The descent was quite free from glass and led us down some pretty steep
grades into a beautifully wooded canyon. Here we met a mail carrier who
gave us the cheerful information that two or three miles farther over
a good road would have avoided the horrors of Bottle Glass Mountain.
For several miles we followed the course of a clear stream, the road
dropping continuously down grade and winding between splendid trees,
until we came to the little village of Middletown.
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Beyond this we began the ascent of Mount St. Helena, famed in Stevenson's stories of the "Silverado Squatters." Of it he wrote,
"There was something satisfactory in the sight of the great mountain enclosing us on the north; whether it stood robed in sunshine, quaking to its topmost pinnacle in the heat and lightness of the day or whether it set itself to weaving vapors, wisp after wisp, growing, trembling, fleeting, and fading in the blue."
It overtops everything else in the vicinity; its great bold summit, rising to a height of forty-five hundred feet, is a cairn of quartz and cinnabar. Its slopes, now so quiet and sylvan, were alive in an early day with mining camps and villages. But the mines failed long ago and the army of miners departed, leaving deserted towns and empty houses behind them. These fell into decay and their debris has been hidden by the rank growth of young trees. On St. Helena, Stevenson and his wife spent some time in a deserted mining camp in the summer of 1880 in hopes of benefiting his health and while here he planned and partly completed the story of Silverado. There are many descriptions of the scenery and his step-daughter declares that the passage describing the morning fog rolling into the valley as seen from his camp is one of the very finest in all of Stevenson's writings.
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Out of Middletown the road begins a steady ascent over rolling grades ranging up to fifteen per cent and winding through the splendid forests which so charmed the Scotch writer. Redwoods, oaks, firs, cedars and magnificent sugar pines crowd up to the roadside. Star-white dogwood blossoms stand against the foliage, the pale lavender spikes of the mountain lilac, the giant thistle with its carmine blooms, the crimson gleam of the redbud, the brilliant azalea, and, above all, the madrona, a great tree loaded with clusters of odorous pale pink blossoms.
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From the highest point of the road-it does not cross the summit of the mountain-was a glorious prospect of wooded hills and a long vista down the canyon which we followed to the valley. The descent was a strenuous one-winding downward in long loops, turning sharply around blind corners, and running underneath mighty cliffs, with precipices falling away beneath. It presented a series of magnificent views-a new one at almost every turn-and finally we came out into the open where we had full sweep down the vine-clad valley. At its head, just at the end of the mountain grade, was Calistoga, a quiet village of a thousand people, where Stevenson stopped while outfitting for his Silverado expedition. It was entirely surrounded by vineyards, which skirted the road for the eight miles to St. Helena and spread out over the narrow valley to the green hills on either hand. At intervals wheatfields studded with great solitary oaks varied the monotony of the scene and here and there a vineyard dotted the steep slopes of the hills.
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Here, as well as in the valley just west of the St. Helena Range, are the properties of the Swiss-Italian and Asti Colonies, and the principal winery, a vast stone structure that reminds one of a Rheinish castle, is situated on this road. Its capacity is three million gallons annually and besides its storage vats there is one great cement cistern which holds a half million gallons. In this capacious cavern a merrymaking party of a hundred couples is said to have held a dance on one occasion. But Italian methods have been abandoned in these big wineries-it would be something of a job to crush grapes for three million gallons of wine with the bare feet, the implements mostly in use in Italy. Instead, there is a mammoth crusher in a tower of the structure and the grapes are dumped upon an endless chain that hoists them to this machine, which grinds and stems them at a single operation. The pulp is then conducted through pipes to the fermenting vats below. The founder of the Asti Colony has a beautiful home in the hills, modeled after a Pompeian villa and surrounded by elaborate gardens and groves, an altogether artistic and charming place, it is said. He is now reckoned as a very wealthy man, though he came here about thirty years ago with little or nothing.
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The colony has its own general store, its smithy, its bakery, its dairy, its cooperage, its schools and post office, and a quaint little wooden church-La Madonna del Carmine-where Italian services are conducted on Sundays. While the Asti Colony is the largest and most distinctly Italian, there are several other similar communities in this section and also in the San Joaquin Valley. The greatest danger threatening them is, no doubt, the growing prohibition sentiment in California. We found prohibition already in force in Lake County, though there are many vineyards within its borders. To our request for a bottle of Lake County wine at one of the small inns, our landlord declared that he could not sell, but obligingly made up the deficiency by a donation.
All of the foregoing-interesting as it may be-has been relegated to the realm of ancient history by the enactment of the prohibition amendment. The results so far as the grape growers are concerned, and as I have previously noted in this book, were quite the opposite of those expected. Never was the industry so prosperous and never before did the "fruit of the vine" bring rich returns with so little labor. It is only necessary to dry the grapes in the sun or in specially constructed kilns to realize twice what they would have brought in the palmiest days of the abandoned wineries.