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Travels With A Donkey

When my mother moved from her house in Winnipeg 25 years ago, she passed onto me a large collection of books. Lots of poetry, some fiction, Agatha Christie paperbacks from the World War 2 era and several books on arts, music and culture. Also a few more recent acquisitions, published by the Folio Society in the 1980’s, mainly Anthony Trollope. Since I already had quite a collection of books and shipping out to BC was expensive, in some cases, she had to twist my arm to take them on.

One book, however, I gladly accepted was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels With A Donkey.

Of course, Stevenson is known far and wide for some of the most famous literary creations ever produced, his more famous works being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, all of which I’ve read and all of which have been given plenty of film and television adaptations. But Travels With A Donkey (1879) was unknown to me. This version of the book was printed in 1981, with illustrations by one of my favorite illustrators, Edward Ardizzone.

Travels recounts Stevenson’s 12-day (Sept. 22 – Oct. 3), 200-kilometre (120 mi) hike through the sparsely populated and impoverished mountains of the Cévennes region in south-central France. It’s a slim volume, barely over 120 pages, easily read in a couple of evenings.

National Geographic Atlas of the World, Eighth Edition

Because of an unwieldy sleeping sack (six-feet square!), Stevenson must purchase a beast of burden for his travels. “What I required was something cheap and small and sturdy, and of a stolid and peaceful temper; and all these requirements pointed to a donkey.” (p. 13) Stevenson finds a she-ass, “not much bigger than a dog, the colour of a mouse with a kindly eye and a determined under-jaw”, and upon first examination of good temper. (p. 13) He purchases the donkey and names her Modestine.

But appearances prove deceiving. Put a “green donkey-driver” together with a recalcitrant mule, you have a recipe for troubles ahead. The donkey’s pace proves to be slower than a walk; not only that, it stops to graze regularly. Time is marching on. Amused passers-by provide advice to our fearless trekker; one must have no pity on these miserable creatures, they say. Stevenson is forced to beat the poor animal frequently, causing guilt and distress. “The sound of my blows sickened me. Once, when I looked at her, she had a faint resemblance to a lady of my acquaintance who formerly loaded me with kindness; and this increased my horror of my cruelty.” (p.21)

Finally, at an inn, he explains his problem to his host. The innkeeper provides him with an answer, a goad. I know the word goad more as a verb, not a noun. My Shorter OED defines it as a “stick, pointed at one end, for driving cattle”; Stevenson’s one seems to have employed a pin, for added effect. It did the trick. “Blessed be the man who invented goads!” invokes Stevenson, “Blessed the innkeeper of Bouchet St Nicolas, who introduced me to their use!” (p.30) Instantly, the pace improves and Stevenson sets out for his first main destination, a trappist monastery named Our Lady of the Snows.

The Cévennes is one of the parts of France where the Protestant (Huguenot) religion took hold in the 16th and 17th centuries. A network of Protestant villages eventually permeated the mountainous region, which continues to be the backbone of that religion in France. In the early 1700’s a furious and deadly fight occured between Catholics and Camisards, as they were called, as the latter tried to resist Louis XIV’s 1685 revoking of the Edict of Nantes and attempts to bring about one state religion. After years of persecution, forced conversions, death and destruction (on both sides) peace was declared in 1715, leading to acceptance on both sides. By the time of Stevenson’s visit, harmony reigned. Although Stevenson never explains why he chose to go on this trek or the reason for this particular region, since he spends a large part of the book talking about the history, I’m guessing he was curious about what unfolded.

Now that the donkey has been brought to heel, the trek moves along smoothly. Stevenson recounts his various encounters, with the monks and boarders of the monastery, the guests of the local taverns, the locals, their hospitality and the nightly stops along the way (sometimes sleeping out in the open).

However, on the morning of October 4th, Modestine is pronounced “unfit for travel” (p. 135) and the two days of rest proscribed do not meet Stevenson’s time frame. She, along with packs and saddle, were sold for 35 francs, and our author carries on by stage-coach. Now, seated by the driver, he is overcome:

“For twelve days we had been fast companions; we had travelled upwards of a hundred and twenty miles, crossed several respectable ridges, and jogged along with our six legs by many a rocky and manny a boggy by-road. After the first day, although sometimes I was hurt and distant in manner, I still kept my patience; and as for her, poor soul! she had come to regard me as a god. She loved to eat out of my hand. She was patient, elegant in form, the colour of an ideal mouse, and inimitably small. Her faults were those of her race and sex; her virtues were her own…Father Adam wept when he sold her to me; after I sold her in my turn, I was tempted to follow his example; and being alone with a stage-driver and four or five agreeable young men, I did not hesitate to yield to my emotion.” (p.136)

One thing clear to me from reading this book is the exceptional quality of his writing, even when describing the most elemental aspects of the landscape. Here, Stevenson reminds me of Laurie Lee, one of my favorite authors when describing a stand of trees alongside the trail through the Tarn Valley:

“A thin fringe of ash-trees ran about the hill-tops, like ivy on a ruin; but on the lower slopes and far up every glen, the Spanish chestnut-trees stood each four-square to heaven under its tented foliage. Some were planted, each on its own terrace no larger than a bed; some, trusting in their roots, found strength to grow and prosper and be straight and large upon the rapid slopes of the valley; others, where there was a margin to the river, stood marshalled in a line and mighty like cedars of Lebanon. Yet even where they grew most thickly they were not to be thought of as a wood but as a herd of stalwart individuals…They gave forth a sweet perfume which pervaded the air of the afternoon; autumn had put hints of gold and tarnish in the green; and the sun so shone through and kindled the broad foliage that each chestnut was relieved against another, not in shadow, but in light. A humble sketcher here laid down his pencil in despair.

I wish I could convey a notion of the growth of these noble trees; of how they strike out boughs like the oak, and trail sprays of drooping foliage like the willow; of how they stand on upright fluted columns like the pillars of a church; or like the olive, from the most shattered bole can put out smooth and youthful shoots, and begin a new life upon the ruins of the old. Thus they partake of the nature of many different trees; and even their prickly top-knots, seen near at hand against the sky, have a certain palm-like air that impresses the imagination. But their individuality, although compounded of so many elements, is but the richer and more original. And to look down upon a level filled with these knolls of foliage, or to see a clan of old unconquerable chestnuts cluster ‘like herded elephants’ upon the spur of a mountain, is to rise to higher thoughts of the powers that are in Nature.” (pp. 104-5)

Could a more lyrical description of a stand of roadside trees exist?

Reading this book led me to imagine replicating Stevenson’s journey. The more I read about both book and writer, it became apparent I was far from the first to be so inspired. The Wikipedia site on the book provides the entire route and records both the writers who have retraced the hike but also the four films made of the adventure.

Cover Photo by Anthony Rae on Unsplash