Monday, March 31, 2008

Stalking Jack London

The Call of the Wild. White Fang. The Klondike stories. “To Build a Fire.” The Sea-Wolf. Chances are good that one or more of these works by Jack London once kept vigil on your bedside table, or maintains a place on your bookshelf—he was once a neighbor, after all, a denizen of nearby Glen Ellen, a tiny town in the Sonoma Valley. This weekend, I stalked Jack London—through the town where he lived, to the ruins of the house he loved, to the very bedroom where he died at forty.

My exploration began on Friday, with drinks at the Jack London Saloon, next door to the Jack London Lodge in Glen Ellen. This bar/restaurant was established in 1908, which coincides to the time when the Londons were living in the area—conceivably, Jack London once hoisted a pint (or three) just as we did, overlooking the creek that runs beside the outdoor patio.

Saturday, we headed to the Jack London State Historical Park, an 800-acre park that was Jack and Charmian London’s “Beauty Ranch.” Though Jack London traveled the world, he loved Sonoma and invested large amounts of money in building his dream house there—a house he christened Wolf House. Tragically, the house burnt to the ground days before the Londons moved in; and though they had plans to rebuild it, they never did. The ruins are there, weed-riddled and weather-worn; you can still see the many fireplaces that graced every floor, and the empty crevice where the pool was to have been. Jack London lived the rest of his life in a cottage on the property, and died in a glass-enclosed sleeping porch.

Besides the Wolf House ruins and the cottage, Jack London’s “pig palace” remains on the park grounds as well—a large structure featuring nineteen small stalls for pigs, as well as a central feeding silo. If a pig pen can be luxurious, then this one certainly is.

After Jack London’s death, Charmian built yet another house on Beauty Ranch, called the House of Happy Walls. This house is now a museum, showcasing many of the souvenirs the Londons brought back from their travels, as well as many first editions of Jack London’s books—of which there are more than fifty.

I’m not a huge Jack London fan: I read a few short stories before this trip, as well as a biography; but I never could bring myself to read The Call of the Wild, and I’m not compelled by most of his plotlines—struggles for survival, quests for gold. What I find more fascinating is simply Jack London’s life. He was an adventurer: hopping trains, sailing ships, always setting out on whatever path seemed to promise the most glory. And he found his perfect life partner in his second wife, Charmian—she was up for anything, even building a ship called the “Snark” and sailing off on what they intended to be an epic seven-year voyage. He was an alcoholic, struggled throughout his life to make ends meet, and found the writing process a burden—one he did out of financial necessity more than anything else.

Glen Ellen, a bit off the beaten path and lush with redwoods and vineyards and bright orange California poppies, is worlds away from the brutal landscape Jack London depicted in much of his work. His grave, marked only with a boulder from the Wolf House ruins, is nestled among the trees on Beauty Ranch; the area is silent except for the breeze rustling through the leaves and the occasional trudging step of other Jack London stalkers, lucky enough to get a few hours’ glimpse of his final resting place, and the land this wanderer considered home.


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