Le Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson
In September of 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson walked some 240km in southeastern France. To carry his equipment, he bought a donkey whom he named Modestine. For ten days, he walked through this very rural (now as then) landscape. When he was done, he wrote up his travels in a journal he called 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes'.
Although the book may not be that well-known, many people have heard a quotation from it:
Walkers today still walk this walk, which in the last 20 years has been waymarked as an official Grand Randonee (long-distance path), the GR70. In my quest to walk through as many European countries as possible before my legs give out, I determined to go this spring rather than waiting until an autumn opportunity (matching Stevenson's timing) presented itself.
This trip is starting out with about as much uncertainty as the last couple have - now that we're just a month out, it is down to just Stanley and me. I had hoped we might have engaged a couple of more wanderers, especially given the expected easy pace of this trip, but we got no takers. That certainly does, on the other hand, make the logistics simpler, especially given how phlegmatic Stanley is about accommodation and sustenance.
On our walk in Spain, I lost about 10 pounds (4.5kg). One exciting aspect of this walk is that I have managed to work my weight back down to something close to that again, so I will be starting this walk at about the same weight I finished that one. Woo hoo!
And quick as that, everything changes. In the middle of April I got a contract downtown to replace someone leaving on May 5. The trip is not possible in May with that timing, so it very much looks as though I will be walking in the fall, probably by myself, assuming I go at all.
And quick as that, everything changes again. Now Corey is not leaving, and they want Guinn to be trained while I'm gone, so maybe it's back on. Kelia says she won't believe we're going until she sees us get on the plane.
The problem with this on-again, off-again business is that I have had zero time to do any practice walking - not good!
Well, we got on the plane just fine, but that didn't turn out to be enough. We ended up sitting on the tarmac in Houston for almost an hour before taking off, apparently just waiting in line. The pilot did nothing to make up the time, so we were an hour late getting to Paris, and hence missed our flight to Lyon. We were routed without apology to the transfer desk, where we stood in line for some two hours with a lot of other people, only to be told that the next flight we could be scheduled on was in six hours. We were offered standby tickets on an early afternoon flight with little hope of getting on board expressed to us. In the event, we did make it, and everything was looking good until the moment of truth at the baggage carousel, where I was the last man standing. And standing.
At first, they steered us to the "transfers" line in the international terminal. But that line had about 50 75 people in it, so we were directed to the "transfers" line in the domestic terminal. That line was shorter, but unfortunately it had a group of 18 that had missed their connection to San Francisco at the front of it. They also, apparently, didnt have any service personnel (what? Who ever heard of 'service' in France?) to help the rest of us. So we sat in the line for almost an hour before it even started to move. - Stanley
After it was clear that that wasn't going to change, I left our hotel contact info with the Air France luggage desk, and we shuttled into Lyon, caught the train for St. Etienne and on to Le Puy en Velay. Our hotel room there was a bit pricey, but comfortable enough, with a great view out the window, and I was glad we knew where we were staying ahead of time so I could leave the address with Air France! We were pretty whipped, but I at least was too wound up to sleep, so we walked around the own until dark and had a pizza before retiring, well and properly tired.
The pizza place was owned by a man whose family was there helping him (very few of the restaurants we visited had employees beyond family members). What attracted our attention was that one of his pizzas was called the 'Texan.' He spoke very poor English, and we spoke very poor French, but it turned out we all spoke Spanish. So we had a nice conversation with him in Spanish. After two weeks in France, it became obvious that, however stringent French regulations may be, few restaurants would pass a US health inspection. Just one example is that in addition to having the family there to help out (including the young children) they also have the family dogs and cats around to help out and clean up. - Stanley
We slept not near long enough, but when I went downstairs, I found my bag, which had been delivered to the hotel sometime in the night, and that made everything all right with me. We were out in the town by 08:30 to buy groceries, a phone card, etc., and a replacement bite valve for Stanley's hydration pack, and were underway by 09:30.
The first 8 km, to Coubon, were along a rather busy by-road through mostly built-up land - something Stanley remarked upon, observing that since we had left St. Etienne we had not seen any stretch of more than 4 or 5 km that didn't have some community. That corresponds to what I have seen in most of Europe, but is certainly different from our experience in Galicia, which was much more lightly populated. We stopped in Coubon for lunch, cheese and fruit, which we ate beside the river next to the public fountain.
