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ROBERT L’S NAPA DAYS

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ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

There’s a marker or two in the Napa Valley mentioning Robert Louis Stevenson and a cabin of his (no longer standing), but in my numerous trips around the area, I never felt compelled to explore the background. The idea of Treasure Island, Long John Silver and Northern California just didn’t compute and I didn’t want to disturb the dust. Then along came Dan, a dust disturber of the first order, and I launched into Travels Across the Plains and The Silverado Squatters. 

I knew Stevenson was consumptive (I don’t know how or when I learned that trivia), and the news that he came west looking for improved health seemed logical. I doubt he found what he was looking for because he went from California to the South Seas where he expired not long after. In the meantime, he scribbled away, partly because he’s a writer, and that’s what writers do, and partly no doubt to pull in a few bucks. Travel’s expensive. How he kept writing, sick as he was, I can’t imagine. But that’s why he’s famous and I’m not, I guess.

Travels Across the Plains is an account of his cross-country journey from east coast to west in 1879, just ten years after the Promontory Summit golden spike ceremony in Utah that marked the completion of the first transcontinental railway. Things were still pretty chaotic, with differing rules, procedures, prices, and accommodations on the train depending on where you were. There was virulent racism with Chinese and Indians being forced to separate cars despite the fact that they appeared cleaner to Stevenson than the whites who were calling them dirty. Same old story. But eventually he arrived. As did his wife, Fanny, though there was no mention in my pages of how or when she got there. She certainly wasn’t on the same train.

After a while, they heard about an abandoned silver mine, the Silverado, which they might be able to inhabit for free. The idea of isolation and economy appealed to them, so they secured the help of some local denizens, cleaned the place up, and moved in. Stevenson talks about the place in rather romantic terms, but it’s hard to hide the hardships. Steep hillsides to and from water. Thieves in the neighborhood willing and able to help themselves to the belongings of the naive foreigners. No roof on much of the habitation. Yet, on good days when the temperatures and breezes were mild, and Fanny had set up a neat and serviceable household, it was a sort of like a paradise.

Since it’s familiar territory to me, I was able to appreciate his evocative descriptions of the low ground fog curtain hiding, then suddenly parting to reveal, the vegetation from his vantage point on the hillside. A lively parade of characters swirl in and around the nearby inn where Stevenson and Fanny go for supplies and transportation. All I knew of the word “Silverado” is that there’s a road running down the east side of the valley called The Silverado Trail. Of the mine I knew nothing. I know more now and of how the Stevensons got forced out of their “squat” by encroaching capitalists who never made a dime out of their nefarious activities.

Anyhow, that little Napa Valley plaque and the story of the vanished cabin of the author of Kidnapped and Jekyll and Hyde and so much else means a lot more to me now. The Scotsman and I are California Brothers.

jumping out of chair

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