The day the donkeys ran away

Refuge De La Leise is set halfway down between a pass and a valley. From it, the GR 5 meanders on downwards toward a stream, then continues along it, fading away into the distance. On both sides of the refuge are smooth, grassy slopes, with a few scattered rocks, barely balancing themselves on the incline. On  the horizon, there are higher mountains, and snow.

The refuge is made up of three wooden structures, enclosing an open seating area. One contains the office and the kitchen, and what looks like a room for the gardienne (host of the refuge) to sleep in. The bathroom and toilet are close by. About 10 m away is the sleeping room, with 30 or so bunk beds. Just across from the office, on stilts, are the dining room and lounge area.

The gardienne of La Leisse is a young, short, and happy french woman. There’s a poster of a rock climber, hanging on by her fingers on the verge of a crazy move, on the wall. I ask the gardienne if it’s her. She laughs and shakes her head. “I wish.”

I ask her what’s cooking. She tells me that for dinner, she is making rice with pork, vegetables, and spices. It’s been a while since I have had rice, or vegetables. “I love trying to cook nice meals for tired hikers here in the mountains,” she tells me. I tell her that I think the quality of food in refuges ranges from boring to excellent, and the only thing that is different how interested the person taking care of the refuge is. She smiles at me.

She points to a small hillock nearby. “You can put up your tent behind there, and the wind blows from there,” she says, now pointing west. “So you’ll be protected from the wind.”

“Come back down for sunset. It’s really beautiful. You can’t see it from the campsite.”

I haul my backpack up behind the hillock and kick some donkey shit to clear space. Once the tent is up, I crawl inside to get changed for the evening. This is the best part of my days in the mountains: when I pitch my tent, and lie down in that cramped space, thinking about nothing, and the day that led me here. I close my eyes and make a mental pass over my body. I’ll need to shower today.

A picture of my tent in the camping spot at Refuge de La Leisse
My dear tent, set up close to Refude de La Leisse

“Please limit your time in the shower to two minutes,” a sign outside the bathroom says. It doesn’t lock from the inside. I last all of forty seconds in what turns out to be the coldest shower I have ever had in my life. “Refreshing, isn’t it?”, says a man sitting on the balcony. I smile, still shivering and hurting from the cold.

His name is Frank. His mother is French, and his father is English. Or is it the other way round? I’ve forgotten already, and I don’t want to ask again. “You’re doing the whole GR5?”, he asks me. I tell him I am. He seems suitably impressed. He’s hiking a week-long section this year, the only part he hasn’t ticked off yet.

At the other end of the refuge, where the hill drops off steeply, there’s a plump man, wearing a white T-shirt and khakis, looking through his binoculars into the distance. He says something in excited french, to no one in particular. The gardienne runs towards him. He hands her his binoculars. “What are they looking at?”, I ask Frank.

He walks over there, and of three them talk enthusiastically to each other. He comes back and tells me, “The lady’s donkey and horses have run away. She’ll have to go get them.”

Michel, who had disappeared for the last half an hour, suddenly appears. Michel has been hiking with me almost since I started the trail. He hikes much faster than me, almost running downhill. He’s sixty-nine years old and he’s climbed Mont Blanc eight times, but hasn’t thru-hiked the GR5 yet.

He talks to the gardienne and then comes walking quickly toward me, his face lit up with a new energy. “We’re going to get the animals back. Do you want to come?”. I run to my tent to wear my shoes.

At my tent, I hesitate. What’s the point of going with them? Isn’t it too much effort after a long day of hiking, after showering even, to wear my shoes again and set off? I ponder on this for a few minutes. I decide that this opportunity, to chase donkeys and horses, will not come by again in my life. By the time I get back down to the refuge, they are gone.

Frank is talking to a group of hikers. All of them look older than sixty. F explains what’s happening. “Well, what are we going to about dinner then?”, one of them asks. It’s a great question. What is going to happen my pork and rice?

The table was set beautifully for dinner

Half an hour later, we are all huddled in the main hut, around our beautifully set table. Plates, napkins, cutlery, but no hope of food. Two of the English ladies go to the kitchen. I follow them. “We’re going to have to make our own supper,” one says.

I tell them I don’t think that’s such a good idea. If I was the guardian and found that somebody had been messing with my kitchen, I would be very upset. I don’t think they are listening to me, because the one whose name is Mary is trying to figure out how to turn on the stove.

I try again to tell them not to meddle in someone else’s kitchen, but I’m cut off. “Let’s get this done. We just need some of that old English grit”, Mary says.

I leave them and go back to the hut. Goia is on the other side of a table. She’s the lady-half of a Swiss couple, whose path has been intersecting with Michel’s and mine over the last few days. She’s square faced, sturdy and authoritative. Even though I can’t understand what she says, I still snap to attention when she starts speaking. Her husband, Patrick, a tall, lanky Swiss man, has run off with Michel and the gardienne, and she is not happy about it. I speak with my broken french, telling her that the English ladies are now cooking. She shakes her head, disappointed in the country of England. She comes over and points at one of the Englishmen, lighting his stove.

