Back on the Trail – but no “sluts?”

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A French breakfast at Refuge du Moure, in Cheylard-l’Évêque. (That’s coffee in the bowl…)

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June 16, 2024 – The last post on my ’23 GR 70 hike in France talked of our first day off. (After four days’ shakedown hiking, from Le Puy en Velay to a tiny hamlet 40 minutes east of Langogne.) And of a wonderful, lazy afternoon off, snuggling under a comforter, sipping hot tea and processing lessons from the first four days. And enjoying a cold Bière La Stevenson that night, before a switch to sharing two big bottles of wine, part of a communal dinner with four other pilgrims. (And wondering how readable my notes would be next morning.) 

Next morning we set out again, “back on the Trail.” Our destination – that Friday, September 22 – was Cheylard-l’Évêque. Stevenson himself had a tough time getting there. He arrived only after a miserable night camping and running across two “impudent sly sluts.”

Both are described his chapter, “Upper Gevaudan – A Camp in the Dark,” on his hike from Langogne to Cheylard. (Bordering “the Forest of Mercoire.”) He left Langogne on Tuesday, September 24,* 1878. But back then there was no direct route and it was “two o’clock in the afternoon before I got my journal written up and my knapsack repaired.” (He started way late.) Besides, he’d been told it would take only an hour and a half to get there.

But he got lost, then rejoiced on reaching Sagne-Rousse. (Per Google Maps, 2.4 miles and 54 minutes from Cheylard, hiking.) He rejoiced at being no longer as lost; he had “a sure point of departure.” But then it started raining, hailing, and the wind kicked up. Two hours later – getting darker and darker – he “tack[ed] through” a bog. He finally found a village and saw some locals, with children, but when he went to ask for help, “children and cattle began to disperse.” Only two 12-year-old girls stayed behind. (Locals were “but little disposed to counsel a wayfarer,” and “one old devil simply retired into his house, and barricaded the door.”) That left one source:

As for these two girls, they were a pair of impudent sly sluts,* with not a thought but mischief. One put out her tongue at me, the other bade me follow the cows; and they both giggled and jogged each other’s elbows.

He ended up hiking on, with Modestine, and finally found another village but no one answered his knocks there either. Finally he had no choice but set up camp in the pitch-dark:

All the other houses in the village were both dark and silent; and though I knocked at here and there a door, my knocking was unanswered. It was a bad business; I gave up Fouzilhac with my curses.* The rain had stopped, and the wind, which still kept rising, began to dry my coat and trousers. ‘Very well,’ thought I, ‘water or no water, I must camp.’

So much for “pioneering as fun.” He spent a cold, wet and miserable night, but next morning woke up feeling much better. More to the point, at the end of “Camp in the Dark” Stevenson brought up “the infamous Beast of Gévaudan,” a man-eating ogre who prowled the area. And that night, cold and wet, Stevenson could sympathize with the Beast. And by the way, Gévaudan – home of the Beast – is 54 miles southeast of Le Puy. (Right where we were heading.)

As for us, it was a mere five hour, 8.66 mile hike. (According to Tom’s calculation, verified later by Carol’s step-counter.) But also for us it was the first of six straight days hiking. And – as on the day-off afternoon – the weather was cold. I started off with five layers, topped by the Gorton Fisherman rain jacket. (Which gave surprising warmth.) Then peeled off layers as the day warmed up and strapped them a-flapping on my pack.

As I said, we covered the miles in five hours (“not bad”) and arrived, early afternoon, at Refuge du Moure. But the place didn’t open until 5:00, so we had to sit outside, packs against a wall, as other pilgrims came sauntering in as the afternoon wore on. At 5:00 we had to get in line and head up the outside stairs to get our room assignments. Like the Army? “Hurry up and wait,” with none of that first come, first served. (“Hey, we got here first!”)

As in many such places we had to leave our shoes by the entrance. (Where anybody could steal them?) And the room we got was small. “Small room, 4 beds. All together. Cozy! You go from privacy to no privacy in 24 hours.” And it was still cold. I wrote later, “My feet are cold!” Along with, “Interesting hike. For a time we thought we took the ‘off trail’ to Chaudeyrac.*” (A small town three miles west of Cheylard.) Stevenson had a similar problem, getting to Cheylard, but that was because of some quirk in the local magnetic fields that messed up his compass. Our confusion was due to a misleading sign. (“That’s our story and we’re sticking to it!”)

Anyway, Saturday morning I posted greetings from Cheylard and “L’Refuge.” I added that at breakfast I was “Carbing up for today’s 11.8-mile hike. They drink coffee from the big bowl. And note the cute little gingerbread donkey.” Later, while the others got ready I went into the community room, where a poster showed Stevenson’s path we’re following. (Mostly.) But “without the donkey. We are our own donkeys, in my case with a 20-pound pack. Five pounds over the recommended 10 percent of body weight. But worth it, in cases of cold, wind and hail.”

