It is usually the view that inspires me when I reach a summit.
That wasn’t the case Saturday.
As I walked toward a large rock outcropping at the highest point of Mt. St. Helena that towers over the northern end of the Napa Valley at 4,339 feet, there was a large monument marker that grabbed my attention. Usually if the peak is of some consequence to the United States Geological Survey there is a round survey marker embedded in rock at the highest point of the peak with the elevation and the year it was put in place.
But this wasn’t a survey marker. It was a replica of a copper marker placed there in 1841 by a Russian party. They had traveled from the Sonoma Coast to mark the highest spot in the Mayacamas Mountains whose flanks today rest in Napa, Sonoma, and Lake Counties as well as serving as the headwaters for the Napa River.
Among the names on the marker was Princess Helena de Gagarin. She was the wife of Fort Ross’ commanding officer Count Alexander Rotchev hence the name Mount Saint Helena.
It was more than just a reminder of California history that includes the Russian outpost that flourished in Spain’s Alta California from 1812 to 1842. Nor was it just about the fact a citizen of Mexico of Swiss origin by the name of John Sutter bought Fort Ross and its assets from the Russians for $30,000 in late 1841.
Instead it is a reminder of what California is — the promised land of the modern world.
Yes, there have been major migrations through the centuries but name another place where the population of 14,920 some 176 years ago on 163,696 square miles in 1840 is today on the cusp of surpassing 40 million. Those 14,920 “California” residents in 1840 included 9,140 native Indians and 5,780 non-Indians. Today’s population of Napa County at 142,456 is 10 times larger than California’s population in 1840.
This is a land that was under the control of Mexico until 1846 when the California Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 created a fledging nation that lasted for 26 days until accepting United States government control.
The Russians came here in 1812 for the same reason the French came to what is today French Camp in San Joaquin County in 1832 and why gold seekers from six continents in 1849 flocked here to seek their fortune.
It is the search for a better life that brought Americans from the settled East to the land of orange groves, soaring redwoods, endless coastline, massive mountains, fertile valleys, and expansive deserts. It is what transformed outposts of less than 50 people in 1840 to the world class cities today of Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is what grew the Silicon Valley.
What struck me on Saturday was how much of what I saw was what Count Rotchev saw 176 years ago. Take away the communication towers and the trails and Mount Saint Helena has changed little as opposed to California as a whole. That can be said about a lot of spots in the Golden State today.
The big difference is back in 1840 people didn’t get up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, hop into a car and drive 130 miles one-way to go for a 12-mile round trip hike up a mountain and then drive back home arriving by 8 p.m. (It would have been three hours quicker if it wasn’t for the Highway 28 crawl through the Napa Valley and Google directions that sent me to the northern boundary of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park that lacks access points where Mount Saint Helena is located.)
More people probably hiked or rode mountain bikes to the top of Mount Saint Helena on Saturday than hiked the peak during the entire 1840s decade.
When we are stuck in traffic or fuming about the latest Sacramento decree or tax we lose sight of what is around us and where we live.
Yes, California is not a place where it is easy to live on the cheap. But the really good things in life tend to come with a price.
California has come a long way since 1840 and so has mankind. There’s been a lot of bad but the good far outweighs it.
Regardless of how bad we think things are very few of us are simply trying to survive. Even the homeless — most have some form of government assistance — aren’t left 100 percent to wander the wilderness looking for edible vegetation or ways to kill small game.
You might be thinking the gain of 2,100 feet in less than 5½ miles to reach the summit made me light-headed.
The truth is I was light-headed but it was from being in love with California and realizing that no matter how crazy the world gets we are lucky to be alive today end even more so to be living in California.
You don’t have to take a hike to clear your head.
You can start by unplugging from the Greek chorus amplified by social media and take a good look around you. It’s pretty amazing to be alive today.