Stevenson’s Napa – Part 2

me in the abandoned mine shaft near the site of Stevenson’s cottage on Mount St. Helena

On a clear January day, a friend and I ventured up Mount St. Helena at the northern tip of the Napa Valley in search of the legacy left by Robert Louis Stevenson 129 years prior. The drive was long and winding- daunting by today’s standards. I couldn’t fathom what would have possessed him to bring his new bride to this place at the very edge of civilization.

The financially challenged honeymooners had lodged in various Calistoga cottages and shacks before making their way up to an abandoned mining settlement on Mount St. Helena – now part of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Never one to shy from adventure, Stevenson was drawn to the mountain by its craggy wilderness and “crystal mountain purity.” In his memoir, Silverado Squatters, he wrote: “There are days in a life when thus to climb out of the lowlands seems like scaling heaven.” Here’s hoping his wife shared his enthusiasm.

The view from my favorite hike in Alta Heights, looking up valley with Mount St. Helena peeking up just left of center

I often walk the hills in Southern Napa and stop at a spot that has a perfect view straight up the valley (others apparently have felt the same, and left a small bench with a plaque that beckons, “So… Sit”). On a clear day you can see the defining plateau of Mount St. Helena (this was once quite a hotbed of volcanic activity). I always think of Stevenson at this spot and his descriptions in Squatters about the trees, the vegetation and the lush scenery. I love the fact that much is unchanged from his view more than a century ago.  The vineyards were just getting their start at that point, but otherwise the Napa Valley has retained much of the rugged beauty he so admired.

It is said that this beauty inspired many of Stevenson’s passages in Treasure Island and other works. One of my favorite chapters in Squatters is titled “The Sea Fogs.” Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in the Napa Valley knows that it gets cold and can be quite foggy at night and into the dawn (the grapes like it). The valley seems to suck in the fog from the ocean just to the West. Stevenson captured this phenomenon so well, relating it to looking down upon a sea.

I had gone to bed the night before, safe in a nook of inland mountains, and had awakened in a bay upon the coast. I had seen these inundations from below; at Calistoga I had risen and gone abroad in the early morning, coughing and sneezing, under fathoms on fathoms of grey sea-vapour, like a cloudy sky . . . But to sit aloft one’s self in the pure air and under the unclouded dome of heaven, and thus look down on the submergence of the valley, was strangely different and even delightful to the eyes. Far away were hilltops like little islands. Nearer, a smoky surf beat about the foot of precipices and poured into all the coves of these rough mountains.

He continues to illustrate the tips of the pine trees as seeming to him as sails of boats on the sea. It’s a beautiful image that I recall often. And, it’s perfectly paralleled by another of Stevenson’s inspirations – Point Lobos in Monterey (subject of my next post).

Most of us read Treasure Island as a child, or have been exposed to it in some way. But how many people know that the fictional Spy-Glass mountain was inspired by our own Mount St. Helena. His descriptions of the two are eerily similar: “All [hills] were strangely shaped, and the Spy-glass, which was by three or four hundred feed the tallest on the island, was likewise the strangest in configuration, running up sheer from almost every side and then suddenly cut off at the top like a pedestal to put a statue on. (Treasure Island). ”

Compare that with this passage from Squatters: “[Mount Saint Helena] over-towered [the foothills] by two-thirds of her own stature. She excelled them by the boldness of her profile. Her great bald summit, clear of trees and pasture, a cairn of quartz and cinnabar, rejected kinship with the dark and shaggy wilderness of lesser hilltops.”

The stone plaque that sits on the site of Stevenson’s bunkhouse retreat in 1880.

It’s obvious that the people and places of the Napa Valley greatly inspired Stevenson’s work. Visitors to the site of his bunkhouse on the mountain now can find (an often overlooked) plaque denoting the place. The day I visited, climbers were rappelling down the abandoned mine shaft. They most likely had no clue that they were on hallowed literary ground. Besides the presence of the plaque, it’s an easy place to overlook. Nothing remains of the rickety shack where he and his wife slept. Now it’s up to us to use our own imaginations to conjure the ghosts of the great adventure writer.

The open book of the Napa Valley (with its vineyards painted with mustard flower blooms)

As my friend and I drove back down the mountain that day, the valley was perfectly illuminated and the hills so clearly resembled an open book, it took my breath away. I feel lucky to live in such an awe-inspiring place and grateful to have Stevenson’s words to remind me of the pioneers that paved the way.

> My friend Matt Villano wrote this great article for the San Francisco Chronicle last year titled “The Road to Silverado: Stevenson’s Calistoga.” By chance, Matt and I were acquaintances before a friend forwarded me this article and we realized our shared interest.

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