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.
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 . . . ”
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?”
And 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 . . . ”
I put my hand over the receiver and turned to Johnny, who was standing nearby. “Is your father always this generous?”
I repeated Johnny’s words into the phone, adding, “And do you really want to drive here right now?”
Still incredulous, Angela relented.
I walked outside with St. Étienne and Johnny to the shiny red pickup, which was quickly filled with bottles from the trunk of my German-engineered nemesis. I handed several bottles to the Gauthiers, who seemed very pleased, and for a moment it felt like a straightforward exchange.
I shook their hands, climbed into the cab and pulled out of the driveway. I felt jubilant, grateful and extremely lucky. My faith in mankind — especially in rural Quebecers — was at an all-time high. But I soon realized that to truly repay St. Étienne I would have to emulate his kindness. Granted, I doubt I’ll ever lend a stranger my car for the weekend, but I will help those in need whenever the opportunity arises. It’s hackneyed, but the adage that “generosity is its own reward” really hit home on that late-December night.
Later that evening, after regaling my relatives with the tale, I Googled “Étienne Gauthier,” just to see if I could learn a bit more about my new-found hero. Far down the list, one hit mentioned the “other” St. Étienne (St. Stephen in English).
Was it just a coincidence that he’s the patron saint of headaches?