Following Robert Louis Stevenson IN THE NAPA VALLEY
Writer Robert Louis Stevenson is generally known for his rollicking adventure stories of the high seas, such as “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped,” or his famed horror novel of the duality of man, “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
But before achieving success as a world-famous author, Stevenson, who was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1850, was a bit of a drifter, traveling the world in search of his muse.
In 1879, having fallen in love with a divorced woman, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, he traveled overland to San Francisco, where she was residing. The journey nearly killed Stevenson, who suffered from respiratory problems, but he managed to connect with Fanny and the two were married in May 1880.
A few months later, the two, joined by Fanny’s young son, Lloyd, set out for the Napa Valley, where the family decided to homestead in a bunkhouse of an abandoned mining camp adjacent to an old quicksilver mine on the slopes of Mount St. Helena.
Stevenson found the clean mountain air and sunshine helped him regain his strength. While his time there 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 new wife had stayed in California was because she was a divorced and Stevenson’s family initially did not approve of the marriage. Eventually, however, his family came around to accepting her and they were able to relocate 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 the way he described it: “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 plenty of 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 http://stevensonmuseum.org/.
Rich Moreno is taking a break from Nevada and takes his Silver State readers to California.