“The happiest lot on earth is to be born a Scotchman. You must pay for it in many ways, as for all other advantages on earth… You generally take to drink; your youth, as far as I can find out, is a time of louder war against society, of more outcry and tears and turmoil, than if you had been born, for instance, in England.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
Last Friday afternoon, after quitting technology journalism, I packed a small suitcase and headed North up the 101 towards Napa.
An hour and a half later, stopping only for chicken and rice in Vallejo, Sarah and I arrived in Calistoga. Our plan: A weekend of cycling, hiking, fine dining and – first among equals – wallowing up to our necks in geothermic hot springs.
We’ve made the trip to Calistoga a dozen times or more – the little town in wine country has become our sanctuary from the city – but this particular escape seemed especially symbolic. A farewell to Silicon Valley – to Facebook, Google, Twitter and most of all to Uber – and a hello to Napa Valley whose riches still come almost entirely from the soil.
Of course, once you start looking for symbolism, you see it everywhere. So as I lay neck-deep in volcanic water, it suddenly seemed profoundly significant that one of Calistoga’s most famous early visitors – so famous they named a state park after him – was a fellow Scotsman. A Scotsman who, having fallen in love with – and in – California, despite the State’s deleterious effect on his already fragile health, headed for Napa in search of recovery, rehabilitation and re-inspiration.
I am, regular readers will testify, no Robert Louis Stevenson. But, for that matter, neither was the Robert Louis Stevenson who arrived in Calistoga, also via Vallejo, in 1880. The Robert Louis Stevenson of 1880 was not yet the author of Treasure Island or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or much else of note. Rather he was a penniless travel writer, whose career had hit the skids and whose lifelong bronchiectasis was threatening to put him in an early grave.
Unable to afford even the cheapest hotel, the Stevensons – Robert and his new wife, Fanny – found an abandoned bunkhouse in the foothills of nearby Mount Saint Helena and, for two months, made it their home.
It’s easy to understand what Stevenson saw in Calistoga, not least because much of it can still be seen today. Here’s how Stevenson described the town in his travelogue, The Silverado Squatters…
The street of Calistoga joins the perpendicular to [the railroad and the highway] —a wide street, with bright, clean, low houses, here and there a verandah over the sidewalk, here and there a horse-post, here and there lounging townsfolk… Here are the blacksmith’s, the chemist’s, the general merchant’s, and Kong Sam Kee, the Chinese laundryman’s; here, probably, is the office of the local paper (for the place has a paper—they all have papers); and here certainly is one of the hotels, Cheeseborough’s…
Today, the “Chinese laundryman” has been replaced by a sushi restaurant, and Cheeseborough’s by Indian Spring and Dr Wilkinson’s but the description of Calistoga as a sleepy town, heated by thermal pools and centered on a single main street mostly holds. The local paper, The Weekly Calistogan (“since 1887”), still maintains its little office, next to the railway terminal which has been converted to a cluster of antique shops and cafes.
In the late 1880’s, California’s wine industry was just as nascent as the tech industry was in the late 1980s. And yet today’s tech disrupters will recognize Stevenson’s description of the iterative process of finding the most fertile ground for growing…
The beginning of vine-planting is like the beginning of mining for the precious metals: the wine-grower also “Prospects.” One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another. This is a failure; that is better; a third best. So, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite. Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire; those virtuous Bonanzas, where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry: these still lie undiscovered; chaparral conceals, thicket embowers them; the miner chips the rock and wanders farther, and the grizzly muses undisturbed. But there they bide their hour, awaiting their Columbus; and nature nurses and prepares them. The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.
Familiar too is the barrowload of branding bullshit required to fertilize a new industry…
“You want to know why California wine is not drunk in the States?” a San Francisco wine merchant said to me, after he had shown me through his premises. “Well, here’s the reason.”
And opening a large cupboard, fitted with many little drawers, he proceeded to shower me all over with a great variety of gorgeously tinted labels, blue, red, or yellow, stamped with crown or coronet, and hailing from such a profusion of clos and chateaux, that a single department could scarce have furnished forth the names. But it was strange that all looked unfamiliar.
“Chateau X—?” said I. “I never heard of that.”
“I dare say not,” said he. “I had been reading one of X—’s novels.”
They were all castles in Spain! But that sure enough is the reason why California wine is not drunk in the States.
“The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.” Stevenson predicts, and of course he was right. Almost a century and a half later, we have the $35bn California wine industry to thank for keeping the Napa Valley mostly unspoiled: Scenery and greenery as a billion dollar profit center.
Familiar too, then and now, is the town’s Frontier relationship with technology. It was in Calistoga – not Edinburgh or San Francisco – that Stevenson first encountered the telephone.
Next moment, I had one instrument at my ear, another at my mouth and found myself, with nothing in the world to say, conversing with a man several miles off among desolate hills…
So it goes in these young countries; telephones, and telegraphs, and newspapers, and advertisements running far ahead among the Indians and the grizzly bears.
In today’s Calistoga, if you were to throw a bread roll across the dining room at Solage, you could be reasonably sure of hitting a tech venture capitalist. And yet, in our hotel room a little card folded around a candle warned of frequent power outages thanks to the town’s rickety electrical supply. And, again, this is a place where the swimming pools are heated by lava.
On Sunday morning, Sarah and I set off for Mount Saint Helena, and the five mile uphill hiking trail which passes directly through what was once Stevenson’s bunkhouse.
