On the road with a donkey for a friend

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

“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.”

Wherever the balm lies, Merrifield was hungry for it after a few bruising years of life in Manhattan. Born in Liverpool, England, Merrifield long dreamed of New York. Finally, as a professor specializing in urban studies, he got his chance to live there. But somehow his dream turned sour, leading him to renounce both cities and academics.

And so he finds himself walking through “tiny hamlets made up of stone cottages, abandoned barns, the odd menacing dog, and clucking hens,” through a landscape of “chamomile mixed with wild lemon thyme,” in the company of Gribouille (from the French gribouiller, to scribble), a “big chocolate-colored donkey with a white muzzle and a red halter.”

Merrifield never tells us exactly what went wrong in New York. And although he uses real place names to chart his journey, he offers no time frame. So he and Gribouille rock on in what seems more a dreamy meditation than a travelogue.

No matter. Wherever they are, it’s a lovely place to be. Merrifield makes us feel the heat and dust of the road as well as the gentle breath of Gribouille on his shoulder as they walk. The pace is slow and Gribouille is furry, silent, and endlessly comforting. Whatever the ills of this world, it somehow begins to seem credible that a donkey can wash them away.

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