For 47 years, Melanie Benson got her neighbors where they needed to go.

She was their bus driver and it was a joy, she said. It was an honor. It was an adventure.

But now Metro Transit's longest-serving driver is ready for a new adventure. About a week ago, on her 69th birthday, Benson retired from the job she loved.

"This was the only thing I ever wanted to do," said Benson, sitting at her retirement party, surrounded by balloons, flowers and friends, including many of her longtime passengers.

She found her vocation at a bus stop, on a soggy, miserable day, when she was still a student at Macalester College. She still remembers the rush of relief she felt when she saw one of the old red MTC buses crest the hill, promising shelter from the icy rain and a safe ride home.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to be that to other people?'" she said.

A few years later, she was the one behind the wheel of the bus. She remembers her first blizzard, white-knuckling the route to Apple Valley in a near-whiteout. She glanced in the rear-view mirror to check whether her passengers were as nervous as she was.

"I was so scared," she said. "But I looked in the back of the bus, and all these people were trusting me. They were doing crossword puzzles and reading books and talking to each other. Well, I thought, if they trust me, I trust me."

That trust grew as Benson settled into the route she would drive for more than half of her career — the 23, the same line she sometimes rode as a college student. Back and forth along 38th Street, from the Uptown transit center to the Minnesota Veterans Home, or across the river to Highland Park in St. Paul.

She carried generations along that route. She watched young mothers heave toddlers up the big steps to the bus, then watched the little ones grow, ride the bus to school and leave for college. Every year, on her work anniversary, she decorated the bus and threw a rolling party, so everyone could enjoy her job as much as she did.

"It was like driving the neighborhood," she said. "You're out. You're among people. You're driving a very big vehicle, so it makes you feel strong. You're right there, up high, and you can see everything. It's just a wonderful feeling."

Now that she has time, she plans to write a book about her years behind the wheel.

On her last day, the neighborhood came to see her off. Regulars like Barb Kaufman, whose service dog, Puzzle, had been the star of the 23 route.

At the end of the line, Benson would sometimes park and walk with Kaufman and Puzzle to a grassy area at the Veterans Home to play ball.

"We would have something called the Puzzle Run," she said, as Kaufman joined her at the retirement party. "If there was someone on the bus who didn't seem to be going anywhere, we'd say 'Come on, come with us.' We'd go out there and stand and talk and throw toys."

Puzzle, a guide dog and very good girl, died last year after happy years of service and many bus rides. Kaufman came to the party to share a big hug and a few memories with Puzzle's favorite bus driver.

From now on, Benson will be a passenger on the bus. She wonders if she'll have more company this spring, if Lyft and Uber carry through on their threat to leave Minneapolis rather than pay their drivers better.

If new commuters do hop on a bus, Benson hopes they'll enjoy the ride as much as she has over the years. She hopes they'll get to meet a few neighbors and watch the city roll by from up high, as somebody else navigates weather and traffic and construction.

"I've driven a lot of routes over the years," she said. "Each one of them was interesting."