Then we got back on the Trail again, or rather off the Trail. The guidebook map showed the Trail turning south at Luc, but Tom couldn’t find suitable lodging there. So we headed east the extra 4.9 miles to Saint-Étienne-de-Lugdarès. The B&B where we stayed was right across a mid-town plaza from the cathedral Église Saint-Étienne. (Not the one in Paris.) That night I posted:

St. Etienne was interesting. At dinner the nice hostess explained that the burg was birthplace of the original Papillon. Not the guy played by Steve McQueen, THE original. She added that the famous – or infamous – “Beast of Gevaudan” claimed his first victim here. The Beast is big in St. Etienne.

But the dining room had posters showing both “Papillons,” the better-known Steve McQueen version, from in his 1973 film, and also a poster of the real one, Henri Charrière.

I’ll be writing more on the hike to St. Etienne in the next post, with various trials and tribulations we went through getting there. But first a few loose ends on what Stevenson wrote of his trek to Cheylard. (Aside from the “sluts.”) First of all, in his time and as opposed to today: “There was no direct road to Cheylard, and it was no easy affair to make a passage in this uneven country and through this intermittent labyrinth of tracks.” (These days the path is well-marked.)

As for “Fouzilhic,” he called it “three houses on a hillside, near a wood of birches.” Then of his approaching Cheylard, “the destination I had hunted for so long… Candidly it seemed little worthy of all this searching… What went ye out to see? thought I to myself.” (Referring to Matthew 11:7.) Later he wrote, “Why any one should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose.” But he may have just been in a bad mood.

In a better mood he wrote about why he put up with such “bunts and blunders” that are such a big part of adventuring. That is, voluntarily taking part in an “unusual, exciting, and possibly dangerous activity, such as a trip or experience.” (Even, for me, at the ripe old age of 72.)

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. 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.” (Emphasis added.)

Which is as good an explanation as any, I suppose. And by the way, that guidebook I got in Le Puy has that quote on the inside front cover, and since 1878 thousands of pilgrims have followed Stevenson’s advice – and his Trail. As for me, and as we used to say while hiking The Way of St. Francis in 2022, “It sure beats playing bingo at the Senior Center!”

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As noted, “the Beast” is big in Saint-Étienne-de-Lugdarès

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The upper image is courtesy of myself. A picture I took with my tablet and posted on Facebook, as is the bottom photo, noted below.

Also, for this post I referred to Gearing up for the Stevenson Trail in France, from May 27, 2023, and The Stevenson Trail – from Le Puy to La Bastide-Puylaurent, from September 3, 2023, a week before I flew out, September 10. (Arriving in Paris on the 11th.” Also, Dreams, maps and reality – hiking in France, 2023, from October 28, 2023, after we all got back from the trip.

Re: Forest of Mercoire. See also Forest of Our Past, Forest of Our Future: Managing the Woods, for good descriptions and pictures of a typical day on a GR-70 hike in the area.

Stevenson “left Langogne on Tuesday, September 24, 1878,” The Wikipedia article Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes said he left on Monday, September 24. Both Stevenson’s book and Yearly Calendar 1878 – United States say September 24 was a Tuesday.

The word “slut” had a different meaning today than it did in 1878. Today it refers to a sexually promiscuous woman, but back then and for much of its history it referred to “dirty, slovenly woman,” or a kitchen maid or “scullery drudge.” (“Compare slattern, also English dialectal slummock ‘a dirty, untidy, or slovenly person.'”) See slut | Etymology of slut by etymonline, and Slut – Wikipedia. But none of those fit Stevenson’s use. I think he meant “Two pre-pubescent girls more interested in gaggling and jogging each other’s elbows than helping out a stranger.”

On Stevenson’s feeling better after a miserable “camp in the dark.” Of that he wrote:

I had been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers; and thus to be found by morning in a random nook in Gevaudan – not knowing north from south, as strange to my surroundings as the first man upon the earth…

And speaking of Chaudeyrac, as in, “For a time we thought we took the ‘off trail’ to Chaudeyrac”. It’s a “commune in the Lozère department in southern France. The small villages of Fouzillic and Fouzillac, 300 m from each other, are located on the territory of the commune. The villages are mentioned by Robert Louis Stevenson in ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.'” And a note on that last: Stevenson passed through two small villages 330 yards apart with similar names, Fouzillic and Fouzillac, but he referred to them as Fouzilhic and Fouzilhac. “He was there on September 24-25, 1878.” (From the Wikipedia article on Chaudeyrac.) The map on page 24 of that guidebook I got in Le Puy shows Chaudyrac as “off the path” after the near-90-degree turn, shortly after “Fouzilhac.” And yes that’s how the guidebook spells it. Also, Fouzilhac is the small town he “gave up … with my curses.

Re: “Bunts and blunders.” Referring to a quote from Practical Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill:

Hearing now and again the mysterious piping of the Shepherd, you realize your own perpetual forward movement . . . and so are able to handle life with a surer hand.  Do not suppose from this that your new career is to be perpetually supported by agreeable spiritual contacts, or occupy itself in the mild contemplation of the great world through which you move.  True, it is said of the Shepherd that he carries the lambs in his bosom; but the sheep are expected to walk, and to put up with the bunts and blunders of the flock.  It is to vigor rather than comfort that you are called.  (E.A.)

Ariel Press (1914), at page 177. See also Evelyn Underhill – Wikipedia.

The bottom photo I took with my tablet and posted on Facebook. It was one of several large on-the-wall images of “the Beast” in the hallway of the B&B where we stayed.

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