

Sherry could have so easily just dropped us off in the motel lobby with our gear and bikes. She still had a three-hour drive to Dallas and it was already eleven o’clock at night Atlanta time. But she didn’t.

Not only did she wait good-naturedly through our check-in process, she took us down the way to yet another Wal-Mart so we’d have fresh water and snacks to last us through the night and morning. To top it off she helped us unload our gear and bikes.

After huge heartfelt hugs and a quick photo of Sherry, she was on her way to Dallas and we were on our way to a good night’s sleep.

The motel room with its two king-size beds was noticeably larger than our home of the last month, and best of all it was bug-free and quiet and all ours. The clean bathroom with dry toilet paper was a mere few steps away.

We couldn’t believe our good luck. Each of us stretched out separately on a bed with our Smartfood cheddar popcorn, a Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and our Kindle.

My last action of the day was to text Kenneth that we’d arrived safely, give him the address, and let him know that he could pick us up anytime by one the next day.

We drifted oh-so-pleasantly off to sleep, after agreeing that Sherry Bell, our Craigslist rideshare, got our Hero of the Day.

We’d made it to Shreveport. We hadn’t given up at the eleventh hour.

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