Like Steinbeck, Jack London always intimidated me. He still does. I can’t bring myself to sit down and delve into one of his novels out of fear that it will fail to fulfill my romantic inclinations. Maybe, like Steinbeck, he’ll surprise me. Of course, I can appreciate his work and recall it from high school English classes. I remember the tales of Arctic survival, howling wolves and blustery blizzards. Though his work has yet to resonate with my literary interest, his biography fascinates me, and there’s plenty of romance there.
London was always on the periphery during my time growing up in Oakland. My parents took us frequently to Jack London Square and I remember distinctly the Last Chance Saloon that still stands at the Square, a remnant of the watering hole where London spent time and wrote. Next to it sits a recreation of the cabin he stayed in in the Yukon. It captivated my imagination as a child- even then I was interested in historical literary sites.
Recently my good friend, Ronda, and I took a day trip to Glen Ellen, in Sonoma County just about 45 minutes away from Napa, where Jack London resided from 1905 until he died in 1916. I’d always wanted to visit his “Beauty Ranch” and the remains of Wolf House, which burned to the ground in 1913. It was to be his dream home, which he would share with his wife Charmian. He put all he had – emotionally and financially – into the house, and he never fully recovered from the blow of losing it.
What remains of Wolf House is now contained and managed by Jack London State Historic Park. It’s been beautifully preserved and stands as a haunting reminder of one man’s hopes and dreams. The Sonoma Valley was an oasis from the hustle of Oakland. Standing in the majestic silence amid towering trees, hiking over rocky trails, the allure of the space is unquestionable.
I circled the remains of Wolf House several times, conjuring the contradictory extremes of hope and disappointment that London must have experienced. The symbolism of the scene is something that will remain with me.
Also preserved on the property is the cottage where he and his wife lived, wrote and entertained. After Wolf House burned, they extended the home to include a writer’s study at the back of the cottage, where he died at just 40 years old. The cottage had an opposite feel from the charred remains of Wolf House. It looked warm and inviting, and it was easy to imagine the dinners and parties that the couple once hosted.
A massive oak tree shades the home. It caught my eye immediately as I had just finished reading a book by Richard Horan, titled Seeds, which is about the trees that stand over the homes of famous literary figures and artists. There is no doubt that Jack London chose the location for the his cottage, in part, because of this gorgeous tree and that he enjoyed the shade and comfort of its massive arms.
While the death of his dream home may have contributed to his untimate demise, London continued his attempt to live life to the fullest. His spirit lingers on that Sonoma mountain. We must do what we can to help the Jack London State Historic Park continue to preserve his legacy. Please consider contributing to the California State Parks Foundation to support this park and the many others that enhance our lives so greatly.
“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze
than it should be stifled by dry rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor,
every atom of me in magnificent glow,
than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time”
Jack London (1876 – 1916)