Tuesday, April 06, 2010

In the Footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson in California

“Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire, who virtuous Bonanzas, where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry: these still lie undiscovered.”— Robert Louis Stevenson

The rich, green valleys north of San Francisco have long fascinated and attracted writers. In the 19th century, author Robert Louis Stevenson was so taken with the lush green hillsides, moss-covered charter oaks and serenity that he chose to live there for a time.

In particular, the picturesque Napa Valley region captivated the writer who would later pen such classics as “Treasure Island,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “A Child's Garden of Verses.”

In May 1880, Stevenson and his new bride, Fanny, homesteaded in an abandoned bunkhouse adjacent to an old quicksilver mine on the slopes of Mount St. Helena.

In poor health, Stevenson found the clean mountain air and sunshine helped him regain his strength. While his time in the bunkhouse was brief—only a few months—he was so impressed by his surroundings that he maintained notes about the people he met and the sights he experienced, which he later published in the form of the book, “Silverado Squatters.”

Part of the reason that Stevenson and his wife found themselves in California was because she was a divorced woman and Stevenson’s family did not approve of the marriage. Eventually, however, he gained his family’s approval of her and was able to return with her to his family in Scotland.

Over the years, a kind of Stevenson cult has cropped up in the Napa Valley, which, appropriately, commemorates his stay in the region. The former site of the bunkhouse, which is located about a mile up from Highway 29, as it winds around Mount St. Helena (at a point about eight miles northwest of the town of Calistoga), is now part of the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.

The park is rustic, with no services. But visitors will find miles of hiking trails winding to the top of Mount St. Helena, which is the tallest peak in the area.

A shorter trail leads to the bunkhouse site, which is marked by a large, marble monument carved in the image of an open book. Writing on the tablet notes his stay in the area and includes a quote from “Silverado Squatters.”

Standing on the site, you sense that there is something almost religious about the spot. The sun peeks through the tall trees, a slight wind rustles the leaves, and you recognize the place from his description in “Squatters”: “A clean smell of trees, a smell of the earth at morning, hung in the air. Regularly, every day, there was a single bird, not singing, but awkwardly chirruping among the green madronas, and the sound was cheerful, natural and stirring . . . The freshness of these morning seasons remained with me far into the day.”

In addition to the state park, the quaint town of St. Helena, located about 18 miles east of the park via Highway 29 is home of the Silverado Museum, a facility devoted to Stevenson’s life. There, you will find more than 8,000 letters, manuscripts, first editions, historic photographs and other Stevenson memorabilia.

The Silverado Museum is located at 1490 Library Lane in St. Helena. For more information call 707-963-3757 or go to www.silveradomuseum.org.

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