Has the Napa Valley Wine Train revealed that St. Helena’s slip is showing? Today’s column in the Star…

Tourists are different from us, not just in origin, but in mindset. This was never clearer to me than during a recent cross-valley trek on the Napa Valley Wine Train.

The word “trek” is defined in the Random House Dictionary as “to travel or migrate, especially slowly or with difficulty,” and in South Africa: “to travel by ox wagon.” I’ve never actually traveled by ox wagon, but I suspect that your average well-motivated oxen can haul their keesters faster than the Wine Train chugs its way up and down the valley. And while I would never describe one traveling in the leisurely luxury of the Wine Train as experiencing “difficulty,” the phrase “especially slowly” fits its schedule to a T.

This is not a bad thing. For vacationers wishing to drink in the beauty of the Napa Valley — its lush vineyards, verdant hills and expansive skies, while sampling delectable food and wine — it’s a delightful experience. Guests can choose from the retro skyline rail car with birds-eye view, the rough-n-ready open-air saloon car and luxury dining cars recalling train travel’s glamorous heyday. With stop-and-go traffic a major hassle for visitors, the chance to relax and let the train engineer do the driving must be a treat.

But for a bunch of busy local business-owners trekking in the middle of a workday, it became an exercise in Zen Buddhist mind-control. I’m talking about a recent trip organized by the ever-energized St. Helena Chamber of Commerce, when a phalanx of local leaders, merchants, restaurateurs and other chamber members were invited to enjoy lunch on the train. Like many locals, I had not experienced the Wine Train, so it was a chance to discover why so many call it a highlight of their valley visit and to meet its friendly and knowledgeable staff.

The company was congenial, the wine flowing and the food thoughtfully prepared by Chef Kelly Macdonald. But as I toured the other cars, each brimming with well-dressed revelers enjoying their vacations, I couldn’t help but compare them with us stressed-out locals. Disconnected from our offices and forced to “be there now” for what felt like an eternity, we stewed watching our everyday landscape pass by in slow motion. And while we settled into semi-relaxed conversation, many of us lunged for our cellphones at lunch, seeking an Internet connection like addicts scrambling for a fix.

The train slowed to a crawl approaching St. Helena, so several of us decided to take a closer look at our fair city from the viewpoint of a Wine Train passenger. And I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that what we observed was disturbing. Because like many cities viewed from the train tracks — as opposed to the view from the main highway — it often looked downright shoddy.

Picture a panorama of the backs of buildings with unmatched or peeling paint, punctuated by trash containers, weeds and broken asphalt. A few were well tended, and some unkempt buildings were spruced up with flower boxes and other random decorations. But overall the view revealed an urgent need for a total makeover of the Great Lady of St. Helena’s backside, and the immediate application of the municipal equivalent of Spanx so that her unsightly bumps and bulges might be more completely camouflaged.

I sympathize with the building owners, who likely never expected their backyards to become Napa Valley focal points. It’s as if a magazine offered to do a photo-shoot of your home, but then only photographed that ugly spot right next to the compost bin where you’ve stacked your old skis, rusting hammock stand and unused trampoline awaiting eventual consignment to the dump.

I had a similar experience recently while making my bathroom sparkle, suddenly noticing its unsightly ceiling. What was shiny was now splotchy, and little bits of soap congealed above the shower were now turning colors like specimens ripening in a laboratory. I considered cleaning the ceiling, but for those who have never tried it, let me give you a word of warning: “Don’t.” First you spot-clean, but those spots are now a different color from the rest of the ceiling. So you try cleaning the whole ceiling, but the finish changes and so you need to repaint, which is impossible to do without dripping paint on the walls, so now you are repainting and re-flooring, and you really might as well just move to a new house.

We all have some eyesore, junk drawer or embarrassing backside we don’t want exposed to the public, whether in our cities, in or homes, on our persons or in our personal histories. Luckily the Wine Train tourists experiencing St. Helena’s rearview seemed unfazed. They laughed and ate and toasted and drank, no doubt planning to visit Main Street for a shopping excursion during their trip. As for us locals, we resolved to add: “Tart Up St. Helena’s Posterior” to our to-do lists, just as soon as we were finally able to detrain in Napa, reconnect to our smartphones and retrace our treks — briskly — back home.

