Story and Photos by John Sundsmo. As a child growing up in the Midwest, Santa brought me two treasured books, “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”, both written by Jack London. I read and re-read those books, loving the vivid accounts of Alaskan scenery and the exploits and travails of the wolf heroes. Those wonderful books were written more than 110 years ago, but they still resonate for me today. Along with “Sea Wolf” and “To Build a Fire”, the books catapulted Jack London to fame and fortune in 1902–1906. As a child, I had no idea my family would move to the West Coast, or that life would eventually lead me to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, or that Jack London was a Bay Area native son. Visiting Jack London State Historical Park near Glen Ellen in Sonoma Valley was a revelation in many respects. It showed me how Jack, a local gritty Gold-Rush-era boy from a humble background in Oakland, worked hard, took risks and learned to make good for himself. Most of all, I was struck by his quotations, which were on display in the museum at the park. Those quotations showed a reflective, socially responsive and philosophical man with a tremendous depth of character developed over his short 40 year lifetime (1876–1916).
“My environment was crude and rough and raw. I had no outlook, but an up-look rather. My place in society was at the bottom. Here life offered nothing but sordidness and wretchedness, both of the flesh and the spirit; for here flesh and spirit were alike starved and tormented.” (Jack London, writing of his childhood in Oakland)
“I resolved to sell no more muscle, and to become a vendor of brains. Then began a frantic pursuit of knowledge.” (Jack London, writing of his decision to become an author at age 25)
Beauty Ranch: “I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.” Jack London writing about his ranch, now Jack London State Historical Park, a California Historical Landmark and National Historic Landmark.
Jack and his wife Charmian purchased the northeast wilderness slope of Mount Sonoma in 1905 and grew the ranch to more than 1000 acres. After his passing in 1916 and his wife’s in 1955, Beauty Ranch and its historic dwellings were donated to the State of California as a museum and wilderness preserve. Located near Glen Ellen in Sonoma Valley, the park includes backwoods trails for horses, mountain bikers and hikers with the 8 mile Sonoma Mountain Trail climbing from 600 to 2400 feet. It is easy to see why London named the site Beauty Ranch as trails wind through madrone, Douglas fir, oak, and maple trees with grassy meadows, Spring wildflowers and redwood canyons. Scenic views include Sonoma valley and beyond to the San Francisco Bay. The park is much more than just wilderness, although wilderness is what Jack London chose as the backdrop for many of his most popular literary works.
Jack London the writer: “The Road had gripped me and would not let me go” (Jack London, the journalist)
He traveled the world: in the Bearing Sea as an able bodied seaman (1893) and in the Klondike as a gold rush prospector (1897–1898). As a journalist, war correspondent and photographer, he traveled in London and Europe (1902), Korea and Japan (1904), Cuba (to cover the sinking of The USS Maine battleship in Havana in 1906), San Francisco (to cover the earthquake and fire in 1906) and in Mexico (to cover the US occupation of Veracruz in 1914). He settled in wilderness Sonoma as a rancher (1905–1916). With the means to live anywhere in the world, Jack London chose the hills of Sonoma for his home. Above all, Jack and his wife Charmian were free spirited, independent and intelligent thinkers, and above all, ambitious workers. The London legacy now includes the impressive gifts offered in his 50 literary works and the Londons’ magnificent wilderness park on Sonoma Mountain. As I viewed in the park museum, his spirit lives on through his writing.
“I was open to being convinced by the evidence of my own eyes, rather than by the teaching of those who had not seen, or by the words of those who had not seen and gone before.” (Jack London)
“The things I like constitute my set of values. The thing I like most of all is personal achievement, not achievement for world’s applause, but achievement for my own delight. It is the old ‘I did it with my own hands. I did it!.” (Jack London)
“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” (Jack London)
“Why is it that millions of modern men live more miserably than live the caveman?” (Jack London the social activist, author of People of the Abyss which chronicled the poverty and homelessness of East London @1907.)
The House of Happy Walls: For any who read “Call of the Wild,” “White Fang”, or, “Sea Wolf” as children, as I did, the history of Jack London is on vivid display in the stone ranch house which his wife, Charmian London, built after his passing. Charmian was his typist and editor, travel companion, and fellow South Seas adventurer on their 50-foot wooden sloop the “Snark” (1907–1909).
