Robert Louis Stevenson’s California

The author of Treasure Island, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was also an exceptional travel writer who experienced the Monterey Peninsula and Napa Valley with a giddy mix of child-like fascination, awestruck respect and morbid humor.

Goat Trails

by Ryan Masters

As a young man in Edinburgh, Scotland, Robert Louis Stevenson wore his hair scandalously long, dressed in outlandish Bohemian clothes and emanated gothic cool. He frequented whorehouses, drank at cheap pubs and declared himself an atheist. Although born into a long line of famous engineers responsible for all 14 lighthouses along the Scottish coast, he showed little interest in the family business. He passed the bar but never practiced law. Instead he became what he would later call, rather disingenuously, “a mere scribbler.”

While many people dream of traveling the world and becoming writers, only those unburdened by the baggage of common sense actually do. Stevenson fell in love with a married American woman and—despite limited financial means and a fatally weak physical constitution—traveled 12,000 miles to be by her side at the edge of Western civilization.

The man was a hopeless romantic. No wonder he ended up in California.

It is difficult to gauge which made more of an impression on the other, California on Stevenson or he on it. While famous for such classics as Treasure Island, , Kidnapped and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he was also an exceptional travel writer. Yet nineteenth century travel was not for the frail and Stevenson was, without a doubt, a sickly creature. As a child, he suffered from various bronchial ailments, acute nervous excitability and nearly died of gastric fever. During much of his time in California, he was at death’s door—the result of pleurisy, malarial fever and “exhaustion of the system.” Yet by exploring life with one foot firmly set in the next, Stevenson experienced the Monterey Peninsula and Napa Valley with a giddy mix of child-like fascination, awestruck respect and morbid humor.

The Monterey Peninsula

Although he had a few unremarkable pieces published in literary journals, Stevenson was more or less an actively failing writer when the train dropped him off among the sand dunes and oak scrub outside Monterey, California in August 1879.

Fanny Osbourne, the married woman who had lured him to this “ancient capital of California,” lived in town with her young son. She was a “dark complexioned and foreign looking” woman whose “eyes were full of sex and mystery as they changed from fire or fun to gloom or tenderness.” Osbourne’s philandering husband lived in San Francisco, rarely visited and was probably aware of his wife’s own infidelity. This did not, however, render certain social proprieties of 1879 null and void—even in a town as remote and half-forgotten as Monterey. Fortunately for us, this delicate situation gave Stevenson a great deal of time to hike around the Monterey Peninsula by himself and write.

If Stevenson had surfed, he would have scored. Autumn is the golden season for surfers in California. Large swells frequently pound the coast between September and November while a dominant high-pressure system keeps the Monterey Bay region sunny and windless. In his essay, “The Old and New Pacific Capitals,” he describes the swells of 1879 bombarding Monterey’s “left flank and rear with never-dying surf.” He writes of bombs sweeping into the lower jaw of the bay; how the “waves come in slowly, vast and green” and “curve their translucent necks”; how they peeled in sequence from Point Pinos to the wharf and the roar of the Pacific hung over the coast like “smoke above a battle.” In short, the fall of 1879 was a classic.

To Stevenson’s eyes, the Monterey Peninsula was a bizarre, beautiful place. As he walked its beaches, the vast kelp forests offshore mystified him. He refers to them as “strange sea-tangles, new to the European eye.” He frequently encountered the bones of whales and rotting whale carcasses “poisoning the wind” along the beaches of the Peninsula—the stinking offal of a once-thriving industry that teetered on the verge of decline.

Out towards Point Pinos, where Hopkins Marine Station is today, he discovered Chinatown hidden “among the rocks, a world of surge and screaming seagulls.” To his great surprise the unexpected hamlet sheltered an entirely foreign culture, language, dress and people: “The joss-stick burns, the opium pipe is smoked, the floors are strewn with slips of coloured paper—prayers, you would say, that have missed their destination. And a man guiding his upright pencil from right to left across the sheet writes home the news of Monterey to the Celestial Empire.”

Deep in the wilderness of the Peninsula, he emerged from dense forest into a “dream-like” town—brand-new houses built on a trim grid of parallel streets and right angles. Yet the place was eerily deserted and there was “no sound but of the waves.” Stevenson had unwittingly stumbled into the recently constructed Methodist camp that would eventually become the town of Pacific Grove.

Stevenson’s long, ranging hikes took him around the rocky shore of Point Pinos, which reminded him of Scotland. He admired “the lighthouse in a wilderness of sand” with an expert eye. He delved deep into what is now Pebble Beach’s Del Monte Forest and haunted the area’s groves of live oak, which he called, “the kind of wood for murderers to crawl among.” He lurked through the grotesque, wind-sculpted Monterey pine and cypress: “No words can give the idea of the contortion of their growth,” he writes. “They might figure without change in a circle of the nether hell as Dante pictured it.”

Infernos were on his mind. The fall of 1879 was a terrible year for forest fires. Stevenson devoted pages to the beauty and horror of the continuously burning woods. He convinced himself that no forest would exist for future generations and that California could easily be the next Palestine, a land of promise turned to desolation. Of course, Stevenson’s obsession may derive from the fact that he was nearly lynched by locals for setting his own fire to test the flammability of the Spanish moss on a large pine tree. The experiment resulted in a roaring pillar of fire and the shouts of incredulous, axe-wielding firefighters. “I have run repeatedly, but never as I ran that day,” he writes. “At night I went out of town, and there was my own particular fire, quite distinct from the other, and burning, as I thought, with even greater vigour.”

