Mount St. Helena


I have, in my dotage, become a Peripatetic (derived from Greek… literally “ones walking around”). The Peripatetic School was founded by Aristotle in 335 BC, so I am far from a charter member, but as with philosophy, striding about—especially to high places—affords one a wider view of the world.

Yesterday, as a pre-Valentines Day gift, my wife Ann asked me to accompany her and four other members of the local AAUW (American Association of University Women) chapter on a hike to the top of Mount St. Helena, at 4,343 feet, the highest point in Napa County.

AAUW on Mt. St. HelenaDo not confuse our modest peak with Washington’s Mount St. Helens, which on May 18, 1980, reduced its height from 9,677 feet to 8,365 feet in an impressive volcanic explosion. Our hillock is also of volcanic origin, but of much more modest pretentions; seismologists predict no imminent upsurge. Also note that unlike the capital of Montana, pronounced “HELL-en-ah” as if it were the gateway to Hades, our Wine Country prominence is spoken “heh-LEEN-ah,” which hints of cassis and finishes with a velour-like coating of the tongue.

We began the ascent at 10 a.m. The air was clear and pleasant. Ever gallant, and remembering a Boy Scout always lets the slower hikers go first, I trailed the five women, all older than I, as we worked our way up the switchbacks. Soon, noticing that the oldest, a 4’11”, 75-year-old Ohio State Buckeye, was bounding upward from rock to rock with abandon that indicated knees far more forgiving than my own, I gave up gallantry, and adopted the pirate’s creed (“Every Man for Himself!”)…which, since I was the only man, granted me carte blanche. Spotting a steeply vertical shortcut, I scrambled, slipped, and scratched my way up the hillside from switchback #11 to switchback #12 and NY State Flagwas relaxing on a rock (hiding my heavy breathing) as the hapless women came around the bend. They were unimpressed. One even muttered, “Cheater.”

Halfway up the mountain, we turned a corner and went from calm air to a strong, cold, noisy wind—a dramatic demonstration of leeward versus windward. The layers we had shed on the way up went back on.

Upward, dauntless peripatetics! Excelsior!

1912 remounting of plaqueAt the top, we stood under numerous, unsightly communications towers that thrummed in the chill wind and next to a plaque commemorating an 1841 surveying team, including Russians from Ft. Ross and Mexican land grant families (photograph courtesy of Healdsburg Museum & Historical Society).

Hiking 5.1 miles while climbing just over 2,000 feet computes to a 7.4% incline. As we ate lunch, I wondered silently (the women were chatting amiably about birds, trees, and grandchildren) if Aristotle, in his many peregrinations up and down Grecian knolls ever calculated the inverse relationship between age and incline aptitude.

With both the air and our noses running clear, we saw far in the distance:

–to the west, range after range of low hills, with the Pacific shrouded somewhere beyond them,
–to the south, the skyline of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge, Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais and Mt. Diablo near Walnut Creek,
–to the east, Lake Berryessa and by their snow tops, a hint of the Sierras, and
–to the north, what might have been a thin dream of Mt. Lassen.

Mount St. Helena is in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, so named because Stevenson (1850-1894) honeymooned in a cabin on the flanks of this mountain in 1880 and, enchanted with the area, wrote this description in Silverado Squatters:

A broad, cool wind streamed pauselessly down the valley, laden with perfume. Up at the top stood Mount Saint Helena, a bulk of mountain, bare atop, with tree-fringed spurs, and radiating warmth. Once we saw it framed in a grove of tall and exquisitely graceful white oaks, in line and colour a finished composition.

…more on Stevenson’s charming travelogue in my next post.

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3 Comments on “Mount St. Helena

  1. Keep writing. Best wishes for your musings to be enjoyed and found by lots of individuals with like interests.

  2. This is marvelous, Steve! So pleased that you have found such an excellent outlet for your boundless energy & talents.

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