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Tracing the footsteps of a treasured author

I came to Robert Louis Stevenson early, perhaps age 5 or 6. Daddy read Treasure Island aloud from a thick volume, with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth, while we three girls took turns sitting next to him on the couch. For me the attraction was Stevenson's ability to create vivid alternative worlds where adventure happened every day. Perhaps unconsciously, I've followed that path.

Stevenson wandered the world, so to follow his footsteps could take many months. Instead, I planned a journey to the San Francisco area, planning to dog Stevenson's tracks during 1879-80 while the young writer waited to be married to Fanny Osbourne.

I nosed the rental Escort south on Highway 101 past artichoke fields and cattle ranches. Wind tilted the few bicyclists braving the blustery day. More than a decade had passed since I'd visited this region; I was pleased to see that development had been contained, leaving the shore visible where the road passes close. Nature's whiplash had gouged portions of the cliffs and flooding had eroded the roadbed, but highway department trucks and workers gave the sense that government was attentive to the problem.

Carmel-By-the Sea was my first destination. This picture-perfect, secluded, upscale community that nurtures the American impulse to shop was a colony for Bohemians and artists back in the 1880s, a place where Stevenson would have fit right in. Nor did I have any trouble blending in with the Keds- and khaki-clad locals frolicking with their dogs on the beach.

At sunset I ambled through Mission Trail Park, a nature zone opposite Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, a.k.a. the Carmel Mission. The meandering trails pass surprisingly close to the back gates of high-end real estate. When I focused on the woods or scanned the distance for the mission's red tile roof, it didn't take much imagination to place Stevenson in the landscape leaning against a pine tree, smoking and considering the evening light.

Although there's no proof that Stevenson prowled these hills, Carmel is on the way to Point Lobos, where he spent happy hours staring at the raging waves. According to his diaries, he would ride a donkey out from Monterey and stay with the goatherds camping in the Carmel Valley.

Just a few miles south of Carmel, Point Lobos juts into the Pacific. The spectacular feast of colors that comprises the Point Lobos landscape startled me with elaborate, painterly compositions of wind-bent cedars, sage-green lichen on rocks along the path and purple seaweed massing in the turquoise ocean below. I stopped to paint two watercolors, trying to capture the purples, blues, yellows, greens, vermillion and orange. One picture more or less succeeded, but the other was a pale wet mud pie.

A baby deer stared out from a thicket that barely screened the beige backs and legs of its older relatives. I froze in my tracks to watch. Eventually, the fawn turned into the brush to hide. Intermittent sunshine formed sparkling jewels of light on the rain-dampened Spanish moss hanging from trees and on the knee-high grass in the meadows.

The next morning, I headed to Monterey, which lays large claims on Stevenson's fame though he only stayed here for three months while his beloved Fanny Osborne completed divorce proceedings. A large sign on the waterfront asserts that Stevenson composed the plot to Treasure Island while walking that beach. Yet, in Napa Valley there was an historical marker that claimed he used a lookout point there as the model for Spyglass Hill.

The sailor's flophouse where he lived in 1879 has been fixed up and renamed Stevenson House. I pressed close to the glass cases to scrutinize the writer's silver flask, wallet and pocket knife. The knife had all the recognizable Swiss army knife features and one curious addition we don't need today: the button hook. My heart clutched briefly to see the man's personal items _ his lighter/flint box, a silver box that may have stored cigarettes, another for calling cards and a green velvet jacket _ laid out on the bed in the room Stevenson probably occupied.

While the well-informed state historian plied me with facts about the Stevenson family dining table that traveled all the way from Scotland to Samoa _ where Stevenson died _ and then back to California with Fanny and her children, I studied Stevenson's photograph. By the lines on his face, he was a man who laughed.

