No Room At The Inn
It’s official. We’re a couple. I’m tempted to change my Facebook status, but I’m not sure Mr Zuckerberg would approve of bestial platonic love.
Kaïcha and I signed an entente cordiale this morning. She agreed to stop stopping. I agreed to give her regular breaks throughout the day, which, I discover, works much better for her. She’s a happier girl once she has a top-up of nettles, long grass and any kind of tree leaves you care to mention.
I don’t say it’s all sorted, but she and I made much faster progress today, and felt confident that we would actually arrive. This newfound ease gave me time to contemplate the countryside we are walking through.
The men are in the fields, and there is hay for saving. Their work transforms the honeyed landscape to stumps of palest amber. The green corn is pushing beyond a metre, on its way to two. And there are eagles swirling in the air. I begin to think they are golden eagles, as they are native in these parts (aigles royaux); and those wings are so beautiful.
The eagles survey a vast highland of volcanic slopes, full of fertile soil, empty of people. From time to time, Kaïcha or I will kick a stone with a curious, hollow ring to it. This is the sound of pumice.
As our slow waltz moves on through the morning, I find myself singing a melody, hearing it’s simple lyrics in a new way:
And I dream I’m an eagle
And I dream I could spread my wings
Flying high, high, I’m a bird in the sky
I’m an eagle that rides on the breeze…
The French are annoyingly organised.
Most accommodation on this trail has been booked since March. The Chemin de Stevenson was a tiny blip on Gallic hiking until a Prix de Cannes movie, Antoinette Dans Les Cévennes came out in 2020. This simple love story, set here on the trail, had a transformative effect on walkers’ interest, although almost all arrive ass-less.
This means Kaïcha and I have been elected as the local cause célèbre. People very politely ask me if they can take our picture, and have us as part of their social media posts. It is the donkey which lies at the heart of Stevenson’s tale. It is the donkey which channels the esprit of this special place.
Celebrity or no celebrity, there was no accommodation available when we arrived into Le-Bouchet-Saint-Nicholas. And so, here I am, in a one man tent. Kaïcha is staying up the road in a donkey hotel, which hardly seems fair; but ‘them be the breaks’, to quote another famous donkey.
Camping is an inherently social enterprise. It finds ordinary people in a special place – closer to nature, further from luxury, nearer to each other.
I struck up a conversation with Benoit, who was immediately drawn to Kaïcha. He had been in the campsite for 24 hours now, a victim of a blister-fest. By way of poor runners and an unfortunate detour which had him walking 15 kms more than planned, his two walking week holiday was now over after three days.
I commiserated with him, and we shared war stories, agreeing that one’s Plan B should always be readily available, ideally with the potential to outdo Plan A.
His Plan B to return to Paris, grab his Harley, and bike down to the south of France by the scenic route. All that remained was to confirm his train to Paris.
When did so, he beamed a broad smile at me, and announced he had got a 110 euro ticket for 16 euros.
The reason why was fascinating, and we spent an hour and a half on all of its detail.
Benoit works in the police-force, having spent several years in anti-terrorism. Since the disastrous carnage in the Bataclan in 2015, the French law has changed regarding armed police personnel who are off-duty.
They are now allowed to carry their firearm at any time; and should they enter a public space, such as a concert hall or theatre, they mist declare their presence, and willingness to take action if necessary.
Two officers lost their lives in the Bataclan; being off-duty and unarmed, they could not mount a defence.
When Benoit takes his train tomorrow, he will become its official, armed security for the duration of travel. And the train company (SNCF) gives such professional, armed volunteers most of their ticket for free, as a sign of thanks.
The temperature in the Cévennes, at 1,100 metres altitude, drops quickly after nightfall; 4am is a cold, cold hour. But I will sleep warm, knowing Kaïcha is in her Donkey Palace and an armed guard lies in the tent next door.