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Karen Steele at Saranac Lake in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson. (Photo provided)

“When he (Robert Louis Stevenson) wasn’t writing, he was planning the making of some lingering old daydreams. We know their romantic tendency, a little fantastic. They were yachts and aimless cruisers, southern seas and sunny shores where lotus eaters dwell, itinerant life among primitive peoples and rich adventure in a wanderer’s contentment. And Saranac Lake has become the gateway to it all. He formed himself in the shaded portal through which he emerged from his winter prison into the dazzling sun of eternal summer.

“A History of the Adirondacks, Vol. JE,” A.Donaldson

“Dear James, is a farewell. On June 15, the yacht schooner Casco will pass (weather and jealous providence permitting) through the Golden Gates to Honolulu, Tahiti, the Galapagos, Guayaquil, and hopefully not the bottom of the Pacific. It will contain your ‘umble servant and your group. It sounds too good to be true…”

– Robert Louis Stevenson to Henry James, May 28, 1888, Manasquan, New Jersey

Saturday, June 2, 1888, saw the departure of RLS and three of his traveling companions (mother, stepson, and portable servant, Valentine) from New York to travel by train across the continent via Chicago and Council Bluffs to San Francisco where they arrived on June 7. The trip followed much of the route that RLS had taken nine years earlier when “The Amateur Emigrant” when he was still unknown in the United States and traveled as cheaply as possible in dangerous conditions for an invalid. What a difference success can make, in this case at least until Chicago. Until then, they enjoyed the luxury on board the train with a separate cabin and dressing room.

“After that it wasn’t as luxurious and the accommodation was very limited. wrote Stevenson’s mother, Margaret, to her sister in Scotland. “However, we consoled ourselves with the thought that it was excellent preparation for the yacht… Later on we were all a little upset and had a slight haemorrhage; it’s supposed to be the effect of crossing the alkaline plains, in the Salt Lake region, and it’s rather distressing.

In the case of his son, “It was a much more serious matter, and gave us cause for alarm. However, he was promptly sent to bed upon our arrival, and will be kept there for a few days…We were met in Sacramento by Fanny (the author’s wife)…We have been very busy since our arrival, ordering clothes , etc the yacht and the warm weather… PS, I must add that we have just received very nice letters of introduction to King Kalakaua from Hawaii, where we hope to stop in the yacht.

After the kind of delays that can precede a substantial undertaking, the sun rose on June 28, 1888 to shine on the brand new luxury schooner yacht Casco, 94′ long and displacing 74 tons. At 5 a.m., she was towed across the Golden Gate into Pacific Ocean waters by the tug Pelican. The 12 people on board represented seven nationalities. Dropping the trailer and extending its canvas, the Casco has entered into legend. Land would not be seen for 22 days after traversing 3,000 miles of increasingly warm water. This is from the first paragraph of Stevenson’s first book to come out of this experience, In the South Seas:

“For almost 10 years, my health had been declining; and for a time before leaving on my journey, I thought I was going to arrive at the aftermath of life, and had only to wait for the nurse and the undertaker. I was suggested to try the South Seas…”

It was the right decision. The famous Marquesas Islands were their first landing, dropping anchor July 20 in Anaho Bay on Nuka Hiva, the largest island in the group. These islands were notorious due to the unfortunate combination of shipwrecked sailors and cannibals. In 1888, the population of these islands would have been tamed by the conquest of French culture, however, the doubt persisted for a long time and to this day, RLS historians wonder if the Stevenson expedition simply disappeared after leaving San Francisco in their wake, had it not for the intimidating presence of a French Man O’ War anchored in the harbor, too, the whole month they were there. For RLS, it was the stuff that made the adventure.

On September 4, 1888, the yacht Casco, Captain Otis, weighed anchor and set off on a dangerous journey through numerous coral atolls, bound for the atoll of Fakarava in the Paumotu archipelago. He was there. Robert Louis Stevenson had achieved his dream and he couldn’t help himself so he wrote to Charles Baxter about it. Baxter and RLS date back to university days. He was one of Stevenson’s absolute inner circle of comrades, the others being his cousin Bob Stevenson, Sidney Colvin, Edmund Gosse, William Earnest Henley and Will Hickock Low, of Albany. Three of these gentlemen, namely Colvin, Gosse and Low, made joining the Stevenson Society of America at Saranac Lake one of the last things they did in 1916. As for Baxter, he drank heavily and made a good lawyer and executor for Louis by tending to his affairs. If necessary, its services could move to “fixer” fashion. They used to like to party at Rutherford’s, a pub in downtown Edinburgh, Scotland. It was Baxter he was thinking about that night:

“My dear Charles, Last night, as I lay under my blanket in the cockpit to court sleep, I had a comical fit. There was nothing visible but the southern stars, and the helmsman over there by the cabin lamp… Suddenly I had a vision of Drummond Street. It came over me like lightning. I just went back there, and into the past And when I remembered all I hoped and feared as I marinated at Rutherford’s in the rain and east wind, how I feared I would be a mere shipwreck, and yet I hoped timidly not to; how I feared that I would never have a friend let alone a wife, and yet I hoped passionately that I could; how I hoped (if I didn’t drink) that I might write be a little book etc. etc. And then now, what a change! I kind of feel like I like the incident put on a copper plate at the corner of this dull thoroughfare, for all the students to read, poor devils, when their hearts are broken.

And so it was. On Monday, December 11, 1995, a brass plaque worthy of this purpose was unveiled on the corner of Drummond Street next to Rutherford’s or the “Pump” to Stevenson’s crew. A group of Stevenson lovers from diverse backgrounds had come together to make it all happen. The italicized section above is what is on the plate. In April 1996, Karen Steele, a friendly, well-to-do widow who was also the tip of the spear in this plaque project, showed up in Saranac Lake to see the museums grandfather Stevenson. At the time, she was living in Twickenham, Middlesex, England. She is a world class Stevenson fan who was on her world tour of Stevenson sites and was enchanted by our Stevenson Cottage. Karen obviously loved sharing her RLS story.

With more time and money and an adventurous spirit, Mrs. Steele had decided to see the world in steamships crossing the oceans, starting with the Pacific, which meant plenty of time to read. One of these ships had only two books in its cabins. One was an instant rejection while the other had a title that suited its purpose aboard the ship, Robert Louis Stevenson’s In the South Seas. A single RLS book was enough to add Stevenson’s activities to his to-do list, and this plaque project was one of his first. Karen asked about Stevenson’s status in this community as a world-class figure. As she walked out, she signed the guestbook and made the usual donation in addition to a copy of her own RLS book of her lyrics, categorized by topic.

And then, Karen Steele left to visit other places during her world tour. She was neither the first nor the last to make this pilgrimage. Their names have been scattered in museum guestbooks since 1917. Like those before her and those who have come since, on the same mission, Karen was on the trail of “The Penny Piper of Saranac”, a flute player if there is one.

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