The road from Coubon to Le Monastier was much quieter, and the walk was pretty pleasant. We saw some pretty strange volcanic rock at one place. About an hour out, it started raining, not too hard, but consistent, and by the time we found our gîte (hostel), we were happy to be out of it (the rain, not the gîte). We napped for an hour, then went to the grocery for super and breakfast. Stanley had the great idea of cooking omelets for supper - protein!
At the gîte we met Eva and Roland, a couple from Stockholm who were setting out on the chemin also. They are retired, and spend a lot of time travelling, having done the Camino de Santiago, the walk around Mt. Blanc, etc. We sat and talked to them all evening, and had a delightful time, turning in for the night before 22:00.
We slept long, and didn't get underway until after 09:00, little realizing that even with its expected 28 km - not overly long for us, typically - today would turn out to be le jour de pain (and we're not talking bread here!).
The "official" beginning of the chemin, marked with a marble slab, turned out to be only some 50m from our gîte, and we set out with feet fresh and hearts and spirits high. The chemin is well-marked with little red-and-white flitches, and we had no trouble following it. As we continued walking, we began to realize that it was all downhill, very strange for us, as most of our walking seems to be uphill. Once we reached the Gazeille, we got the full sense of 'Le Monastier sur la Gazeille': it was in fact several hundred meters above the river. Once across, we immediately started regaining those same meters on the other side, and at a much steeper gradient. It wasn't until we crested the mountain that we realized the Sisyphean task before us: we were looking down another river valley, across which our path lay, down to the crossing and back up again. With some dismay, we guessed (correctly, in the event) what lay beyond that next crest.
Our plan had been to walk 14km before stopping at Ussel for lunch, but it was already 13:00 and raining when we descended into Goudet, only 10km along. The third mountain, whose back side we descended into Goudet, was both much steep and rockier than the first two, and the descent was like walking in broken concrete. We were pretty tired when we walked into the town, having ascended and descended by our estimate some 300 to 500 story-equivalents since breakfast.
We turned in to a little restaurant in Goudet for lunch - basically a bocadilla - and to wait for the rain to abate, which it did in about an hour. We then continued on, climbing back up on the other side of the river. Happily, once we had climbed the hill, we were on mostly flat and level ground for the rest of the day. We got to Ussel about 15:30 and contemplated a choice - whether to continue on the official chemin to St. Nicolas and then on to Landos, another 14km for the rest of the day, or to take a 7km shortcut directly to Landos. I'm glad to say that prudence won out over pride, and we walked into Landos about 18:00. When we asked at a bar/restaurant for instructions to the gîte, the innkeeper told us that it was too difficult to explain, had us get in his car, and drove us about 200m in a straight line to the hostel! We got checked in, showered and washed clothes, then napped until 20:00. In consideration for the publican (and that is apparently just what he is; the bars here seem to operate just like public houses in England), we went back to his place for supper, where we had a large meal for 10: salad, a steak (very rare, just one notch past a second-degree sunburn) with fries, cheese (stinky but you get to like it after a while), and ice cream. In view of the hour, I declined the coffee. It was hard to realize it was almost 22:00, since it was just then getting dark.
The room we spent the night in was very nice - furnished like most hostel rooms, this one with four beds, but en suite and with a clothes rack, hot plate, and coffee pot. The beds were very comfortable, too, and the whole deal a great value at 11 per person.
We slept late this morning, blasted from all the climbing. We were both a bit puzzled at how tired we were compared to our first couple of days on the Camino de Santiago, but I think that between not having done the preparatory walking, and the first several days of the Camino being completely flat, this walk is in reality a lot harder.
We broke bread, then ate a breakfast of petit pain, cheese, and fruit before setting off for Pradelles. The weather was absolutely splendid - sunny, almost cloudless, with a light breeze. Add to that that the way was mostly level, and we had a great walk all morning, even with all the creaky parts. There were some rocky parts, to be sure, but nothing that challenging. All the same, with the hot sun and all, by the time we got into Pradelles, we were ready for a rest. It being Sunday, virtually everything was closed, except fortunately for us a bar where we got some exceptional orange juice and just sat for an hour. The other patrons told us the rest of the way to Langogne was all downhill, an utterance of which we understandably dubious, but which turned out to our delight to be true, and we coasted in about 15:30.
