Travels With a Donkey

By Robert Louis Stevenson

I searched for this out-of-print travel classic for long time, combing used bookstores across Connecticut. Finally, I found a red, cloth-bound pocket edition. The cover was gorgeous and the print inside oozed adventure. There was only one problem: The copy was falling apart. So, I taped and glued and then took it out into the bush with me.

On a rock outcrop overlooking a hidden tarn, I read Stevenson’s twelve-day solitary journey through Gevaudan and the Cevennes Mountains in southern France. In the late nineteenth century, when the famous author took this path, adventure still lurked around every corner of these rocky hills, but this journey is really more pleasant ramble than arduous trek. The chapter “A Camp in the Dark” may be the most beautiful argument for camping alone in the woods ever written. “The wind sang to a different tune among these woods of Gevaudan," he writes. " I hearkened and hearkened; and meanwhile sleep took gradual possession of my body and subdued my thoughts and senses.”

Stevenson’s only companion is a donkey named Modestine, acquired specifically for the occasion. His relationship with the unruly beast slowly changes from frustration to acceptance. And then, as he exits the mountains, leaving Modestine behind, suddenly the recalcitrant animal becomes a true friend, a nostalgic memory equal to the trip itself, in the way that the difficult journeys in life become the most meaningful. And that is the lesson for us in this charming travelogue—anything valuable is difficult, and afterward we love it that much more.