The shack itself has long gone – in fact it had already mostly collapsed by the time Stevenson moved in – but its location is still marked by a large stone monument in the shape of a book. That addition notwithstanding, the mountain has stood mostly unchanged and undeveloped since 1880 – eagled-eyed hikers can still spot the opening to the Silverado mine and splash in the same trickling stream in which Mrs Stevenson washed her husband’s shirts. (Sidenote: Modern readers of The Silverado Squatters should note that Stevenson’s sexist treatment of his wife is bested only by his anti-Semitic treatment of the “jolly Jew storekeeper,” Kelmar)
The Stevenson monument is sheltered by dense overhanging greenery which blocks out most of the sun and fooled us into thinking that our early afternoon climb would be cool and breezy. Birds cheeped high in the branches, a brook babbled and for large stretches of hike we didn’t see another human soul.
But if I’m giving you the impression of two hikers trudging silently and contemplatively towards a peak, I don’t mean to. In fact, as we trudged past the two mile mark, Sarah and I were in the midst of a heated argument – albeit a good natured one – about the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. In particular the question of whether Times subscribers (like ourselves) should cancel our payments to protest the hiring of a man who denies climate change, parrots racist tropes and recently told Vox he rejected the notion of a campus rape “epidemic” on the grounds that young women still enrolled in large numbers. “If sexual assault rates in, let’s say, east Congo were about 20 percent, most people wouldn’t travel to those places.” (On Stephen’s awfulness we entirely agreed, the debate was on how best to respond to it.)
But then suddenly the trees thinned away and we were stuck both by the oppressive heat of the sun and the exact same unspoiled view that prompted Stevenson to describe Mount Saint Helena as “the Mont Blanc of one section of the Californian Coast Range…”
It looks down on much green, intricate country.. to the south, San Francisco Bay, with Tamalpais on the one hand and Monte Diablo on the other; to the west and thirty miles away, the open ocean; eastward, across the corn-lands and thick tule swamps of Sacramento Valley, to where the Central Pacific railroad begins to climb the sides of the Sierras; and northward, for what I know, the white head of Shasta looking down on Oregon. Three counties, Napa County, Lake County, and Sonoma County, march across its cliffy shoulders. Its naked peak stands nearly four thousand five hundred feet above the sea; its sides are fringed with forest; and the soil, where it is bare, glows warm with cinnabar.
The argument evaporated on contact with the sunlight and scenery.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“Yeah,” Sarah agreed.
And then we just stood and stared at the beauty of it all. And if Bret Stephens suddenly seemed irrelevant in the world’s grand scheme, so too did any other short term media awfulness, or any of the crimes committed by the tech giants far away in San Francisco.
And it was in that silence, breathing in that landscape, that I finally found it. The feeling I’d been expecting to find weeks earlier when I dopily deleted my Apple and Amazon accounts thinking that alone would bring relief from tech awfulness…
And so when my gut said it was time to remove myself from the Silicon Valley swamp I listened. I deleted all my online accounts and promised myself I’d only think about the swamp during work hours.
The cull complete, I waited for the familiar wave of relief: For the “you made a good decision” chemicals to flood my brain.
But the relief didn’t come.
Standing on that mountain, the “good decision” chemicals came flooding in like a tidal wave. My shoulders untensed, my teeth unclenched and fifteen years of swamp snorkeling was forgotten in an instant.
It helped, of course, we were standing in a physical manifestation of disconnectedness. As if God himself were sending a message from the sky: Look, you idiot, this place was here the whole time. Why the hell do you need Facebook or Twitter or Google when you have this tree and this bird and these hot springs and all this motherfucking solitude.
Not for the first time, God had a point.
There are still large parts of the planet where breathtaking scenery can be found in abundance. But most of us have forgotten how to experience it, except through a screen or the lens of a camera phone. Forgotten how to be truly isolated — despite all the evidence, stretching back through Stevenson and beyond, that solitude increases creativity and wellbeing while opening our minds to new and challenging perspectives.
There’s a reason the best ideas tend to come in the little artificial solitudes that we find in the shower, or the daily commute, or while lying awake in bed. Just like there’s a reason why Christopher Knight – the North Pond Hermit of Kennebec County, Maine – spent much of his 30 year isolation reading stolen novels and a listening to NPR news programs on a portable radio.
It’s one of the great ironies of the modern age that, as technology has made us less socially isolated – both by sapping the physical distance between humans but also creating digital connectivity through social networks and smartphones – so too it has increased our intellectual isolation. It’s impossible to go an hour without some kind of social interaction – a ping or a nudge or a poke – but that same technology encourages us to go days without encountering a single uncomfortable idea or opposing viewpoint. It’s no coincidence that the boycott campaign to remove a controversial writer from the New York Times is being organized on Twitter.
Also likely not a coincidence: the restorative effect that isolation in Calistoga had on Robert Louis Stevenson way back in 1880. The hot pools and fresh air worked their magic and soon Stevenson was well enough to return to Scotland. Just as important as his physical recovery was his mental recovery: He quickly set to work weaving the Silverado scenery into a fictional land he called Treasure Island. Two more novels followed in quick succession: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped. Those works established his international reputation and today the land on which Mount Saint Helena stands is known as the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.
Two hours after we began our hike up that same mountain – after a break for ham sandwiches and still more gawping across that same State Park – Sarah and I arrived at the peak with just enough daylight remaining for the return journey.
There we found a second monument, much newer but no less imposing. Another reminder of Stevenson’s maxim that technology thrives best when there’s nothing standing in its way. Another testament to the magnifying effect of solitude on signal.
Rooted firmly on the mountaintop: A towering cellphone mast, silently beaming a million text messages, status updates and Tinder profiles across the valley below.