The story of the Silverado Trail is a sixty-minute documentary film about how this remarkable native pathway, which became a road, has connected tribes and cultures together for millennia. The project began with a chapter from our book, ‘Wine Country in Shorts,’ which compiles stories I’ve heard from winery hosts and historians for years. I in turn told them to my wine tour guests on the drive between wineries. I dictated the stories into my phone at the places where the events occurred. The Trail’s story emerged in one long drive from downtown Napa to Petrified Forest Road. I was surprised by how many facets the story contains because typically, I only told little bits of it depending on where the tour took me. The Silverado Trail is a wonderful example of how cultures use roads to navigate the differences between ‘tribes’ and find common goals that unite us as humans.
The ancient pathway connected the Onasai, or ‘Outspoken Ones’ of the upper valley, that the Spanish called the Wappo, to the Patwin who lived in the south. The Onasai produced valuable obsidian tools, while the Patwin made the ‘sakas’, or boats they needed to trade with tribes as far east as Utah and south to the border of Mexico. The Onasai’s path wound through the sparse hills on the sunrise side of their taha alusi, or beautiful valley. The elevated pathway skirted the valley floor that flooded in the Winter, and the largest grizzly bears who preferred the fertile areas close to the river. There were so many of these alpha predators in the valley that the name for them among the surrounding tribes was ‘napa.’ The biggest danger they did face were mountain lions, quick creatures but much preferred to the grizzlies.
In response, the first Americans who settled on the valley floor built treehouses. The name Silverado began with the gold rush when miners were digging for mercury, or ‘quicksilver’, in Napa’s hills. The Roman God Mercury was the patron of writers, healers and drivers, aka tour guides. Quicksilver was used to separate gold from the surrounding material. Miners traveled the Quicksilver Trail on the way to the tailings on Mount Saint Helena, where they also uncovered silver. The path was turned into a wagon trail in the mid-1800’s and the Silverado Trail was inscribed on the maps.
It’s fascinating that the name connects to the Roman Deity related to healers, because the trail led to California’s two largest hotels and health spas in the late 1800’s, which did a booming business in bottled mineral waters. Not to forget the wine, which was considered the original health drink that made city water safe to drink while making moods mellow. This reputation for restoring health brought newlyweds Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Van der Grift to Napa to recover from their respective ocean voyages. They had not traveled together from England, because upon turning down Robert’s marriage proposal, Fanny had boarded a ship home to California. But Robert was a poet in love, so he followed her, arriving in a pitiful condition. But since he was clearly committed, this time, Fanny consented. Their friends looked at these two walking skeletons and said, “Go to Napa and get your health back.’ They honeymooned for two months in an abandoned cabin on the slopes of Mount Saint Helena, which resulted in Robert’s locally popular travelogue ‘The Silverado Squatters.’
So, we have a soon to be famous author, and the healers, living by the Trail named for their Roman Patron. All we need now are drivers! How did they get around to all the locations he wrote about with their meager budget? They were befriended by the local stagecoach driver who ran the Silverado Line. He must have dropped them off on his way south and picked them up on his way back. He was a very tall gent, known, as was common at the time, as Long John. Being so associated with his business, he was known locally as Long John Silverado. He made quite an impression because Stevenson’s most famous character, in his most famous book, Treasure Island, was the colorful pirate Long John Silver. I’ve always wondered if he wore a patch over one eye. Arg! These are just a few of the stories associated with the Trail.
This is a not-for-profit project and will be accomplished with the assistance of Napa Valley Television. We will be using equipment that was purchased with a grant from the Arts Council, pre-Covid, for exactly this kind of project. I am an experienced videographer who has been producing on-location television shows with Napa TV since 2012. While we have several volunteers to help with production, the funds we are seeking will help cover the costs for professional production people necessary at specific stages. The documentary will be shown locally on Napa Valley Television. The funds will also be used in submitting the hour-long documentary to California PBS stations. It will also cover download fees on the PEG (Public Access, Education, and Government) network of two thousand stations throughout the country. We will be seeking some partnership and promotional help at the Napa and Sonoma Historical Societies, and the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum.
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