Every now and then, as a travel writer, I get invited to join other journalists in visiting particular areas around the country and recently found myself cruising the scenic back roads of Virginia for a four-day tour as city managers rolled out the red carpet. There were a gaggle of writers from across the country, but only four riders on three bikes, and planners worked to be sure we experienced the best the area had to offer. We’d all meet up as a group for dinner after the others pursued the activities that appealed to them while us scooter scribblers spent the days traipsing twisties and chasing Civil War ghosts. I spent all my time with the motorcyclists and enjoyed sharing lanes with a married Texas couple as well as the retired cop-turned-writer from Georgia as our like-minded group giggled our way through getting to know each other over the course of the excursion.
One evening we shared hushpuppies and Brunswick stew across the table from a female journalist at a small, family-owned local barbecue joint. Her thick Southern accent was like soft music as she flirted openly with the guys, one of whom asked her name and in a voice dripping with Tupelo honey she reminded him that she had already introduced herself earlier as, “Sweetie Pie,” a statement she followed with eye batting and schoolgirl giggles. She was younger than the rest of us by a small margin and regaled the table with her experiences during the tour that included hiking for a few miles in the rain and canoeing, all while wearing a single string of pearls that hung around her neck.
The necklace came with its own story, which she was happy to share with the group. The beads were a gift from an elderly woman whom she’d met and befriended through an article she had done on a ladies group that gathered regularly for luncheons in her town. Sweetie Pie had continued to meet with the ladies afterward and formed close relationships as she dealt with a difficult time in her personal life, which included looking for a new home after leaving her husband. The woman had encouraged her and lifted her up during a dark depression. The pearls had come to mean many things to her as she struggled with financial ruin, family problems and all the upheaval that comes with escaping an abusive marriage. Our charming new acquaintance, whom I viewed as one of those polite Southern women who was raised up as a debutante and proper lady, laid it all out right there on the dinner table as she shared deeply personal particulars that most reserve for more intimate settings among friends. I found myself shifting in my seat and wondering if we’d make it back to the hotel without getting caught in another thunderstorm as she looked me dead in the eye and described the annihilation of her self-esteem and strength while navigating the waters of reconstructing her life. Sweetie Pie shared the details of righting herself and putting her life back together, occasionally peppering the narration with words like hell and damn just to be sure we understood the gravity of the situations she described. She used the terms life coach and empowerment. The entire table sat still, frozen in silence, while we began to realize that this was a sort of therapy for her. I caught myself dabbing at my eyes while searching out an escape route but, finding no subtle way to avoid the emotions the topic stirred up, and becoming increasingly uncomfortable, I simply got up and left the table to collect myself.
I checked the bikes, the sky, and the radar on my phone and prepared myself for the rain we’d certainly get smacked with before we could call it a night. I clicked the bike on for a quick look at the gas gauge before taking a deep breath and heading back to the table with hopes that the mood had shifted. I sat down to discover that though the conversation had progressed some, the topic hadn’t changed but by the time dessert decisions like how many deep-fried Oreos and banana puddings to order came around, the weight of the subject matter had lightened a bit and Sweetie Pie was back to cracking jokes and flirting. Our crew took to discussing the weather and routes as others settled into their individual conversations when an idea of how to help suddenly dawned on me. I think Sweetie Pie needs to learn how to ride a motorcycle. I’d bet you money she could ditch the life coach after just a couple of road trips and that shiny string of pearls would look really nice paired with a black leather jacket and a “DILLIGAF” patch.