Before Robert Louis Stevenson was famous, he was captivated by California. What better place for a scandalous liaison?
In the summer of 1879, an obscure Scottish author set out for California in pursuit of a married woman 10 years his senior. The three-week journey nearly killed him. And the shock and shame nearly killed his pious, Presbyterian parents in Edinburgh.
The author’s name was Robert Louis Stevenson. He soon was to become famous for “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Meanwhile, he was poor, alone and perilously close to death.
Friends and family did their best to persuade Stevenson that the married Fanny Osbourne, the object of his affection, was a bad match. But he was adamant.
After several months spent recovering from a pulmonary hemorrhage in a Monterey, Calif., boarding house (now Stevenson House), the struggling young writer convinced Fanny to file for divorce.
They were married May 19, 1880, in San Francisco. Although Stevenson was, by his own admission, “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom,” he decided to head north to Napa Valley for a well earned honeymoon.
In homage to the Scottish scribe — known as Louis to his friends — I found myself racing up Interstate 5 one October morning, a “Jekyll and Hyde” audiobook on full blast.
Fortunately for me, Stevenson had written a detailed account of his honeymoon, travelogue titled “The Silverado Squatters.” With this quirky little book as my guide, I had two days to trace his footsteps across Northern California.
My first stop was San Francisco, where he lived for a few months before his marriage. In the mornings, he “engaged darkly with an ink bottle”; in the evenings, he ate at the now-defunct Pine Street Coffee Shop, a few minutes’ walk from his cheap apartment at 608 Bush St.
A brass commemorative plaque marks the outside of the Bush Street building, now the site of a tattoo parlor. I peered through the dusty window and pictured the pale young author getting inked with a hangman’s gallows, like Billy Bones of “Treasure Island.”
I left Bush Street and drove up Hyde, past the aptly named Jekyll Apartments. From there, I sped across Oakland Bay Bridge, past a sign marked “Treasure Island.”
A little disappointed by the lack of swashbuckling pirates, I continued up Interstate 80 toward Napa.
The Stevensons’ journey took them twice across the bay; once on the Oakland Ferry and once on the Vallejo Ferry. From Vallejo, they took the train to the fashionable health spa of Calistoga, where they hoped the dry, cool air would soothe his ailing lungs.
They arrived in Calistoga on May 22, 1880. Back then, this was the end of the railway line. “The traveller who intends faring farther,” he wrote, “must cross the spurs of the mountain by stage.”
Unfortunately, my own stage — a mud-spattered Jeep loaded with camping gear — had run out of gas by the time I arrived in Calistoga. And after seven hours on the road, my belly was starting to rumble.
I chose the Palisades Deli Cafe for lunch. The restaurant occupies part of the old station house, built in 1868 by Samuel Brannan, the town’s founder.
I looked at the disused tracks and tried to imagine the travel-worn couple stepping off the train, Fanny’s 12-year-old son, Sam, and their yapping dog, Chuchu, in tow.
The Stevensons spent the rest of May at the Hot Springs Hotel, “a system of little five-roomed cottages, each with a veranda and a weedy palm before the door.”
Only one of the cottages remains in its original location: the lovingly restored Brannan Cottage Inn at 109 Wappo Ave. Could they have stayed in this very building? I wondered.
In the afternoon, I visited the small Stevenson exhibit at the Sharpsteen Museum on Washington Street. Then I followed the Silverado Trail out of town toward the Petrified Forest (reopening May 1), just as the newlyweds had done 137 years before.
“The sun warmed me to the heart,” he wrote of this particular journey. “And a broad, cool wind streamed pauselessly down the valley, laden with perfume.”
The park’s half-mile trail eventually leads to the Robert Stevenson Tree, where the author purportedly met Charley Evans, the proprietor. Louis took a shine to Charley, but the forest left him feeling “mightily unmoved.”
I felt the same. Although the walk itself was pleasant enough, the gray chunks of fossilized wood were underwhelming.
“Sightseeing is the art of disappointment,” he wrote of the Petrified Forest. In this case, perhaps he was right.
In 1880, Stevenson was not famous. Neither was he rich. Which may explain why he and Fanny left their comfortable hotel in Calistoga and spent the rest of their honeymoon “squatting” in a broken-down mining lodge in nearby Silverado: hence the title of his book “The Silverado Squatters.”
The site of the lodge is marked by a plaque in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. But it’s forbidden to camp there. So that evening I set up my tent in a campground at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, about four miles southeast of town.
Of course, I forgot to bring quarters for the coin-operated showers. So by morning, I was possessed of an authentic 19th century glow.
My Calistoga breakfast was less authentic. Stevenson liked to start the day with black coffee and porridge. I ordered a 21st century approximation at Bella Bakery: double espresso, organic oatmeal and freshly cut strawberries.
