Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Along the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in France

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes in 1878 about his 140-mile (225 km) hike through the mountains and fields of central France. Stevenson’s book was prophetic—he spoke so eloquently about our need to reconnect with the natural world in the early stages of the industrial age. That was a time when most educated people were wild about machines and factories and could not yet imagine their negative consequences.

Robert Louis Stevenson, around the time he wrote
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes
Here’s a quote from Stevenson’s book where he talks about sleeping outdoors, a passage that gives a flavor of his worshipful attitude toward nature: “A faint wind, more like a moving coolness than a stream of air, passed down the glade from time to time; so that even in my great chamber the air was being renewed all night long. I thought with horror…of hot theatres and passkeys and close rooms. I have not often enjoyed a more serene possession of myself, nor felt more independent of material aids. The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a gentle habitable place; and night after night a man’s bed, it seemed, was laid and waiting for him in the fields, where God keeps an open house.”

Wildflowers in the Cévennes mountains

Stevenson wrote this book about his solitary interactions with nature, but Travels in the Cevennes has resonated with so many people. This slim volume has had an amazing ripple effect! Currently thousands of hikers every year retrace Stevenson’s route. A small percentage even attempt it with a donkey.

Hiker struggling with recalcitrant donkey.

The reach of Stevenson’s message has actually increased geometrically in recent years. The engines driving that were the publication of a bande dessinée (graphic novel or comic book) of Stevenson’s book in France by Juliette Lévéjac, and the recent release of a charming rom-com film My Donkey, My Lover & I (Antoinette dans les Cévennes). The film, which stars Call My Agent phenom Laure Calamy, tells the story of a school teacher who stalks her crush in the Cévennes, with a donkey as moody and lovable as Stevenson’s Modestine. Stevenson’s book has now become a cultural phenomenon in France and has inspired the hikers who follow in his path. Recently my partner and I walked three stretches of Stevenson’s path, through beautiful fields of wildflowers, up to peaks in the Cévennes mountains dusted with yellow broom and with sweeping views of green valleys, and passing by gorges of the Tarn River. We were impressed with how many hikers were walking the entire length of the trail, seeking to recreate Stevenson’s pilgrimage to nature.

Hiking near the Stevenson trail, in Bougès, France

In our own era, when our 24/7 connection to mobile phones, computers, and other devices severs us even more from the natural world, it’s not surprising that so many people want to disconnect from virtual reality and reconnect with actual reality. The extraordinary effect of Stevenson’s book a century and a half later shows how much impact an author can have over time—provided the author, like Stevenson, has foresight, authenticity, and original turns of phrase that touch the lives of others.


I Love Walking in France downloadable guidebook with information about trails, places to stay, and other great information.