She whispers something about him into my ear, but I don’t fully understand. I tell her to tell Frank. He turns to the guy with the stove, “You’re not supposed to light that in here. You might start a fire.”

“I won’t tell if you won’t tell”, the stove-guy says. Goia does not look impressed with this his with or his flouting of refuge rules. She says something to Frank, and he looks at me and shrugs. “She’s saying the rules are there for a reason. What if the whole hut burns down?” He doesn’t tell stove-guy this, who’s now heating a cup of tea for someone else.

I join the french guy who is looking at the valley, into the beginnings of a beautiful moonlight night. The mountains are now only outlines against a starlit and cloudless sky. I can see the stream sparkling far below us, too far to hear. The milky way, shy because of the moon and partly hiding behind clouds, is faintly visible above. “Isn’t this amazing?” I ask him.

He’s from Paris, and every chance he gets, he’s in the mountains, hiking. He’s staying in this refuge for two days, exploring the surroundings, and then heading back home. He tells me what he does for a living, but it doesn’t register.

“I have two wives,” he says. “The mountains are my wife, and my wife is also my wife.” His real wife is in Paris, uninterested in his other life. “It is difficult having two wives,” he says, fully committing to his metaphor. “You want to be with both of them all the time, but you can only be with one of them, and you are always thinking of the other.”

I tell him that I have zero wives, and he laughs. I laugh too, suddenly feeling lonely.

Michel comes back first, exhausted. They hadn’t found the animals yet when he turned back. I tell him about what’s going on the kitchen. He agrees with me that they shouldn’t have meddled, but he also says that he’s happy that they did. Who knows how much longer will be before the gardienne returns with the animals?

Mary walks out of the kitchen proudly, and hops up the stairs into the dining room. “Dinner is ready,” she exclaims and everyone applauds. I find myself clapping too. Frank and an Englishman follow her into the hut, carrying two big pots. “We have pork stew and pasta,” Mary says, beaming. It’s not pork, vegetables, and rice, but it doesn’t sound bad either.

“Pass me your bowl,” Frank says to me. He ladles the stew and plops it into my bowl. There is absolutely no colour in the broth, as if the pork and vegetables were just boiled in water with salt. “Have some pasta too,” someone else says, taking my plate.

Once everybody is served, we start eating. The pasta is overcooked and the stew bland, like there’s nothing in either of the dishes apart from salt. “It’s really good,” I tell Mary.

“It’s really bad,” I whisper to Michel beside me. He nods his head sadly. Before he left on his animal chase, he had been cutting wood, hoping to barbecue some of the pork.

The conversation around the table is lively. Goia is mostly talking to Michel. He tells me she’s worried about Patrick. It’s 8:30 PM now, dinner is over, and her husband and the gardienne are still not back. She’s telling him he always does this. Given any sort of chance, he can’t resist being a hero.

They come back at around 9, the gardienne tired, and Patrick looking as fresh as when he left. Goia walks away into the sleeping room, and he follows her. “We already had dinner,” I tell the gardienne, hiding the disappointment in my voice.

“Thank you guys for cooking,” she says, and sits down at the table.

They have found the animals, but only the horses have come back with her. The donkeys are still out there in the night. They chose their freedom over love, even after being fed and pampered and spoken to with tender care, being as stubborn as donkeys that they are. Without them, supplies can’t get to the refuge. But that’s not so bad, because the place is closing for the season in a few days.

She eats the pasta in big forkfuls, and slurps down the stew, which is now cold. “This is awesome. Thank you so much” she says to Mary, reaching out to hold her hands. By the time she finishes eating, only a few people are left at the table. “I have a gift for all of you for being so understanding,” she says and goes into the kitchen.

She comes back with a bottle and glasses. She fills each of them, and hands them to us. It’s a shot that is sweet, smooth, strong, and delicious. “What is it?” I ask her.

The drink is called Genepe. It’s made from the leaves of the juniper plant. The contents of this bottle were brewed and fermented right in her kitchen, with leaves plucked by her own hands. “Isn’t it illegal to pluck the leaves in France?”, Michel asks her.

“Oui”, she says. When she needs more leaves, she just walks over to the Italian alps, where the laws are more generous with respect to this plant. The border is less than a kilometre away. “Thankfully, the plants don’t know about these borders, otherwise they would all grow in France,” she tells me with a smile.

“Aren’t you going to drink?”, I ask her.

“No, I’m pregnant”, she says.

“You’re pregnant, and you went out running behind your animals after dark. That’s crazy.”

“Mountain life.” She shrugs.

The next morning, she tells me dinner is free because she didn’t cook it. I ask her if I’m the first Indian she’s seen in the refuge.

“Oui,” she says, and rubs her stomach. “A Nepali has come before though. My husband.”

I took this picture as I started hiking the next day. If you strain your eyes, you can see two hikers in the distance. One of them is Mary, head chef.

I say goodbye to her and the french guy with two wives, and set off on my walk for the day. I catch up with Mary and her husband half an hour later. “Sorry I doubted you back in the kitchen,” I say.

She waves away my apology. “The stew didn’t turn out half bad, if I may so myself,” she says, smiling with pride.

“That old English grit,” I say. All of us laugh, and I walk on.

I can hear the stream now.

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