“And if as man is a born sailor, and has gone to the school of the sea, never in all his life can he get away from the sea again. The salt of it is in his bones as well as his nostrils, and the sea will call him until he dies.” (Jack London)
The museum in Charmian’s house is an eye opener to the personal risks Jack was willing to take in his early life. Those risks made his fictional stories come to life as an accurate reflection of lives and circumstances he portrayed. He wrote from personal experience. For his book “Sea Wolf”, he drew from his experiences as an ordinary seaman on a tall sailing ship, the Sophia Sutherland, at age 15 seal hunting off Japan and in the Bering Sea. For “Call of the Wild”, “White Fang” and “To Build a Fire“, he wrote from experiences gained at age 21 in the brutal cold of the Klondike winter during the Gold Rush. In “People of the Abyss” he chronicled the poverty of the homeless in East London by joining them to go hungry, spend his days in the workhouses and sleep in the streets. A worker, London wrote diligently every day at least 1000 words, and at least 3 hours even when traveling or at sea. “My head is my office.” (Jack London)
Jack, the innovative rancher, was a product of his interactions with Johnathan Muir and Luther Burbank during his early bohemian writing days in Oakland, as well as the agricultural practices he witnessed in Japan and Korea as a war correspondent. He was environmentally conscious and aimed for sustainability long before it became the thing to do. Before organic farming became popular, he constructed a manure composting barn and used natural fertilizer to enrich the soil rather than commercial chemicals. Working to improve the living conditions of his livestock, he designed and built a “pig palace”.
While the ranch employed about 50 horses, Jack most prized his big strong English “Shires”. His “Neuadd Hillside” won two Grand Championships at the California State Fair.
The turn of the 19th century in Sonoma was not what you see today. The first Model-T didn’t roll off the assembly line until 1908. In London’s era, motorized travel was beginning, but most was on foot, or by horse. Goods were most often transported by wagon from wharfs where sailing and steam ships docked. Glen Ellen was a remote northern destination in a sparsely populated valley. Imagine then the difficulties faced when Jack and Charmian decided to build Wolf Lodge: a grand 15,000 square foot, 26 rooms with 9 fireplaces; including hot water, electric lighting, refrigeration and vacuum cleaning machinery; and, complete with a reflecting pool stocked with trout designed by noted San Francisco architect Albert L. Farr (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_L._Farr) with Japanese design elements drawn from his childhood in Yokohama.
In 1911, with field stone and local blue stone collected on the ranch and redwood timber felled and milled there, the grand dream rose on a strong earthquake-proof concrete foundation among a grove of live oaks at the bottom of a valley to take advantage of natural sunlight, breezes, abundant water, shade and a view of the Sonoma Valley. Magnificent large unpealed redwood beams adorned high vaulted ceilings with large windows and numerous large verandas. Completed in 1913, workers were rushing to finish oiling the beams and woodwork so the Londons could move in. A pile of rags soaked with linseed oil ignited on August 22, 1913 and the ensuing fire reduced the magnificent dream to a pile of ashes. Viewing the 110 year old fieldstone walls and grand design that is still standing, I thought it a testament both to the craftsmen who constructed them and to the fortitude and resolve of Jack and Charmian.
But Jack was in poor health and passed away three years later from kidney failure. Jack’s and his beloved Charmian’s ashes are both buried on Beauty Ranch beneath a large rock on a hill overlooking Sonoma Valley.
Personally, for me as a traveler, my most enriching travel experiences are rooted in body, mind and spirit, by feeling, hearing and seeing and then learning and remembering. I found all of that, as well as inspiration, at Jack and Charmian London’s special park on Sonoma Mountain.
“I hope.. to leave the land better for having been.” (Jack London) — AND — HE DID.
“He loved this land with a spiritual devotion and he wanted it to be his true legacy” (Jack London State Historical Park epitaph.)
All historical photographs courtesy of Jack London State Historical Park.
IF YOU GO: The following links may be helpful: Jack London, Jack London State Historical Park website, Jack London State Historical Park map, Jack London State Historical Park Trails, Sonoma County Tourism, and things to do in Glen Ellen. My wife and I stopped at Glen Ellen Village Market, close to Jack London State Historical Park, and picked up their excellent sandwiches for a picnic in the park.
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