“There is no foreign land; it is the traveler only that is foreign.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson lived a short life. He died at the age of forty-four, having spent much of his life fending off a chronic bronchial illness. Throughout his childhood and adolescence he was thin, and as a man, he was rangy and gangly. Stevenson often let his hair grow long and enjoyed frequenting pubs and brothels. At even the most casual affairs, he would show up wearing long, Bohemian velveteen jackets. He was an avid traveler and adventurer, as his
health allowed.

After visiting a commune in the French Riviera to restore his health following a particularly debilitating bout of bronchial illness, he spent time in Paris, where he became enchanted by cultural salons and galleries. From there, he took a long canoe ride through Belgium and France, where, in 1876, he ended up in Grez-sur-Loing, in the Seine-et-Marne. There, he met Frances “Fanny” Van de Grift Osbourne. She was an American, having been born in Indianapolis, and had married Samuel Osbourne when she was seventeen years old. She had two young children but was frustrated by her husband’s infidelities. Still, she remained married for a time. While visiting France with her two children, Isobel and Lloyd, she met Stevenson. They became lovers a year later and spent time traveling through France together. Fanny eventually moved to California, and by 1879, Stevenson followed her there, but not without duress. After a long, second-class trip across the Atlantic on the steamship Devonia, he then traveled by train from New York to California. The trip nearly destroyed his health, and by the time he arrived in Monterey, California, he was near death.

After following each other around the world, Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, pose for their wedding photos in 1880.

After being nursed back to health by a few local ranchers, Stevenson departed Monterey for San Francisco, where he subsisted on just cents a day and struggled with depression. His illness returned, but by now, Fanny had divorced Osbourne, and so, in 1880, she joined Stevenson in San Francisco to helped him recover, and they were wed that same year. It was around this time that the Stevensons made their way to Mount Saint Helena, where they intended to spend their honeymoon. Though Stevenson found California beautiful and wrote about Saint Helena favorably in The Silverado Squatters, he was especially nostalgic for his homeland of Scotland during this period of his life. He pined for it in florid prose:

I wrote that a man belonged in these days to a variety of countries; but the old land is still the true love, the others are but pleasant infidelities. Scotland is indefinable; it has no unity except upon the map . . . there are no stars as lovely as Edinburgh streetlamps.

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

Upon arriving at the foot of Mount Saint Helena, Stevenson, Fanny, Lloyd, and their dog, Chuchu, decided to “squat” in an abandoned mining camp named Silverado. They moved into a three-room cabin and spent their honeymoon there. While at Silverado, they met the Hanson family, who had assumed the lease when the mining camp closed. Stevenson refers to the Hansons as “not unsimilar” to “poor whites” or “low-downers” . . . “they are uneducated, rude, and lazy.”

Finding the Hansons difficult to be around, the Stevensons began to spend more time in Calistoga, visiting the Toll House, a hostelry and social hub. Once, after returning to the old mining camp after some time away in nearby Calistoga, Robert and Fanny discovered much of their belongings had been stolen. When they confronted the Hansons, they were told their belongings were taken by “wild cats.” Despite his chagrin with the Hansons, Stevenson was inspired to write during this time and composed parts of The Silverado Squatters while living on Mount Saint Helena.

Although Robert Louis Stevenson suffered much of his life from a bronchial illness, he traveled the world—including stays in Hawaii—and was inspired by the people he met and the places he discovered along the way.

After their honeymoon, Stevenson felt called to return to the United Kingdom, and by 1885, he, Fanny, and their family were living in Dorset, in Southwest England. In the home he named Skerryvore for a Scottish lighthouse his uncle Alan had built, Stevenson wrote the bulk of his most popular work. Bedridden and in failing health, his imagination gave birth to Treasure Island; Kidnapped; Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which established his wider reputation); The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses; A Child’s Garden of Verses; and Underwoods—all within the space of three years.

His life seems to have taken a dramatic turn when his father died in 1887. A year later, after three prolific years at Skerryvore, Stevenson traveled with his widowed mother; his wife, Fanny; and their children to the Adirondacks, staying at a cure cottage, which were treatment centers for tuberculosis, now known as Stevenson Cottage.

Strangely revitalized, he and his family returned briefly to San Francisco before setting sail on a yacht that eventually took them to the Hawaiian Islands, where he befriended King Kalākaua. For three years, he and his family sailed the South Pacific, spending time in Tahiti, New Zealand, and the Samoan Islands. He remained prolific, composing ballads and writing essays and short stories.

Eventually residing in the Samoan Islands, the family purchased their Vailima estate, seen here hosting guests on the porch.

In 1890, the Stevensons finally settled down in Samoa. They bought about 300 acres (121 hectares) and built the island’s first two-story house. By then, he had given himself a different name: Tusitala, Samoan for “writer of stories.” Alas, Stevenson died only four years after arriving on the shores of Samoa. But during that time, he became less self-involved and more concerned with the well-being of others. For the first time in his life, he became a political agitator, and just months before his death, he managed to address the island chiefs:

There is but one way to defend Samoa. Hear it before it is too late. It is to make roads, and gardens, and care for your trees, and sell their produce wisely, and, in one word, to occupy and use your country . . . if you do not occupy and use your country, others will. It will not continue to be yours or your children’s, if you occupy it for nothing. You and your children will, in that case, be cast out into outer darkness.

The geology of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park is part of what is known as the Sonoma Volcanics, formed between 2.6 and 8 million years ago. A monument in tribute to the memory of Stevenson and his wife was placed on the trail in 1911.

Within months, the writer who defined wine as “bottled poetry” would die suddenly from what is believed to have been a cerebral hemorrhage, while straining to open a bottle of wine. He is survived by a tremendous body of work, a firm position in the literary canon, and a park that carries his name—Robert Louis Stevenson State Park—where there rests an open book, fashioned from brass, commemorating the site where he first felt compelled to write about the emergent and special wines of the Napa Valley.