This was my very first column for the St. Helena Star, published December 23, 2010.  I wonder whether other small towns are similar.  While lips have loosened a bit, it’s still tough to get elected if you admit to liking these things — which may explain why we have so few local citizens challenging incumbents for office. 

I was talking with a group of locals the other day, when one of them expressed a strong opinion on a topic of current interest, blanched, and then immediately cautioned: “but don’t quote me.” I hear this a lot in St. Helena, even from people who seem pretty brave and powerful, and I’m coming to realize that there are certain things you can’t say in this town without ending up in the soup.

So, as a public service, I compiled a list of a few things you shouldn’t say out loud in St. Helena:

1. Wine Train

Referring aloud to this train-that-must-not-be-named is akin to saying the name Voldemort in a Harry Potter novel. A fearful silence is likely to result. I’ve never been on the Wine Train, so I can only assume that Mephistopheles himself is the engineer, and that it makes periodic stops in local towns to distribute cigarettes to small children. Locals tell ghost stories — in hushed tones — about elected officials who mysteriously vanish after mentioning you-know-what in favorable terms, while assuring me that “the problem is not the Wine Train per se, but what it represents.” Apparently the WT provokes the same reaction in the locals as the Indian tribes once felt when they saw the smoke and tracks of the Union Pacific edging closer. But maybe we’d be more trusting of touristy transport if we were living in …

2. Yountville

Speak our neighbor’s name, and be prepared for some schizophrenia to take hold. Apparently there are two Yountvilles: the one that is better than us and the one that is much, much worse. The better one has branded itself the “fine dining capital of the world,” its benefactors investing unlimited amounts of money, with no zoning restrictions whatsoever, to refashion Yountville into a food-and-wine lover’s paradise with streets paved in gold, giant Taj Mahal-like spa/hotels, and an invisible magnetic shield at the end of town to prevent tourists from venturing north. The inferior Yountville of lore has no “real there there” and few neighborhoods, fewer schools and lesser wineries. What both Yountvilles can agree on, however, is that we in St. Helena are too darn snooty. In fact, I’ve heard it suggested that St. Helena is distinguished throughout the Napa Valley as being the snootiest most difficult-to-deal-with city around; sort of a gorgeous, high-maintenance girlfriend from a good family. If so, perhaps we should brand ourselves around it. Let’s all visit Yountville, Sonoma and Healdsburg wearing T-shirts that say: St. Helena: Don’t Hate Us Because We’re Better. One thing Yountville doesn’t have, though, is …

3. Cheers!

Love it or hate it, everyone seems to have strong, often conflicting opinions about this organization and the Friday night wine tasting and shopping event it sponsors. Is it a heroic effort to fill the breach left by local leaders who couldn’t save our town on their own; a great opportunity for neighbors to get together in a social setting; a boost for local shops, food and wine; or a drunken bacchanal with gangs of shoplifting youths gone wild chasing fearful residents back into their homes? It’s clear that Cheers! does a lot of good in the community, for which it does not always get credit, and that the Friday socials will continue to evolve. But it is also clear that it will be a lighting rod for an inconvenienced public unable to make a left turn onto Adams Street, and for those who think the music is just too darn loud. At least at Cheers! they pour lots of wine but don’t use much …

4. Water

Evidently everything in St. Helena can be separated into two categories: things that deserve water and things that don’t. The deserving apparently includes: vineyards, any front lawn (on odd or even days) and attached residence previously constructed, well located public parks, and palm trees at city buildings. The undeserving includes golf courses, swimming pools, businesses who can afford their own, and anything to be built tomorrow. Locals seem to agree, however, that St. Helena water is a bit smelly, tastes strange, is incredibly expensive, and plays havoc with the porcelain. In short, it is terrible and we wish we had more of it.

Perhaps we’d be happier if we shipped the water in from Yountville in giant tankers attached to the Wine Train.

Come to think of it, those seeking peaceful discourse should generally refrain from mentioning the School Board, the City Council, the Planning Commission, that other bocce league, tree removal, soccer fields, screwtops, taxes, flood control, weddings at wineries, pumpkin patches at wineries, anything besides wine at wineries, eco-villages, low-income housing, stream setbacks, protected species, nine-hole golf courses and the location of the nearest Taco Bell.

Personally, I enjoy visiting art galleries (and don’t share the town’s deep fear of “becoming Carmel”), but don’t quote me.