As it turns out, the only lodging was at the "Modest-Inn", a horrible pun and a fair representation of the hotel as well. The hotelier, Phillipe Blanc, was very animated and friendly, but not very focused. We had to wait for an hour or so for him to visit with his friends before he came to give us our room, and we ended up getting a room that I at least liked less than the gîte at Landos for twice the money. As I said, it was the only lodging in town, and the monopoly rule was in force.
There was a 'bread fair' going on, so we walked around for an hour or so, among other things thinking about supper and breakfast. We nibbled a bit, but found nothing substantial, so we went back to our room. Stanley was ready to stay in for the evening, so I popped out for a pizza and brought him back one. I don't know if it was the pizza or something I had eaten earlier or my glucophage doing its thing, but I was up and down several times in the night, and by daybreak I was drained, no pun intended.
We had decided even before I got sick that we would walk to Luc without taking the official (and long) path to Le Cheylard. In the event, we walked even a bit shorter as a result of a missed turn. That put us into Luc at lunchtime, but there was apparently no commerce there at all. We tried to sleep under a tree for a while, but it was so cold with a stiff breeze that we just got up and went on. We went along the road until the trail turned off, then continued on the road all the way to Rogleton. As it turned out, we should have stayed on the road further - the trail led up (and back down, of course) a steep (of course) mountain before dropping us into La Bastide. None of the gîtes we expected were open, and we ended up staying at what apparently is the only choice at this time: L'Etoile - a pleasant hotel run virtually single-handedly by a Belgian with the improbable name of Phillipe Papademetriou. The only deal he offered was demi-pension, and we accepted with a bit of trepidation, since cash is king in this part of France, and we were cash poor at this point. We worked out that we could get a taxi to go the 30km to the nearest cash machine if worst came to worst, and decided to enjoy the evening, which we did. We had a family table with all 12-15 guests, and would have enjoyed it even more if we spoke French! Eventually one man broke down and started speaking English to us, and we had some broken communication with his group of 6 after that before getting off to bed by 22:00.
When we paid our bill to Phillipe, counting out all our money, we had 0.20 left over. 0.20, not 20.00. So, we avoided some excitement and embarrassment by putting ourselves to a bit of trouble and instead of making the easy walk to Chasseradès where we wouldn't have been able to pay for lodging, pushed on to Le Bleymard, where Phillipe promised us (correctly) that there was a cash machine.
The road - trail, really - out of La Bastide led, of course, up the side of a mountain, and we continued with the main theme of the trip all the way to Chasseradès. The weather ever since Sunday was bright and clear, but that means hot, and that combined with the up and down left me pretty tired each day. Leaving Chasseradès, we dove into a deep canyon, where the very picturesque hamlet of Mirandol is snuggled under a railway bridge. A deep valley means - well, by now you know just what it means - and we continued until we got to a road.
Now, roads are a mixed blessing to walkers. On the one hand, they are smooth, much less steep in general, less treacherous to walk on, all desirable qualities. On the other hand, the cost of the flat roadway is paid in linear distance, and sometimes it is pretty discouraging to trudge the long way around, not to mention that many times there are poor or no shoulders and heavy traffic. All in all, a pretty mixed bag.
Down the way, where the trail turned off the road, was a wonderful green space with shade, so we rested there about 45 minutes and watched other walkers go right by the clearly-marked turnoff. We, having no guide, chose the official route, which added some 4km to our afternoon - 4km of gnarly walking through really broken rock and gravel. Apparently, the guide book suggested a diversion to avoid this stretch of the way. We, of course, could feel insufferably superior for having not taken the easy way out. In reality, we were ignorant of the choices - we just kept following the flitches.
We made it into Le Bleymard around 17:30, immediately finding a '8 a huit' supermarket and guzzling orange juice and sugar water before taking another step. We also extracted the last money out of the cash machine. An infelicitous choice on my part led to a 4km walkabout before we settled into our hotel to soak in a hot bath and watch an hour of French television.
