We sit, Mrs Bradypus and I, in the early Autumn morning sunshine, drinking coffee, in the Cafe de l’Univers overlooking a small market place, the cinema and the Police Municipale. Starting early, we had driven up to St-Jean-du-Gard from the coast near Beziers, through vineyards and sorghum fields at first, then on through the more rugged foothills.
RLS & Modestine
RLS, in whose footsteps we are following, but backwards, ended Travels with a Donkey through the Cévennes, the account of his journey, here. Here he parted with Modestine, who was too lame to go on without some days rest, for Stevenson was in a hurry to get to Alès, where his letters awaited him. As we sit I read to Mrs B. the last few paragraphs from my battered, heavily annotated 4th form copy of the ‘Travels‘ .
“I determined to sell my lady friend and be off by the diligence that afternoon. Our yesterday’s march, with the testimony of the driver who had pursued us up the long hill of St. Pierre, spread a favourable notion of my donkey’s capabilities. Intending purchasers were aware of an unrivalled opportunity. Before ten I had an offer of twenty-five francs; and before noon, after a desperate engagement, I sold her, saddle and all, for five-and-thirty. The pecuniary gain is not obvious, but I had bought freedom into the bargain. […]
It was not until I was fairly seated by the driver, and rattling through a rocky valley with dwarf olives, that I became aware of my bereavement. I had lost Modestine. Up to that moment I had thought I hated her; but now she was gone,
‘…… and oh!
The difference to me!’
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 many 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. Farewell, and if for ever–
Father Adam wept when he sold her to me; after I had 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.”
Maybe starting at the end – a rather sad end – may not be the best of ideas. But where we are coming from dictates that we go North, just as where Stevenson was coming from, Le Puy-en-Velay, dictated that he should go South.We thought however: set out sad, and as we progress our mood can only brighten.
I had known Stevenson as an infant, when I was often read to sleep with poems from A Child’s Garden of Verses.
All night long and every night,
When my mama puts out the light,
I see the people marching by,
As plain as day, before my eye.Armies and emperors and kings,
All carrying different kinds of things,
And marching in so grand a way,
You never saw the like by day.
Like most boys of my generation, I read Kidnapped and Treasure Island around the age of 11 or 12; I only came across Travels as a set book in 4th form. To the twelve year old, Stevenson’s novels were just Ripping yarns, not literature! But it was studying Travels as an academic exercise that opened my eyes to just what a great writer RLS was, and how by studying and imitating the style of the authors that came before him, he honed his craft, to become the great writer and story-teller he was. In Travels he combines this craft with a restless curiosity about people and the places they live to produce a masterpiece of travel writing.
We set out
Our route is planned to follow as exactly as possible the roads and paths he took, avoiding the easy modern corniches built for motor cars, opting instead for the minor roads hacked from the sides of mountains.
Except that we do not realise how minor these roads, how narrow they will be, and how few barriers there are between the traveller and a deadly drop many tens of meters down the mountainside. All unaware we set out, Mrs Bradypus and I, mounted on our Peugeot Modestine.
We knew that we could not do the whole thing in a day, so our aim is to get at least halfway before heading home. Our first objective is lunch at Florac, in the Parc national des Cévennes, at the head of the Tarn Gorges. 53 kilometres, a little over an hours drive – should be a doddle.
The first stage goes well; the road from St-Jean-du-Gard up to the Col-de-Lamira lookout is a good one, with many straight bits. For a while after the col, we continue to make reasonable progress, as we run along the side of the deeply sloped valley of the river Gardon de Mialet. At first there is little traffic and we can keep up a good pace. But the further we go up into the mountains the narrower and more twisted the road becomes, and, the closer we get to lunchtime, the more white vans come toward us at speed, around totally blind bends, threatening to force us off the road, over the precipice, barrelling into assured death below.
Hardships on the way
We have been going now for over an hour and a half, covering about 18 kilometres, when we reach Saint-Étienne-Vallee-Française. Here Mrs Bradypus calls a halt and demands a break at a café. For the last 8 kilometres she has become alarmed and terrified by the danger of the road. The more we move forward, the more terrified she becomes, the more distrustful of my driving. All my assurances that I grew up in the mountains of Jamaica, learned to drive on mountain roads worse than this, fall on deaf ears.
We take a break, following the signs to the Café Parasol, which turns out to be an empty, roofless, abandoned shack on the side of the mountain above Saint-Étienne. No respite here then, or anywhere else in the village. I get Mrs Bradypus to summon up all her courage, and if necessary close her eyes, and we set out again for our lunch at Florac. I do not tell her that Florac is over 30 kilometres away and the roads look just as twisted on the map.
For the next 20 kilometres or so things get no better: the road is narrow and dangerous, the distance to fall over the side even greater, the white vans still barrel around the corners oblivious to what’s coming the other way, Mrs Bradypus now white with fear. We approach little villages hopeful of finding a bistro or auberge where we can take a break from the terrors of the way, for it is now well into lunchtime, but with no success. An hour passes.
Then suddenly the road straightens out as we descend gently into a high valley, cross a small stream and climb up again through a long, sharp hairpin bend, straight onto a major National road, graced at the intersection, by a truck stop and a small Routier restaurant. We are the last in for lunch, all that is left is a Cévenne mutton stew, the perfect antidote to mountain road terror. For the first time since we left Col-de-Lamira behind us Mrs Bradypus looks happy and satisfied.
Over dessert, crème brulée, Mrs B says she has had enough of travelling like RLS, from now on we must stick to big roads, wide enough for at least two white vans, and with a white line down the middle. Happily, the road we have just joined meets this requirement and goes all the way to Florac. After an afternoon in the town, we abandon Stevenson to other tourists and some walkers, and without a tear set off back to St-Jean-du-Gard on the Cévennes Corniche, a spectacularly beautiful road which meets Mrs Bradypus’ stipulation exactly.
Footnote: I plan someday to do the journey in its entirety; but then I will leave Mrs Bradypus behind. With her permission, I am sure!