Then, gulping coffee, I headed down Lincoln Avenue and drove swiftly out of town.
I was bound for Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga, where the Stevensons spent an idyllic afternoon tasting wine and chatting with the estate’s owners.
While Louis sampled “bottled poetry” in Mr. Schram’s cellar, Fanny sunned herself on Mrs. Schram’s palm-fringed veranda. A Victorian house still stands on the hill.
It’s unclear whether it’s the same one the Stevensons visited all those summers ago, but there’s no doubt the cellars, built in the 1860s by Chinese immigrant workers, are the same: The pick ax scars are still clearly visible on the arched stone roofs.
After a tour of the cellars and a small wine-tasting of my own, I drove along California 128 to the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, the world’s largest collection of Stevenson memorabilia, in St. Helena.
Museum director Barrett Dahl led me through the permanent exhibition. Highlights included the author’s writing desk, his grandfather clock and intriguing examples of his messy, backward-sloping handwriting.
“Stevenson’s stepdaughter, Belle, would often take dictation,” Barrett told me as we squinted at the writer’s spidery scrawl. “You can see why, can’t you?”
Stevenson’s grandfather clock said 3:50 p.m.; I was way behind schedule. I said goodbye to Dahl, jumped in my car and sped to the entrance of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park seven miles north of Calistoga. I had just an hour left before closing time.
A ‘favoured nook’
The Silverado silver mine has long since disappeared. But the site of the Stevensons’ lodge is marked by a book-shaped table, placed here in 1911 by the Napa Women’s Club.
There was no one in the parking lot when I arrived. And I met no one on the poorly signed track that led from the main road. I paused to catch my breath, then made my way, half-running, half-stumbling, up the narrow path through towering trees.
“It was here that Stevenson would lie naked taking his sunbaths,” biographer Claire Harman wrote. As I hurtled up the winding trail, I half expected to meet the writer’s ghost, sitting naked on a boulder.
After about 20 minutes, I spotted a plaque peeking through the pines, its stone face shimmering in the afternoon sun. The “favoured nook,” as he described it, was flat and shaded and offered luminous views of the vineyards below.
The Stevensons’ lodging was dilapidated: “The door of the lower room was smashed, and one panel hung in splinters.” But he didn’t seem to care.
“As we lay down to sleep in our shattered, moon-pierced barrack,” he wrote in the third and final chapter of “The Silverado Squatters,” “we were the happiest sovereigns in the world.”
He arrived in California wifeless, penniless and half-dead. He left full of joy, energy and optimism. And rightly so. The journey home to Edinburgh marked the beginning of a glittering career; within five years, Robert Louis Stevenson would be a household name.
If you go
WHERE TO STAY
Brannan Cottage Inn, 109 Wappo Ave., Calistoga, Calif.; (707) 942-4200, brannancottageinn.com. The cottage was built in 1860 by Samuel Brannan, the town’s founder. Rooms for two from $269.
Indian Springs, 1712 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, Calif.; (707) 709-8139, indianspringscalistoga.com. The resort stands on the site of the Hot Springs Hotel, where the Stevensons stayed in May 1880. Rooms for two from $249.
Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, 3801 St. Helena Highway, Calistoga, Calif.; (707) 942-4575, lat.ms/napabotha. Camping from $35. Cabins from $175.
WHERE TO EAT
Palisades Deli Cafe, 1458 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, Calif.; (707) 942-0145, palisadesdelicafe.com. In the old station house, built in 1868. Sandwiches and salads, most $8-$11.
Bella Bakery & Cafe, 1353 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, Calif.; (707) 942-1443, bellabakerycalistoga.com. Plenty of breakfast options. Opens at 6 a.m.
WHERE TO GO
Stevenson House, 530 Houston St., Monterey, Calif.; (831) 649 7118, lat.ms/stevensonhouse. Stevenson stayed here for several months during the autumn of 1879. Open 1-4 p.m. Saturdays April through October.
Sharpsteen Museum, 1311 Washington St., Calistoga, Calif.; (707) 341-2443, sharpsteenmuseum.org. Contains a small exhibit on “The Silverado Squatters.” Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.
Petrified Forest, 4100 Petrified Forest Road, Calistoga, Calif.; (707) 942 6667, petrifiedforest.org. $12 admission for adults, $6 for children. Closed until May 1.
Schramsberg Vineyards, 1400 Schramsberg Road, Calistoga, Calif: (800) 877 3623, schramsberg.com. Combined cellar tour and wine-tasting starts at $70 per person.
Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, 1490 Library Lane, St. Helena, Calif.; (707) 963 3757, stevensonmuseum.org. Open noon-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Free but donations are appreciated.
Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, Lake County Highway, Calistoga, Calif.; (707) 942-4575, lat.ms/napaparkstevenson. It’s easy to miss the entrance. Look for a small parking lot on the side of California 29. Open 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
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