Monterey was a fishing and whaling port in Stevenson's day. Undertaking a whale-watching cruise thus seemed in character, albeit with a group of intense and rather humorless tourists clad in expensive waterproof jackets and brand new sneakers, instead of in the company of salty-dog sailors. The whale-watchers clustered at the bow commanding their chunk of railing until the captain asked everybody to move back. A handful of passengers huddled in the cabin, their stomachs churned by the winter wave action.

While the marine biologist blared from the loudspeaker that the whales have supersensitive hearing, she praised the boat captain for staying back far enough so the whales wouldn't hear the engines. What about the loudspeaker announcing every blow spout, I wondered. Don't the whales hear that? But then I come from the contemplative school of silent nature watching, which I imagine Stevenson shared.

Back on shore, I drove north to Napa Valley and Calistoga, where Robert and Fanny Stevenson spent the first weeks of their marriage. Calistoga is poised on thermal geysers where American Indians once built sweat lodges and contemporary Sybarites soak in hot mineral water or mud wraps. Calistoga strives to conjure its past by cultivating a quasi-frontier in signs and store names.

Stevenson's ailments would have profited from the mineral baths. During his California visit he suffered from pleurisy, eczema and episodes of acute illness probably brought on by malnutrition and stress. Not one to miss a hot tub, I signed up for a mud bath, which effectively ended thinking and action for the day.

On the morrow, I browsed through the Silverado Museum in the St. Helena Public Library Center. Volunteers lovingly tend a collection of letters, manuscripts, memorabilia, Stevenson's wedding ring and even the lead soldiers he played with as a child.

I decided to hike up Mount St. Helena where the newly married Stevensons had occupied an abandoned mine manager's cabin for several months in 1880 while he wrote The Silverado Squatters. Today, the area is called Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. About a half-mile up the trail, far enough that some muscle effort is required, a polished stone monument of an open book on blocks of granite memorializes the site where the cabin stood.

Another plaque I had seen in the area noted that Mount St. Helena was the spyglass hill in Treasure Island, which was written after he, Fanny and her children went to live in the Stevenson family home in Scotland in 1880. Right above the mining cabin site marker I climbed a rocky promontory that offered a clear view of the surrounding landscape. It was easy to imagine Stevenson settled in the chair-like embrace of the yellow-orange rock, smoking and staring down at the Napa Valley.

Back at the Indian Springs Resort in Calistoga, I got the desk clerk to turn on my room's gas heater. Then I turned to my companion, Robert Louis Stevenson, to keep me occupied until sleep.

Former St. Petersburg resident L. Peat O'Neil is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

If you go

Where to Stay: Carmel has no street addresses. Locations are identified by the nearest street intersections. Inns, hotels and guest houses are clustered around the shopping area. I stayed at the Tally Ho Inn (Monte Verde and Sixth streets, (408) 624-2232), across the street from its more expensive and better known Pine Inn Hotel.

Indian Springs Bungalows and Spa, 1712 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; (707) 942-4913.

What to do: Point Lobos State Reserve, Rt. 1, Carmel, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; (408) 624-4909. Limited to 450 visitors at a time. Extensive network of trails for self-guided hikes; guided walks are offered when staff are available. Bicycles are not allowed on the trails. Lookout points for watching California sea lions, harbor seals and migrating gray whales (between December and May).

Monterey: Visitors must take a guided tour to see the interior of the Stevenson House. Tours start at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Tues.-Sun.; (408) 649-7118. Rent a bicycle at Bay Sports, 640 Wave St., Monterey, (408) 646-9090, or Lincoln between Fifth and Sixth in Carmel, (408) 625-2453.

St. Helena: Silverado Museum, 1490 Library Lane, (707) 963-3757, open from noon to 4 p.m. daily except Mondays and holidays. Free admission.

Calistoga: The Sharpsteen Museum and Sam Brannan Cottage, 1311 Washington St., (707) 942-5911, focuses on early history of Calistoga and the Napa Valley from 1860-1900.

Carmel Visitors Center, (408) 624-2522.