Nearly 40 years ago I was dispatched to Napa Valley to photograph an article for National Geographic magazine. I had no real home, mostly living from a suitcase while traveling the world full time. Soon I realized something I had seen nowhere else in this country – a warm welcome. The valley had no gates and wine tastings were free. St. Helena became my home. I was here to introduce 44 million readers of the magazine to a place few people knew about.
Then, 15 years ago, my “Bliss” photograph, the Windows XP screen saver, brought even more attention to our region. The photo was made in the Carneros region and with its blue sky and rolling green hills was seen on more than a billion computers around the world. I should take responsibility, or even some blame, for telling the world about our beautiful valley. Just look at the changes.
My wife, Daphne Larkin, and I have sold our house and are moving to the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. From one beautiful place to another! But, why would we leave when we have so many friends, a great neighborhood and amazing memories?
Our valley has changed but not in a way I would have expected. Napa Valley has become a national tourist destination. Here, $1,000 can get you a nice hotel room, a bottle of wine and probably a dinner. Housing has become a premium while our city employees, teachers, winery and retail employees must commute long distances. Highway 29 has become difficult.
The long tradition of old-style head pruned vineyards, picturesque gondolas delivering grapes at harvest time and a valley populated with mostly family-owned wineries have slowly been replaced by corporate wineries managed from afar, a noisy “wine train” and an abundance of jewelry stores – all to satisfy the whims of tourists.
St. Helena has seen an influx of absentee homeowners, leaving many of our homes dark at night and the sense of our small-town community rapidly dissipating.
Yes, St. Helena has many strengths that continue to make it a special place. We have a thriving Rianda House for seniors, the Family Centers that help vulnerable people, an extraordinary library that rates among the best in America, the incomparable White Barn for the performing arts, a historic movie theater and welcoming locally-owned hardware, pharmacy, grocery stores and restaurants.
But for me, the idyllic community I moved to in 1978 and appreciated so much, the community that reminded me of the small Missouri town I grew up in, has changed dramatically and it’s become financially challenging to live here.
Fortunately, Daphne has roots in those Blue Ridge Mountains, the place her parents retired to 45 years ago. A pristine mountain forest of 1,000 acres with swimming lakes and endless hiking trails and a community with like-minded people. We are excited about the next chapter in our lives, yet we leave with some sadness.
Goodbye St. Helena! We love you and we will miss you!