"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go."
R. L. Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is about a twelve-day trip he took through the mountains of southern France in September and October of 1878.
That's already late in the year for the mountains, and Stevenson is told to expect cold weather, if not wolves and bandits. He takes a revolver. He designs a sleeping bag that will double as a sack to carry what he needs. And he acquires a donkey, Modestine, "a diminutive she-ass, not much bigger than a dog, the color of a mouse, with a kindly eye and a determined under-jaw."
The book is early in Stevenson's career, but not his first; he had previously written a book of travels The Inland Voyage and he identifies himself as a writer to people he meets. But he's more generally assumed to be a pedlar, though maybe of the higher sort: at one point he's taken for a dealer in brandy.
Stevenson is raised a Scots Presbyterian of a moderately severe stripe, but has by this time lost his faith. He's discreet but honest about this loss with the people he meets and even with us readers in the text, but clear enough. Still religion interests him. Though he camps out as needed, he doesn't every night. One of his stops (the 26th of September) is the Trappist monastery Lady of the Snows: "I have rarely approached anything with more unaffected terror than the monastery of our Lady of the Snows. This it is to have a Protestant education." Nevertheless he quickly makes friends. "I was troubled besides in my mind as to etiquette. Durst I address a person who was under a vow of silence? Clearly not. But drawing near, I doffed my cap to him with a faraway superstitious reverence. He nodded back, and cheerfully addressed me. Was I going to the monastery?" An Irish deacon living at the monastery is thrilled to be delegated as Stevenson's guide: he's released from his vow of silence to play host and had had no occasion to speak English. (Though it would seem Stevenson's French is quite good.)
But a couple of retreatants at the monastery try to convert him until he's finally forced to say they're being impolite, a little too pushy, when they immediately back off.
Stevenson has done some reading in preparation for traveling the area. There's a legendary wolf of the area whose stories he's learned; of even more interest to him, the second half of his journey is in an area that's quite Protestant, and he's studied up on the history. The Camisards were French Huguenots whom Louis the XIVth tried to suppress in the early 1700s, and who took up armed rebellion with some success. Stevenson is full of their stories. (One of them involved a group of Protestants all stabbing a murderous Catholic Inquisitor, such that no one of them was responsible for the death, which reminded me of a certain Agatha Christie novel.)
Phylloxera is destroying the grapevines of southern France at this time:
"I could not at first make out what they were after, and asked one of the fellows to explain.'Making cider,' he said. 'Oui, c'est comme ça. Comme dans le nord!'"
The book has considerable charm; he's mildly ironic but forgiving about the people he meets. (Except for one man in Fouzilhac, who won't even give him directions; but that's OK, because these bad manners appal the people he meets in Fouzilhic. These would appear to be actual village names, now spelled slightly differently.) He's mildly ironic but forgiving as well about himself, about his inability to manage a donkey, or to load Modestine with the sleeping sack he commissioned.
I should say, I suppose, that while he's not cruel to Modestine by the standards of the time, he's certainly not enlightened by ours. In the end he sells her for thirty-five francs: "The pecuniary gain is not obvious, but I had bought freedom into the bargain." And even though he remembers her liking to eat out of his hand, Modestine's fate is no further to be thought of.
"The journey which this little book is to describe was very agreeable and fortunate for me. After an uncouth beginning, I had the best of luck to the end. But we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of the world,--all, too, travellers with a donkey;..."
A French hiking club now maintains the route for walkers.
The book is also available from Gutenberg.