Friends Ron Scheff and Lisa Philpott
Photo by Lisa Philpott

When Lisa Philpott left her Marblehead home in December of 2003 for a bike trip in Hawaii, she was apprehensive about her first solo experience. She was unaccustomed to flying first class, but she had earned the miles, was in a rut, and wanted to “change things up.” Once aboard her connecting flight in Chicago, a handsome man, seemingly single, took the aisle seat next to her. For a brief moment, she became excited, thinking of the endless possibilities during this 11-hour flight to Hawaii.

Ron Scheff was boarding his Chicago connection, on his way from New York City to Hawaii. Given the duration of the flight, he opted to splurge on the comfort of first class with frequent flyer points. As he made his way down the aisle, he saw a woman in the window seat next to his. He was not feeling well, and decided to take the preemptive approach with his seatmate: “Please don’t speak to me. I think I might throw up,” he recalled saying to the woman. “I remember she was wearing a sweatsuit, and I was surprised that she would wear a sweatsuit in first class,” he added.

Lisa and Ron spent the first three hours of the flight with an invisible wall between them — she thinking he was rude, and he, relieved for the silence. On the fourth hour, a woman in the row behind them blurted out, through a thick southern drawl, “I just can’t wait to swim with the turtles!” Lisa and Ron caught each other’s eye-rolling and suppressed grins when the woman repeated, louder and more dramatically, “I just can’t WAIT to swim with the turtles.”

“The woman was so earnest,” Ron said of the moment the ice began to thaw. “No one else would really have laughed at that, but she was almost screaming, and we both found it so funny.”

Lisa accepted Ron’s explanation for the curt introduction. “He said he wasn’t a drinker, and had wine the night before, which is why he felt sick.”

Soon the pair discovered that they would be on the same Backroads cycling trip. Ron was an early adopter and enthusiastic supporter of Backroads, with at least seven trips under his belt, and eager to quell Lisa’s unease. “I was excited to tell her how great the trip would be,” he said, “She would be so well supported.”

Lisa and Ron separated upon their arrival in Honolulu, but once on the Big Island for the start of the trip, learned that they had shared the same taxi driver.

“My driver was this lovely Hawaiian man. He turned off his meter to show me around the island,” Lisa said. The next day, that same driver happened to pick up Ron and told him about a woman named Lisa who was also there for a bike trip.

On the first day of the trip, both recall the guide-led, icebreaker exercise that asked participants, “What is your favorite flower?”

Lisa remembered the answers being “gentle” flowers — roses, hibiscus, and daisies. Ron was the last to answer. “He kind of paused then said dryly, ‘I like Venus fly traps.’” Even the guides seemed confused, saying his choice was “interesting.”

“I was the only one laughing,” Lisa said, acknowledging this defining moment. “I was a private audience to Ron’s sense of humor.”

For Ron, Lisa was “interesting and a very joyful and fun person, so I naturally gravitated to her,” he said.

Hawaii marked the beginning of a friendship that, over the next 20 years, would span the continent and become as deep and abiding as any love story. Plans were made for another trip six months later to Apulia in Italy, and over the years included the Yucatan, Napa, Sicily, Costa Rica, Argentina’s Patagonia region, Provence, Slovenia, Croatia, and Tucson.

What started as having another single person to travel with became more than Backroad excursions. Summer vacations led to accompanying each other to family events and holidays, eventually giving each other the nickname “Primary.”

“We are so lucky because we are both single, but we are not alone,” said Lisa. “We show the best and worst of each other without judgment.”

They are supportive of each other’s personal lives and have an understanding that if one finds another romantic relationship, they will have less time for each other. But for now, that hasn’t happened.

“I’m unusually silly, and feel most comfortable being ridiculous with Lisa,” Ron said.

Whether Lisa was wearing a “sweatsuit” or a “tracksuit” 20 years ago is a detail that still feels ridiculous to them, in the best way.

Originally published on in the Marblehead Weekly News, republished with permission.

HOW THEY MET: Primary connections, a story of friendship
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