I received some sad news today from my friend Barbara in France. Her faithful pilgrim donkey Dalie died earlier this week at the age of 30. Dalie has featured in the sidebar of this blog since it began, as it was my encounter with that lovely donkey pilgrim person that provided the inspiration to get a donkey of my own.
It was 2008 when I first met Dalie and her companion Rosie when I was walking from Worcester to Compostela and I stopped for a couple of planned rest days at the invitation of Barbara Reed, just past Chatellerault, about halfway down the Via Turonensis – the pilgrim route which runs from Paris to the Pyrenees. Barbara is a member of the English pilgrim association, the Confraternity of St James, and is well known for walking with a donkey on the Santiago pilgrim routes in France and Spain.
After rescuing me from the worst thunderstorm I had ever experienced and driving me to her farm to dry out, Barbara introduced me to the donkey people in the barn, Dalie and Rosie. I had no experience of donkeys but in the short space of time that I spent at Barbara’s farm during those rest days I was rather captivated by the donkeys, particularly with Dalie who seemed to have an air of wisdom about her. I carried on to Compostela and didn’t see Dalie for another two years.
I returned in the summer of 2010 to stay for a few weeks, recovering from an horrid experience in England which had left me quite vulnerable, and Barbara suggested I should take Dalie for a few days walk on the local Chemin St Jacques. Little did I suspect that this adventure would be the start of donkeys taking over a large portion of my life, but the walk turned out to be formative and the encounter with Dalie on the road was impresiónante, as we say here in Spain.
Barbara showed me the ropes and gave me a checklist of tips before I set off with a fully-laden pack donkey, but it was Dalie who educated me in how to walk with donkeys. As we walked south along quiet metalled roads by the banks of the river Gartemps from St Savin to Montmorillon, I became attuned to the soothing rhythm of Dalie’s hooves.
The steady hoof-beat reminded my of the piston-beat of a paddle steamer from a day trip in my childhood. The days on the road with Dalie enabled meditation and calm, swiftly effecting a recovery from the dire experience in England. There was something formative about the experience that I couldn’t put my finger on. After a day on the road, while camping overnight on a river bank near Montmorillon, Dalie sat down and watched me eat supper and all I wanted was for this to go on forever.
At the end of that summer I took up my new teaching position in Spain and started scouting around to buy my first donkeys, but I saw Dalie once more. At the end of that year when I stayed for a few days in France with Barbara and Chris over Christmas, Dalie took me out for a ride in the cart to St Savin on Boxing Day. Barbara gave me my first instructions in driving a donkey cart, then Dalie showed me how to do it, by simply being a good donkey.
Barbara retired Dalie after a last trip in the spring of 2011 and she has since lived a quiet life with her donkey companion Rosie and Filou the mule. Barbara called the vet for Dalie earlier this week when she clearly couldn’t stand up on her feet and it was soon apparent that she had reached the end of her life. She died at the good age of thirty years, with her head in Barbara’s lap as she breathed her last.
She was a lovely animal, an adventurous Santiago pilgrim and a good all round donkey person. My condolences to Barbara on her loss.