I came to France to walk alone. But on my last day, I'm running in mud-caked boots with unexpected company. Seven cows are flanking me in a sudden hot chase across a limestone plateau. I snuck out here, just as dusk began to purple the sky, to see 3000-year-old menhirs, scattered rugged granite slabs that poke from wheat-colored grass. But now cows are chasing me, fast. I know cows aren't dangerous; even French ones won't ram into human hips by instinct. But when a rugby squad's worth are running your way, you run. Right?
This is what I get, I guess, for deviating from my intended path of the GR70, or Robert Louis Stevenson Trail, which turned 20 this year. The 156-mile walk from Le Puy to St Jean du Gard in Languedoc-Roussillon passes through forests of pine and birch, medieval villages and ancient ruins, and a rugged mountain pass or two. It's lovely, this pocket of France between Provence and Barcelona that somehow still feels a secret.
It was certainly off the tourist radar in the fall of 1878, when the future author of Treasure Island made a 12-day journey here. Stevenson was 27 and unsure of a lot of things: his writing, his health, his religion, and most of all his love life. A year-long affair with an American woman 10 years his senior had just ended when she returned to California (and her husband). A gutted Stevenson headed for the hills with a donkey he named Modestine. The resulting Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is a travel classic, less for its insights of 19th-century French rural life than its passages on "why" and "how" we travel — things that strike me as modern 135 years later.
I had to go too. I've always felt linked to Stevenson. In a second grade T-ball game, I struck out playing for his namesake school in Tulsa. We both have Scottish surnames and gradual Presbyterian departures. That we both were drawn to travel, and occasionally to pirates, was a happy coincidence. That we were both agonizing over careers and dealing with broken hearts, a less happy one.
I figured, maybe France could help.
In the Footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson
Never much of a hiker or trekker, I've planned a five-day "walk" that overlapped with the heart of Stevenson's story. I walk five hours a day, and stay at gîtes (guesthouses), where you can get a private room and big dinner for 40 or so euros. I begin, after a celebratory night at a rescued farmhouse B&B with 241 goats near Florac, by taking a taxi to my setting off point: a gray recycling bin outside the closed Restaurant-Bar Sandwichs, across the Allier River from the Gévaudan, which is sort of Languedoc's Transylvania. In the 1760s, the so-called "Napoleon of Wolves" ate a handful of children here until some farmer shot him. This weighed on Stevenson's mind during his walk, and as I'm setting off I hear a "pack of 50 wolves" have been bothering sheep to the north. Fortunately I'm walking the other way.
Across the Allier, breeze through the town of Langogne, and begin the steady rise towards the green hills. A grandma leaning out of a house window offers a sing-songy "bonne journée. " I gently tap my walking stick in time with my steps on the one-lane paved road. Soon the trail splinters onto a rocky path that leads up into the forest. As the morning clouds recede, a light sweat gathers at my temples. The trail's busy in summer, but it's fall, when Stevenson walked, and no one's on it but me.
But, really, why am I here?
I've come without a writing assignment, even though "footsteps of" articles can be the easiest sell to editors. And Stevenson's life played out like an adventurer's bio; he canoed through France, honeymooned in a mine in the Sierra Nevada, sailed the Pacific, and finally died at home in Samoa. In 1964, at age 19, English writer Richard Holmes followed Stevenson's walk here and later wrote in Footsteps of the "overwhelmingly strong" feeling that "monsieur Stevenson" was "actually waiting for me, in person."
God, this makes me feel old.
At 44, the age of Stevenson's death, I'm not really planning on finding Stevenson in any form. Before the trip, I tell others that I'm going because of a handful of the sickly Scot's quotes that will stay in print, or some digitized format, for at least another century. "I travel for travel's sake," Stevenson writes. "The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints." While his Victorian cohorts fussed over a "room with a view," Stevenson — who hung out with artists, and wore velvet coats and floppy hats — was landscape-agnostic. Travel to him was simply about being fully present, exactly where wasn't the point.
After a five hours' walk, I reach my first destination, Cheylard l'Evéque, which feels like a warm, medieval hug for me and my sore feet. Stevenson had a different impression, calling the village "hardly worth all this searching." (His arrival followed a rough night when two "sly sluts" told the lost narrator to "follow the cows.") Though worn out and sweaty, I drop my bags at a guesthouse and dutifully track down a leaning "spidery cross" that Stevenson noted. It's still there. I stand in the road, carefully trying to reproduce it in my journal with red ink.
It's my second day — walking towards the ruins at a 12th-century Celtic site at Luc — that is key. This is where Stevenson pauses from his narrative to pen his immortal travel creed. Leaving early the next morning, I find the sky gray and rain droplets hanging at the ends of pine branches. An eery wind coos over treetops, occasionally sending a dying leaf to the ground to join a bigger rustle where bright red, poisonous amanite mushrooms sprout. I pass by a dead cat — reassuringly unmolested by night wolves — and soon am startled out of my rhythm by a mechanical roar, the first sign of life in two hours. The sun is now peeking through the clouds, and I look down towards a green valley below for its source. And I see something else. Set square in a field, perfectly framed by a window of autumnal colors, a donkey stands in profile.