This story starts with steak. Or, lack thereof, rather. It was the final night of our Project Wildness adventure, and we had arrived at a forest cove hidden off Highway 61, just outside of the small town of Tofte, MN. Population 226. Our campsite was shrouded by trees, with a staircase leading to the banks of the Temperance River. Exhausted from a long drive and ready to relax, we set up camp and discussed meal preparations. We decided our final night would be best celebrated by grilling steak and a few leftover peppers and onions we had. The only missing factor was the steak.
McCal and I were put on steak duty as the boys built a fire. We were given specific directions to head toward Tofte's General Store. This we did, with great excitement at driving the Subaru and setting off on our own. The sky was fading gray as we left the forest and sped (I mean, drove carefully, Shane...) on the road to town. Our mouths watered at the thought of dinner ahead of us. After days of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and carrots, steak sounded magical.
We pulled up a few minutes later at the General Store, and saw two women sitting outside on the steps. We hopped out of the car and headed toward the door when one of the women stopped us. “We actually closed at 7 o'clock,” she said. It was 7:30. McCal and I were dismayed.
“Bummer! We're looking to get some steak. Know where we could find any?” McCal asked.
“The next closest place would be Grand Marais,” said the red-haired woman sitting closest to us.
“How far is that?” I asked.
“About 45 minutes.”
McCal and I looked at each other. The sky was growing dark. We had no time to drive that far and back.
“Is there any other place?” we asked. “No...” the woman said. We shrugged our shoulders, trying to think of what to do. Our minds turned to peanut butter and jelly.
Then the woman spoke up again. “What are you looking for?” she said.
“Any kind of meat,” we said. “Something to grill.”
“Do you have a credit card?”
“Can you be quick?”
We looked at her, hope rising.
She got up from her spot on the stair and pulled a key from her pocket.
“My dad owns the store,” she said. “I'll open it up for you.”
We thanked her and asked her name. “Jana,” she said.
Jana not only let us in the store, but she pointed out the best steaks they had to offer. She picked them out for us by hand and placed them in a bag, then led us to the peppers, grown on her family farm. We picked out spices and headed to the register. As we gathered our things we asked Jana about her life.
She told us how she recently had to have surgery on her wrist for carpal tunnel. The healing process would take six months. She showed us the cast on her arm. The job working at her Dad's general store was mostly to pass the time, she said.
“My dream is to go to culinary school,” she told us.
Jana checked us out and bagged our goods -- soon to be dinner in our bellies. We explained what this meant to us, that it was our last meal of the trip, that her selfless act was the perfect ending to a trip dedicated to celebrating selflessness. She smiled.
“I normally don’t do this,” she admitted. “But I wanted to help out.”
“Thank you,” we said. “Truly, thank you.”
As we drove back to camp with not just steak but fresh peppers, salt, pepper, and spices in tow, we couldn't help but reflect on the kindness of Jana and how her one act impacted our trip. The steaks we grilled that night were some of the best in our lives. The meat was tender, the peppers juicy and crispy, and the perfect end to a trip of long hours on the road.
The next morning as we packed up to drive once again, the final stretch of the trip, we couldn't get Jana off our mind. She did not need to go out of her way for us. McCal and I have both worked customer service jobs before, and we know how frustrating it is when customers appear after close – not to mention a full half hour after close. We wanted to recognize her selfless act.
The team agreed, and as we pulled into Tofte, we made a quick stop at the General Store. McCal and I wrote a heartfelt thank you card to Jana and included a special gift.
“Put this toward culinary school funds,” we said. “And know that the small selfless acts, like letting two girls into a store after close, do not go unnoticed.”
We brought the card into the store and tucked it into Jana’s mailbox. As we drove away, we couldn’t stop grinning thinking of how good can inspire good. Because sometimes it's as simple as going out of your way when you don't want to, for the sake of someone else, that makes all the difference.
To Carol E... When we received your donation we were inspired. Sometimes requests from donors overlap with others but yours was unique and stood out. You asked us to find someone aspiring to further her education, and Jana couldn't have fit your request more perfectly. Her generosity was a great example of the inspiration we look for on the road and a reflection of your own generosity. You and Gordy have been great neighbors to our family growing up and an important part of our small, tight-knit community. Thank you for recognizing Jana and her willingness to lend a hand.