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Barrel Guys, Iced Coffee, & Trail Magic

When Chantal returned from her journey on the Camino de Santiago, she was energized in all areas of her life, and full of stories about “trail magic.” Hikers—especially through-hikers tackling big walks like the AT and the PCT—are familiar with the concept of trail magic: A moment arrives when you are struggling, tested by your limitations and the environment. And then, appearing like an oasis in the desert is the trail magic. It could be a group of scouts handing out soup or sandwiches. It could be someone stopping to give you a lift to the store in a downpour. It could be someone leading you to safety after becoming lost.

Whatever shape it takes, trail magic is usually some form of positive human kindness at an uncertain time on the journey. As we prepared for our next camino, we had two encounters with trail magic this week.

It should be clear that as we prepare to leave and go sailing in Grenada we are not suffering like peregrinos in a strange land. We very much are in control of our actions and decisions. But we have upset the apple cart of our lives, and we are not immune to the consequences of this decision, and the impact it has created in the lives of our families and friends. We feel this stress and internalize it.

So when we drove down to Boston to meet Steve, our “barrel guy,” we were full of apprehension. Strapped into the bed of the pickup truck was a blue, plastic, 55-gallon, food-grade barrel filled with our possession, things we will need for life aboard S/V Camino: cooking utensils, dry goods, a sextant, books on stoicism. We were about to turn this over to a stranger in the parking lot of a pet supply store. Further, this was not our first rodeo when it came to shipping personal belongings overseas. When we moved to France, we sent a pallet of possessions ahead of us. When our stuff arrived, there was little left of it besides bent ski poles and splinters. Most painful was the absence of my beloved Nikko integrated amplifier.

But our barrel guy put us at ease right away. Transplanted from Barbados and recently retired after working for Raytheon for 30 years, Steve assured us that our stuff would arrive intact. It turns out there is a brisk trade in shipping barrels to the Caribbean, which is what Steve does in his retirement to stay busy. We had learned about this trade from our Jamaican brothers and sisters who come to Stowe each winter to work. Many of them routinely fill these barrels with things that are cheap and plentiful in America, but scarce and costly on tropical islands. That’s what led us to Steve.

He put us at ease by describing the process. “When I get my truck filled with 40 barrels, I drive them down to New York and put on board a ship. The ship makes the rounds of the islands and heads back in a few weeks, and I do it all over again.” Who knew such an economy existed, and that it did such brisk business? “I’ll be driving down to New York on Saturday,” he said, “and your barrel will be on its way.”

Steve had an easy demeanor and he confidently processed the paperwork for us. When it came time to pay, we pulled out a credit card and Steve asked his assistant, Chris, to go get the card processor from the truck. But Chris returned empty-handed: they had forgotten it. We immediately started searching for ATMs on our phones.

“No problem,” Steve said, waving us off. “You just send me a check.” We were stunned.

“Are you sure you trust us to send it?” we asked. He laughed.

“Look, you are going to Grenada, right? The islands are small. Everybody knows each other. Yes, I trust you.”

And off went the barrel, to be driven to New York and loaded onto a ship, all before Steve gets our check (which we promptly mailed out upon our return). For people like us in Vermont, where maple syrup producers and others routinely leave cash boxes out for the honor system, and where folks leave their keys in the ignition so they don’t lose them, this may not sound like a stretch of the imagination. But we are wise to the world, and an act of trust like that for a considerable sum of money was not lost on us. Buen camino, Steve.

Our second encounter with trail magic occurred on our ride home, at the northbound Hookset Rest Area. It’s a regular stop for us on our trips back and forth to Boston, appreciated for its good coffee, clean rest rooms, and oceans of booze in the attached New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlet. This stop was coffee-driven, and when I got to the counter the gal behind the register was raving to me about this new, nitro-infused, cold-brewed coffee they had. I was going to get one (I get glassy-eyed at the mere mention of anything that is “nitro-infused”), but her station was out; I would have to trek across the dining area to the other location if I wanted some.

“That’s okay,” I told her, “I’ll just have a regular iced coffee.”

Our gal—Janet was her name—exploded from behind the counter, hopping from foot to foot. “Uh-uh! No way! You are going to have this coffee! It is so awesome! I’ve had three already!” (We could tell.) “Follow me! I’m taking you over there! And I’m buying you this coffee! It’s my treat! It’s so awesome!”

We were sucked into Janet’s wake and pulled into the other food area. “Hey everybody!” Janet announced, hopping from foot-to-foot in something I recognized as the pee-pee dance, “These are my cousins, and they are all set! I bought them their coffee already! So have at it!”

She gestured toward the coffee machine, gave me an elbow bump, and commanded me to enjoy the coffee. “You are gonna love it!” Then she was gone.

I did love it, but I would have loved it even if it were dirty bath water. Janet’s joy and enthusiasm would have made anything taste great, and we floated back to our truck, giggling and glowing. Buen camino, Janet.

I don’t know if I needed that iced coffee, or if our transaction with Steve was anything more than business as usual, but it was magic for us in important ways. Encountering honesty, trust, and kindness at a time when you are embarking on something new and unknown can have a magical effect on our hearts, just when we need it most.

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