Robert Louis Stevenson in Calistoga, California

Roaming in the California Footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson


My affair with Robert Louis Stevenson started early, I was  five or six.  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.  Little me enjoyed a kindred imagination and the vivid alternative worlds where adventure happened every day.  More of that, please!

Perhaps unconsciously, I’ve followed that path, seeking outdoor thrills and ultimately creating opportunities to assuage that addiction to the adventurous options life offers. Stevenson wandered the world, so to follow his footsteps could take many months, probably years.  I planned a journey in California dogging Stevenson’s tracks during 1879-80 while the young writer waited to marry Fanny Osbourne, who needed a divorce first.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson

After a stop in Santa Cruz to photograph the house where I lived for a while back in the day, and a brief stop at San Gregorio Beach to dip my toes in the Pacific, I nosed the rental south on 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. Development had been contained, leaving the shore visible where the road passed 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 1880’s, 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. After lunch on the shaded patio at The Village Corner, I poked around the courtyards of Carmel and discovered  a charming design store selling accessories for Beatrix Potter style gardening.  Carmel is still an artist’s colony.  In another courtyard studio, the artist Lisa Bryan-Day showed me watercolor sketches of horses while we sipped Napa’s fruit.

At sunset I ambled through Mission Trail Park, a nature zone opposite Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, aka 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.  There’s no proof that Stevenson prowled these same hills, but Carmel is on the way to Point Lobos where Stevenson 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.

Point Lobos State Park
Point Lobos State Park

Just a few miles south of Carmel, Point Lobos juts into the Pacific. I could have biked or walked, maybe done something about that lost muscle tone, but I chose the soft bottom solution and drove through an early morning rain shower. The spectacular feast of colors that composes the Pt. 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.  As I tromped along, a bunny dashed across the path.  I stopped to paint two water colors 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. Perhaps watercolor painting is also a use or lose condition.

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 Spanish moss hanging from trees and on the knee high grass in the meadows. At sea, rocky remnants of  earthquakes created a coastal barrier over which the water thunders, splashes and recedes. On Sunday 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.

Pacific House, Monterey State Historic Park.
Pacific House, Monterey State Historic Park.

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 and another for calling cards, a green velvet jacket laid out on the bed in the room Stevenson probably occupied. The quill pen and ink stand seemed too ceremonial; surely all that countryside trekking required a portable notebook and pencil.

While the well-informed state historian plied me with facts about the Stevenson family dining table that came 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, I could tell he was a man who laughed.

Monterey was a fishing and 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 super sensitive 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.

Wrapping up my day in Monterey, I sped north to Napa Valley and Calistoga where Robert and Fanny Stevenson enjoyed the first weeks of their marriage. Calistoga sits among thermal geysers where Native Americans 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 era  vibe with signs and store names. The railroad track that the Stevenson entourage traveled over still runs through town. Not sure what happened to the trains.

Stevenson’s ailments would have profited by 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 soak, I signed up for a mud bath which effectively ended thinking and action that 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, even the lead soldiers Stevenson played with as a child and his wedding ring. During my walks around town, I searched for cornerstones in St. Helena’s older stone buildings that might fix them to 1880, but saw only  handsome examples of 20th century local prosperity.


Intent on muscling up hills or down glens, I decided to hike up Mt. Saint Helena where the newly married couple occupied an abandoned mine manager’s cabin for several months in 1880 while Robert wrote The Silverado Squatters.  Today, the area is part of  Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.  About a  half-mile up  the trail, far enough that some effort is required, a polished stone monument of an open book on blocks of granite memorializes the site where the miner’s cabin stood.

Monument to RLS on site of miner's cabin in RLS State Park.
Monument to RLS on site of miner’s cabin in RLS State Park.

Another plaque I had seen in the area avvered that Mt. 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 later in 1880. Right above the mining cabin site marker I climbed a rocky promontory which 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 turned to my lifelong companion of the imagination, Robert Louis Stevenson,  to keep me entertained until sleep.


Carmel has no street addresses. Locations are identified by the nearest cross streets.  Inns, hotels and guest houses are clustered around the shopping area. I stayed at the Tally Ho Inn (Monte Verde & 6th Streets) across the street from its more expensive and better known sister property, The Pine Inn Hotel.

Carmel:  The Village Corner Bistro

Carmel area: Point Lobos State Reserve  Extensive network of trails for self-guided hikes.

Carmel Visitors Center

Calistoga:  Indian Springs Resort and Spa, 1712 Lincoln Ave.

Calistoga: Calistoga Inn Restaurant and Brewery

Calistoga: Sharpsteen Museum

St. Helena: Gillwoods Cafe 

St. Helena: Tra Vigne

St. Helena:  Silverado Museum

Monterey: Stevenson House.

Monterey: Monterey Bay Aquarium


Ceret :: On the Mediterranean Coast

Colors of Catalonia
by Virginie Raguenaud

My friend Virginie Raguenaud is publishing this wonderful book about the artists who painted in    Catalonia.  I can’t wait to read it!

At the end of my trek across France through the Pyrénées Mountains, I rested in Ceret and sketched the fishing boats and old seaside buildings.  When I left town, I boarded a train in Ceret and transferred to another heading east across Provence.  During the interlude waiting for the long distance train, I marveled at the scenes around the  train station in  Perpignan which Salvador Dali dubbed the center of the world.

Passione in Napoli

Passione, a film by John Turturro, explores Naples and its dynamic musical heritage.  I viewed the documentary at a screening sponsored by the InterAmerican Development Bank in Washington, DC, part of “Italy @ 150” celebrating the 150th anniversary year of Italian unification.  The year long program was organized by the Smithsonian Institution. The multi-venue cultural celebration started on March 17, 2011, the 150th anniversary of Il Risorgimento.

Released in 2010, Passione was praised by critics, but is unlikely to appear in the local cineplex. The scenes can be gritty and emotionally charged, which can unnerve the bourgeoisie.  Too bad — we could all use a dose of the resilience, chaos and and life embracing realism of Naples.   “Singing is emotional transportation,” says John Tutturro, during this documentary that strings together the many cultural influences on Neapolitan song and performance style.  

Tutturro’s film captures the Baroque facades of Neapolitan churches, the splashes of graffiti and faces etched by smiles and worries.  The director encourages folks on the street to sing songs that typify the culture, then cuts to longer versions by professional singers rendering the same material.  Clips of U.S. soldiers who arrived during World War II as an occupying army that stayed for decades explains some of the multi-ethnic gene pool of Napoli and its music.  Greeks, Arabs, Berbers, Slavs, Visigoths, Spaniards, Celtic-Scandinavian  Normans, French, African-Americans are some of the musical ancestors.  The people’s music of Napoli characterizes a world city, a delicious mix of cultures and sensuality.

In the Footsteps of Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard’s Footsteps

Grape cultivation for wine production is the principal industry in these parts. Hildegard recommends wine in many healing formulas in her Physica, so I decided any effort to pursue oenology would assist my understanding Hildegard’s era. Thus wine tasting became my avocation while in the Rheingau.

All through the Reingau, as this south-facing section of the Rhine is called where it hooks eastward between Kaub in the north and Erbach in the southeast, the hillsides on both sides of the river are striped with methodical lines of grape cultivators. This is the home of German Riesling. Is it my imagination, or are the vines more precisely aligned than in the fields of Tuscany, Cahors, Sonoma and other wine producing regions I’ve visited?

Much of the wine in this region is produced for local consumption. Throughout the summer and early fall, towns along the Rhine arrange wine festivals and vintners open their doors to visitors. Some vineyards maintain weinguts, or wine tasting cellars, in the town closest to the winery where visitors are welcome to sample wine and purchase their favorites. There might be a few tables outside for the sun-seeking tourists but more often wine enthusiasts huddle in the cool dark cellars. The larger wine producing estates and abbeys invite the public for tastings and many vineyards also have excellent restaurants. You don’t need to go far for refreshment. The Abbey of St. Hildegard has its own wine cellar a cork’s pop from the road that passes behind the vineyards.

In Hildegard’s homeland, the Rheingau, the marriage of religion and cultivation of the grape has thrived. Grapes were first introduced by the conquering Romans. It would be folly to think these vineyards are direct descendants of those Roman plantings, but the farmers here have grafted and nurtured the plants until they are perfectly suited for the gravely soil. Monks guided this process and nuns too, as they still do.

Lorch, Rudesheim, Geisenheim, Assmannshausen and other villages of the Rheingau were established long ago. Lorch, founded in 1085, is a happy mix of rural agricultural life with modern conveniences.The town’s origins are visible in the vaulted ceilings of Das Hilchenhaus, built during the Renaissance–hundreds of years ago– now converted to Weingut Graf von Kanitz. The inventive gourmet restaurant was priced way beyond my pocketbook. Sabina and I nursed fragile balloons of red wine while she told me legends of the region. The picturesque gables and scrollwork hearken times long past. If it wasn’t so clean and neat, the medieval pilgrim fantasy could have played larger in my mind.

This area of Germany has been on the European tourist route for more than 200 years. Dramatic cliffs, sun dappled riverbanks, fortresses and castles fuel romantic visions. During the 19th century, the Rhineland was popular with British holiday seekers including a few Victorian era Royal Princesses. This history of tourism means finding a serendipitous surprise will be difficult. Signs, accessible public transport on river and road, guidebooks, maps and tourist information offices makes the region easy to navigate, but crowded during the summer months and predictable.

