RLS in California — Monterey

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“On the 30th of August (1879) Stevenson reached San Francisco, but so much had the long journey shaken him that he looked like a man at death’s door … To recover from the effects of his hardships he forthwith went another hundred and thirty miles to the south, and camped out by himself in the Coast Range of mountains beyond Monterey. But he had overtaxed his strength and broke down. Two nights he ‘lay out under a tree in a sort of stupor,’ and if two frontiersmen in charge of a goat-ranche had not taken him in and tended him, that would have been the end of his story. They took him back to the ranche, and amid romantic surroundings and in that enchanting climate, he made a recovery for the time.”

“Life of Robert Louis Stevenson,” Graham Balfour

That is a fair summary except for some enormous gaps, of Stevenson’s arrival in Monterey, the Old Spanish Capital of California. It marks the end of a journey which had taken the invalid author from Scotland three weeks across six thousand miles of ocean and continent, a record of which RLS left in his third book, The Amateur Emigrant. The plan was for him to show up at the dwelling of Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, the girlfriend he had found in France. They had last been seen together the previous year in England, at the Chelsea train station. Fanny and her two children, Lloyd and Isobel, were then returning to the U.S.A. and the dreadful final farewell was at hand. Louis and Fanny had got quite serious about their friendship but anything permanent seemed out of the question by 19th century standards. Only Louis, with his unbridled optimism and scorn for convention, persisted on following through with a plan that his friends back in England called “an enterprise of madness.”

Said one of those friends, Sidney Colvin, to another, William Earnest Henley, “So you see he has gone to the Far West, ill, and with every condition to make him worse. If it wasn’t for the frailness, I wouldn’t mind, but if that spirit will go playing fast and loose with its body, the body will someday decline the association — and we shall be left without our friend. Of course, if he does live, he will come out somehow or another, having turned it all to the good–and it’s no use doing anything but hope. But I can’t help fearing as much as hoping.”

Both men could have later wondered at the apparent prophetic content of Colvin’s words. Their dare-devil friend almost did die, was saved only by a miracle, some say, and he emphatically did turn things around. It would take a year but Louis would return to Scotland, victorious, and with the ‘goods’–Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne Stevenson and her eleven year old boy, Lloyd Osbourne, a future president of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake but more famous as the kid who inspired Treasure Island. But first things first.

Monterey was small in 1879, about 350 people of either Spanish or Mexican blood. RLS couldn’t even see it when his final train ride from New Jersey dropped him and his few fellow passengers off in the middle of nowhere–no station, no platform, just the end of the line in a sea of sand dunes. Waiting there were several carriages like taxis at an airport. Stevenson chose Manuel Wolter to drive him into town. Less than a mile on they crested a dune and there it was–everything–the town, the ocean, the boats and seagulls, the hills and pine trees and adobe houses. Fanny Osbourne’s daughter, Isobel or ‘Belle’, was already there and wrote about it in her own book This Life I’ve Loved:

“I could hardly believe I was in the United States. As we drove down the main street, we saw the old adobe buildings with their iron balconies and red tiled roofs. The narrow sidewalks were mostly of wooden planks, but here and there we saw some made of the vertebras of whales. At the street corners old Spanish cannons were stuck upright to serve as hitching posts. Through the open doorways, we caught glimpses of patios, gay with potted plants, and the entrance to one garden was under an arch contrived of the curving jaw bones of a whale.”

This was Monterey, once capital of Mexican California, as it was when its transition began into an artist colony, an American analogue of Barbizon in France. RLS and his new set in the golden state would be the vanguard of that movement but he couldn’t have been thinking about such things when Manuel Wolter’s horse stopped by habit in front of the Bohemia Saloon on a corner of the only intersection that was then downtown Monterey. Like any real man would do in the Old West after weeks on the trail, Louis paid Manuel his fare and sauntered into the saloon to get juiced. He couldn’t have picked a better place to do it.


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