Sunday, May 29, 2011

Travels with a donkey

I went for a lovely walk in the Vercors the other day, with a donkey called Marguerite. She was – naturally – a little stubborn at times, dipping her head without warning to chomp at the grass and refusing to budge, no matter how hard I tugged. But she was beautiful and sweet and I would love to renew the experience.

When I do, it will be to walk the GR70 in the Cévennes, otherwise known as the Stevenson trail. Robert Louis Stevenson set off in 1878 with the intention of having an adventure and writing a book about it in order to make the money he needed to be with the woman he loved. What a romantic soul…

He arrived in Le Monastier, a village about fifteen kilometres from Le-Puy-en-Velay and stocked up on food and equipment, much of which he would eventually have to throw away. He also had one of the first sleeping-bags made, which he designed himself. Then he bought a donkey, Modestine, for ‘sixty-five francs and a glass of brandy’. The villagers helped him to load her up (quite incompetently it would turn out) and he set off one bright October morning full of optimism.

However, Modestine soon put a stop to his good spirits. She walked so slowly that Stevenson found himself not so much walking as lingering on one leg, alternately. If he walked ahead or behind her, she would simply stop and start munching grass. Although he was loathe to ‘brutalise this innocent creature’, he managed to make her walk faster by hitting her with a cane. But this seemed to distress her (and him) so much, that he relented and resigned himself to shuffling for the rest of the hundred-and-twenty-mile journey.

Then he met a local peasant who, when he had stopped laughing, assured Stevenson that the donkey was just play-acting. He gave him a switch to use instead of a cane and told him to yell ‘Proot’ and he would have no more trouble. I do wonder if the peasant was pulling his leg as well – I mean, would shouting ‘fart’ at a donkey really help?

It didn’t. Modestine grew increasingly stubborn and no amount of prooting would budge her from her chosen path or pace. She led him round in circles and refused to go up hills until Stevenson was convinced she was ‘filled with the demon’. It wasn’t until another peasant offered Stevenson a goad – a long stick with a pin at the end – that the two began to make progress. Stevenson no longer had qualms about chastising the donkey, so exasperated had he become with her.

Stevenson finally arrived in Saint-Jean-du-Gard twelve days after setting out. He had always been regarded as an eccentric figure but this adventure had surely cemented his reputation. Nevertheless, he was one of the first to popularise hiking and camping as a recreational activity and over a hundred years later, people are still walking the Stevenson trail.

Stevenson was able to marry the woman he loved (phew!) and went on to write the classic novels that we all know so well.

And Modestine?

Well, he sold her, saddle and all, for thirty-five francs. ‘The pecuniary gain is not obvious,’ he said, ‘but I had bought freedom into the bargain.’

Well, at least I won’t have to buy my donkey…