Book: RL Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes

by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)

But we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of this world—all, too, travellers with a donkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his journey through the Cevennes is a classic travelogue.

Undertaken in 1878 when Stevenson was a young man and before he had found fame as a writer, Travels was published in 1879 and was one of Stevenson’s first published works.

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The journey itself was a 12 day, 120 mile, self-supported hike through tough, sparsely populated terrain in an area of south-central France that had seen a protestant uprising during the reign of Louis XIV.

An often remarked feature of the journey is Stevenson’s love for occasionally sleeping out of doors, preferring to use a bespoke sack, rather than using a tent or finding an inn.

A tent, above all for a solitary traveller, is troublesome to pitch, and troublesome to strike again…A sleeping-sack, on the other hand…does not advertise your intention of camping out to every curious passer-by. This is a huge point. If a camp is not secret, it is but a troubled resting-place.

From his description, what he refers to as a sleeping-sack sounds like a setup akin to a bivvy bag and improvised basha.

I decided on a sleeping-sack….and….in case of heavy rain I proposed to make myself a little tent, or tentlet, with my waterproof coat, three stones, and a bent branch.

With his love for informal and makeshift outdoor sleeping, Stevenson would have a great deal in common with modern day adventurers Alastair Humphreys and Anna McNuff.

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Stevenson writes evocatively about being outdoors at night, sitting smoking and drinking brandy (these two items seem to have sustained him on his journey) while looking at the silhouettes of trees around him, appreciating the silence and beauty of the night sky.

I…sat upright to make a cigarette. The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still…I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars.

Communing with nature and being self sufficient is a large part of Stevenson’s quest in Travels.

He writes about his yearning for pure adventure and the thrill of waking and finding himself in completely unfamiliar surroundings.

He has no high purpose beyond that of travelling “for travel’s sake”, “to move”“to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly” and “come down off this feather-bed of civilisation.”

He yearns to be ‘in the moment’, an “exacting present” that occupies and composes the mind and he delights in travel’s non-conformity, feeling “independent of material aids”, and thinking that he had “rediscovered one of those truths which are revealed to savages and hid from political economists.”

Unable to carry his heavy sleeping sack and equipment, Stevenson purchases himself a donkey at the start of his journey.

It is through his relationship with the donkey, Modestine, that Stevenson highlights the second theme of Travels.

From the preface and throughout, Stevenson continually returns to notions of friendship and companionship. This creates a tension with his desire for occasional solitude rather than a “close and noisy ale-house”, although ultimately he reconciles them.

He writes of the “partial intimacies” formed when travelling and enjoys the easy camaraderie of travelling, setting the world to rights with strangers, meeting Trappist monks or expressing his “hearty admiration” to the waitress Clarisse which she took “like milk, without embarrassment or wonder.”

As is also true for many travellers, Stevenson found that the parting of company was accompanied by a mixture of regret and glee as the traveller “shakes off the dust of one stage before hurrying forth upon another.”

If he doesn’t quite anthropomorphise Modestine, he gives her real personality and humanises their relationship when he writes of the agony he feels at causing her pain, her virtues, faults and the loss he feels when they part company which it is difficult not to share.

A charming and personal travelogue, Travels is an absorbing, short read containing a great deal for modern travellers to identify with.

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It is still possible to follow Stevenson’s route and a small tourist industry has grown up around visitors who want to retrace his steps along what is now walking route GR70, either with or without a donkey.

Examples of writers who have done so are here and here.

Travels with a Donkey is available as a free ebook from the Internet Archive and also Project Gutenburg

Article: RL Stevenson on enjoying unpleasant places

It is a difficult matter to make the most of any given place, and we have much in our own power.  Things looked at patiently from one side after another generally end by showing a side that is beautiful. (RL Stevenson)

Enjoying unpleasant places is not as odd as it first sounds.

After all, who ever said that travel was only ever about finding that perfect place where everything was just as we would wish it?   Not Pico Iyer, who in an essay for Salon, Why We Travel (published in 2000) noted that “never more than on the road are we shown how proportional our blessings are to the difficulty that precedes them”, or Lawrence Durrell, who said: 

Let the tourist be cushioned against misadventure; but your true traveller will not feel that he has had his money’s worth unless he brings back a few scars…No, the mishaps and disappointments only lend relief to the splendours of the voyage. (from Reflections on Travel in Spirit of Place).

So Stevenson, in his 1874 essay On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places considers what travellers can gain from unpleasant places, how their state of mind can also affect their reaction to a place and how, with the right frame of mind, there is enjoyment to be had in almost any place. 

Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_SargentStevenson’s view is that we learn to live with the unpleasantness and “dwell lovingly on what is good, and shut our eyes against all that is bleak or inharmonious.”  For Stevenson, spending time in unpleasant places can be satisfying and, once we stop for long enough in a place and bring our imaginations to bear on it, “we forget to some degree the superior loveliness of other places, and fall into a tolerant and sympathetic spirit which is its own reward and justification.”  He notes, by way of example, that several weeks in unpleasant countryside did more to quicken his sensibilities than much longer periods in places he would have found more obviously attractive. 

Stevenson also observes that in visiting unpleasant places, we learn “to come to each place in the right spirit”.  That our own state of mind is an important factor in our reaction to any place is something Alain de Botton reflects on in his book, The Art of Travel (“[my] eyes were intimately tied to a body and mind which would travel with me wherever I went and that might…negate the purpose of of what the eyes had come there to see.”).  

As Stevenson expressed it:  

Nor does the scenery any more affect the thoughts than the thoughts affect the scenery.  We see places through our humours as through differently coloured glasses.  We are ourselves a term in the equation, a note of the chord, and make discord or harmony almost at will. 

Stevenson notes the important effect that unpleasant places will have on the writer, who “weaves something out of all that he sees and suffers by the way” and takes “their tone greatly from the varying character of the scene; a sharp ascent brings different thoughts from a level road; and the man’s fancies grow lighter as he comes out of the wood into a clearing.”  

However, he considers that “wherever a man is, he will find something to please and pacify him”, provided he looks for it in the “right spirit”.  

Ultimately therefore, Stevenson forms the paradoxical view that one can live almost anywhere, even if it is not possible to spend a few pleasurable hours there.  And, to prove his point, he describes a time he spent on rugged, wind battered coastline and the pleasure he derived from being in a physically tough environment, the contrast of finding shelter from the wind and the strong impression of peace he received while there.

So, travel to unpleasant places can be satisfying, rewarding and even pleasurable or, to put it another way:

Travel works best when you’re forced to come to terms with the place you’re in.  (Paul Theroux in The Atlantic)  

Stevenson’s On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places can be found online at Project Gutenberg or is available to download as a free Kindle ebook: