Several years ago in Carmel Valley, California, I read in a guidebook that Robert Louis Stevenson once hiked nearby, collapsed and almost died. If two goat ranchers had not found him and nursed him back to health, we would never have been able to read Treasure Island, Kidnapped, or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. I explored the old wagon road he took that winds up a mountain above the valley. It looked much the same as “Louis” described in his letters, with twisting Madrone and live oak trees canopying the way to a remote plateau where he “fell into a stupor.” My imagination was fired. What was a Scottish writer with bad lungs doing up here in 1879? The answer to that question led me to ask many more of them, and my novel, STEVENSON’S TREASURE, was born. The goat ranch incident turned out to be just one of several brushes with death during that dangerous, romantic and life-changing year Louis spent in California.
Because both Louis and his lover, Fanny, who studied art with the early impressionists, had great eyes for breathtaking locations, their love story was fun to research! I explored the Monterey adobe he rented, the whalebone-studded sidewalks he strolled with Fanny, and the abandoned Calistoga mine where they honeymooned. I walked San Francisco’s Nob Hill, Embarcadero and Ferry Building trying to imagine these RLS haunts as they looked before the Earthquake and skyscrapers. In Edinburgh I slept in his parents’ bedroom and then spent a week in the Highlands cottage where he dashed out nightly chapters of “Treasure Island” to entertain his stepson. Here are just a few photos of the journey:
After leaving his parents’ elegant New Town, Edinburgh neighborhood (left photo was taken from inside their house) and making his wild dash across an ocean and a continent to be with his true love Fanny Osbourne, Louis would have found “downtown” Monterey, California looking like the 1870s photo on the right (courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento).
From spartan Monterey lodgings in the “French Hotel” (below-left, photo from the late 1800s courtesy of the California History Room) he followed Fanny north to live at 608 Bush Street in downtown San Francisco (modern view, center); his lodgings did not survive the 1906 earthquake but the location is now marked with a plaque, (right).