Providence and the Goat Ranch

Edmund Gosse it was who told his good friend Robert Louis Stevenson, that the latter’s intention to travel alone to the New World, all the way to California, to marry a married woman, was an “enterprise of madness.”

All of Stevenson’s friends and his parents feared that RLS was on a suicidal mission of questionable purpose. As Sidney Colvin put it to 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 … “ On the same subject, the amateur emigrant’s father, Thomas Stevenson, had told Colvin: “For God’s sake use your influence. Is it fair that we should be half-murdered by his conduct? … I see nothing but destruction to himself as well as to all of us.”

Colvin was right. His friend and protege was playing fast and loose with his body. Stevenson refused to accept that he was a certified invalid. “My illness is a thing outside myself,” he would be heard to say over and over again until his will to live pushed him beyond his limits next to the San Clemente Creek high up in the hills behind Monterey, on or about Sept. 12, 1879. The 28-year-old writer from Scotland had three reasons for going there: (1) to give his girlfriend, Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, time and space to sort out her conflicted self, (2) get above the fogs of summer at Monterey which abused his weak lungs and (3) collect material for his next travel book. The Grim Reaper was convinced that he had gone there to die. So who spoiled his party?

To Sidney Colvin, late September: “Here is another curious start in my life. I am living at an Angora goat ranche, in the Coast Line Mountains, eighteen miles from Monterey. I was camping out but got so sick that the two rancheros took me in and tended me. One is an old bear hunter, seventy-two years old, and a captain from the Mexican War; the other a pilgrim and one who was out with the bear flag and under Frémont when California was taken by the States. They are both true frontiersmen, and most kind and pleasant. Cap Smith, the bear hunter, is my physician and I obey him like an oracle … I am, I hope, cured of the itch (eczema) which I got aboard ship…I will not deny that I feel lonely today; but I do not fear to go on, for I am doing right…I should say to you, if you were a praying man, pray for me.”

The incident at San Clemente Creek that had brought RLS from his horse to the ground was apparently a dizzy spell preceding a total collapse. “I was pretty near slain,” wrote the amateur emigrant to his friend in England, Edmund Gosse. “My spirit lay down and kicked for three days … two nights I lay out under a tree, in a sort of stupor…It was an odd, miserable piece of my life; and according to all rule, it should have been my death.”

Story has it that while RLS was in and out of consciousness, tormented at night by “bells ringing and the tree frogs singing when each new noise was enough to set me mad,” his horse wandered a good way off and it’s easy to suspect that Stevenson’s invisible protector was still on the job when said horse wandered onto the Jonathan Wright ranch. A saddled horse minus its rider was more than often a sign of trouble for someone in frontier country and two good samaritans went to look and found and retrieved Robert Louis Stevenson from the clutches of the Grim Reaper, like Wily Wolf in The Roadrunner cartoons, foiled again. Thanks to his rescuers, the world would not be deprived of the likes of Long John Silver and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and much more.

What the two frontiersmen saw with their eyes when they found the missing rider must have ranked high among the most pathetic looking specimens of humanity in their combined experience, an all-time loser, certainly no clue of future greatness here. Just like Fred Martin, Adirondack guide, had said to Dr. Trudeau, in 1873, when he carried the latter into his room at Paul Smith’s hotel: “Why, Doc, you ain’t no heavier than a dried lambskin!” So it was when Anson Smith, the bear hunter, carried his unexpected patient into his cabin, six years later, in the Carmel hills, so far gone was the ailing Scotsman.

The Wright ranch would be hospital and home for about three weeks for RLS and he would get to know the people living there. Besides his rescuers, Wright and Smith, there was Tom the Indian and Wright’s daughters, Sarah and Dolly. Their mother was sick and under the care of their aunt in Monterey. It would be days before Stevenson could talk and walk again.

Dolly and Sarah Wright were about the same age as were the ten-year-old twins Blanche and Bertha Baker, when they knew RLS in Saranac Lake in the winter of 1887-88. To the Wrights, their guest was an amazingly odd and unbelievably skinny creature down on his luck. To the Bakers, he would be all of the above except by then the loser from the goat ranch would be an international celebrity. Robert Louis Stevenson had good values and as soon as he was able he began to tutor the Wright girls to pay his way. Louis had lucked out again with a new lease on life and it was at the Wright ranch that he began to pull together the notes for his hard luck book, “The Amateur Emigrant.”