Hildegard was born on the other side of the Rhine in Bermersheim, a hamlet 31 kms. south of Lorch near the confluence of the Rivers Nahe and Rhine. The town is near Alzey within the nimbus of the cathedral city of Mainz. I didn’t pay homage there, figuring that the nine hundred intervening years would erase much of the original scene. She spent her early religious life at Disibodenberg near Bingen.The first monastery she founded was on the Rupertsberg near Bingen and some years later, another one at Eibingen.

With my German friend Sabina, who has been interested in Hildegard for years, and to create an adventure, we decided to brave the hordes and make a pilgrimage to the current version of Hildegard’s abbey, a 19th century building never known to the original Hildegard. The Abbey of St. Hildegard looms high above the vineyards of Rudesheim. But this is her turf. She trod these fields, crossed the Rhine near here, knew the soil and ate of its gardens.

Sabina called and made an appointment to meet with the one sister who could speak English and German. We planned to replicate, as much as possible, transport available when Hildegard lived here in the 11th century. We walked from Grube Nortstar Sabina and Manfred’s slate mine, to the dock in Lorch. There we lounged on the wooden dock waiting in the sun for the Rhine steamer, which would take us to Rudesheim, the closest stop to the abbey.

Our route that morning took us three miles on foot, then the Rhine steamer and more walking. Hildegard probably traveled on foot, donkey or ox-cart and perhaps in a rowing punt, but rowing would have taken us too long and in the swirling soup of the Rhine, I preferred to use the modern equivalent, the river bus.

At Rudesheim-Asmanhausen, thickets of tourists hampered our progress up the hill to the fields surrounding the abbey. We scampered around the back of town, away from the cute shops and signboards advertising tourist lunches. Within a half hour we were into the vineyards, hearing bees buzzing around ripening fruit. The day was hotter than I thought a northern European country could be, even in August.

The Rheingau-Riesling hiking path bisects the vineyards, and we followed it for a while, and then ambled in the sun at the edge of the road. Sabina and I trudged up the hill to the Abbey of St. Hildegard which seemed to recede as we approached, the trick that topography deals, as distant dips in the landscape become wide crevices and the road curves in meanders like a stream. Bingen is actually on the opposite western bank of the Rhein, across from Rudesheim, but in one of the many shifts of political-religious power, the abbey’s seat was moved to the eastern bank.

There’s a plum cherry tree with fruit colored red, yellow and pink all on the same tree cherry size plums.  Later I see a polk plant (Phytolacca americana, Phytolacca decandra) growing in a large fissure in the wall around the cloister. There is some leaf variation and wider spaces between the berry units on the cone like stalk. The polk is a weed of some tenacity; the very tender young leaves are vitamin rich and edible, although all the herbal reference books on my shelf say the plant is poisonous. Perhaps the plant grows toxic as it ages. The root is useful for stimulating the lymphatic system. The ink purple berries are good for dyes and kid’s pranks. With my sister, we once painted our youngest sister purple.

After gorging ourselves on cherries from a lone tree at the side of the path, we put on skirts over our hiking shorts for the visit to the cloister. We hesitated around the entries, unsure which door to knock on.  A workman passed by, handsome enough to catch our eyes and we giggled and joked about how the nuns must invent repair tasks to be done on the neo gothic brick building.

As the abbey that St. Hildegard’s daughters run today grew large on the horizon, my thoughts turned to the founding abbesses’ travels. She managed several tours of the region during her lifetime, a considerable feat in the pre-motorized ear. Hildegard’s peregrinations bore a motive. She had abbots to persuade, popes to convince, other convents to visit.

A pale nun takes us to a library sitting room and a jolly red-cheeked ebullient nun with colloquial English talks to us. They have no garden of herbs mentioned by Hildegard, a disappointment. I asked about the polk plant, but they hadn’t heard of it or noticed the weed. I wondered if Hildegard’s medical treatise mentions the polk plant. It doesn’t.

Our pilgrimage on foot and boat continues back to Assmannhausen through the vineyards. We forage for ripe blackberries on the sunny sides of the vineyards. Following the vineyard trail marked with small signs depicting a yellow wine goblet, we pass near the Germania monument, or Niederwald Monument, raised to commemorate Germany’s earlier reunification under Bismarck in the 1880’s. Nearby, we pause for a sweet snack on the terrace of Grapevine Hause restaurant — apple cake with cream and my inevitable ice coffee.

I don’t suppose Hildegard would have ever tasted coffee. The beans arrived in Europe long after she died in 1179.