We popped in to the '8 a huit' (which was open from 9am to 7:30pm, strange to tell) to buy some fruit, which we have started eating a piece at a time during the day rather than having lunch, then set out for the top of Mount Lozère, the highest point of our walk at 1700m (just under a mile high). This was the day Stanley was firing on all 8 cylinders - the first, I think, that his knee wasn't troubling him. Unfortunately, I was barely walking, my worst day so far. We climbed straight out of the town for some 4km before we made it over the shoulder of the mountain, where it flattened out some, still climbing to the pass, on a large spread with no trees and a menhir every 30-40m the entire way. The scenery was gorgeous, and it was driven home again to me that the main places where the scenery is spectacular involve a lot of climbing!
At the pass, we faced one of the two or three instances where a guidebook would have been handy: the route that was waymarked led us a pretty diversion some 4km farther than other walkers took (apparently). We managed, though, and got some beautiful vistas of the country as well. Wandering east to another pass, Col de Finiels, we then turned southwest and down to Finiels. We stopped there to rest by a vat of mostly clear eau potable, which sign we credited at face value and enjoyed ice-cold sweet refreshing drinks before moving on.
By the time we got to Le Pont de Montvert we felt fairly tired, but after finding the gîte right on the trail going into town, we showered and felt good enough to wander into town for supper. We waited at one restaurant until 19:30 opening time, and were told only then that they weren't serving anyone not staying at the hotel. We ended up at a little family-run restaurant where I had some excellent lentil soup (a regional specialty) and pork. Stanley was perusing the menu and found omelets with ??? (we didn't know any of the words). Asking the server, we found out that the first one was eggs with some kind of mushrooms. The second, eggs with some other kind of mushroom. Hazarding a guess, we had it confirmed that the third was eggs with yet another kind of mushrooms. It appears that mushroom omelets are a regional specialty. Stanley ended up with an omelet with le trompettes de la mort - trumpets of death - ordered, I am guessing, based on my understanding of Stanley, more out of nomenclatural curiosity than gustatory, and which was kind of a gray-brown accretion with pieces of black mushrooms sticking out - apparently the trumpets.
Well, we thought we had the drill down, but today was unusual even at that. The streets out of Le Pont de Montvert all slope upward, and that was just to get us to the trail, which was a long sequence of short switchbacks up and up and up. We had a terrific panorama once we got there, but it was a haul.
A few kilometers along, the trail crossed a road also headed for Florac, so we opted for it over the trail for a 10km stretch. That turned out to be a good choice - we talked to other walkers who said the trail was pretty strenuous, and we encountered only a handful of cars in that whole time. We rested for a while and took a picture with the six Frenchmen we had been bumping into ever since La Bastide. Then came a miserable 10km of steep uphills and brutally steep downhills which finally dropped us right into Florac. We were not having fun by the time we got there, particularly having to unwedge our toes out of our boots.
Florac is a lot bigger town than any we had been in since leaving Le Puy en Velay, and looks like it would be a fun place to spend a day or two on a tour. Not this time, though. We checked into a hotel, showered, went out for pizza, walked around a bit (only a bit!), and racked out soon after dark.
And for the first time ever, we shut a walk down early. Stevenson continued past Florac for another 50km, but we just weren't interested enough to finish. Stanley's knee was bothering him, and my feet had been brutalized, and we just decided we didn't have anything to prove, so we packed it in. That gave us another two days to tour, and as a result we were able to visit Carcassonne, but that's another story. From Florac, we caught a little bus to Alès, riding with Daniel and Dominique from Bordeaux, whom we had been seeing the last three days of the walk. We had a delightful visit with them in the bus (thankfully they spoke good English!), and got some ideas for some other (flat!) walks for the future.
So, even though we didn't do exactly what we set out to do, I feel good about the walk. It has been a couple of years since the last one, so this was a good reminder that I need to do more preparation before the next one.
On another positive note, at L'Etoile, talking to one of the other guests, he toted up my other walks (he had asked me about the distances) and observed that with this trip I was over 1 000 000 meters of walking in Europe. That made me feel pretty good! They say the first million are the hardest....
Technical Note about the photographs: I purposefully limited myself by taking a Pentax 35mm SLR I bought on eBay for $9.95. I had only the standard 50mm lens. I shot color print film, ASA 200, and had the negatives scanned to digital by CVS. Then I used Photoshop Elements to crop, color correct, and adjust contrast and brightness. Actually, I had a point-and-shoot digital camera as well, but used it very sparingly, since it eats batteries if you leave it on.