It was late in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 2004, and I was stranded on the icy stretch of road between the Outaouais towns of Plaisance and Papineauville. I was travelling alone from Ottawa to my cousins’ chalet near Mont Tremblant, and with Quebec’s liquor-store workers on strike I was hauling most of the party supplies.
A half-hour earlier, I was motoring down Route 148 when my Volkswagen Golf suddenly stalled near a roadside poutine stand. With much cursing and spraying of WD-40 I managed to revive the (expletive deleted) vehicle, which a few minutes later gave up the ghost for good on the gravel shoulder.
With hazards blinking, I took stock of the situation. The road was deserted and I was still several kilometres from Papineauville, where any garages were undoubtedly closed. My cellphone was taking cues from the VW. I was beginning to wonder if I should have stayed at the poutine stand.
Just down the road, glowing windows — and strains of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” — beckoned from a modest country home. I rang the bell three or four times — the folks inside were clearly in fine Dec. 31 form — before a stocky, beer-toting 20-something opened the door. “Hey, buddy!” he cried, to which I responded with a feeble, “Bonjour . . . parlez-vous Anglais?”
He nodded, introduced himself as Johnny Gauthier, and let me in.
A break in the BTO allowed me to explain my predicament. Johnny immediately suggested we get my car into the driveway, so he called to his cohorts and a group of young men — along with Johnny’s father, the grey-haired head of the household — donned winter gear and set out into the snowy Friday evening.
Ten minutes later, exhausted, I called my wife, Angela, who had made her way to Tremblant a couple of days earlier. Neither of us were thrilled that she would have to retrace her route for more than two hours in the snowy darkness.
Despite my hosts’ relentless hospitality, my Anglo-Saxon temperament insisted that I was imposing. “Is there somewhere I could wait in Papineauville?” I asked. “Would you mind if I called a cab?”
That’s when Johnny’s father, Étienne, stepped in. He looked me up and down, exchanged a few words with Johnny in French, and then said, “Why don’t you take my truck?”
“Thank you so much,” I replied, “but a cab would be fine. I really don’t want to impose and . . . ”
Étienne laughed and held up his hand. “No, no, I mean, why don’t you take my truck to Mont Tremblant?”
Now that was an imposition.
I was dumbfounded. My first instinct was to turn down the offer. “That’s very kind, but I couldn’t possibly . . . ”
But Saint Étienne, as I now think of him, would have none of it. “How long do you need it?”
“Well, till Monday, I guess . . . ”
St. Étienne reached into his pocket and pulled out several sets of keys — turns out he ran a trucking business — and detached one. “Here you go. Call your wife and tell her to stay put.”
At this point, the exchange felt surreal. I watched in elated shock as my disembodied fingers dialled the chalet’s number.
“Hi — have you left yet?” I asked.
“Clearly not,” Angela replied. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s unbelievable. Guess what: You don’t have to pick me up.”
“Why? Did you get the car started?”
“No. Étienne, the guy who lives here, is going to lend me his truck for the weekend.”
Silence. Then, “Well, you obviously can’t accept it. That’s crazy.”
That’s when I realized I had to take the truck. “Look,” I said. “When somebody shows this kind of faith in someone they just met, their offer can’t be refused. I mean, would I lend a complete stranger my car for three days? No way! So you have to wonder: Why is he doing this? He’s doing this because...”
Read the rest of the story in the Toronto Star
WHERE TO STAY
Two words: Free poutine. You can savour some of your own at the Ottawa Marriott Hotel and the Residence Inn Mont Tremblant Manoir Labelle, and you can savour it for free by exchanging Marriott Rewards for a dining gift card.