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On the road with a donkey for a friend

Andy Merrifield forsakes Manhattan and academics for a stroll through rural France with a donkey.

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“After you’ve had an encounter with a donkey on a walking tour, had real contact with one, you’re never the same,” a donkey enthusiast assures Andy Merrifield. “You’re somehow touched forever.”

It must be true. From the hapless Sancho in “Don Quixote” to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes” to Kevin O’Hara (a Vietnam vet who, in “Last of the Donkey Pilgrims,” walked around Ireland with a donkey to ease painful war memories), there is a surprising amount of literary precedent for transformative trips with donkeys.

There seems to be something healing about the patient, friendly creatures. Perhaps the magic lies in their eyes. “Two small worlds of noble sentiment,” Merrifield calls them in The Wisdom of Donkeys, the story of his own trip alongside a donkey through rural France. In a donkey’s eyes Merrifield finds “a touching sadness, a grace ... a purity that ... has no right to exist in the human world.”

Or maybe it’s the comfort of rubbing “the fluffy warm forehead of an animal so peaceably soft and placid, so gentle and so trusting.”

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