Robert Louis Stevenson and a prehistoric Pompeii
For me, one of the pleasures of tourism is not just seeing the sights, but stepping in the footsteps of those who have come to see them before. I’m the kind of person who gets a kick out of visiting the Parthenon not (just) because it takes me back to the age of Pericles, but because it makes me feel I’m sharing something with Freud, or Virginia Woolf, or Jane Harrison, or whoever.
And part the fun of Mycenae, for me, is the visitors’ book at the old hotel, the Belle Hélène, where Schliemann lodged when he was excavating the site, and where you can still see the signatures of Sartre and de Beauvoir, Debussy and Henry Moore – and wonder if they came with the same expectations as you did, whether it was quite so hot or crowded for them . . . and so on. . .
What I hadn’t realised about California was that tourism had really taken off in the late nineteenth century. After the Gold Rush, the tourist industry seems to have been one way of making a living – turning any curious local feature into a ‘visitor attraction’. Nor had a realised (this is a bit shameful) that Robert Louis Stevenson had actually spent his honeymoon here in 1880 – and wrote it up in The Silverado Squatters.
It turned out that in our trip to the Californian countryside, we were indeed following in his footsteps.
In addition to the elks and the redwoods (and lunch in an authentically Czech restaurant at a place called Inverness – not unlike its namesake), we made for two more natural wonders, and high spots of private enterprise tourism for more than a hundred years. The first was the Old Faithful Geyser of California, which on our sunny day in late November, obligingly cast a tower of hot water into the air about every ten minutes. I may have complained in my last post about the surreptitious domestication of the wild. But here there was no pretence. Nature was doing its tricks for a human paying audience (a bit like the performing animals in an old fashioned zoo), and I gawped in amazement with everyone else.
Then it was onto the ‘Petrified Forest’ – the fossilized remains of a redwood forest destroyed by some volcanic eruption about three and a half million years ago, a kind of prehistoric Pompeii. I had been pretty snooty about this before we arrived, but again nature obliged. The fossilized trunks were vast, and they looked just like tree trunks – except when you touched them they felt like cold marble.
This was one of the places that RLS had visited, and had met the first proprietor, “a brave old white-faced Swede” – a Mr Evans who showed off the forest to visitors “at the modest figure of half a dollar a head”. There is a bronze plaque on one of the petrified trees, commemorating the Stevenson visit.
What it doesn’t mention is quite how underwhelmed he had been: “It is very curious, of course, and ancient enough, if that were all. Doubtless, the heart of the geologist beats quicker at the sight; but, for my part, I was mightily unmoved. Sight-seeing is the art of disappointment.” Though he did have fonder memories of the eccentric Mr Evans: “ . . . fortunately, Heaven rewards us with many agreeable prospects and adventures by the way; and when we go out to see a petrified forest, prepares a far more delightful curiosity in the form of Mr Evans . . .”.
RLS must have been a harder nut to crack than I am. The petrified forest was well impressive enough to me.