Come To The Quiet

24th August 2023

Everything interesting is difficult. Let me translate this thought to Latin, to lend it more authority.

Omnia operaepretium est provocatio.

There you have it. And so it is.

I had planned a night under the stars – camping in that nonchalant way that happens to Lee Marvin in movies. I was half way pitching the tent when a clap of thunder kicked off proceedings. Darn it. Two hours later, my little stream-side campsite was a tad damp, the mozzies were delighted, the tent was soaked and the sky still grey.

Thus began an evening which ended with a 6am ringing bell, way too close to my tent and to my head. A shocked, horned cow stared back at me as I stared at it through my tent zipper. The donkey was rattled also, mostly because she was tied.

My ‘I was born under a wandering star’ experience had been unceremoniously hijacked, and I departed up the mountain and down the gorge with nothing for breakfast.

In fairness, I had seen a maelstrom of wandering stars at 3am during a little bathroom break. But I was damp and drowsy, unwilling to be beguiled by the twinkling eyes of god.

It was a hot day, getting hotter, as Kaicha and I descended towards the gorge. The temperature as we paced downward was oh so cooling. It reminded me, as such experiences always will, of a precious summer’s day we had in Slovenia 28 years ago, when my loved and lamented brother-in-law Boris brought us on a walk in the environs of Bled, during which we descended into a gorge which delivered glorious respite from the heat.

That the air could be cool on such a sweltering day felt mildly miraculous.  Boris then led us to the farm of his friends, in which we had a late lunch of such homemade magnificence that this meal is my high watermark of food excellence, all the more so for being fully unplanned.

The gorge Kaicha and I are now descending is not Boris’ gorge. At its lowest point lies a donkey trap.

There is a long, narrow, high, exposed and ageing wooden bridge that brings the walker safely to the other side. There is a torrent underneath, thanks to the storm.

An animal’s refusal cannot be mistaken for disinterest or apathy. Refusal is a visceral response to danger, and my donkey is not for crossing.

I could see fear and resolution in Kaicha’s eyes. Unloading her saddle bags made little difference. To go back was to lose the whole route for this second half of my walk, away from the Stevenson trail. Traversing this gorge was the only way through. I had no signal to access my donkey whisperer, Christophe, who had suggested this path.

I saw Kaicha act like never before. Being way stronger than me, she dragged me away from the bridge, stomped the ground, and began flexing her body in ways which made me aware of my own safety and the precipitous fall, if she happened to rear in my face.

I decided that the bridge, although it swung a little and looked dodgy, could indeed carry her weight. It had been sanctioned for donkeys by the Hiking Trails Federation Of France, and also by Christophe.

And so began an intense 30 minutes of coaxing (shouting having fully failed).

At issue was will.

Her will to refuse this perceived danger; my will to embrace it. And will, I discovered, is mediated by trust.

I was not for giving up.

Gingerly, ever so gingerly, she placed one hoof on the wood. I was in front. Good girl. You can do it. Nice and slow. And then another. Well done Kaicha. Well done. Once four hooves were committed to timber, there was no going back. I held her attention; spoke to her constantly, in even tone. And led her across.

I am unsure if this event is something she will hold against me, or something which cements our bond. I was sorry to put her under such stress; and so proud that we made it across.

And still the sun’s beating grew, as we climbed out of the gorge and towards the lake. Now is the final week of summer before the famous French rentrée, a back-to-school event which is lived as a back-to-reality experience by the whole nation. People are squeezing their last days of vacation.

Two chats happened as we proceeded, and the sum of the conversations had an effect on me.

The first man, with an all-terrain bike strapped to his boot, enthusiastically remarked that I was (unusually) walking alone. I’m not alone, I gamely responded. He smiled and acknowledged how true this was. What a thing! he said. I so want to do it myself and I live close to Monastier, so renting a donkey would be easy.

We continued to discuss what it means, to walk through Nature with an animal. How it can change your perspective. And how difficult it is to do things on your own these days. I encouraged him to take action. Mentioned my donkey whisperer. Oh I’ve heard of Christophe, he said. This donkey thing has been on my mind for a long time.

We bade goodbye, and within a few minutes I came upon a small family beginning lunch in a glorious, shaded hollow. The one kid was about 5 years old, so I offered to pause so he could say hello to Kaicha. He had the doe-eyed innocence that evokes the spirit of animals. Just as I feel unworthy of my donkey’s stoic trust, this child is fully worthy.

His parents were such lovely people. They had been hiking, but were put off by the crowds on the main routes. So they sat back and decided to do the opposite of what was easy. They rose at 5am and got walking so that they could be alone at the most popular local summit at 06h35, “as morning breaks“.  I noted the precision of what she described, and the eloquence of her phrase.

We spoke of this mode of living; a one that seeks to break free and do things un-easy. Do things un-planned. Do things un-reviewed.

They wondered if I needed anything. I shook my head, and parted not knowing their names, yet knowing that in other circumstances, we would be kindred friends.

The little boy waved au revoir to Kaicha and we set upon the last hour of our walk – a shaded decent to Lake Issarlès.

I sometimes have difficulty in discerning when I am happy; able only to notice the feeling in retrospect. But a surge of unmistakable joy came upon me, as we paced our way downhill.

‘Come to the quiet’, was the phrase that came to my head. It was as though I were summarising intuitively what the exchanges meant, and what the day represented. The phrase was also the title of a spiritual music album I knew by heart, in my days of folk singing as a teen.

Spontaneously, I played the album from the top as we walked, alone.

The first track, Gloria, is an instrumental number. The second, although I recognise it, does not particularly chime with my mood. I have no idea why I am listening to this album. And then, track three begins.

As morning breaks I look to you

Oh god. To be my strength this day.


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