In an effort to escape the cold fogs and give his wheezing lungs a rest, Stevenson moved up into the drier, warmer Carmel Valley shortly after his arrival in Monterey. The experience was a disaster. Things weren’t going well with Fanny Osbourne. He had yet to convince her to divorce her husband. Depressed and sick, he tromped up Robinson Canyon, through the majestic redwood groves, and camped near what is now the Santa Lucia Preserve. After days of fever and delirium, Stevenson was rescued from certain death by two frontiersman: a 72-year-old bear hunter and a “pilgrim” who had served “under Fremont when California was taken by the States.”

While convalescing in mountains overlooking Carmel Valley, he presciently critiqued the region’s logging industry: “It is man in his short-sighted greed that robs the country of the nobler redwood. Yet a little while and perhaps all the hills of seaboard California may be as bald as Tamalpais.”

While Stevenson’s detailed observations of the Monterey Peninsula found their way into essays and unattributed articles for the local newspaper, some suggest that the region exerted its greatest influence on his most famous work, Treasure Island. According to accounts, Stevenson originally wrote the book as an amusement for Fanny Osbourne’s son Lloyd. It’s difficult to overstate the impact Treasure Island has had on popular culture. It’s easier to simply say that, in all likelihood, Stevenson originally imagined everything you think you know about pirates. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Undoubtedly, the natural scenery in the book has far more in common with Northern California than the tropics. Historian Roy Nickerson even suggests the map of Treasure Island was modeled after Point Lobos, south of Carmel. True or not, there is no mistaking the waves which pound Treasure Island’s coast in both calm and foul weather—a scene clearly based on Stevenson’s observations of that autumn swell in 1879. Similarly, the sand hills, pines, and marshes of Treasure Island are all Monterey, including the low crouching live oaks, “under which a murderer might hide.”

Thanks to Stevenson’s vivid imagination, it is easy to picture Long John Silver stabbing sailors among the dark groves and eerie dunes of the Monterey Peninsula—even today.

Napa Valley

In December 1879, Stevenson left Monterey and moved to San Francisco. The ensuing months were a miserable, lonely time. He saw little of Fanny Osbourne, fell deathly ill for weeks at a time and struggled to keep a roof over his head and have enough to eat. Yet in February his luck turned. Probably frightened that their son would die in California, his parents promised him an annual allowance of 250 pounds, which greatly improved Stevenson’s spirits and made his marriage to the newly divorced Fanny Osbourne possible. They reunited early in spring and were married on May 19, 1880.

In true Stevenson fashion, the newlyweds honeymooned in an abandoned miner’s camp on the slope of Mount Saint Helena at the northern edge of Napa Valley. This was a happy, productive time for Stevenson and is beautifully documented in his autobiographical book The Silverado Squatters. In it, Stevenson predicts the future of the wine industry in Napa Valley, marvels at the petrified redwood forest outside of Calistoga and ornaments his prose with gushing paeans to Mount Saint Helena herself. He writes how the surrounding foothills are “dwarfed into satellites by the bulk and bearing” of the mountain: “She over-towered them 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 hill-tops.” His love for the peak clearly reflects his new lease on life and the joy he must have been experiencing with his new wife. Interestingly enough, most literary critics also believe that Stevenson used Mount Saint Helena as a stand in for Spyglass Hill in Treasure Island.

Today, this area is Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. At mile marker 49, separate trailheads can be found on either side of Highway 29. The eastern trail leads hikers to Table Rock, below the stunning volcanic cliffs of the Palisades. I highly recommend this dramatic route. For Stevenson enthusiasts, however, the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial trail climbs west to the summit of Mount St. Helena. At roughly 11 miles roundtrip, it’s a steep slog on a hot day, but the views from the 4,343-foot peak justify Stevenson’s obsession with the place. Napa Valley stretches out below and Mount Diablo and Tamalpais loom in the distance. On clear days, even Mount Shasta is visible nearly 200 miles to the north.

Those looking for a less strenuous way to commune with the spirit of Stevenson can limit their hike to one mile. At this point along the trail, a small clearing marks the site where Stevenson and his bride spent their honeymoon sleeping on hay in the old miner’s cabin. A shady, gorgeous nook in the mountain’s shoulder, it is ringed by granite cliffs and a leafy canopy of madrone, bay and redwood. Amidst this natural shelter, hikers will find an eternally open book of carved marble perched on a rock cairn. Its right-hand page reads:

Doomed to know not winter only spring, a being trod
the flowery April blithely for awhile
took his fill of music, joy of thought and seeing,
came and stayed and went nor ever ceased to smile.

Stevenson actually wrote this stanza for a deceased friend, but it is a fitting epitaph for the writer himself. Just 10 years after his time in California, Stevenson would die of a stroke at the age of 40 on the remote island of Samoa.

In 1912, Stevenson’s stepdaughter-in-law, Katharine D. Osbourne, wrote an article in The San Francisco Call titled, “How California Influenced the Writing of Robert Louis Stevenson.” Decades earlier, she had married Fanny Osbourne’s son Lloyd, the boy who inspired Stevenson to write Treasure Island. In the article, she dispels many of the myths that had already abounded about Stevenson’s time in California. She also summarizes the profound impact, both negative and positive, our state had on the writer’s life and work:

The truth is, his sojourn here most vitally affected his work in every way; and, first of all, on the number of books he was able to complete. It is a fact keenly to be regretted that had Stevenson never come to California, never taken that rash and hard journey in his state of weakness, he might not have been for so long afterward entirely broken in health and might have lived and written more books.

On the other hand it was his coming to California that, eight years later, led to his going where watch-out was kept. Here the pine and there the skeleton—which marked the place of the hidden treasure.

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Also: Learn more about the great writer and his work at the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum (link: in the town of St. Helena, located seven miles south of Calistoga. The museum features books, letters, and other memorabilia of Stevenson’s life and is a perfect complement to the Memorial Trail hike.

Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the world at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes a weekly column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.

Read Ryan's rainy-day hike, with newts!